Local History Matters: Sinclair Lewis, the Wren House, and Vanderventer Avenue

Local History Matters: Sinclair Lewis, the Wren House, and Vanderventer Avenue
The Wren House was on Vandeventer Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Port Washington Public Library)

The featured photograph is of the Wren House where Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis lived on Vandeventer Avenue in Port Washington from 1914 to 1915. The exterior of the house is virtually unchanged in 114 years.

Vanderventer Avenue is easy to miss. It’s one block long, about the length of a football field, with one goal post on Port Washington Boulevard near Campus Drive and the other at South Bayles Avenue.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the imaginary football field was a farm owned by Dr. Hugh Vanderventer. He built the first house on the block at what is now number 20 for his daughter who was confined to a wheelchair.

With her needs in mind, he erected a 1.5 story bungalow with the main rooms on one floor and the doors between them widened to accommodate her wheelchair. He placed it at the top of a slope overlooking a forested area for a pleasing view from the back porch.

Not only thoughtful but tasteful, the doctor had the home built in the new craftsman style inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Two short extensions on both ends of the simple rectangular floor plan led to an interesting variation on the hipped roof – note how two ridges and a valley flow down to each corner.

In 1914, newlyweds Sinclair Lewis and socialite Grace Heger chose 20 Vanderventer Ave. to be their first home. It was their cozy get-away in the country, and a convenient commute to his day job in the city; and at $50 per month, an affordable rental for the aspiring author whose fame and fortune was yet to come.

Heger called it “their little brown bungalow.” It later became known as the Wren House after Lewis’ second novel, “Our Mr. Wren,” published in 1915 while they were living there.

He wrote his third novel riding on the train. Heger would wave to him from their back porch as the train got underway to New York and he got down to writing his third novel, “The Trail of the Fox,” which he completed by the time they left Port in 1915.

The “little brown bungalow” continued to attract artistic types like novelist Kathleen Norris and cartoonist Fontaine Fox who were tenants there before buying more spacious homes on Carlton Avenue. In his popular cartoon series, “The Toonerville Trolley,” Fox used it as a model for the home of his character, “The Powerful Katrina.”

Lewis did not achieve literary and financial success until the 1920s when he wrote a string of bestsellers – “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” and “Arrowsmith” – and was the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature at the end of the decade.

Unfortunately, a destructive binge-drinking pattern took a toll on his personal and professional life. There were no more best sellers. Two marriages ended in divorce and he died alone in Rome in 1951 of heart failure brought on by advanced staged alcoholism.

The Wren House faced hard times as well but fared better than its famous tenant. In 1985, 100 years after Lewis’s birth, a local developer announced plans to replace it with two office buildings.

James and Anne MacIntosh, who had been living there for 14 years, were fond of the Wren House and of Sinclair Lewis. MacIntosh felt that in spite of the difficulties the Lewis’ went through later in life, they “had been immensely happy here”.

MacIntosh read many of Lewis’ novels and had a deep respect for him. They attempted to have their home landmarked to protect it.

Although those efforts were unsuccessful, news of the pending demolition spread throughout the community, buoyed by the coincidence that it was centennial celebration of Lewis’s birthday in 1885. The Port Washington Public Library marked his birthday by presenting a talk by the well-known literary critic Alfred Kazan.

A young girl heard about the plan to demolish the house in school and told her father, James Perretti, who happened to be a commuter himself who passed by the Wren House on his way to and from the train station. He already admired it, not for its literary history, but for its architectural merit.

Perretti proposed to relocate the Wren House at his expense if the developer would agree to give it to him gratis instead of demolishing it. The developer agreed, and although Peretti could not find a suitable location in Port Washington, he did find one out of town.

So, in 1987 the Wren House was cut into three pieces, loaded on a flatbed truck, taken to its new home, and put back together. Perretti has preserved its architectural integrity and maintains it in pristine condition as a vacation rental in an exclusive neighborhood (think Jay-Z and Beyonce) in East Hampton.

Today on Vanderventer, although two nondescript office buildings have taken the place of the Wren House at number 20, all is not lost, for another of Vanderventer’s craftsman style homes is still standing across the street thanks to the Town of North Hempstead who converted it into an office next to the commuter parking lot.

Although much has been lost, perhaps commuters can imagine a different time in Port as they walk the same path to and from the station as Sinclair Lewis did when he was a struggling author.

Ross Lumpkin is a trustee of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, www.cowneck.org

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