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Our Cities, Our Town | Litchfield, Conn.

A village ideal on display

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / July 2, 2006

The riot of color stretched to the vanishing point, a flowering border nearly as long as a football field, with 3,000 bulbs, perennials, shrubs, trees, and annuals. In May tulips dominated, but the carefully designed garden blooms throughout the growing season.

The Lloyd Border, named for the late Christopher Lloyd, the British gardener and writer, is one stop on a walking tour of White Flower Farm, a 56-year-old garden center that is one of the top attractions in this verdant town in northwestern Connecticut.

``We are plantsmen first, merchants second," said Eliot Wadsworth, who bought the nursery from the founders in 1976 and remains its president. While 95 percent of the business is done through the mail, 45,000 people visit each year ``to see the gardens, feel and sniff the plants, and generally find out who and what we are," Wadsworth said.

Visitors can follow a map of the nursery's 5 acres of display gardens. A cottage garden, tucked into the corner of an L-shaped Cape-style house dating to 1756, was lush with daffodils and tulips, some with double blooms so large they looked like peonies. A tapestry hedge of dwarf evergreens created a rich mosaic. From July to September an entire greenhouse is devoted to Blackmore & Langdon tuberous begonias, the product of more than 100 years of selective breeding.

Litchfield prides itself on being a ``quintessential New England village," said Janet Serra, executive director of the Northwest Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau. ``People here have great respect for the landscape and are passionate about preservation."

Historically the town has been at a crossroads between New England and New York. In 1790, the Litchfield area, with a population of more than 20,000 , was the third largest in the country, after New York and Philadelphia; Boston ranked fourth.

Sea captains and lawyers, many of them graduates of Tapping Reeve's law school, the first in the nation, settled here. Today the town of 8,300 draws more than its share of celebrities, including the actress Susan Saint James and her husband, NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol. Well-known property owners in Litchfield County include Meryl Streep, Jill Clayburgh, Glenn Close, Ivan Lendl, Kevin Bacon, Henry Kissinger, and Philip Roth.

The town's heart is the historic green, surrounded by Colonial Revival houses and anchored by the 1829 Congregational Church, said to be the most photographed house of worship in New England.

Most of these homes are private residences, but once a year several open to the public for a day to benefit the Connecticut Junior Republic, a private nonprofit organization dedicated to helping troubled youth. This year, the 59th annual Open House Day Tour of Litchfield will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The self-guided tour begins at the information booth on the Litchfield Green.

A tour of the green should include a visit to the Litchfield History Museum on one corner and the Tapping Reeve House on South Street, and lunch at one of the restaurants. West Street Grill is often credited with starting the upscale restaurant revolution in the 1990s and remains one of the best restaurants in the state, Serra said. The Village Pub and Restaurant is known for homemade pasta, steaks, and seafood.

George Washington's troops once camped on Litchfield Green, and the town sets great store by its role in the Revolutionary War, when Congress designated Litchfield as a supply depot. At the history museum, in a handsome 1900 Beaux-Arts building that used to house the town library, the featured exhibit is ``The Tale of the Horse: Spinning Litchfield's Revolutionary Stories." It is built around an incident on July 9, 1776, when a mob in New York pulled down a statue of King George III astride a horse. Patriots recognized the value of the ruined statue, and Oliver Wolcott carried it in pieces by oxcart to Litchfield, where his relatives and neighbors melted the metal and made musket balls for Washington's army.

Other exhibits include a large collection of portraits by Ralph Earl, pewter and redware, furniture, period clothing, decorative arts, textiles, and items of everyday life in the 19th century

Admission to the history museum also gets you into the Tapping Reeve House and Law School, begun in 1774, which trained two vice presidents, 101 congressmen, 28 senators, and three Supreme Court justices by the time it closed in 1833. Visitors are invited to choose a name from among the early students and follow that young man's experience, trying on the type of clothes he might have worn, reading from letters he wrote home, and learning about his political leanings.

The south side of the common is lined with upscale shops, antiques stores, and galleries. You can buy French-inspired ceramics and cookware at Kitchenworks, women's apparel and hats at Hayseed, Italian pottery at Bella Cosa, and French country furniture at Les Plaisirs de la Maison.

Just north of the town center is the state's first licensed winery, Haight Vineyard. Visitors can take a self-guided tour. Signs identify the grapes and the wines they will become.

Sherman P. Haight Jr., one of the founders and current president, looked positively paternal as we stood on a deck outside his office overlooking the long, straight rows of trellis. It was just a day or two before ``bud break," when the vines burst into flower. ``After that," he said, ``the vineyard will look different every day."

To experience the landscape so prized in this bucolic enclave more actively, head to the White Memorial Conservation Center, 2 miles west of the town center. This 4,000-acre nature preserve offers 35 miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, picnicking, and bird- watching. Visitors can also boat on Bantam Lake, the largest natural lake in the state, and there's a nature museum on site.

The center exists because of the vision of Alain and May White of Litchfield, a brother and sister who amassed the property between 1908 and 1913 and put it into a privately administered public trust. Litchfield's respect for the land and commitment to preservation seem a natural extension of the example set by these revolutionary conservationists.

Contact Ellen Albanese at ealbanese@globe.com.

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