In 1966 Ruth Lapham Lloyd had a terrible vision. Picture her gazing out a high-mullioned window across oceans of Waveny lawn, her dark eyes fixed upon imaginary backhoes carving up the family estate, and workmen erecting faux Capes and ranches where the Laphams’ magnificent house, gardens, stables and polo field had been—all swept aside in the name of suburban development.
Ruth was then 70 years old. Twice divorced with s even children scattered from Boston to Los Angeles, she knew she would be the last Lapham to inhabit Waveny House. Her father, the oil millionaire Lewis Henry Lapham, had bought the estate in 1904, when Ruth was a girl of 8. She watched Waveny come into flower as an elegant working farm where white horses shod in leather boots drew mowers across those oceans of grass; where Jersey cows grazed in the meadows; where peahens and peacocks strutted about the poultry yard; where an army of 40 men tended the grounds; where Lewis played the organ in the Great Hall; and where Ruth’s mother, Antoinette, strolled through her balustraded gardens under a parasol (she was known as “the grandest of garden grand dames,” according to Smithsonian magazine) and drove her glass-bodied electric car over to the polo field to watch son Jack and his equestrian pals play their late-afternoon matches.
Ruth’s youngest child, Christopher Lloyd, left Waveny in the late 1950s for the stages of New York and New England. Eventually we would all know him as Max Taber in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as the Reverend Jim Ignatowski in the sitcom Taxi, as Emmett “Doc” Brown in Back to the Future, and as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family. Christopher’s departure left Ruth essentially alone at Waveny House. By then, her 300-acre estate crowned with a palatial Tudor Revival mansion was an anachronism, a remnant of the great American country houses assembled with Gilded Age fortunes and Edwardian sensibilities. Now, those estates had either vanished from the map or been whittled down by subdivision and re-subdivision.
Waveny, though miraculously whole, had assumed a lonely, windswept air—all the more so when Ruth herself left in 1966 for a more manageable residence in Darien. “Just turning out the lights at night was quite a project,” she told The New York Times in 1967. Nobody knows when she hit upon the idea of selling Waveny to New Canaan—partly because she was not an easy person to know. “I remember her as an imperious woman,” says Lewis Lapham, a great-nephew of Ruth’s, a renowned writer and editor, and founder of Lapham’s Quarterly. “She was a pistol,” says Steve Benko, New Canaan’s longtime recreation director, with twinkling eyes. “Black was black and white was white. She was tough, but I admired her.”
As thorny as Ruth could be, she was magnanimous to the town she loved. Already she had given a small chunk of Waveny’s acreage for the Talmadge Hill train station and larger chunks for the Waveny Health Care Center and New Canaan High School. In the 1970s, she gave $750,000 toward a new wing at the New Canaan Library—the Lewis H. Lapham Wing—and farther afield, $3 million to the financially strapped Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In August of 1967, New Canaan held a referendum: Should the town buy Waveny for $1.5 million—an asking price well below market value? The answer, by a 20 to 1 margin, was yes. Ruth remarked with evident relief, “I just couldn’t see small houses being stuck around the place.” Fifty years later, Waveny Park seems almost as permanent as the moon and the stars, an ancestral estate to which all New Canaanites can return. And yet, not all residents really know the history of this local landmark, and the family that built it.
AN AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY
Who were the Laphams, and how did they come to create Waveny? Theirs is a classic American story in the up-from-nothing mold. It begins around 1660, when John “the Immigrant” Lapham, a middle-aged Quaker and a weaver by trade, left his native Devonshire in southwestern England and settled in Providence, Rhode Island. (Christopher’s branch of the Lloyd family goes back to Mayflower passenger John Howland, who fell overboard during a storm but grabbed hold of a rope dangling in the water—a feat that ensured the births of his descendants Franklin Roosevelt and the Presidents Bush.)
