For generations of Rowayton residents who have enjoyed the tradition of strolling the “Bell Island loop,” the Hart property has always been a source of mystery and intrigue. At first glance, tucked on a quiet street behind a stone wall and tall privet, the Hart property is easy to overlook. The long driveway, anchored by two stone pillars, leads to an inconspicuous house perched at the water’s edge. Off to one side, an old stone barn provides the only hint of the property’s earlier grandeur and hidden beauties. A short stroll down to the shoreline, however, quickly reveals its incomparable tidal marsh view brimming with wildlife. An old stone pier, jutting into the marsh, remains the last clue of the magnificent home that once sat here.
The Hart Castle, also known as the Castle Venice, was built in 1907 by Theophileus Euphrat, one of Rowayton’s first developers, and purchased by the Hart family in 1917 as a summer home. Edward Francis Hart was president of four businesses in New York City at the time of the purchase – National Engraving, Unique Illustrations, Syndicate Advertising and Artistic Advertising. Mr. Hart and his wife, Ellen Maher Hart, enjoyed countless summers looking over the pristine Farm Creek with their two children, Alice and Edward.
The beautiful stone house, which included a turret that gave it a castle-like appearance, was one of the grandest homes in Rowayton in its day. Adding to the colorful, festive scene during the summer season was the Roton Point Amusement Park trolley which passed just 50 yards from the back porch as it ran from Highland Avenue down to Sammis Street and across Farm Creek. According to Frank Fay, “that gave the property strong identification with a wide population and led rotogravure magazines of the early 1900s to regularly run pictures of the Hart Castle which they referred to as a Venetian Manor.”
And when the Castle wasn’t the centerpiece of entertainment, its other, quieter existence made it the subject of many a painting and photograph, particularly with its magnificent backdrop of Farm Creek and its treasure trove of wildlife. The only houses on the Creek at that time other than the castle were the two former Deklyn houses, #73 and #75 Roton Avenue; and the beautiful sandy beach wending its way alongside the road was a favorite spot for local children to collect tasty bait for fishing and crabbing.
Tragically, the beautiful historic Hart Castle was severely damaged in a fire in January of 1980, when a spark from a fire in the library fireplace ignited the old frame, and a fire burned unnoticed in the attic for some time. Edward, Jr. and his wife Jimmie were living in the house at the time with their grown son Eddie.
Edward, Jr. had returned from the Second World War on disability, and found work as an insurance salesman. Local residents recall how the Harts continued to be socially active, expanding the tradition of festive summer galas by hosting an annual Fourth of July fireworks party. Over time, though, the family began to live an increasingly isolated and private life inside the stone mansion. By the time of the fire, the house and its inhabitants had become somewhat of a mystery to the townsfolk, and young children particularly were both intrigued by and terrified of what might go on behind the walls of the Hart Castle.4 One such boy, Daniel Asa Rose, who grew up across the street, decided he had to find out for himself one day, and bravely rang the doorbell, pretending he was collecting old baseball mitts for a charity. Edward Hart kindly let him in and led him down to the old stone garage where he rooted about for a mitt. Not finding one, Mr. Hart took the boy around to the front of the Castle where he “fiddled at a latch beneath the stone foundation and opened a door… a genuine trap door. Stooping, Mr. Hart beckoned me to follow, and we entered an inside-outside place that wound beneath a spacious porch looking out over the inlet. I remember only being calmly ecstatic at my find. I sneaked over to revisit this place at regular intervals, carrying a skeleton key that I was amazed to discover was sold at the hardware store for $1.29.
The house prior to the renovation by Edward Hart Sr., viewed from approximately where the Rowayton Yacht Club is now on Bluff Avenue. The trolley to the amusement park at Roton Point can be seen traversing the causeway across Farm Creek, part of which still exists.
Following the fire, which was big enough to require the Rowayton Fire Department to call in the Darien Fire Department for assistance, the Castle was torn down. The Harts rented a house on Crest Road for four years while they built a new home on the same location. During the same time frame, they had plans drawn up to develop the adjacent ten-acre peninsula, but were persuaded by members of the Norwalk Land Trust to begin negotiations with the City of Norwalk. In August of 1983, the Harts accepted $300,000 in cash and a $75,000 tax deductible gift to the City in return for the property.6 According to old friends of the Harts, the family had been forced to sell the peninsula to get the funds needed to build their new home since, unfortunately, they had let the insurance coverage on the Castle lapse.
Edward T. Hart sold the peninsula to the City on or about June 15, 1983.7 The Hart family moved into their new house in 1984 living a reclusive existence until Mr. Hart’s death in 2001 at the age of 83. (His wife, Jimmie, had died a few years earlier.) Upon the death of their son, Eddie, in June 2005, the property was purchased by Rowayton resident Charles Schoendorf.
2. “Jimmie Hart was a glamorous Texan who sent many a heart a tumble when she came to Rowayton after the war,” says Frank Fay, life-long resident and Norwalk Hour reporter.
3. The Darien News; January 10, 1980; p. 1 & 3.
4. One rumor circulating around town was that the Harts shot at trespassers. According to Marsha Knorr, a close family friend, the Harts belonged to a rifle club, no doubt lending credence to the rumor.
5. Rose, Daniel Asa; Hiding Places; Simon and Schuster; copyright 2000.
6. The Hour, Friday, February 9, 2001. Obituary of Edward T. Hart, written by Francis X. Fay, Jr.7. Found in old newspaper clippings by Pam Davis, 1/23/07.