Published February 03. 2013 4:00AM
Step into the Griswold Inn in Essex, and you'll encounter a roomful of curious things. An old nautical map here, vintage signs there, low ceilings and long-retired architectural details everywhere.
The inn and tavern's walls are covered in paintings, sketches and ephemera that illustrate the history of the Gris as a gathering place and, indeed, that of the river-valley region, starting in 1776.
It would take a visitor some time to examine the entire collection. Even Gris co-owner Geoff Paul isn't quite certain of just how many pieces the inn has acquired over the years, but he estimates that number to be in the hundreds, or more than 200 years' worth. Paul can say with certainty, though, that the Gris houses the world's largest collection of art and ephemera related to steamboating in the region.
It's quite a niche collection and not all of it is valuable, but one common denominator brings back tourists and residents for another look.
"Each and every object here has a story behind it," Paul says.
As Paul found himself regularly answering patrons' questions about the art and because the collection is too vast to include museum-quality descriptions with each piece, Paul decided about a year ago to organize free art tours of the inn - an ideal venue from which to regale visitors with the real scoop on the art, all of which is placed or hung where it was originally set over the years. So if you spot a Currier & Ives print, it's because the Gris subscribed to the firm's mail-order service in the mid-1800s, then hung it in the tavern at that time.
"The whole accumulation is an original collection in its original location, and that in and of itself tells a story," Paul notes.
Since the tours began, Paul says every single one has been fully subscribed. Approximately 500 people toured the Gris in 2012, several of them more than once.
"I'm certain, anyone who invests the hour and a half in this art tour will never look at the Griswold Inn the same way," Paul notes. "They will have a much richer experience forever once they know some of the stories."
Not surprising, considering the location itself is historic. As the oldest continuously run tavern in the United States, a volume's worth of history has taken place at the Gris. The Gris likely was named one of the state's 50 Cultural Treasures for several reasons. Construction of the Revolutionary warship Oliver Cromwell helped to build the Gris and Essex itself; British troops captured it and camped there during the War of 1812; steam-boating boomed on the nearby Connecticut River; several protests in the name of temperance erupted there-and just about all of those historic highlights left some artwork behind.
There's the drawings of steamboats by Samuel Ward Stanton, who was lost on the Titanic; and Antonio Jacobsen's masterpiece, "The Steamboat Connecticut," which depicts the grand ship in bold colors, set firmly on a course headed toward the viewer under a gorgeous cloudy sky. Jacobsen's treatment of the ship characterizes a booming industry and America's growing love affair with industrialization in the late 1800s.
Or take the final charcoal study of Norman Rockwell's "Steamboat Race on the Connecticut River," which hangs in the wine bar. The piece shows a scene of a focused pilot, a young apprentice and a few other characters cruising specifically through Essex. Paul says there's another "very, very cool" story associated with the painting, but he's keeping it mum until the next tour.
He does offer this: Rockwell's final oil painting of "Steamboat Race" sold for $2.7 million at Sotheby's. It was purchased by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who are fans of Rockwell's method of visual storytelling, according to Paul.
Head past the barroom - the space Paul calls "heaven" for fans of marine art - and into the bar's dining area, and a flurry of temperance banners (circa 1842) admonish those who imbibe to excess. One reads: "Large streams from little fountains flow, great sots from moderate drinkers grow." Some items overlap, placed as such by the proprietors when they were acquired, and there they remain. Paul notes that Prohibition was extremely unpopular and lackadaisically policed in Connecticut, so spirits continued to flow on the sly at the Gris throughout the state's dry days in the early 1900s.
With so much ground to cover, it's a wonder Paul reports only one instance of being stumped by a group - a class of sixth-graders that Paul calls his most challenging group to date, not because of unruly behavior but because of the intellectual quality of the students' questions. More than one question sent him running back to his library for answers, but the one he remembers is a query after a discussion about Benedict Arnold and the burning of New London. The boy wanted to know if Benedict Arnold and Nathan Hale knew each other, since Arnold was in New York around the time Hale was hanged there as a spy. Paul found no evidence of a connection between the two men, but the question stirred up a lively discussion.
And that suits Paul fine; he says the tours are supposed to be interactive and collaborative, which make them mutually educational.
"Every group is different, (and) I learn something on every tour," he says. "I learn from my audience, which is why it's fun for me."