In the 20th century, the county reinvented itself as a haven for artists and writers. Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, William Styron and Alexander Calder all lived in towns throughout the county, and many actors, including Meryl Streep, Mia Farrow and Susan Saint James have homes here. More recently George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, president and vice president of the Manolo Blahnik shoe company, opened an upscale dairy farm, ice cream shop and restaurant in Bantam.
“There is definitely a cultural underbelly to the county, some of it driven by wealth but also by genuine artistic sensibility,” says Guy Wolff, who creates gorgeous terra-cotta pots inspired by 18th century French and English designs. He cheerfully describes them as “the most expensive flower pots in America” — the larger ones cost thousands of dollars. But Wolff welcomes anyone to stop by his Bantam studio on Route 202, where, whether they purchase or not, he will regale them with the artistic history of the county.
For many visitors, the true splendor of Litchfield county unveils itself in the fall, when the hills turn dazzling shades of gold and bronze, and leaf-peepers and hikers clog the back roads.
There are hiking trails of all levels: a 10-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail runs through the northwest corner with spectacular views of the Housatonic River valley and the Taconic mountains. It’s not uncommon to spot ragged looking-hikers, all brawn and long beards, emerge from the woods and plod past the expensive galleries and restaurants that line Main Street in Kent.
Just outside Litchfield, ramblers can tackle easier trails at the White Memorial Conservation Center, a wildlife sanctuary set among 4,000 acres of fields, ponds and woodland. It includes a nature museum, campgrounds, boating and bird-watching. Many of the trails are free: There’s a wonderful 1.5-mile boardwalk path over a reedy marsh (the Little Pond trail) that is spectacular even in winter, when the ice cracks magically all around as you walk.
Fall is also a good time to visit the vineyards that dot the area, or browse the antique shops in Woodbury where dozens of dealers have stores, many housed in the Colonial, Greek revival and Victorian mansions that line Main Street.
And it’s the perfect season to visit Topsmead, perhaps the most enchanting home in the county. Perched high on a hill about 3 miles north of Litchfield, this exquisite English Tudor-style home with its slate roof and ivy-clad walls, formal flower gardens and apple orchards seems shrouded in the sensibilities of another era.
The house was built in the 1920s as a summer residence for Edith Morton Chase, daughter of the first president of the Chase Brass and Copper Company in Waterbury. As a young woman abroad, Chase fell in love with the English countryside and decided to recreate a corner of the Cotswolds on her land in Litchfield.
Through October, on alternate weekends, volunteers offer free guided tours of the house, which is preserved exactly as it stood when Chase lived there. Visitors can walk through the kitchen and living room and bedrooms, peruse the handwritten notes on ingredients for perfect cocktails in the butler’s pantry, and listen to amusing anecdotes about Chase’s love of opera, the Yankees and Egyptian cigars.
When she died in 1972, Chase bequeathed her 17-acre estate — named for “Top of the Meadow” — to the state, requesting that it “be kept in a state of natural beauty”.
Says gardener Gene Ptachcinski, who is charged with keeping it that way, “there is no spot more beautiful in Litchfield County.”