Mr. Philip Nichols Sunderland, looking back on a long and active life, takes particular joy in remembering two things: that he is one of the relatively few people still alive who voted for Grover Cleveland, and saw Mark Twain arrive in Redding. It takes a rather particular talent to have been able to do these two things, but Mr. Sunderland has it- he turned 87 on June 1, 1958, and to all appearances will be able to recall these memorable happenings for a good many years to come.
The vote for Grover Cleveland was cast in 1892, when he had just turned 21. Mark Twain's arrival came 16 years later, and Mr. Sunderland had good reason to be present: he and his father William Webb Sunderland, built the house Mark Twain moved into, the "Stormfield".
The Sunderlands (three generations) never in their many years of building in and around the Danbury area had a job quite like this one. "The first time I ever saw Mr. Clemens, was in the house on Eighth in New York, when I went there with John Meade Howells, the architect, to get the contract signed. The house was designed by that time, the plans were all ready, but the site had not been selected. Mr. Howells came out a little later and approved it. Mr. Clemens I did not see again until the day he moved in. He never saw the site, or the house while it was being built; all he did was sign the contract. His first sight of the entire project was the finished place, painted, furnished and ready for occupancy right down to the cat purring on the hearth."
As Mr. Sunderland recalls it today, "it was really Mr. Paine, his friend and biographer, who planned the whole thing. He and Harry Lounsbury found the site, and I could feel the influence of Mr. Paine on the whole performance. Miss Lyon, Mr. Clemens secretary at that time, decided all the interior decoration. She picked out everything; Mr. Clemens had complete confidence in her, and left everything to her discretion.
"I remember once," Mr. Sunderland continued with a smile, "when we had the whole interior finished, painted white, and Miss Lyon decided she didn't like it. The house was supposed to look like an Italian Villa; she felt we had made it look like a New England Colonial place. She said what it needed was a dark stain- so we did the whole place over again in the dark stain..."
It was a big house, Mr. Sunderland recalls- big, comfortable and friendly. Of particular importance was the billiard room. "Mr. Clemens loved billiards; the game was really his hobby, and he played there a great deal with Mr. Paine and the little girls." And there were parties there which he recalls, having been a guest in the house he helped to build. "The biggest party I ever saw there, was when Ossip Gabrilowitsch gave a concert there one evening (09/21/09), who married Clara Clemens. There were lots of people from New York, and a very well known singer (David Bispham) of the time whose name now escapes me.; and I recall particularly the Gabrilowitsch, having recently been operated on for a mastoid infection, still had a patch of sticking plaster over one ear."
And Mr. Clemens? "Ah, he was a striking figure of a man, impressive. He was also a very sentimental person, particularly with children."
"The day he arrived, I went down to be present, as a representative of my father, at his entry into the house. It was all rather informal, I recall; there were quite a lot of people who came out with him on the train from New York and we all drove up from the Branchville station (he says Branchville but that's incorrect, unless a photo surfaces to prove otherwise, Twain arrived in West Redding) in buggies. And it was all there, just as he had wanted it, even to the cat and I believe that he was very pleased.
"I've never been back there since Mr. Clemens died. We've done a great many things since then, of course, and incidentally, my association with John Meade Howells grew into a lifelong friendship and led to his designing several buildings in this area, including the First Congregational Church in Danbury- but I will always remember Mr. Clemens' house. It was a unique experience."
Percy Knaut interviewed Philip N. Sunderland.