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Isaac Fitch, Lebanon's Master Builder
Isaac Fitch (1734-91) was one of Connecticut's most skilled and accomplished colonial builders and carpenters. He was born in Lebanon, a cousin of Jonathan Trumbull Senior (1710-85), the famed Governor of Connecticut and supplier to Washington's Continental Army. Isaac Fitch died relatively young, and had he lived longer Fitch would probably have been known as one of Connecticut's greatest eighteenth-century architects.
What was Lebanon like during Fitch's lifetime? According to the Duke de Lauzun, who was encamped in the town with his French cavalry forces in the winter of 1780/81, Lebanon then resembled Siberia. He caustically described it as "a few huts scattered among vast forest." But during that very winter, as the French aristocrat and his troops were mingling with Lebanon's locals, master builder Isaac Fitch was renovating a house across from the Lebanon Green, into a fine Georgian-style house, fit for a gentleman. The house belonged to Jonathan Trumbull Junior (1740-1807), the future Governor of Connecticut. It has been opened to the public since 1978, and offers a fine opportunity to see Fitch's craftsmanship. By the time Fitch began working on Trumbull Junior's house, he had built an enviable reputation across eastern Connecticut for the quality of his workmanship.
Isaac Fitch was a skilled cabinetmaker and joiner who supplemented his income making wheels, axles, coffins, and sleighs. He also made picture frames for Jonathan Trumbull Junior's brother, the famed artist John Trumbull (1756-1843). Evidence suggests that Fitch may also have built Jonathan Trumbull Senior's "shop" or workshop in 1758, the structure now known as the Lebanon War Office.
Little is known about Fitch's early training, or early life, but his 1791 probate records reveal that Fitch owned a book named Architecture, penned by the famed British architect, Sir James Gibbs (1682-1754). Gibbs had a great influence on early American architecture, particularly the design of church steeples. The book may have been obtained for Fitch by his cousin, Jonathan Trumbull Senior, an importer of English books. Records of Isaac Fitch's building and carpentry transactions appear in Jonathan Trumbull Senior's meticulous records, and reveal that Fitch probably built a "handsome porch" on the Second Lebanon Meeting House as early as 1758/59.
Rhode Island architects working in Connecticut at the time. The Trumbull family had a shipyard in East Haddam in the colonial years, where ships were built and repaired for the lucrative transatlantic and Caribbean trade, and records show that Fitch worked on the building of a merchant ship at East Haddam called Neptune. Jonathan Trumbull Senior was deeply in debt in 1764/65 to English merchants, and he formed a partnership with Windham's Eleazer Fitch to build a ship of 160 tons, the Neptune, to help pay off his debts. It unfortunately sank four days out to sea on its maiden voyage to London. Fitch also worked on a sloop called Seaflower.
David Trumbull's house, Redwood, built in Lebanon
Fitch also manufactured gunstocks from black walnut plank for Jonathan Junior and John's brother, David Trumbull (1752-1822), who had a small arms manufactory in Lebanon during the Revolutionary War. David Trumbull was the supplier for Rochembeau's French Army when they landed at Newport, Rhode Island in 1780, and he also supplied all the provisions, barracks and housing for officers for the Duke de Lauzun's cavalry legion at Lebanon in 1780/81. From November 1780 until June 1781 David Trumbull turned over his magnificent Lebanon house, Redwood, to Lauzun to use as his headquarters. Redwood was designed and built by Isaac Fitch in 1778/79, and was considered to be the most sophisticated piece of domestic architecture for its time in Connecticut. It stands on land, opposite the Lebanon town hall, purchased by his grandfather, Joseph Trumbull in 1713. Joseph was the first Trumbull to settle in Lebanon. He had originally arrived in Lebanon from Simsbury around 1705.
Isaac Fitch was commissioned by David Trumbull to build copies of English furniture for Redwood. Furniture in Boston was very expensive during the Revolutionary War, and David's brother John Trumbull, studying art in Boston, suggested that David get Isaac Fitch, the house builder, to make copies. John Trumbull also hoped to obtain captured goods, bound for the West Indies market from two English merchant ships for his brother's house. David Trumbull sent Fitch to Boston to buy the articles to furnish Redwood. They consisted of "elegant" curtains, wallpaper, paints, china and glass.
Isaac Fitch's impressive New London County Courthouse,
Fitch's building work was not limited to Lebanon. Examples can be found in New London and Colchester. Probably his most famous piece of work is New London's town hall, built in 1784/85. This outstanding building still stands, and it has described by the architectural historian William Warren as "an ambitious and expensive undertaking for a small region in the New Republic." Warren also noted that at the other end of New London's State Street is Henry Hobson Richardson's Union Railroad Station, so New London possesses "two architectural gems that are cultural and historical attractions of national significance."
Prior to his New London work, Isaac Fitch was employed to build the pulpit and plan the joinery, trim and interior cabinetwork of Colchester's third meetinghouse in 1771. The church was located next to the Bacon Academy, and was later torn down and replaced by the current church. Fitch also built Colchester's Deeming House in 1768. This fine mansion was demolished in 1958, but it possessed outstanding examples of Fitch's craftsmanship. The house's most elaborate work, located in the northeastern parlor was purchased by the American Museum in Bath, England. However, it is not necessary to travel to England to see Fitch's fine craftsmanship. Examples of it can be found in the Jonathan Trumbull Junior house at Lebanon.
Isaac Fitch's skilled craftsmanship
Jonathan Trumbull Junior (1740-1809), had a store in Lebanon, and his surviving ledgers reveal many transactions with his father's cousin Isaac Fitch. A 1772 account book, and bills from 1777 reveal that Fitch built beds, chairs and tables for Jonathan Trumbull Junior, who had bought a house and a 200-acre farm for 1,631 pounds sterling from his father in March 1777. It is believed that the original house on the Trumbull farm was built in 1769, but it may have not been at the same location. So the Jonathan Trumbull Junior house was either built, or extensively remodeled between 1777 and 1784.
After Jonathan Trumbull Junior's death in 1809, the house and farm were sold. The house was remodeled throughout the 19th century, and became a working farmhouse, and served as summerhouse for vacationing city people. It was restored to its early 19th century appearance in 1978, and Fitch's woodwork was preserved to be admired by future generations.
For more information about Isaac Fitch, see, William L. Warren's Isaac Fitch of Lebanon, Connecticut Master Joiner 1734-1791 (Hartford, CT, 1999)