By the 1790s a Lapham branch had clustered in Danby, Vermont, a Quaker outpost in the shadow of the Green Mountains. It was there they became known as tanners. One of them, Anson Lapham, went to New York in 1833 to work in “the Swamp,” a nexus of tanneries and leather markets on the lower East Side colorfully named for the putrid vats of tanning solution used to cure livestock hides. Anson’s nephew Henry G. Lapham alighted from Danby in 1854. Though Anson grew wealthy in the leather trade, it was Henry who was regarded as the superstar. “He accumulated a large fortune and was a man of unusual ability, who would have achieved success in almost any calling,” according to a history of the Swamp published in 1901. “He was a devoted supporter of the cause of total abstinence [of alcohol].”
Lewis H. Lapham, born in Brooklyn in 1858, was as prodigiously gifted as his father. After he graduated from Brooklyn Academy with perfect marks, Henry gave him a choice: Yale, Harvard, or a Grand Tour of Europe. “He wisely chooses Europe,” recounts Lewis Lapham the writer. “He goes up the gangplank of the sailing ship—you’ve seen pictures of those wonderful old sailing ships in the East River in the 1860s and ’70s? He goes up the gangplank in Quaker drab. I mean, he’s been brought up as a devout Quaker, no light after dark, cold water and so on. Four years later Lapham comes back, walks down the same gangplank, and his father is waiting for him. Lewis is dressed as a Parisian dandy—silk waistcoat, yellow spats, Van Dyke beard, trilby hat, fluent in five languages, proficient on the cello—and he’s accompanied by the prima ballerina of the Vienna Ballet. That’s a long way from his Quaker beginning. The father, of course, is horrified. So the young lady is sent back to Bremerhaven on the next ship, and Lapham is sent out to the tanneries in Titusville, Pennsylvania.”
By then the leathermen of the Swamp had moved their tanning operations to the Catskills, the Adirondacks and western Pennsylvania to be near the oak and hemlock forests whose tanbark liquor transformed hides into plush leather. “Imagine the transition for Lapham,” says his great-grandson. “From a box at the Vienna Opera to the tanning vats of Titusville. Terrible place. You can imagine the stench. The sidewalks were boards and mud.”
Titusville was also the epicenter of the Pennsylvania oil rush of 1859—the birth of the American petroleum industry. Some of that Pennsylvania oil sat beneath tracts of Lapham-owned forest. Precisely when the Laphams entered the oil business is not known, but they would have witnessed by 1880 the depletion of Eastern hemlock forests and the extraordinary rise of oil millionaires like John D. Rockefeller, who was then consolidating his empire in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
We pick up the Lapham oil trail in Texas. In 1901, an oil field in Beaumont called Spindletop blew, creating the biggest gusher in American history and marking a heady beginning to the Texas oil boom. But drilling, capping, piping, storing, refining and transporting oil were daunting and costly operations, so Texas oilmen scrambled after Eastern dollars in order to partake of the riches. One major financier, William Larimer Mellon of Pittsburgh, produced Gulf Oil; another, Lewis H. Lapham of New York, produced the Texas Corporation, also known as Texaco.
BIRTH OF AN ESTATE
Lapham was then a director of United States Leather—the so-called “leather trust”—a Swamp-based consolidation of tanneries and leather goods merchants that was, briefly, the wealthiest corporation in America. Now, with Texaco money pouring in, Lapham bought New Canaan’s Prospect Farm from his friend Thomas W. Hall, a fellow New York leather baron who had stumbled under the weight of bad investments. His wife, Antoinette, rechristened the estate Waveny Farm, after England’s Waveney River, from whose misty banks the Lapham clan is said to have emerged.
Hall had built a picturesque carriage house and powerhouse, which exist today as the Carriage Barn Arts Center and the Powerhouse Theatre, respectively. He also built an immense gambrel-roofed Colonial Revival—one could see Long Island Sound from its widow’s walk—a few steps north of where Waveny House sits today. Antoinette hated it. She may have recognized that, though constructed only eight years earlier, the great wooden pile was already out of fashion. At any rate, the super-wealthy were moving away from American vernacular houses in favor of Euro-palaces designed by the best Gilded Age architects. The Laphams turned to William B. Tubby of Brooklyn and Greenwich, a family friend (the son of yet another leatherman from the Swamp, Josiah Tubby) who had made his reputation as a sort of court architect to the oil-rich Pratt family. In 1912 the first stone was laid; in 1914 Waveny House was completed. The Laphams simultaneously acquired more land, bringing Waveny Farm to 450 acres at its peak.
