The Magic of Waveny
It could easily be described as the central park of New Canaan, a 300-acre jewel set within the borders of the town, an idyllic landscape of emerald lawns and lofting trees radiating from majestic Waveny House like the ripples from a stone cast into a pond. Waveny Park, which came of age in a gentler and more gracious era, holds a unique place in the area’s Gilded Age estates: No longer an enclave for the privileged, today it is the green and vibrant heart of a community. The Tudor-style mansion is a much-desired venue for weddings and parties, and on the expansive lawns where polo ponies once galloped and private planes landed, now there are soccer games and picnics. Kids splash in the pool, the dog park is filled with the four- and two-legged, and there is laughter and noise and life. This is truly common land for the common good and a tribute to the remarkable family that once called its spacious halls and elegant gardens “home.”
Although Waveny as we know it was born in 1912, when Lewis H. Lapham began construction on what his family called “the Big House,” the story starts in 1903, when Lapham, who was renting a summer home in Stamford, learned that his friend and business associate Thomas Hall, a prosperous leather-goods manufacturer, was selling Prospect Farm in New Canaan. Hall had purchased the working farm in 1895, creating the winding driveways and stone gateposts that remain today, and built a sprawling three-story Dutch Colonial house with generous verandas, balconies, and a widow’s walk to take advantage of the bucolic view, which stretched over farms and untrammeled woodlands to the Sound. (The 1900 census put the population of New Canaan at a scant 2,986.) Over the years Hall added acreage, planted orchards and gardens and farmed, and erected numerous outbuildings including a carriage barn, an ice house to store blocks cut from the pond, a stone water tower, and a power plant that ran on coal shipped by rail to the Talmadge Hill siding and then hauled to the farm in wagonloads.
Lewis H. Lapham liked Prospect Farm very much but sensibly advised his wife, Antoinette, to play it cautiously. As told in The Story of Waveny, a commemorative booklet published in 1969 by the New Canaan Historical Society and coauthored by the Laphams’ grandson David, “He need not have worried. Mrs. Lapham thought the house was a monster, and nothing was easier for her than to display a lack of enthusiasm.” In 1904 the family took possession, and Mrs. Lapham promptly renamed it Waveny Farm, after the River Waveney area in England where her husband’s ancestors had once lived.
At first Waveny was a strictly a summer residence for the Laphams and their children: Roger, John (who went by Jack), Elinor and Ruth, who, as Ruth Lapham Lloyd, would be the last of the family to live there. (The Lapham fortunes were secured at the turn of the century when oil was discovered on the grounds of one of the family’s tanneries in Texas, which led to the founding of the Texas Oil Company, later known as Texaco, Inc.)
On April 11, 1912, the day after the RMS Titanic set sail for New York, ground was broken for the house that had been Mrs. Lapham’s dream for some eight years — a stately red brick manor house designed by architect W.B. Tubbs of Greenwich that featured stone-pointed windows and lofty ceilings, a grand entrance hall, bedrooms aplenty, and such necessaries as a library, a billiards room and a built-in pipe organ. A wide terrace overlooked the grounds and formal gardens, which were laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., whose father had designed New York City’s Central Park. (The “monster” of which Thomas Hall had been so proud was razed after the Laphams moved into the Big House in 1914.)
“Grandmother walked through the gardens every day with the head gardener, and I walked with her,” says Carol Valentine, daughter of the Laphams’ son Roger, who was the mayor of San Francisco during the 1940s. She started coming east to spend summers at Waveny when she was a little girl, and at ninety-eight has, her great-nephew Nicholas Lapham remarks, “every single one of her buttons.”
“Oh, it was an education,” she says of those long-ago morning walks during which her grandmother, a founding member of the New Canaan Garden Club, identified and discussed every plant. “The house had a big terrace facing south, and you walked down the east side to a formal garden, and on the lower level was a pond with a path that branched around it. And then there was a long walk with a border, a woodland walk and a rose garden. A cut-flower garden, known as a ‘picking garden,’ supplied the house with fresh flowers, like those in two enormous vases in the entrance hall.
