Learned House Rich in Cheney Memorabilia

Published in Manchester Evening Herald, Manchester, Conn.
Saturday, January 28, 1961
"Heralding Homes"

by Marge Flynn; photos by Sylvian Ofiara

The unique residence of Mr. and Mrs. Horace Bushnell Learned, 30 Forest St., is a converted barn and former artist studio, rich in memorabilia of the Cheney family.

Originally a barn on the property of Mr. Learned’s great uncle Knight Dexter Cheney, the structure was converted to a studio for the late Russell Cheney, the artist.

Two noted architects, Charles Platt of New York City and John Watkinson Huntington of Hartford, completed the transition from barn-studio to dwelling house.

The house, oriented away from the street, is adjacent to the rear of the main administration building of Barnard Junior High School. Entrance to the property off Forest St. may be identified by three numbers – 22, 30 and 40 – posted on a tree.

The spacious dimensions of the living room, 37 x 24 feet with 15 foot-high ceiling, stem from its basic barn architecture and the large north window which was installed to provide the ideal light needed by an artist.

A balcony, originally only an aid to the painter for viewing his work, now leads to the master bedroom, formerly an entrance to the haymow. When the dwelling house stage was first evolving from the barn-studio combination, there were still horses in what now is Mr. Learned’s workshop.

The kitchen-library with fireplace, created five years ago, is the result of combining two small harness and tack rooms.

There is a small hallway between the kitchen-library and the workshop where Mr. Learned enjoys his hobby of cabinet work and restoration of furniture. Completing the U-shape dwelling is an attached shed which has been converted into three bedrooms, a guest house and the bedrooms of the Learneds’ two daughters. Mrs. Harris Strickland Colt, the former Hope Cheney Learned, now lives in Princeton, N.J. and Miss Alexandra Learned is a sophomore at Smith College. The younger daughter is affectionately known in the family as the “toad” and her quarters are identified as “toad hill,” both references borrowed from “Wind in the Willows.”

Striking focal points in the studio living room are a Shinto hanging, sent from Japan with a shipment of silk after the Civil War as a token of esteem to Mr. Learned’s grandfather, Colonel Frank Woodbridge Cheney and on the opposite wall, a huge fireplace with a six feet high opening.

Noteworthy among the furnishings in this studio room are a Queen Anne Spanish settee with flat splats and shell carvings, a serpentine-front desk of olivewood from Verona, and a high credenza of black walnut, with ornate carving, characteristic of the Flemish Renaissance.

This room abounds in memorabilia of the Cheney family. Along the bookcase wall there are photographs, in youth and in old age, of Col. Frank Woodbridge Cheney, youngest of the seven Cheney brothers, all with monosyllabic names, in the Cheney Bros. silk industry. The youthful picture was taken at the age of 30, in 1862, soon after he had been wounded at Antietam. It was he who first went out to establish trade with the Japanese for raw silk in the middle 19th century. Col. Cheney was treasurer of the silk mills here, and he also supervised work on the Spencer rifles manufactured in a Chickering Piano factory in Boston during the Civil War period.

Fabrics used throughout the room are all products of Cheney Brothers, ranging from a copy of a rich Genoese velvet table covering to nylon velvet in which one of the sofas is upholstered.

Other ancestral treasures are a grandfather clock made by Timothy Cheney in the 18th century and paintings by Russell Cheney, ranging from still life to landscapes done in Maine, New Hampshire, California and France.

Antiques of note in the warm and informal kitchen-library are a pair of Windsor chairs, signed by the maker, Amos Denison Allen, who served his indentured apprenticeship with the cabinet maker, Ebenezer Tracy. Mrs. Learned’s extensive collection of Canton china is displayed on the shelves and walls of the library nook.

The kitchen-sitting room contains more Cheney family lore – mounted Knight Dexter Cheney monogram from the Cheney horse caparison, a framed early advertisement displaying a skein of silk with a bull’s head from the crest which was the Cheney trademark, and a framed specimen of a leaf of the Morus multicauclis tree from the days of the silk growing experiment.

Also framed are delicate pencil sketches by Seth Cheney and John Cheney, who give the lie to the “impractical artist” legend by putting the business back on its feet financially after the mulberry “bubble” burst.

Mr. Learned studied at Yale University, Peterhouse College at Camridge University, and the University of Poitiers in Tours, France. He carries on both the artistic and business traditions of the family. Sculpture is another of his hobby interests. He learned the business with his uncles in the Cheney mill where he was associated for 25 years.

After the sale of the business, Mr. Learned was with Hamilton Standard for several years and is now assistant vice president of the Hartford National Bank an Trust Co., working in the business development department.

Mr. Learned is vice president of the Bushnell Memorial Hall Corp. (his grandmother was Mary Bushnell Cheney), a trustee of the Wadsworth Atheneum, a member of the Connecticut Historical Society, and a corporator of the Hartford Hospital.

It was to the barn-studio on Forest St. that he brought his bride, the former Eileen Ruff of New York City, in 1932. Mrs. Learned, who is director of the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford, has a collection of early editions of Mark Twain books.

She was formerly associated with the Hartford architects, Ebbetts, Frid and Prentice, and served as executive secretary of the Hartford Art School for several years.

Mrs. Learned is a member of the board of directors of the Hartford Art School, a trustee of Renbrook School, and Oxford School, a member of the central district committee of Children’s Services of Connecticut, and a board member of the Manchester Public Health Nursing Association.