One morning a couple of weeks ago you might have heard me tell you about a fire on "Harold Avenue" in Bridgeport. Photographer Lori Golias heard it too and corrected me. "Heather, it's Harral Avenue. Not Harold. I shot that video last night. Don't you know Harral was a Bridgeport leader?"
No, I replied, what did he do?
"I don't know."
After correcting the writer's mistake in the copy, I googled Henry Harral and found he was Bridgeport's 8th, 10th and 12th mayor. There wasn't much else about the successful saddle maker. No biography. No Wikipedia entry. No campaign website. But I did find an old Time magazine article and a mention in Antiques and the Arts.
Harral commissioned the great American architect Alexander Jackson Davis to build him a grand Gothic-style home fit for a mayor. Davis was also the man behind Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown, New York. Work began on Harral's home in 1846 and was complete about a year after P.T. Barnum's mansion, Iranistan, modeled after the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Executive Director and Curator of the The Barnum Museum, Kathy Maher, points out how magnificent it must have been in Bridgeport at that time with two architecturally important structures. Iranistan was destroyed by fire in 1857.
Click to enlarge. Replica of Iranistan courtesy of The Barnum Museum.
Harral died of Tuberculosis in 1854. His family lived in the Gothic villa in Bridgeport until 1866 when it was sold to Nathaniel Wheeler. The mansion on Golden Hill Street came to be known as "Walnut Wood." Wheeler's son Archer lived in the home until his death in 1956. He willed the house to the city of Bridgeport, allegedly for preservation.
However, within a year, the longtime socialist mayor of Bridgeport, Jasper McLevy ordered the mansion torn down to make room for a new city hall. Running on an "urban renewal" yet "save the mansion" platform, democrat Samuel Tedesco beat out McLevy in the mayoral election of 1957. But within less than a year, Tedesco went back on his election promise, and the mansion was torn down in 1958.
There were protests, but at least the city of Bridgeport, the Smithsonian and the Barnum Museum were able to save some of the molding, mirrors, art work, furniture, doors - and doorknobs- of the home. A room is recreated at the Barnum Museum. Be sure to look for the Tiffany clock from the 1860s and the famous semi-nude Pandora sculpture by Chauncey Ives.
If the Harral-Wheeler house still stood today, it was be of great importance to the city and the country because of the rarity of Gothic architecture in America. But according to Mayer of the Barnum Museum, the country actually benefited from the loss of the home. She says the destruction of such buildings led to the preservation movement in this country. Less than ten years after the Harral-Wheeler home was destroyed, in 1966, the Historic Preservation Act was instated. Just this year the city of Bridgeport was designated a Preserve America Community by the the White House for its role in recognizing the cultural heritage and realigning it with redevelopment and growth.