The Merrill Apartment

107 Water Street & James Ingram Merrill

A Brief Look at The James Merrill House and its Most Famous Inhabitant

The 1901 James Merrill House

is a late-Victorian commercial/residential block located on Water Street in Stonington Borough, a picturesque maritime village set on a narrow, 170-acre peninsula in the southeastern corner of Connecticut near the Rhode Island border.

The eclectically styled, shingle-clad building

originally contained street-level retail space, second- floor clubrooms and third-floor living quarters.

In 1956 the property was purchased by noted American poet James Ingram Merrill (1926–95) and his partner David Noyes Jackson (1922– 2001). They used the third floor as their private living and guest space. Adding an attic studio and rooftop deck, the men transformed their quarters with a distinctively quirky décor that remains largely intact. The structure is currently owned by the Stonington Village Improvement Association (SVIA), which inherited the building from Merrill in 1995.

The SVIA leases out the ground-floor retail space and two one-bedroom apartments (north and south ends) that occupy the former club rooms. The entire third floor and attic studio are reserved for use by visiting scholars as part of the James Merrill Writers-in-Residence program. The SVIA also opens the Merrill apartment throughout the year to the public. The property has undergone relatively few alterations since its construction.

The James Merrill House is nationally significant for its close, forty-one-year association with James Ingram Merrill (1926–95)

One of his generation’s most acclaimed poets—he is considered peerless among his contemporaries who were writing in meter and rhyme.

Over the course of his extraordinary career, this erudite and accomplished writer produced twenty-five volumes of poetry, along with three plays, two novels, numerous essays and a memoir

The multilingual author also translated dozens of works of other poets into French, Portuguese, Dutch and modern Greek, and contributed countless introductions, forewords and afterwards to the publications of his colleagues. Merrill’s impressive canon of work garnered nearly every major award in his field, including the Pulitzer Prize; two National Book Awards in Poetry; the National Book Critics Circle Award; the Library of Congress’s first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry; Yale’s Bollingen Prize for Poetry; and the Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club.

Merrill produced virtually all his major writing during his ownership of 107 Water Street, between 1956 and 1995 and during this period Stonington came to play a vital role in the poet’s life. The Water Street apartment he shared with David Jackson became a magnet for leading intellectuals and cultural figures of the day, while Merrill’s poetry increasingly resonated with references to the pleasures and peccadilloes of life in this close-knit community.

It was on the merits of his “quintessentially Connecticut voice” that James Merrill was named the state’s first poet laureate in 1986.

Publishers have continued to recognize Merrill’s contribution to American literature with posthumous volumes, including Collected Poems (2001) and Selected Poems (2008), both issued by Alfred A. Knopf. Collected Poems is the first in a series that will present all Merrill’s work, including his novels, plays and collected prose, excepting his stand- alone 560-page epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, produced in sequential parts.

Stonington, the Borough and 107 Water Street's Past

Stonington’s colonial history dates as far back as 1649

when the first English residents settled on Wequetequock Cove, just to the northeast of the borough.

A trading post on the nearby Pawcatuck River followed a year later. The present village’s location on a protected harbor with direct access to coastal shipping lanes destined the settlement to its rich maritime heritage. Owing to commercial interests in the colonial-era West Indies trade, residents of the arrowhead- shaped peninsula had begun to accumulate significant wealth by the late 1700s.

The lucrative enterprises of sealing, whaling and shipbuilding brought the community prosperity throughout most of the following century. In the process, Water Street attracted merchants, ship’s chandlers and other maritime professionals, who jacked up many of the old wooden dwellings there to accommodate lower-level warehouses of granite and brick.

A separate borough

(a specific type of administrative division) was incorporated in 1801,and the town’s first banks and a customhouse opened in the 1840s.

The whaling and shipping

associated with this era of industry coincided with the growth of the town’s well-known Portuguese immigrant community, originally made up primarily of sailors from the Azores.

The borough is the oldest

to survive in Connecticut, and the town’s Portuguese-established fishing fleet is now the only commercial fishing operation in Connecticut.

By the 1880s

an assortment of small shops—grocery, candy and fruit, bakery, drug store, cobbler’s and meat market—was scattered down the lower half of Water Street, while lumberyards, coal sheds and a fish market occupied the harbor wharves.

Built in 1901 by druggist Francis D. Burtch and once known as the Burtch Block,

what is now 107 Water Street (James Merrill House) represented a new phase of development as one of Water Street’s first large multi-use buildings.

Construction of the new building involved displacement of an earlier dwelling, known variously as the Captain Keen and Tom Wilcox House, which was moved to another location. By clearing the lot in this way, Burtch was able to take advantage of the conspicuous corner site at Union Street to make a statement with a stylish new, income-producing property, complete with corner tower and modern plate- glass storefronts. Requisitioning the best commercial space for himself, the enterprising druggist installed a pharmacy in the south end, where he offered prescription compounding, homemade ice cream and sodas, telegraph service and what was likely the first public telephone in the village.

