The Eaton House: Wealth, Medicine, And Underground Secrets
A stately brick house on South Broad Ave is now the Norwich Jewish Center, but it's still known around town as The Eaton Home, nicknamed for the family that lived there.
The house was built for businessman Robert Eaton. It took two years to complete, but by 1915, Eaton and his family moved in. Eaton and his two sons Melvin and Robert Jr were all involved in the Norwich Pharmacal Company. Robert Eaton got in the game early on, buying shares in the business in the late 1800s and being appointed to the board by 1901.
Stained glass windows at the top of the stairs inside the Eaton House.
Norwich Pharmacal was famous for Pepto-Bismol. The success of the company meant the success of the Eatons. It was money made in the business that bought Robert Senior the house on South Broad, which he packed full of all the latest gadgets money could buy. This includes hidden pocket doors, a call system for his full household staff, and a clothes steamer in the basement. A closet on the main floor houses a unique hat rack that would keep the hats from getting crushed inside.
“They would have been one of the wealthiest families around," says John Antonowicz, the Eaton House Historian.
The most impressive feature of the house is at the bottom of the basement stairs. Antonowicz opens the basement door and flips on the light to reveal a very different scene from that of the conventional upper stories of the house. The carpeted stairs are lined on either side with ropes in place of railings, held to the wall by bronze lion heads. At the bottom of the stairs, the display is completed by a floor to ceiling painting of a woman holding a mask in one hand and a wine glass in the other.
The basement stairs reveal a whole other world below the main floors of the Eaton House.
Another flip of a light switch reveals the lady in the painting is guarding another secret: The Eatons had their own speakeasy.
The original bar from the Eaton's speakeasy is still in the basement of the Norwich Jewish Center.
“So they called it the mask room because the Eaton family when they traveled across the world they would always pick up a mask on their travels, so there’s the painting at the bottom of the stairs the lady with the mask," says Antonowicz. Thus the lady holding a mask.
Respectable upstairs, rule breakers below stairs. You have to remember, the Eatons lived in this house during prohibition. So, the fully stocked bar in their basement was not so legal.
Melvin Eaton pours a drink in the basement speakeasy around 1930.
Susan Fertig, the President of the Norwich Jewish Center, says they found several stained glass windows in the speakeasy. These were made by Henry Keck, who trained under Tiffany. Fertig says Keck was very popular in the 30s.
Robert would later give the house to Melvin. Mel got the house, but Robert Jr did just fine, too. He went on to become the CEO of Norwich Pharmacal, which was later sold to Proctor & Gamble.
The Jewish Center bought the Eaton house in 1955, saving it from demolition.
“It was going to be torn down for a gas station," says Antonowicz.
Fertig says the vision has always been to maintain the historical integrity of the building.
“There’s just a lot of upkeep to it and a lot of work that needs to be done," says Fertig.
The plans for fully restoring the historic home met a major set back in 2008 when vandals broke into the Jewish Center and destroyed the original glass and light fixtures.
“We had a capital fundraising project that restored a lot, but also depleted our funds for things that we would have liked to have done to the building. If anybody wants to donate a million dollars… that’d be wonderful," says Fertig with a laugh.
Until then, Fertig and the organization are safeguarding the building along with its history and secrets.