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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in CT » CONNECTICUT (all topics) » Deacon Palmer’s House
The Gingerbread House
Deacon Palmer’s House

Noank, Connecticut

By Kate Romani | June 26, 2012

Remembering our days growing up in Groton Long Point, Connecticut in the 1950’s, my friends and I have vivid memories of the house everyone referred to as the “Gingerbread House.”

No bike trip to Noank would be complete without a pass by the house... and, on the days that we were feeling especially brave, a peek in the windows.

The House in Disrepair

To us, the name did not refer to the elaborate snowflake wood carving decoration, but instead the vague, menacing overtones of Hansel and Gretel’s potentially grim fate. This huge gothic style house, which was in major disrepair (badly in need of paint and surrounded by a deteriorating iron fence) commanded a magnificent view of the water, and dwarfed all other surrounding homes.

In all our years of surveillance, we never saw any signs of life at the house, although the interior looked as if someone had recently lived there - and had just walked out the door, never to return. We peered through tightly closed windows revealing the elegance of a bygone day: every piece of furniture perfectly in place, dishes set out on the table.

Mixed images came to mind... Dickens’ Miss Haversham in her frozen world... Charles Adams . . . haunted houses.   Did anyone live there? What stories did the house hold? It appeared to have been left abandoned.   Summer after summer, as the house continued to deteriorate and we kept our weekly vigils, the vision through lace-curtained windows remained unchanged. The house refused to yield its secrets.

The Back of the House

Years passed, and my friends and I replaced our carefree summer days of exploring on our bikes with more grownup responsibilities. Quick checks of the house over the next few years during trips to Noank revealed no change. Then suddenly one summer . . . signs of life were seen.   Repairs had been made, the house gleamed with new pain and a panel detailing animals in a forest was now very evident - this was one feature we must have missed in our furtive visits on the porch.

Onto the bigger questions.   Who built this magnificent example of Victorian high gothic architecture, and who had lived there over the years? What was the story behind the abandoned house during our childhood? Files maintained in the Noank Historical Society tell the tale.   The house was built on a piece of land known as “Harry’s Ledge” after a local resident, Harry Burrows. He sat on this high ground day after day looking out to sea - waiting for a ship that never came.

In 1884, Robert Palmer, the deacon of the Noank Baptist Church and owner of the Palmer Shipyard (the precursor to the Noank Shipyard) built the house at the height of the Victorian era.   His employment of skilled cabinetmakers and shipwrights, together with access to materials sailed in from across the world in coastal schooners, allowed him to create an opulent Victorian home.

After Deacon Palmer’s death in 1913, his descendants continued to occupy the house.   His granddaughter, Miss Grace Knapp, took up residence in 1923, and lived there until shortly before her death, aged 86, in 1959.

A Stunning View from the Gingerbread House

That meant the house was never abandoned! Someone was living there all those years we were peeping though the windows; as my husband calmly noted, “That makes you and your friends trespassers.” Such a magnificent childhood myth shattered...

Upon Miss Knapp’s death, the house was put on the market for just $35,000 and was sold to the E. William Gourde family, who restored the house which had not been painted in 55 years.   The property was then sold again in 1970, before the current residents bought the house in 1992.

In addition to the intricate wood “gingerbread” detailing on the eves and porches, and the wild animal screen, external features include turned porch supports and a tower topped by a widow’s walk, offering a magnificent 360 degree view. Early photos of the house show even more detailing, which no longer exists, on the roof ridgelines.

The Road Leading from the House

The interior of the house is an extraordinary example of ultimate Victorian embellishments: 11 rooms with 11 foot ceilings, washbasins of inlaid enamel in brilliant colors, and door handles crafted in either bronze or copper with patterns molded into them.   The house featured seven fireplaces made of Italian marble, although most never functioned.   In four rooms, sculptured plaster medallions in floral designs surrounded chandelier fixtures.   The stairs, doorways and trim were fashioned from mahogany sailed in from Santo Domingo.

Do the spirits of Deacon Palmer and his descendants inhabit the Gingerbread House to this day? Many have wondered - and in 1968, a group of psychics visited the home and interviewed the Gourde family in search of the answer to this question.   Their findings: strong spiritual energy of the Deacon and Grace Knapp was felt - although most Noank locals, including direct descendants of Robert Palmer, make light of these suggestions. Kate Ferguson, a high school senior currently living in the house with her family, indicated that she has never encountered a ghost;

“Although the house is still heated by steam heat, and each register has its own weird sounds. And, of course, all the old staircases creak.”

As for the opinion of my friends and me, we simply remember those exciting days of peering back-in-time thorough lace covered windows...

Footnote: Information for this article was researched with the gracious assistance of Mary Anderson, Curator, Noank Historical Society and Kate Ferguson, the current resident of 81 Pearl Street.   Also referenced:* Noank from the Papers of Claude M. Chester* (1970), The New London Day (1968), and The Palmer House by Kate Ferguson.

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