“I wrote an article for the garden club magazine about the gardens,” she adds. “It really was very good, if I do say so myself. It told about my experiences as a girl with Grandmother. My cousin David said to me after reading it, ‘You made me mad — I didn’t think anyone knew the place better than I did.’ You know, my cousins are all gone, my contemporaries, my brothers and sisters are all gone, and so I really think I am the only one left to tell you about those early days.
“There was a little summer house,” she continues. “I’d go there and read. We had a playhouse and of course we had a swimming pool. There was a walk cut in a field with daisies and black-eyed Susans that went down to the ice pond — we really did cut and keep ice — and then off to the right, there was a lovely stretch of woods with a path through it. I can close my eyes and still walk those paths.”
A well-run estate like Waveny functioned as a small village, self-contained and self-sufficient. Lewis H. Lapham continued to buy adjoining parcels of land, eventually amassing 480 acres as he expanded the farming operations of the Hall era: new apple, peach and pear orchards were established; corn, buckwheat, hay and wheat were grown; the enormous vegetable garden included strawberry beds, raspberry bushes and a grape arbor. Farmhands lived in a boardinghouse down the road from the main entrance, and seasonal help was hired when the fruit trees were harvested. The flourishing poultry operation would eventually require a full-time manager. In 1909 Jack Lapham cheerfully wrote his father, who was on a European tour with his wife and daughters, “The chicken houses are practically all completed and they already have 300 little chicks in the brooders, while the incubators are all filled and going.”
“Oh, real farming went on,” Carol Valentine affirms. “Chickens and all that, vegetable gardens and lovely orchards down by the ice pond.” Headed by the superintendent, or estate manager, the fulltime staff included a carpenter (repairs were constant), a painter and an engineer to maintain the power plant. When the second floor of the carriage barn burned in 1913 — the horses and carriages were saved but Jack Lapham’s furniture and wedding presents stored in the loft were lost — a new stable complex was built atop the old foundation and later converted into garages. Carol Valentine remembers playing with the chauffeur’s children. “I have no idea how many it took to run the place,” she reflects. “Let’s just say a lot. I never stopped to count. When you’re a child, you take these things for granted.”
Despite the undeniably more formal era, Waveny, for all its grandeur, was the center of family life, with all the warmth and activity the term implies. The family grew as the four Lapham children, who settled variously in California and Texas and Connecticut, married and had children of their own. But like homing pigeons, they returned to New Canaan every summer, renting houses in the village if the Big House was full to capacity. In 1916 the Bungalow (now the community center) was built on the grounds for Jack Lapham and his family, who came up from San Antonio every summer between the First and Second World Wars by train; the family and their servants by sleeper, which took three days, and their polo ponies and attendant grooms on the “slow freight,” which could take as long as two weeks.
Polo games were instigated in 1915 by Jack Lapham, who was known as an avid and talented sportsman. At first the games were ad hoc gatherings of neighborhood horsemen, who casually chose sides and took to the field, which was 15 yards short of the regulation 300 yards. After the First World War, the Ox Ridge Hunt Club began sponsoring the sport and the games became more professional. Spectators watched from their cars, which were lined up alongside the field a safe distance from whizzing balls, cheering well-played shots by honking their horns and dashing onto the field between chukkers to replace the divots kicked up by the horses.
“Grandmother attended the polo games in her electric car,” Carol Valentine recalls. “She had a lovely electric car with a high roof and lots of glass and velvet cushions and little vases for carnations. There was a small lever — Grandmother worked it herself — and she’d take as many children as could fit in and we’d watch the polo games. She called it Gwendolyn,” she adds with a laugh.
“She was a wonderful person,” she says warmly. “Very caring; people loved her right away. She was so interested in other people; she always wanted to know about you. Marvelous hostess. She always had a large staff, and she always had a good cook. The menu would be on the table, written out so you knew what was coming. It was pretty formal; you changed your dress and appeared on time and sat up straight.
