You’re bound to find treasure when you hunt along the Connecticut Antiques Trail. Antiques hunter Polly Bannister describes her own experience.
The broad, mile-long Main Street of Woodbury, Connecticut, is lined with remarkable historic homes built since the town’s settlement in 1673, each more beautifully restored than the next. It seems that nearly every house in Woodbury, long known for its antiques shops, has a sign beckoning you inside. Many of these shops are tucked into barns, and they call to you, full of promise, mystery, and surprise.
You might need a designated driver; antiques hunters will simply find their heads spinning. The spontaneous among you may simply stop and shop. Collectors with a specialty should refer to a map from the Woodbury Antiques Dealers Association, describing the offerings of local purveyors.
First stop on my itinerary: Thomas Schwenke Antiques. In the business for 40 years, Schwenke is a leading expert in Federal furniture. Upon entering his barn (having enjoyed stunning gardens on the walk in), a tableau catches my eye. An inlaid-mahogany Hepplewhite sideboard sets off a pair of Sheffield silverplated wine coolers with leaf and flower embellishments. Above hangs a rare American double portrait of Samuel P. and Adelaide Victoria Hixon Moody in its original gilded pine frame, c. 1855. Their brown eyes stare hauntingly.
Schwenke laughs when I ask who the portrait painter was. “Anonymous,” he replies, “a pretty prolific guy.” Self-taught in the trade, Schwenke spent at least 15 years “cherry-picking” small New York shops, back when nobody knew much. Did he have a mentor? “No, the only way to learn is to spend your own money,” he tells me. “You have to have an eye for detail and comparison, and take the consequences. In the early ’70s, Sotheby’s didn’t even have an illustrated catalogue.”
Dealers have their own obsessions, and American Federal belongs to Thomas Schwenke (the style of his home included). He tells me why he loves the era, a period that dates roughly from 1785 to 1820: “It started with economics. Federal furniture was accessible and affordable, but soon my attraction for design took over. At first glance, one might think the pieces are plain or all look alike, but that’s absolutely not the case. Federal pieces are made of select woods, like mahogany, cherry, and maple, and are embellished with carvings, contrasting exotic-wood veneers, and geometric inlays. The form is balanced and symmetrical—very pleasing.”
When asked which nearby dealers I shouldn’t miss, Schwenke is tight-lipped. “You can’t make any bad choices,” he notes. “Sure, there’s competition, but camaraderie is important.” So I’m on my own. I head on down the street and find myself at Pantry & Hearth at The 1775 Barn, a delight. Owner Gail Lettick specializes in quality Americana, including Pilgrim-era items, painted country furniture, and 17th- and 18th-century needlework. The shop has a woman’s touch. If I had a big car and an even bigger bank account, I’d stock up here. What would I bring home? A pocketbook made for Elizabeth Baldwin, an 18th-century Massachusetts woman—a clutch bag, stitched with a geometric design in red, yellow, sage, and chartreuse. I wonder who dyed that beautiful silk thread, and from what plants those colors might have come.
Another favored item—this one bearing a Sold sign, making me wish I’d had the first dance-—is a wooden lantern, late 18th- or early 19th-century, with glass windows and a wrought-iron candle holder, rustic and romantic.