Of Christmas Past
Lambert House has Seen the Season Change
Photos by Douglas Foulke
The Lambert House, built in 1727, has the distinction of being the oldest house in town and is depicted on the Wilton town seal. This colonial home, now occupied by the Historical Christmas Barn, was the setting for the Wilton Newcomer’s Club’s holiday party.
By today’s standards, a Colonial Christmas celebration would be considered very humble. Adornments consisted of fragrant evergreens, holly, ivy or mistletoe hung indoors to brighten the dark, gloomy days of winter. Small gifts, a simple toy, book or sweets, were given only to the children of the family. Servants might receive extra food or a coin, as a token of appreciation. A church service, followed by a family feast of turkey, goose or ham, and the singing of hymns would mark the occasion.
Many of the practices synonymous with Christmas today—the Christmas tree, stockings hung on mantels, and Santa Claus–were non-existent during the Colonial period. These traditions didn’t arrive until the 19th century when an influx of immigrants introduced their native customs to America. Later on, the Victorian era heralded a more elaborate style of celebrating Christmas.
As Christmas transformed over the decades, so did the Lambert homestead. Four generations of the family lived in the house from 1727 until 1919. Multi-purposed as a tavern, public house for travelers, a post office and a school, rumor has it (although this has never been substantiated) that the house was also a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. The home and its inhabitants were a big part of the Wilton landscape during the almost 200-year Lambert family residency.
The original structure, circa 1727, was considered large by period standards. Wilton, then part of Norwalk, was a farming community, and as such, was not particularly wealthy. David Lambert, a gentleman farmer and prominent landowner, quickly became regarded as a town leader.
His home, constructed with hand-hewn oak and chestnut timbers, utilized the post-and-beam method. The Gambrel style roof and clapboard siding were typical of the times. The center chimney plan was built on a foundation of fieldstone and mortar. A generous number of twelve-over-twelve windows was a sign of the family’s prosperity. All three of the exterior doors, still in use, are the original double-hung Dutch doors, functional for letting in air and light, while keeping children in and animals out.
Interiors have walls of wood lathe covered in horsehair plaster. The wide plank chestnut floors have held up to generations. One must look closely to locate the old-fashioned square nails. The house was built with five rooms down and four rooms up. The front center staircase separated the parlor from the dining room. The core of the house was dominated by the massive fireplace and hearth. The kitchen, or keeping room, ran the entire width of the house. A built-in brick-baking oven, with a crane for hanging kettles still exists. The back “borning” room was a place to give birth or convalesce. The four upstairs bedrooms each had utilitarian fireplaces.
As the family grew and needs changed, the home was expanded. In 1770, the north wing was built and included another kitchen, used by extended family. The nine-foot fireplace houses a metal baking oven, and the granite hearth is one of the largest in Connecticut. A south wing was annexed in 1836, and the roof was raised with gabled dormers in 1880 to enlarge the third floor.
David Jr., was the first Wiltonian to graduate from college (Yale) in 1761. He was a successful merchant with an import business in New York City. A loyalist, he perhaps sympathized with the British for business reasons. His sons joined in the business and during this prosperous time embellishments such as imported wallpapers, marble fireplace facades, and carved moldings were added to enhance the public rooms. Federal style ornamentation on the exterior of the house, including the two side porches with neo-classical columns, displayed outward signs of wealth and prosperity. This was the heyday of the family. Risky investments, poor economic conditions and bad luck would result in a reversal of fortune for the Lamberts.
David S.R. Lambert was the last of the heirs to live in the family home. A quiet scholar and tutor, he ran The Lambert Academy, a private school for boys, in the residence. His untimely demise occurred at the hands of two of his former students in an attempted robbery in December 1897. There was no silver or money in the house, and Lambert was killed. This first murder on record in Wilton made front-page news, even in New York City, and the manhunt, arrest and execution of the thieves was the talk of the town. So ended the dramatic rise and fall of four generations of the Lambert family.
The Wilton Historical Society purchased the Lambert House in 1964 as a symbolic reminder of Wilton’s roots. Nearly 300 years old, the house still stands in its original location, a testament to the skill of the builders and to the preservation efforts of the historical society.
Other antique structures, saved from demolition or disrepair have been moved to the Lambert Corners campus on Danbury Road, including Wilton’s first train station, the Davenport barn, the Cannon General Store, the Hurlbutt post office, the Kent schoolhouse, the Lambert cottage, a corn crib, and even a privy.
Today, the Historical Christmas Barn is decked out year-round in holiday style, and offers exquisite gifts, American-made crafts, and Christmas decorations from around the world.