Ellen Sturges’ parents drove up Warner Hill in Southport during a blizzard in January 1948. They parked their car in front of “Restmore,” their new home, a 36-year-old Cape Dutch Colonial Revival, perhaps the only one in the state. Ellen hopped out and strapped on a pair of skis. She slid up the lawn toward the house, which she now owns: a stucco-sided giant, lined with gables and columns, with red ceramic tiles sloping down its roof.
The home may look odd in this corner of the country, but Sturges, who was just 8 at the time, didn’t care. She preferred to ride her tricycle around its rooms or roller skate down its hallways. In fact, the home was a bit of a mystery to everyone. A neighbor recently asked Sturges if it ever served as a nunnery. A large family once assumed it was a public monument and camped in her back yard for a summer picnic. And shortly after Sturges inherited it from her parents in 1988, local developers looked at it as a perfect spot for demolition and new construction. ” All the developers wanted to buy it from me,” Sturges said. “You’d see people flying helicopters overhead. This place would have been leveled in two days.” ” I said, ‘Over my dead body,'” she went on. “I just knew it was such a special place.” Exactly how special, however, was somewhat elusive. But for the past three years, Sturges and her husband, David, have worked to find out. And their goal — to document and preserve the estate — recently reached a milestone.
The house, at 375 Warner Hill Road, is an almost 5,300-square-foot building with 11 rooms, perched atop Mill Hill. It offers sweeping views to the east of Long Island Sound and of the shore as it snakes its way from Fairfield through Bridgeport and beyond. The property occupies 5.5 acres of land, which is 194.5 fewer acres than it did when construction finished in 1912.On Monday night, Ellen Sturges stood in a first-floor dining room, flanked by friends, family and guests, to announce the new development: the National Park Service recently added Restmore to its National Register of Historic Places. The journey was far from streamlined. The original blue prints for the house had been lost and two architects were called in to measure all the building’s dimensions with David’s help. They did so two Januarys ago, outdoors in the cold, and then drafted a detailed plan.
There were also gaping holes in the history of the home’s inhabitants. But through library research, talking with ancestors and combing through documents, Web sites and archival material, David Sturges and Tod Bryant, a historic preservationist, strung together a detailed narrative. David penned much of it in the July 2009 edition of “The Southport Packet,” a publication of the Southport Conservancy.
The home was built between 1910 and 1912 as a summer residence for the ultra-rich entrepreneur Dr. Ira DeVer Warner, who, with his brother, Lucien, developed women’s corsets and lingerie. Among the contributions of Warner Bros., their joint company, headquartered in Bridgeport: corsets with attached hose supporters, cloth garments with elastic instead of lacing, and the alphabetically cup-sized brassiere. Warner, who was close friends with John D. Rockefeller, was a fervent proponent of healthy living. He never smoked or drank in his life. He also generally went to bed early and encouraged others to get maximum sleep. This inspired the estate’s name: “Restmore.” The estate was designed as a dairy farm, but its first herd of 120 cows was wiped out in its first year of operation. A year later, Warner died of a heart-attack.
His widow, Eva Follett Warner, moved into the home full-time with her son, Ira, and lived there until she died in 1941. Then Ira Warner formed the Dartis Corporation and subdivided the estate. Later in the decade, Fuller and Muriel Leeds, Ellen’s parents, purchased the home. The last strand of history to account for was in the home’s unique architecture. The first clue came from the Charles Gray family, former neighbors of the Sturges’, who, upon moving away from the area years ago, found a surviving set of building specifications in their own basement. Charles’ grandfather had worked on the estate and retained important paperwork. The information indicated that the architect of Restmore was Ehrick K. Rossiter, who had long lived in Washington, Conn.