Ruth, the youngest of Lewis H. and Antoinette Lapham’s four children, was married twice in New Canaan—to writer Gerald Mygatt in 1915 and to lawyer Samuel Lloyd in 1924. When Lewis H. Lapham died in 1934, she was living in Stamford with Samuel and her six children (the youngest, Christopher, would arrive in 1938); but one suspects that Waveny had begun to exert its homeward pull. In 1940 the Lloyds finally did move to Waveny House, also known as Waveny Castle and, to those who lived or worked there, “the Big House.” (Antoinette moved over to “the Bungalow,” the lovely half-timbered house across the field that is today the Lapham Community Center.)
Christopher Lloyd, far younger than his Mygatt and Lloyd siblings, was 2 years old when he moved to Waveny, and thus the only one of Ruth’s children whose memories begin there. (By the second grade his half-brother Donald was flying bombing missions over Germany and his brother Sam—a noted stage actor who died earlier this year—was fighting at Iwo Jima.) Now 79, Lloyd recalls his childhood as one of not unhappy isolation. “My siblings, I did not grow up with them, so to speak,” he says by phone from California. “The Big House was in the middle of about 400 acres, so as a kid, I did not have access to neighbors. I spent a lot of time in the woods with my pal Ricky, a German shepherd.”
Lewis Lapham is one of few others with a living memory of Ruth’s Waveny. “It was my great-grandfather’s [Lewis H. Lapham’s] idea that all his children would find themselves houses on the property,” he says from New York. “But Ruth was the only one who stayed.” Lewis spent eight summers there in the fifties, living in the Bungalow. “I can remember being taken up to the Big House, where Ruth was living, only once in those eight years,” he says. “And Christopher was there. Christopher was a little bit younger than I am, maybe 12. It was a rather formal meeting in the library, kind of like a tea, and there he was—sitting with a giant snake wrapped around him.”
“That’s totally accurate,” Christopher remarks. “I wanted, for a time, to be a herpetologist before I got really into acting. I had a fascination with snakes. I spent a lot of time down at the pond—I used to canoe there, I’d paddle around the pond. It was a way of spotting snakes on the shore and doing whatever I could think of to capture them.”
While Christopher was out collecting wild things on one part of the property (and bringing them back to the bathtub), Lewis and his younger brother, Anthony, were hitting golf shots on another. Inside the Big House, Ruth was taking voice lessons, intent on becoming a serious singer. “At least two years she gave a concert at Town Hall,” Lewis Lapham recalls. “I went one year. She sang her entire repertoire, which was extensive. She’d begin with Monteverdi and end with Brecht. I can remember she was a striking figure in the center of the stage. Erect. With a palm frond.”
Christopher Lloyd’s acting roles sometimes intersected with his Waveny past. In Taxi, for example, the Reverend Jim is given a wealthy East Coast pedigree. And in The Addams Family movies, there’s a tenuous link between Gomez and Morticia’s mansion and Waveny House: Both have darkish, richly carved interiors redolent of European antiquity. Among Waveny’s more Addamsian touches was that organ (long since sold), far grander than the one Lurch plays in the movie. Did Lloyd noodle around on it? “Incessantly,” he says with relish. “It had two keyboards, pedals, and all the buttons going around for various effects. And there was a cabinet for the rolls that you could put in. There were a lot of classical pieces that would play automatically. You put them in there and set some of the buttons so that it would play by itself—and it was fabulous!”