“My grandfather was rather hard to get to know,” she notes. “He purposely made it a little difficult for you; he inspected your friends — especially boyfriends when I visited while I was in college. Very talented; he played the big organ. He was a linguist, a remarkable man, really. He used to play golf on the lawns, always with a hat and a high-collared shirt. Later they had an apartment in New York in the wintertime. And when you visited — they were on the seventeenth floor — you had to have your hat and gloves on before the elevator arrived. You couldn’t put them on in the elevator.”
Waveny was a paradise for children, with its vast grounds, fleet of interesting vehicles (which included a stone-crusher and a full-sized steamroller), hidden corners and outbuildings to explore, and cousins to play with. “There was always so much going on there,” Carol Valentine says enthusiastically, “and then Uncle Jack built the airstrip.”
On May 21, 1928, Jack Lapham, who had been taking flying lessons for six months, landed at Waveny in a Spartan biplane he’d flown all the way from Texas, a stunning feat given his inexperience and the scarcity of commercial landing fields along the way. Later that year he built a hangar near the Bungalow, at a cost of $1,400, and he built another the following year to house his growing collection, which by 1930 included a Whittlesey Avian biplane for his wife and four children, all of whom by then were licensed pilots. Jack and Edna Lapham posed for their Christmas card that year standing between a very sporty Pitcairn Mailwing biplane and the Avian, which had a tail skid but no brakes. As reported in The Story of Waveny, “One day the Avian lost a wing on a tree when a youthful pilot ‘ran out of airport,’ and on two other occasions the plane ended up on its nose when ground-looping to avoid overshooting the field. However, no one was ever injured during the hundreds of landings and takeoffs made during the years.”
In 1939 the Laphams held a family reunion to celebrate Antoinette Lapham’s upcoming eightieth birthday, gathering her four children, nineteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren from as far away as the Philippines and Holland. (Lewis H. Lapham had died in 1934.) “She called the party ‘the Forty-Niners,’” Carol Valentine says, “even though it was in ’39. The whole family came. She put the children up in a house in the village, and the rest of us stayed at the house or at the Bungalow. We had a wonderful series of parties!” Three days of golf, swimming, horseback riding, baseball and bridge games culminated in a Grand Ball in the Big House, a suitable and glorious finale to a way of life that would vanish with war and the passage of time.
Waveny would stay in the family until 1967, when Ruth Lapham Lloyd (the mother of actor Christopher Lloyd) arranged to sell it to the Town of New Canaan on what have been described as very favorable terms. By then the property was reduced to the 300 acres we know today. In the 1930s the State of Connecticut had commandeered a 30-acre corridor for the Merritt Parkway, effectively bifurcating the estate; later, Ruth Lapham Lloyd gave acreage to the Talmadge Hill railroad station and donated the 46-acre site of New Canaan High School. The goal was to develop Waveny “as an outstanding community recreation area of immense potential for the residents of the town,” and four decades later, it’s safe to say that goal has been met.
“It’s great to have it used,” says Carol Valentine. “And I like seeing kids riding bikes and playing soccer. I was sorry, of course, to see the gardens go, but it’s too much for anyone to keep up. It must have taken at least ten gardeners.”
Nicholas Lapham is Lewis Sr.’s great-great-grandson, and, although he never summered at Waveny as did his father, Anthony, he grew up on family lore. “My grandparents had their fiftieth and fifty-fifth wedding anniversaries there. By the time I came along, it was public land, so all my stories are second- and thirdhand,” he says ruefully. “Certainly, every story I heard about Waveny painted it as a magical place. Many of those old places get knocked down and developed. So of course I’m pleased to see that it’s still there.”
When Nicholas, who lives in Washington, DC, attended Yale, he often visited his grandparents, who lived in Greenwich. “Every time I was in that neck of the woods, I would drive by Waveny, and I took my fiancée there. I have very fond feelings for the place even though I never lived there,” he says. “Maybe the connection is genetic, since my great-great-grandfather built it.”
“It was a magical place,” says Carol Valentine. “I thought so then and I still do.”