Leffingwell Inn, Norwich Connecticut

Date added: February 14, 2011 Categories: Connecticut Museum

The Leffingwell Inn, a large, carefully restored frame building, was the home of Colonel Christopher Leffingwell. The Inn, started about 1675 and, with successive additions, completed in its present form about a century later, preserves many characteristic and interesting features.

The land on which the Leffingwell Inn originally stood was part of the tract William Backus, a founder of Norwich, received when the Town was settled in 1659. The property was inherited by his son, Stephen Backus, who started the present structure about 1675. This was the first of three principal stages of construction and is today incorporated into the southeast corner of the building.

The documented history of the building begins with the sale of the property by Stephen Backus to Ensign Thomas Leffingwell in April 1700. In July 1701 Thomas Leffingwell was granted permission to keep an inn in the building on his property. Thomas Leffingwell died in 1724, and the inventory of his estate indicates a second stage of construction had been completed. This second stage included the west end of the present structure comprising mainly the south parlor. The house was inherited by Thomas Leffingwell's son, Benajah Leffingwell, who continued to operate the inn and a store in the building.

Ownership next passed to Colonel Christopher Leffingwell, Revolutionary War figure and prominent businessman. The third stage of construction was done in the 1760's by Christopher Leffingwell, This included additions to the north parts of the house and alterations to the older parts. After Christopher Leffingwell's death, the house was inherited by his third wife, who in turn willed the house to a granddaughter, Mrs. Benjamin Huntington. The house remained in the Huntington family until 1943.

In 1956 when the house was in the way of the relocation of State Highways 2 and 32, it was offered to the Society of the Founders of Norwich, Incorporated, by the Connecticut State Highway Department for $1.00 if they would move and preserve it. The offer was accepted and the building moved onto adjacent land provided by the Highway Department. Over $100,000 was spent on the restoration of the house, which was largely completed by May 1960. The building committee for the restoration consisted of Richard Sharpe, Architect, Chairman; Abbott L. Cummings; and Elmer D. Keith. The work was effected by John J. Stone, master carpenter.

The following is extracted from A Report on Leffingwell Inn, Norwichtown, Connecticut:

"On the comer of Washington and Town Streets in Norrwich, Connecticut, an old landmark Leffingwell Inn was in danger of demolition. . . .

"The state of Connecticut, which acquired the property to make room for a highway improvement in that area, turned the Inn property over to the Norwich Founder's Society for a nominal sum but with the stipulation that the historic landmark would be preserved by the society as an historical shrine.

"The Inn was built on the home lot of one of the founding fathers of Norwich, William Backus, Sr. At that time, in Norwich, a home lot consisted of six acres. Backus died shortly after arriving in Norwich and willed the land to his son Stephen who apparently built on it circa 1675. The recorded history of the house begins when Stephen Backus, Jr., in April, 1700, sold the home lot to Ensign Thomas Leffingwell, who in July of 1701 was granted liberty 'to keep a publique house of entertainment for strangers.'

". . . It is of prime interest to note that the location of the settlement of Norwich was the natural consequence of the heroic action of Thomas Leffingwell. The fort held by Uncas chief of the Mohegans, near the Thames River was beseiged by the Narragansetts, and Uncas and his followers were without provisions. Uncas was able to send a messenger to the English informing them of the difficult position they would be in if the Mohegans were destroyed. Thomas Leffingwell, who at the time was an ensign assigned at Saybrook, Conn,, obtained a canoe and was able to bring provisions into the fort. The Narragansetts, realizing aid had been received raised the seige and retreated in disgust. In gratitude for the help that Thomas Leffingwell had given the Mohegans, Uncas gave him a tract of land where the battle had taken place. Five years later, in 1659, a permanent deed was drawn up, when a group of men led by Captain John Mason from Saybrook, met with Uncas and his two sons and listed the 35 proprietors and turned over to them this tract which became the township of Norwich.