A sequence of butchers and grocers occupied the shops in the north end of the building, and the Mistuxet Club, a men’s social lodge, leased the meeting rooms above. On the third level was a spacious ten-room apartment, shared at various times by Francis with May Burtch, a milliner who had a shop downstairs, and Charles Burtch, a church sexton.

A series of mortgages in ensuing years, however, suggests that the financial picture was not altogether healthy; the building was lost to bank foreclosure at the onset of the Great Depression in 1930.

By the time James Merrill and David Jackson purchased the Burtch Block in 1956, the second and third floor had been divided into two apartments each, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s by the building’s then absentee owner, Stanley Jerome Hoxie, an artist and illustrator from nearby Mystic.

An Architectural Tour of the James Merrill House

The entire ground floor of the James Merrill House is devoted to its three commercial spaces

each preserves a high, coved ceiling of pressed tin, ornamented with recessed panels, elaborate moldings and medallions.

A heavily molded doorframe detailed with sunburst corner blocks framing the building’s corner entrance is another notable feature. Crowned by its swan’s neck pediment, the residential entry on the building’s west elevation opens into a small vestibule, which is lit by an Art Nouveau ceiling fixture fitted with frostedglass shades. Hinged doors open to a narrow hall dominated by a steep staircase with a molded handrail and a turned-and-beveled newel topped by an onion-shaped finial.

Plaster hallway walls on all three levels are finished with varnished beadboard wainscoting. The two loft-like apartments (ceilings about twelve feet) on the second story maintain the open feeling of the original clubrooms, along with their varnished wood floors, ornate pressed-tin ceilings, a marble sink, pocket doors and the half-moon stage that occupies the south apartment’s corner tower. A few unobtrusive partitions have been added to section off kitchens and baths.

The north end of the floor contains Merrill and Jackson’s guest quarters.

That apartment consists of a central library area with a bedroom, kitchen and bath on the east side and a sitting room in the northwest corner.

The remainder of the third floor is devoted to the men’s own residence. Here, a bathroom, kitchen and bedroom open off a narrow hall on the east side of the building, while the remaining living spaces front onto Water Street, with windows facing west to the harbor.

The southwest corner dining room is particularly striking

not only for is semi-circular plan—prescribed by its tower location—but also for its domed tin ceiling, embossed with an exuberant, classically inspired composition of swags, wreaths and fleurs de lys.

The ceiling pattern extends eastward with an equally ornate grid divided by beaded ribs.

A central sitting room opens northward to a telephone room walled with bookcases and floored with a tile mosaic in a graphic pattern of brown, black and white. A central section of bookshelves mounted on hinges functions as a “secret” door to the apartment’s northernmost room. Fashioned as a snug study, this space is fitted with still more bookcases and a built- in daybed.

From the east side of the telephone room a narrow stair ascends to the attic level

where Merrill and Jackson raised a portion of the roof to create headroom for a studio and music room, tucked under exposed rafters. A concrete chiminea  equipped with a freestanding metal flue stands on the west side of the room, and a built-in bar sink is located opposite. A black-and-white vinyl checkerboard covers the floor.

On the south of the studio, sliding glass doors open to a rooftop deck which offers a panorama of the neighboring McKim, Mead & White church building, village rooftops and the harbor and Fishers Island Sound beyond. The rooms in both apartments gain particular spatial interest from inwardly angled walls and unusually shallow, canted dormers dictated by the contours of the building’s double-pitched, mansard roof.

The spaces are further distinguished by their well-preserved 1901 architectural details, including stained-glass window panels and transoms, bulls-eye corner blocks and embossed brass lock plates and porcelain doorknobs.

The effect depends primarily on a fearless combination of pattern and saturated paint hues: citrus green (floor) and sky blue (walls) for the bedroom; turquoise for the bookshelves; a Mondrian-like scheme of orange, white and aqua for the kitchen cabinets; and a startling persimmon for the dining room, where the pressed tin ceiling design is picked out in white and gold.

The sitting room’s silk- screened wallpaper, created specifically for Merrill in 1974 by Hubbell Pierce, is the indisputable apartment showstopper, featuring a graphic design of stylized clouds, fans and demonic-looking bats with iridescent eyes, all printed in varying shades of chartreuse against an indigo background.

Although intimate in size,

the light-filled rooms convey a cozy openness, thanks to freestanding bookcases and large pieces—the sitting room’s Venetian pier glass, for example—which help to define spaces without entirely enclosing them.

The furniture is a fanciful mix of pieces

ranging from brightly painted wicker to significant antiques. A collection of talismans and curiosities arranged on windowsills and tables just as Merrill left them plays a calculated part in the overall effect.

With the exception of the tower’s conical roof, believed to be a casualty of New England’s famous 1938 hurricane, the building and its 1901 detailing are remarkably intact.

Striped bathroom tiles (green and pink on the Merrill side and green and blue in the guest quarters) are distinctive period pieces, likely dating from the 1950s renovations.

The rooftop studio, commissioned by Merrill and Jackson and designed by Scholfield, Lindsay and Liebig, a New London architectural firm, dates from 1956. The exterior stair was added in the 1970s and the elevator was installed about a decade earlier. Some of the wooden window sash has been replaced in kind. Overall, the building retains a very high degree of historic and architectural integrity.