Exploring Newtown’s Historical Places: The John Angel Residence
This article has been updated after its publication in the January 17, 2020, print edition with information from C.H. Booth Library.
Discover the past and present of some of Newtown’s lesser-known historical sites in The Newtown Bee’s series dedicated to retracing the role these places once played in town and what they stand as today.
Formerly: A gristmill, an apple cider mill, and then the residence of Gale Ross, John Angel, and John Walsh
Currently: The Bovino and Salling Residence
Location: 10 Old Mill Road
When was it built or established? According to Newtown Tax Assessor records, the oldest part of the colonial home was built in 1720. Since then, there have been two major additions added on to the structure, as well as a detached garage that was built most recently.
The picturesque property is located on a dirt road called Old Mill Road in Sandy Hook, opposite Warner Pond.
With less than half a dozen homes on Old Mill Road, it was not until the turn of the century that the property actually received the specific address number of 10. Before then the home was referred to as “rural mail delivery #3” instead of a house address.
What is its historical significance? The estate originated as an operational gristmill that utilized a stream behind the house.
The gristmill is said to be one of the oldest buildings in town. It was where people took their grains to be ground for flour. It was a crucial part of the community that people depended on and because of its popularity, the road was named after it.
Rick Bovino, who bought the property 44 years ago and resides there with Sharon Salling, explained that, “In Connecticut, if you are going to use a mill year-round, you can’t have an outside wheel, because it will freeze. So what they used to do is bring water in from the stream in a flume into the basement.
“Then they had a tub wheel — think of it as a large barrel — then the base was angled blades. So when you brought the water in and started running it through that, it would start to move the whole barrel. That’s what turned.”
It is not clear when the gristmill stopped operating, but when commercial bread baking became more common, the site began making apple cider instead. Apple orchards were prevalent in the surrounding area, and some remain there to this day, producing very tiny fruit.
The property’s biggest claim to fame came when the internationally known sculptor John Angel purchased the estate from resident Gale Ross.
Newtown Historian Daniel Cruson said in his book Legendary Locals of Newtown, “[Mr Angel] began his association with Newtown in 1940, when he bought the converted Warner gristmill that stood on Old Mill Road, in the Zoar section of town, and made it his home.”
Born in Newton Abbot Devonshire, England, on November 1, 1881, Mr Angel lived in New York City after emigrating to the United States in the 1920s with his wife, Elizabeth Day Seymour, and their two children, Laurence and Henry.
He and his wife are both listed on the Town of Newtown’s Warranty Deed for the property, dated August 17, 1940. Sadly, though, according to Elizabeth’s tombstone at Zoar Cemetery, she passed away in her 60s, less than two years after purchasing the home.
Mr Cruson described the type of sculptures Mr Angel made as being “heroic” and “larger-than-life.”
Specializing in architectural and religious sculptures, Mr Angel’s work has been featured in renowned buildings throughout the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom.
Legendary Locals of Newtown also noted that from 1925 to 1953, he Mr Angel almost 140 sculptural figures to adorn the facade of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City.
When Mr Angel first moved into the property on Old Mill Road, he utilized the second floor of the home’s first addition as his original art studio. The building, made from a chestnut post-and-beam style design, proved to be sturdy and long lasting over the years.
Mr Angel customized the second story area to meet his eccentric needs, including having large overhead skylights to help him work and trapdoors that allowed his art to be lowered to the main level of the building.
The trap door may have had a pulley system in place to allow for the art to be lowered with more ease, rather than carrying it down a set of stairs. The art could also then be brought out the double doors of the main floor.
Mr Bovino and Ms Salling believe that much of Mr Angel’s studio artwork was done using a type of plaster that was malleable and would harden, versus the actual heavy stone of the final version of his art.
In later years, Mr Angel built a new studio, which Ms Salling describes as an “undertaking.”
“The studio was quite large,” she explained. “The whole thing was a work building. It wasn’t really meant to be lived in.”
Mr Cruson told The Newtown Bee that the workroom adjacent to Mr Angel’s home “had to be specially reinforced to handle 18- to 25-pound blocks of marble.”
Mr Angel continued to reside at 10 Old Mill Road, along with some of his apprentices, until his death on October 16, 1960.
According to Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia Halstead, the executors deed after Mr Angel’s death shows that the estate then went to Elia Kazan on May 1, 1961. Mr Kazan, a renowned stage and motion picture director and author, also owned other property on Old Mill Road.
Mr Bovino and Ms Salling say that Mr Kazan bought the property for his wife-to-be to live in at the time. After they got married, they say John Walsh bought the property, then Mr Bovino purchased it afterwards.
What occupies it today? When Mr Bovino purchased the property nearly half a century ago, he did not know about its rich past.
“I didn’t know the history. I was just getting out of academia and didn’t have a whole lot of money and it was in terrible disrepair,” he said. “I could do something about that over time — that was the attraction.”
Throughout the years, there have been many projects to modernize the property, but Mr Bovino is mindful of keeping its historical nature intact.
For example, while the original double doors downstairs remained there for years, they were replaced when the draft become too much for them to keep it. The same eventually happened with all the single-paned glass windows throughout the house.
“His skylights were chicken wire glass. It’s a thick glass, but what gives it support is the chicken wire they had inside,” Mr Bovino said, adding that they posed “a heating nightmare” and had to be changed.
Since the studio’s trapdoor was not a particularly safe feature to have, it was removed from the flooring. Also removed was an unusual and unsightly stained glass window that Ms Salling believes may have been done by one of Mr Angel’s novice apprentices.
Mr Bovino and Ms Salling do continue to pay homage to its past in creative ways, though.
Grinding stones from the original gristmill have been repurposed as their back stairs and incorporated into an inlay patio design.
They have also kept a number of Mr Angel’s artwork and photographs that he left behind in the house. Some of the photographs even have Mr Angel’s notes written on the back.
Mr Bovino and Ms Salling also had the unique experience of meeting one of John Angel’s relatives.
“We came home one day and there was a car at the top of the driveway,” Ms Salling said.
When they asked the person in the vehicle if they could help him, the man said that he used to live there and was one of Mr Angel’s grandsons. They invited him in, spent a couple hours talking, and gave him a tour of the house.
The grandson had with him a guest book from when Mr Angel had lived at the Sandy Hook property. Inside it listed names of artists, writers, movie stars, and political figures who had visited the house.
“Newtown was sort of a retreat for a lot of actors, writers, and producers in those days,” Ms Salling explained.
Sadly, the meeting with Mr Angel’s grandson took place more than ten years ago and they have lost touch with him.
“He was a lovely fellow and so nice,” Ms Salling recalled.
In addition to seeing Mr Angel’s artwork at their home and appreciating his artistry there, Ms Salling has seen his finished work firsthand at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. There, Mr Angel has made intricate figures for the lintels over the doors.
She also enjoys spending time viewing his work at C.H. Booth Library.
On the third floor of the Main Street library is The John Angel Art Collection, which displays many of his small sculpture models and drawings. There is even a framed photograph there that shows Mr Angel working with an apprentice in his studio on Old Mill Road.
According to minutes from a 1961 library Board of Trustees meeting, Mr Angel's sons followed their father's wishes and donated "a fine collection of art books with bookcases and literature to the library."
The section of the library honors Mr Angel's legacy by housing its many art and design books, to inspire the next generation of artists.
Interested in learning more about a specific historical place in Newtown? Send suggestions to features reporter Alissa Silber at firstname.lastname@example.org call 203-426-3141.