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The oldest portion of Mitchell Hall was built by John Lester, Jr. ca. 1800. Lester apparently engaged in fishing, as did many residents of the southern end of New London, and local tradition says that a loft in the house was used for drying fish. Its use as a residence continued under later owners. Alfred Mitchell enlarged the cottage through additions, but it continued to be used for as a residence. When New London Junior College acquired the property, the house was used for classrooms and offices, reverting briefly to residential use during World War II.
The original gambrel-roofed house, built by John Lester, Jr. about 1800, survives as the lowest section of the present Mitchell Hall. Details such as windows and doors have been altered and vinyl siding added, but the form of the original is clearly visible. As the land slopes steeply uphill to the west, the additions made by Alfred Mitchell are considerably higher in elevation, setting them off from the original. A gambrel-roofed section connects the original house to the main portion of the house, which faces west with a gambrel-roofed wing on the north side. This contained the Music Room, now the Fox Room, with encased beams and a fireplace of Roman brick set in a paneled surround. Smaller scale fireplaces and paneling are located throughout the house. These have been preserved. A variety of window sash is used, most multiple-paned, some casement, others sliding, others double-hung. Some windows have been replaced with vinyl windows with snap-in muntins.
Sunflower Lodge is an important early example of the Colonial Revival. The gambrel roof of the original house was used as the model for the Colonial Revival expansion. By breaking up the expansion into a series of discrete sections unified by a common theme, and through skilful use of the natural topography of the site, the large scale of the house is not readily apparent. Porches also break up the massing of the house. Sunflower Lodge is an architecturally sophisticated building. While the architect and builder are at this time unknown, the design is successful in creating an organic unity very difficult to achieve. Anna Olivia Tiffany herself had an interest in architecture, but her involvement in the design of the house is not known at this time.
Alfred Mitchell was a descendant of Captain Nathaniel Shaw, a leading New London colonial merchant, and of the Woodbridge and Mumford families, who owned much of the present-day town of Salem, Connecticut in the late 18th century. Mitchell was keenly aware of his ancestry, which linked him to the Williams family, prominent 19th century New London whaling merchants. The Colonial Revival, a late 19th century and early 20th century movement in American society, was in large measure a reaction to industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration. Old stock Americans sought refuge in a colonial past which they perceived as one of ethnic, racial, and religious purity, ignoring the realities of 17th and 18th century life. In the case of the Mitchell family, this longing to reconstruct the past took the form of creating a Colonial Revival home. In contrast to many other examples of the style, Sunflower Lodge was painted a dark red, more in conformity with colonial practice. After Alfred Mitchell's death in 1911, it was repainted the more acceptable white. Between 1900 and 1905, Mitchell reassembled through purchase the family's 18th and early 19th century land holdings in Salem, consisting of four farms and 2,000 acres of land. He restored the early farmhouses and commissioned local historian and author Mary E. Perkins to write a history of the land, Chronicles of a Connecticut Farm.
Sunflower Lodge is an essentially Victorian creation, irregular in plan and picturesque in effect, freely interpreting the early fisherman's house. In his later work, Mitchell sought to recreate the specific past of his own family.
Bingham, Alfred Mitchell. The Tiffany Fortune and Other Chronicles of a Connecticut Family. Chestnut Hill, MA: Abeel and Leet Publishers, 1996.
Perkins, Mary E. Chronicles of a Connecticut Farm. Boston: Private printing, 1905.