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40 Highland Avenue: “Rockledge,” c.1913

     Listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings

In 1910, James Augustine Farrell, president and future chairman of U.S. Steel and founder of the Farrell Steamship Lines, and his wife, Katherine McDermott Farrell, bought a large stretch of land along Highland Avenue from oysterman Alvah Tuttle and his wife, Mary.

 

The magnificent fieldstone residence they built on the property was symbolic of Mr. Farrell’s phenomenal rise through the business world, from wire “drawer” at a steel factory in New Haven to chairman of the board of one of the largest corporations in the world. Farrell had been first introduced to Rowayton as a boy when his family began renting rooms on Bell Island during the summer months. He eventually bought a summer cottage on Bluff Avenue once he could afford it and spent long summers there. Mr. and Mrs. Farrell enjoyed Rowayton living so much they decided to build a more permanent residence on Highland Avenue, which boasted a carriage house, stables, and gardens across the street.[1] The construction was timed such that its completion coincided with their daughter Theresa’s wedding to J. Bradley Murray in June 1913. But during the reception, a fire broke out that destroyed the brand new mansion. The Farrells chose to rebuild their home, this time in stone, on the same site, where they lived until their deaths in 1943. Among the more interesting architectural details of Rockledge are the front stairs, which curve majestically up to the second floor from the large front hall. Mrs. Farrell was a petite woman who found stairs difficult, and she requested that the stairway be an exact copy of the main stairs at the Metropolitan Museum, which were relatively easy to climb. Family legend has it that Mrs. Farrell blamed the fire on alcohol consumption and banned liquor from ever being served at Rockledge again. Mr. Farrell would head down to his daughter Catherine Farrell Stapleton’s home on Bluff Avenue whenever he wanted a drink.

 

After Rockledge burned, James Farrell was offered the property that is Long Neck Point in Darien. He obviously chose to rebuild his home here, in large part because of his affection for Rowayton. As Mr. Farrell’s great grandson George Middleton puts it, “One thing which has not changed over time is people’s love of this little town.” From humble beginnings to extraordinary success, James A. Farrell stayed put.

 

The Farrells’ granddaughter Catherine Stapleton Middleton, afraid that future generations might tear down the house, went to Washington to apply, successfully, for its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places..

 

Although the Farrells lived harmoniously with their Rowayton neighbors for most of thirty-plus years they lived in the house, during the summer of 1923, Norwalk experienced a resurgence of activity by local members of the Ku Klux Klan, who painted a large “KKK” on a stone wall on the Farrell property, presumably to protest the Catholicism of the Farrell family. The culprits were never identified.

 

The next owner of the Rockledge property was James Rand, chairman of the board of the Remington Rand Corporation. Rand, of Darien, used the home for office space and refit the stables across the street to accommodate his researchers. It was in the stables, called “The Barn,” that a group of technicians developed the Remington Rand 409—the five-foot-tall, seven-foot-long business computer prototype, which was the first of its kind. By the mid-1960s, the Barn had been purchased by the Sixth Taxing District of Norwalk and served as the Rowayton Library and Community Center, as it does today. The main building of the former Farrell home was also at one time the site of the Thomas School for Girls, founded in 1922 and run by Rowayton resident Mabel Thomas, who spent summers in her family’s 1874 house #20 Thomas Place overlooking Wilson Cove. Today, Rockledge is home to the investment firm Graham Capital Management.

33 Highland Avenue: The Rowayton Library and Community Center, 1911

 

(Formerly the carriage house and stables for the Farrell Estate, listed on the National Register of Historic Places)

 

This Tudor-style carriage house and adjoining stables were host to James and Catherine Farrell’s

(see 40 Highland Avenue) polo and show horses. The Rowayton Library calls those old stables home today. The polo horses were exercised in the field residents now use as a dog park, and two work horses named Nip and Tuck were kept in the room below the carriage house, now host to the Underground, a meeting place for local teenagers. The Farrell’s riding carriages, and later

motorcars, were kept in the garage between the chicken coop (site of the paddle tennis courts) and

the greenhouse.

