The Thomas Lee House in East Lyme, Connecticut, is one of the oldest wood-frame houses in the state. Dating back to the mid-17th century, the little saltbox home began as a single-room structure built by the family of an English aristocrat, but it grew over time, displaying all the characteristics of an emerging colonial-style floor plan typical of the era.
Thomas Lee was a man of great fortune living in Sussex, England, when he and his family left their homeland in 1641 for the promise of the Saybrook Colony in North America. Looking to take advantage of land granted to him by the King, Lee headed for the modern-day town of East Lyme, Connecticut. Unfortunately for Lee and his family, Thomas never made it to America—dying of smallpox on the way to his new home.
Saltbox House Started as Single Room Home
The arduous cross-Atlantic journey took its toll on his family as well and they spent roughly 2 months recuperating in Boston before finally heading to Connecticut. Around 1660, however, Lee’s son, Thomas Lee II, who had taken to farming, built a house on his father’s property that still stands today.
Thomas went on to acquire large tracts of land in the area then known as Lyme—at one point having owned approximately 1/8 of the entire town. He was a man very active in Lyme’s affairs as a surveyor, the holder of town records, and an official placed in charge of verifying local weights and measures. His family of 15 children no doubt played a role in initiating a series of expansions that helped give the house its current layout.
In 1700, the house doubled in size through the addition of a parlor and “West Chamber.” More than half a century later, a lean-to provided space for a kitchen and several adjoining rooms.
East Lyme Historical Society Rallies Community to Save Property
After roughly 200 years of ownership, however, the Lee family sold their home in the mid-1800s to a farmer who used much of the property to store hay and raise chickens. The period of neglect that followed led to the prospect of the house being torn down, but then the East Lyme Historical Society stepped in and purchased the property in 1914.
Working with a number of local organizations, the East Lyme Historical Society managed to save the home and return much of its former character. On June 9, 1915, the Society opened the home to the public in a grand ceremony attended by, among others, former President William Howard Taft—a descendant of the Lee Family.
Following its purchase in 1914, the East Lyme Historical Society hosted countless fundraising events assisted by prominent local residents interested in preserving this unique piece of East Lyme’s history. The house received a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 for the unique insight it provides into the development of colonial floor plans. It now serves as the headquarters of the East Lyme Historical Society.