PRESERVING A LANDMARK
After Ruth arranged for New Canaan to buy Waveny, the evidence suggests, her heart could not quite let it go. Along about 1977 she sold her house in Darien and moved into the Bungalow—but, irony abounding, she hadn’t counted on living in so public a place. “Living there was like living in a fishbowl,” says Steve Benko, noting that curious park-goers would stop and peek in the windows. “She bought back her original house in Darien.”
In those years—before the platform tennis courts, the swimming pool, the dog park, the artificial turf field—New Canaan was unsure how best to use Waveny Park; a few even dared to suggest its centerpiece was obsolete. “Have you ever considered tearing down Waveny House?” one official said in 1980. “A house like that is just a bottomless pit.” Benko rushed to its defense at that meeting, pointing out that weddings and other rentals offset operating costs. But a prize like Waveny does require diligent upkeep—and cash.
“The town has been taking wonderful care of it,” Christopher says. “They just need some funding to help even more, to keep it the way it is.” Arianne Faber Kolb, an art historian with a keen interest in local preservation, notes that two groups have stepped to the fore in recent years. The New Canaan Preservation Alliance held a centennial party in 2012 that raised $30,000 to clean the sooty limestone fireplace in the Great Hall and restore a medieval-style tapestry discovered to have been woven by Herter Looms, a renowned turn-of-the-century decorator. Waveny Park Conservancy, formed in 2015, is tackling the grounds. It has already improved the trails. Projects in the offing include restoring the formal gardens originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and rejuvenating the pond—now threatening to melt into an amorphous wetland—where the Laphams once harvested ice. On December 2 the conservancy will hold its first major fundraiser at Waveny House, in celebration of the park’s 50th anniversary. Christopher Lloyd and his wife, Lisa, are the honorary cochairs.
Ruth died in 1984 and was laid to rest near her parents in Lakeview Cemetery. “After she passed away, I went up to Waveny on a Fourth of July,” Christopher recalls. “And it was mobbed. They had barbecues going on, music playing, all that. And then the fireworks began. I’m sitting out in front, way out in the field there in front of the house, with, I don’t know, thousands of people, and they’re all looking up. I looked around at them and at the fireworks going off, and I thought, ‘I wish she was here. This is exactly what she hoped for—exactly.’”
LAPHAM FAMILY TREE
This middle-aged Quaker and weaver by trade left his native Devonshire in 1660 to settle in Providence, Rhode Island.
A member of the Lapham branch that had clustered at a Quaker outpost in Vermont, this tanner by trade moved to New York in 1833 to work the leather markets on the lower East Side, where he grew wealthy.
HENRY G. LAPHAM
Anson’s nephew left Vermont in 1854 for New York. A man of unusual ability, he accumulated a large fortune in the leather industry.
LEWIS H. LAPHAM
Henry’s son, born in Brooklyn in 1858, was as gifted as his father. After a few years in Europe, he returned to the U.S. to run tanning operations in Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the time the epicenter of the state’s oil rush. Lapham entered the oil business and later founded the Texas Corp., or Texaco. With money pouring in, he bought New Canaan’s Prospect Farm from Thomas W. Hall, a fellow New York leather baron.
Lewis’s wife, Antoinette, rechristened the property Waveny Farm and recruited Gilded Age architect William B. Tubby to design and build a new house for the property, a Tudor Revival mansion completed 1914.
RUTH LAPHAM LLOYD
The youngest of Lewis and Antoinette’s four children, she was 8 when her parents bought the estate. A few years after her father died in 1934, she left her home in Stamford and settled at Waveny with her second husband and seven children. The last Lapham family member to inhabit the house, she left in 1966.
Ruth’s youngest child, born in 1938, was 2 when the family moved to Waveny in 1940. He left New Canaan in the 1950s for the stages of New York, where he would become an Emmy-award winning actor, and a familiar face in film and television.
An estate like Waveny requires diligent upkeep, and cash. You can support this local landmark by attending Waveny Park Conservany’s Golden Gala on December 2. Actor and comedian Christopher Lloyd and his wife, Lisa—both active participants in Waveny’s fundraising efforts—are the honorary cochairs. For more information go to wavenyparkconservancy.org.