"Thomas Leffingwell married Mary Bushnell, who was a nurse. After her husband's death she was allotted the use of the south part of the house, with back lean-to and bedrooms in said lean-to. She used these rooms to heal and nurse the sick in the community. Benajah Leffingwell, son of Mary and Thomas Leffingwell, was left the house and continued to run it as an inn and a store. He apparently enlarged the Inn's facilities as his inventory shows the tavern well provided to take care of many more guests than in his father's day,

"After Benajah Leffingwell's death the Inn descended to Col, Christopher Leffiigwell. . . He was a very enterprising and perspicacious business man; a pioneer in many fields. In 1766 he established the first paper mill in Connecticut. This venture was to meet a pressing economic need of Leffingwell's and was not a financial success at the start. Leffingwell sought government aid on the grounds that it was a public necessity of much importance to the welfare of the colony. In May, 1769, the General Assembly of the Colony granted Leffingwell an annual bounty of 'two pence the Quire on all good writing paper and 1 penny the quire on all printing and coarser paper.' In 1772 the bounty was discontinued. In 1766 Col. Leffingwell started a stocking factory, the first of its kind. By 1791 he had nine looms in operation, producing annually nearly 1500 pairs of hose. Still another project started in 1766 was a pottery located at Bean Hill. An example of the product can be seen at the Morgan Memorial in Hartford. It is a dated Jug of brown glaze. A chocolate mill and a fulling mill followed, also a clothiers shop and dye house located at the falls in Norwich. In 1784 he gave land to Norwich toward the opening of a new street down to the 'Landing,' the present Broadway, and planted a row of elms on either side that added great beauty and dignity to the street for over a century.

"Colonel Leffingwell was extraordinarily active in all matters connected with the war. His company of light infantry was unequalled in order and equipment. He was the confidential advisor of Governor Trumbull and Silas Deane. Because he was such an ardent patriot he was appointed in 1775 one of the Committee of Correspondence. whenever New London was threatened by the enemy's fleet, a message was sent to Norwich and more than once the then Captain Leffingwell and his light infantry went down to the defense of their friends at the river's mouth. He understood the importance of quietly securing at once Fort Ticonderoga and lake Champlain and was one of those who united in sending a committee to Vermont, supplied with funds, to engage the services of Colonel Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.

". . .General George Washington sought his assistance and counsel time and again. In this connection Washington accepted the hospitality of his beautiful home. . . General Washington's visits to Norwich and Lebanon were largely in the interest of securing supplies and provisions for the Continental Army, In this respect he relied heavily on both Governor Jonothan Trumbull of Lebanon and on Christopher Leffingwell. Their recruitment of men and material contributed mightily to the final successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War. One of Washington's visits to this area was in response to the persistent persuasion of Colonel Leffingwell who was greatly concerned by the weakness of our long line of defense, north and south, and plans were made during this visit to the Inn to strengthen that defense. In 1784 Washington appointed Leffingwell the first naval officer under the new government. Christopher Leffingwell had a son named David who was a personal friend of Washington Irving and traveled with Irving in Europe and is mentioned in Irving's diary.

"... Dying at the age of 76, Colonel Leffingwell was survived by his third wife. At her death Mrs. Leffingwell left the home to her grand-daughter, Mrs. Benjamin Huntington. It remained in the Huntington family for another century before finally passing to other hands."

Over-all dimensions: The inn is L-shaped, built in the form of two salt boxes joined at the corner having two fronts and two ends. The house originally stood at the intersection of two streets, facing both and with an entrance on each. Each front of the L-shaped building is two stories high and about 45 feet long divided into five bays. The two fronts face south and east.

Floor plan: The south leg of the L-shaped house has a central hall with one room on each side on both floors. The south entrance leads into this hall. On the first floor the room west of the central hall, called the south parlor, is from the second stage of construction by Thomas Leffingwell. The part of the house east of the central hall, the southeast corner of the building, on both floors, is the original 1675 Backus house. The first floor room in this section is called the tavern room; the second floor room is called the 1675 bedroom. North of the tavern room, in the east leg of the house, is a stair and entrance hall. The east entrance leads into this hall. North of this hall, at the north end of the east leg of the house, is the north parlor, sometimes called the George Washington Breakfast Room. The kitchen is at the northwest comer of the house in the combined lean-tos behind the two legs of the house. The kitchen, in its final form, and the north parlor belong to the third stage of construction. There is a restored kitchen in the northeast corner of the cellar; the rest of the cellar is new.