The 1740 Benedict House and Cobbler Shop
The Benedict House and Shop, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, was the home of a cobbler, who had his shop on the property. A modest structure, sitting above Rockwell Road against the side of a hill, it’s described as comprising “two of the oldest surviving colonial buildings in Ridgefield.” The house was built around 1740, probably by Ensign James Benedict (1685-1762), on family land that was one of the original Proprietors’ Lots. A deacon of the Congregational Church, Ensign Benedict was a shoemaker, an officer in the local militia and also served the town as a fence viewer.
The generations of Benedicts who followed James continued the shoemaking trade, becoming part of “an evolving rural industrial economy, in which shoemaking was a major cottage industry employing 40 men [in Ridgefield] as early as 1820,” according to the National Register report. “…Shoemaking on this scale continued until trade was disrupted by the Civil War.”
The property left Benedict ownership in 1848, but shoemaking may have continued there for some time. The cobbler’s bench and tools remained with the shop through a succession of owners. The house and shop were extensively restored by architect Cass Gilbert, who bought the property in 1920. It was later the home of Robert and Mildred Wohlforth, both writers of note and six-decade residents of Ridgefield.
The Wohlforths made the case for the National Register listing of their home, based on its early connection to the cottage industry of shoemaking as well as to the famed architect, who made his home here at the former Keeler Tavern beginning in 1907. The architect of the Woolworth Building and the U.S. Customs House in New York, Cass Gilbert was also involved in the restoration of several Colonial structures in Ridgefield and other Connecticut towns.
He sold the Benedict house and shop to the Wohlforths in 1932, complete with furnishings; they moved here from New York City, among the first suburbanite commuters to New York. Robert Wohlforth worked in publishing; Mildred Gilman Wohlforth was a columnist for the Hearst papers, and earlier one of the original “Sob Sisters.” A well known figure in Ridgefield, she was the first chairman of the Historic District Commission and into her 90s was still riding her bicycle daily. She died in 1994 at the age of 97. Robert Wohlforth, a West Point graduate, served in several government posts before and during World War II and later joined Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishers. In 1977 when the town celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgefield with an re-enactment, he played the part of General Benedict Arnold, one of the battle’s heroes. He died in 1997 at the age of 93.
The National Register listing calls the Benedict House and Shop “exceptional and rare examples of vernacular colonial architecture, enhanced by the integrity of their unusual terraced setting. Few of these modest cottages or shops have survived at all; often houses of this type evolved into full five-bay Capes or even more elegant two-story Colonials which obscured their original form and plan.”
Describing how Cass Gilbert restored the house and shop, the report said, “Gilbert’s remodeling of the Benedict House was a typical expression of his restoration style. As he did with his other Ridgefield properties, Gilbert added more floor space while preserving the basic integrity of the original structure. He skillfully held back wings, or confined additions to less visible rear elevations, as was done here.
“…Having retained much of its original plan, form, and materials, the essential historic core of the dwelling can still illuminate the status and life style of the builder. That he was relatively poor is clearly conveyed by the functional simplicity of the design, in which utility takes precedence over symmetry. There are no formal, little-used rooms, such as the parlor or entry porch found in larger colonials, and finish detail is quite plain. …The rooms are very small; every bit of living space is utilized and arranged to take maximum advantage of wood-burning fireplaces.”
In addition to its architectural significance, the Benedict House and Shop sits just south of a hill that is believed to have been the scene of a skirmish in the Battle of Ridgefield, following the main battle on Main Street in April 1777. Future study of the Battle of Ridgefield battleground, under a National Park Service grant administered by the Ridgefield Historical Society may add to the story.
In recent years, the house and cobbler shop with Gilbert and Wohlforth additions, have been extensively renovated, while maintaining the property’s 18th Century appeal. Visitors will find a merging of old and new that gives the 18th Century house a 21st Century sensibility.
Audio Story narrated by Rob Coloney.