GUILFORD — The historic house and restaurant that has stood neglected on Goose Lane for almost two decades finally may get the attention it deserves.
The Davis House, better known to many in town and beyond as the former Sachem Country House restaurant, which closed in 2003, may see new life as a learning center about slavery and racial justice, according to Shirley Girioni, president of the Guilford Preservation Alliance.
That would be fitting because the house, built in about 1792, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, sheltering escaping slaves on their way north to Canada, according to Town Historian Joel Helander.
The alliance has hired Preservation Connecticut to nominate the house for the National Register of Historic Places. It already is part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail. That recognition, together with financial help from Yale New Haven Health, which owns the building, finally may bring dignity back to what has become an eyesore.
Girioni said the preservation group has two goals: “The first goal was to preserve and restore the house and we succeeded with that. Yale [New Haven]’s going to do it.” The second was to “create some kind of center having to do with slavery and inequity.”
“It’s quite pertinent to what’s happening now, Black Lives Matter and all the issues around equity,” Girioni said. “I can’t praise Yale enough for having the foresight to restore the place and using part of it to carry on the history of it.”
Yale New Haven bought the seven-acre parcel, which includes the Yale New Haven Shoreline Medical Center, in April 2016 for $17.5 million. It previously had leased the property from the former Goose Lane Medical LLC, owned at that time by the Fusco Management Co., according to the secretary of the state’s website.
Lynn Fusco, president of the Fusco Corp., did not respond to a request for a comment about the state of the house. In 2015, she told the New Haven Register that her former partner in Goose Lane Medical had been responsible for upkeep but that the two parties had split.
While the white house with three chimneys looks like it’s in bad shape, “it’s more cosmetic than anything structurally wrong with the house,” Girioni said. A restoration contractor “found it to be in great shape,” she said. “Actually, the bones are really good. We’re lucky because when it was … rehabbed in 1926 by a very wealthy family from Pittsburgh, they spared no effort.”
Helander said when the Sachem Country House closed in 2003 and was sold, “the deferred maintenance … was not only unfortunate but irresponsible” and that it “could be the showplace for the whole complex there.”
Yale New Haven’s point person for the project is Gayle Slossberg, a former state senator from Milford who now is vice president and chief compliance and integrity officer for the health system. She said it is finally time to restore the Davis House.
“For the last year, our health system has been very focused on the global pandemic, and so, understandably, everyone’s attention has been in that direction,” she said. “But now that we are coming into a new phase, it provides an opportunity to … renew our conversations around what is the best way to move forward and addressing the Sachem House-Davis House.”
She said when the health system bought the house in 2016, “there was some lead remediation we had to do around the site,” but that the structure is solid.
“There’s a lot of excitement around the potential for this property,” Slossberg said. “We want to make sure we take the time to do the right thing here. It is going to take time and when you’re talking about a use that properly honors the historical significance of the site it’s going to take time.”
She said any space Yale New Haven uses in the Davis House would be “passive, minimal,” such as conference rooms or community space that could be used by other groups, as well.
Helander said the house’s significance “starts with its antiquity. It was built, probably by James Davis Jr., who was a joiner, about 1792.” Davis fought in the Revolutionary War and was “wounded in a British raid at Leetes Island in Guilford in 1781,” he said.
The next significant owner was Capt. George Bartlett, who bought the house in 1821 and lived there with his wife and 10 children for the next 72 years, Helander said. “One of them was killed at age 20 in the American Civil War,” he said. The Bartletts raised the 11/2-story farmhouse to two stories in Greek Revival style.
In 1968, Helander recorded an interview with Bessie Hall Watrous, a granddaughter of the Bartletts, “and she was the one who told me personally … that her Grandpa Bartlett was very proud of the role he played in the Underground Railroad,” Helander said. “This house, which later became the Sachem Country House, was a station where they hid and fed runaway slaves. People from Saybrook would take them from this station to the next station on their way to Canada.”
That earned the house its place on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. “Captain Bartlett was very religious and outspoken, and he was a radical abolitionist,” Helander said. “He had tremendous sympathies for slaves, and he belonged to the local anti-slavery society.”
Bartlett was a founder of the Third Congregational Church on Park Street, now the Christian Science church, which split with the First Congregational Church. The founders of the new church were willing to defy the Fugitive Slave Act, which required those who had escaped slavery to be returned to their owners.
“He broke the law to protect slaves on this property; that’s the key,” Helander said.
The next major chapter, and the one that is most significant to architectural historians, was when Beecher and Louise Crouse of Utica, N.Y., bought the house in 1925 “as kind of a country retreat” and hired J. Frederick Kelly, “renowned as an architectural historian throughout Connecticut,” to restore it, Helander said.
“What’s been so exciting is that the fingerprints of J. Frederick Kelly … are all over this house,” he said. “It was restored as a Colonial Revival restoration. … Two of the wings date to 1927. It has this very refined sense of proportion and scale.” Kelly also restored the 1639 Henry Whitfield House, the oldest house in Connecticut.
Jordan Sorensen, a development and special projects manager with Preservation Connecticut in Hamden, is helping to shepherd the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Kelly’s restoration is “just really thorough and detailed and really interesting,” Sorensen said. “It’s going to be the main significance for the nomination.”
The nomination must be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office and its review board, Sorensen said. If approved, it will be sent to the National Park Service for final listing, making the house eligible for state and federal historic preservation grants as well as other benefits.
The house’s last incarnation was as the Sachem Country House, open from 1950 to 2003. “That was when the front cocktail lounge was added,” Helander said. “The first owner of the restaurant was Andrew Valente, and he had been the head chef at the New York City Waldorf Astoria. … I remember well when the elder George Bush during the presidential campaign stopped there.” The Sachem Country House was popular for weddings and banquets, as well.
First Selectman Matt Hoey said of the effort, “I’m thrilled by it and have followed this for a couple of years. It’s been going in fits and starts.”
He said he is “very appreciative of the Yale New Haven Health System … to recognize the historic nature of that building and what took place there. … On the government side, we’re used to things taking a while, but the fact that there are still conversations taking place gives us great hope that something’s going to happen.”