Charles Ives’ Birthplace Through His Niece’s Eyes

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by Maryjo Siergiej

The exterior of the Charles Ives Birthplace.

CHARLES IVES, a Danbury native modernist composer who became known as the “American Original”, was born on the city’s Main Street in 1874.

Headway has been made by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society (DMHS) for the renovation and restoration of his birthplace home, now located at 5 Mountainville Avenue, about a half mile from the original site.

by Maryjo Siergiej

 


 

CHARLES IVES, a Danbury native modernist coCharles and his brother, J. Moss', bedroom.mposer who became known as the “American Original”, was born on the city’s Main Street in 1874.  Headway has been made by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society (DMHS) for the renovation and restoration of his birthplace home, now located at 5 Mountainville Avenue, about a half mile from the original site.

The house has been closed throughout the past two years due to damage caused to it by the vagaries of time.  However, Brigid Guertin, the director of DMHS, reported that the museum staff has plans for restoring the house “over the next few years”. Hopefully the Charles Ives Birthplace will be released from the fermata it has been held under due to the standstill in its restoration.

According to Guertin, the museum needs to hire a preservation architect.  The architect would work with the museum to create an architectural drawing and plan of the work needed for the restoration of the house. After hiring the preservation architect, the museum would apply for grants needed to repair the 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s birthplace.

Guertin stated that the Ives birthplace restoration is at the “top of the list of what (DMHS) want(s) to see accomplished over the next few years.”

The Ives Birthplace is actually the house where Charles’ grandparents, George White Ives and Sarah Hotchkiss Wilcox Ives, lived. Charles and his family lived in the house with Ives' death mask.George and Sarah for several years, and Charles’ family later moved to a home at the back of the property before moving several times in and around downtown Danbury.

Charles, famous for his unique composing style, lived with his father, George, his mother, “Mollie” Elizabeth Parmalee, his grandparents, and his younger brother by one year, J. Moss, during his early life when their home was on Chapel Place in Danbury. Charles was inspired by the music that his father, a Civil War bandleader, conducted. This music sparked his interest in experimentation, and Charles would combine patriotic marches and hymns learned from his father into his compositions.

Charles chose a career as a full-time insurance executive and composed during his free time.  He attended Yale University to major in music and composed his Symphony No. 1 as his senior thesis. Ives enjoyed playing on the varsity football team at the university.

Sarane Taylor Ives Wilks, Charles’s niece and a Danbury resident, has fond memories of her uncle. Born after Ives stopped composing, she recalls him as being “very entertaining and very interesting” and “a gentleman”. Ives Wilkes spoke of her grandfather’s generosity toward her family.

“Uncle Charlie paid the tuition for me to go to Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School,” she said, also stating that Charles helped the rest of his brother’s “generation” pay their tuition. Ives Wilks explained that the direction the Ives Birthplace house is currently facing is actually backwards. She said that the house was intended to be part of a small village-like group of houses with a pond in front. The group of houses was never developed, which leaves the Ives Birthplace facing the opposite direction the house is intended to face.

However, the direction of the house reflects the uniqueness of the musician who was born inside it. Ives Wilks remembers her uncle as being ahead of his time, from conversations he had with her about the pollution in New York City to the casual clothes he wore when he attended high-class events.

Throughout his life, Ives composed great works such as “Variations on America”, “The Circus Band” and the “Holiday Symphony,” among 126 other pieces.  He composed for several different musical settings and instruments, including string quartet, piano, choir, orchestra, and organ.

Ives married Harmony Twitchell in 1909. He and his bride then moved to New York, where they spent the rest of their lives together. Charles continued to compose until 1918. Thereafter, he chose to focus only on his job in insurance until his retirement in 1930. He died on May 19, 1927 and is buried in Danbury’s Wooster Cemetery in the Ives family plot. DMHS added the Ives Birthplace to its collection of historic properties in the 1960s.

The first piano brought to Danbury.Many unique objects and aspects from the Ives family and Danbury history stand out in the Charles Ives Birthplace. The house has its own unique touch and personality. Ives Wilks has memories of spending time in the house; she recalls the central chimney and the three fireplaces leading to it as “unique” and a special part of the house.

“(The three fire places) are in an inside wall, which is very unusual,” she said.  She also has memories of playing in a storage room under a flight of stairs.

“I used to love to go in there to hide,” she recalled.

Among items currently in the Ives Birthplace is the first piano brought to Danbury. Legend tells that the piano was brought into town by ox cart. Charles may have had a chance to play on this piano, as he spent liberal amounts of time in his grandparent’s house.

Another item on display is an artistic donation from a Western Connecticut State University professor who was also a local folk artist. The unique piece of artwork contains nails, a piece of music written by Ives, and other pictures and items commemorating his life and work. Other rare items in the house include Charles’s death mask, his Pulitzer Prize, and a rocking horse used by Charles and J. Moss.

For more information about Charkes Ives and the Charles Ives Birthplace, visit the Danbury Museum and Historical Society’s website here and the Charles Ives Society’s here.

 


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