 

To the right of the carriage house as you enter the pillared driveway were the Farrells' fruit orchards (some of the apple trees remain today), and below, where the paddle tennis courts and parking lot are, were their vegetable and flower gardens as well as the chicken coop. The old greenhouse, stone icehouse, garage, and root cellar are still standing.

 

Rowayton’s Community Center was originally the Farrell’s Marine Room. Born to a seafaring family, Mr. Farrell’s love for the maritime world lasted a lifetime, and he was an avid collector of ship models, which were displayed in this room. Mr. Farrell also personally owned Tusitala, the last, full-rigged, commercial sailing ship under the American flag. A picture can be seen of the ship both in the Community Center and in the Raymond Boathouse in Pinkney Park. One lasting remnant of Mr. Farrell’s collection still remains in the former Marine Room: the ancient moose head hanging majestically over the stone fireplace. Up through the 1940s, festive parties for the Farrell children[2] were held in the Marine Room, and guests at those fetes still revel in the details.

 

The carriage house bore witness to a number of colorful events over the years, but one in particular stands out: the birth of the first business computer. Until the early 1940s, the only computers in existence were one-of-a-kind used by the government and the military. In 1943, a middle-aged engineer named Loring P. Crosman approached James Rand, founder, chairman, and president of Remington Rand, with a plan to build an electronic computer. Mr. Rand was then in the process of buying the Farrell estate for his company's headquarters, and once he and Crosman agreed on the proposed project, Crosman’s engineers moved into the carriage house at 33 Highland Avenue, affectionately known as "The Barn" to those who worked there. The development of this new computer was kept under wraps for fear of other companies and universities getting wind of it. In 1951, the Model 409 prototype was unveiled to a gathering of military and government officials in the barn. In 1952, the company shipped its first business computer to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS loved it and ordered two more.

 

According to Rowayton on the half-shell, to enhance corporate prestige, Mr. Rand recruited prominent World War II leaders as corporate executives, including General Douglas MacArthur, who eventually became chairman of the board of the Sperry-Rand Corporation. Lester Gilman, Sr., used to tell his grandchildren how, once a month, he would stand out front of his house, right next door to “The Barn,” waiting for General MacArthur to drive by in a limousine on his way to the board meeting at the Rand building. Locals knew that a very top-secret project was being built there.

 

When Remington Rand put the property up for sale in 1965, the Rowayton Library Board, desperate for more space than their Rowayton Avenue location could offer, decided to ask the Sixth Taxing District Commissioners for the asking price of $150,000 to purchase the former carriage house and stables.[3] “. . . [T]he purchase of the building and land, located at the geographical center of the district, was overwhelmingly endorsed by the District electors at a well-attended special meeting on January 17, 1966.”[4]

 

The property was acquired for $142,500. Commissioners Frank E. Raymond, J.A. Davis Banks, and John A. Pattee arranged for the necessary alterations prior to the use of the space by the Library and as a community center.[5]

 

[1]The stables and carriage house now are home to Rowayton Library, also on the National Register.

[2] Parties for adults were held at Rockledge, across the street.

[3] The future library building was empty in 1966, except for Mr. And Mrs. Joseph W. Cheh who lived upstairs. After Mrs. Cheh passed away, Mr. Cheh lived there until his death in the late 1990s.

[4] Norwalk Hour, March 2, 1966.

[5] Ibid.

 

 

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The first Rockledge 1911 which burned 

The gatehouse today

Rock Ledge Green House and Potting Shed_
Chicken coop at Carriage House with gees

Greenhouse, potting shed, and
ice house, c. 1920

Farrell grandchildren at the goose pen

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          Rockledge living room                              Tapestry still up today

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  Members of the Farrell family sailing, c. 1915
 

Rockledge window

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The entire Farrell family at Rockledge

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James A. Farrell  June 7, 1927

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