Heublein Tower History

What was here before the current Tower?

The structure you see here today is the fourth tower built on this property. In 1810, Daniel Wadsworth built a tower at the top of this mountain, near his estate, which was called Montevideo. Wadsworth was the founder of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and one of the very first Americans to be considered a patron of the arts. His first tower was a wooden structure, 55 feet high with eighty steps leading up to its observation deck.

The first tower blew down in a wind storm in 1840 and was replaced with another tower, ten feet taller than the first. The second tower, also built of wood, was bolted to the mountain with steel cables to prevent it from blowing over like the first one did. It burned down on July 19, 1864. Daniel Wadsworth allowed the public to use the towers for recreation, with the exceptions of Sundays and the 4th of July.

Thomas Cole, View of Monte Video, Seat of Daniel Wadsworth Esq., 1878, oil on wood, Wadsworth Atheneum

The Bartlett Tower

In 1867, Matthew Bartlett built a third tower on the same site. This tower was 60 feet tall and included a tavern and public grounds. The Bartlett establishment included picnicking, dancing, boating, a restaurant, and even accommodations for carriage horses. It was to this tower that author Mark Twain and his friends, the Reverend Joseph Twitchell and author Charles Dudley Warner, frequently made the eight-mile hike from downtown Hartford. The first three towers on the property were located a few hundred yards south of the current tower, approximately where the pavilion is located today.

In 1888, the third tower and the Montevideo estate were purchased by Robert Hoe, a wealthy printer from New York City. Hoe banned the public from the grounds and kept the tower for his private use. Robert Hoe did not want to have any neighbors at the top of the mountain and began a territorial war with Gilbert Heublein when Heublein purchased the adjoining property, including the third tower. Hoe cut down trees and used dynamite to destroy the access road to Heublein’s property in an attempt to delay the construction of Heublein Tower.

Matthew Bartlett Tower
Robert Hoe, III
Robert Hoe, III's property on Talcott Mountain

Who was Gilbert Heublein?

Gilbert F. Heublein
Gilbert F. Heublein

Gilbert F. Heublein was born in Suhl in the German state of Bavaria on December 28, 1849. Germany was not a united country until the 1870s. The German states, including Bavaria, were all independent of one another until they were united by Bismarck to form the German Empire.

Bavaria, Southeastern Germany

The Heublein family moved to Connecticut when Gilbert was seven years old. The family became members of Hartford’s social elite when Andrew Heublein’s business prospered. Gilbert promised his fiancé, Louise Gundlach, a ‘castle on the mountain’ when they were hiking on Talcott Mountain before their marriage. The couple married on December 2, 1876 and moved to a mansion on Prospect Avenue in West Hartford. They raised two children: Alice, born October 20, 1877 and Arthur, born September 18, 1879.

Alice Heublein

Why did Gilbert build a tower here?

To make good on his promise to Louise, to build her a castle on the mountain. The Tower was designed by Smith & Bassette. The Tower was designed to withstand 100-mile-an-hour winds with reinforced concrete and 12-inch iron girders anchored into the bedrock of the mountain ridge. The construction was carried out by the firm T.R. Fox & Son. In 1914, the first phase of the 165-foot-tall castle-like Tower was complete.

Used mainly as a summer retreat from the city, the Tower was a gracious, comfortable spot, 1,000 feet above the Farmington River Valley. It featured a six-story tower with a luxurious bedroom or living area on each floor and boasted the first residential elevator in Connecticut. On the top floor was a ‘ballroom’, now known as the Observation Deck, where the Heubleins hosted parties and entertained their many house guests. The addition of staff rooms, a dining room, a larger kitchen, and service areas was completed in 1929.

Gilbert died in 1937 and for six years the Tower stood empty. In 1943, Gilbert’s grandson, John G. Martin, sold the Tower, which had accrued nearly $70,000 in back taxes. It was purchased by the Hartford Times, which was then the state’s leading newspaper, and Heublein Tower became known as the Times Tower. The newspaper had planned to use the Tower as broadcasting location for the paper’s radio station. This did not work out, but the Times Tower did become a place for parties and social gatherings hosted by the newspaper for nearly 20 years. Some of the notable guests to the Times tower were; actor Ronald Reagan, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Admiral Charles Nimitz, General Omar Bradley, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, opera singer James Melton, and actress Tallulah Bankhead.

By 1962, the Hartford Times was no longer interested in owning the Tower and sold it, along with 450 acres, to three real estate developers. Their plan was to turn the Tower into a restaurant surrounded by apartments and houses along the Talcott Mountain ridge. Neighbors of the Tower, however, did not like this idea. They formed the ‘Save Talcott Mountain’ organization and raised money and awareness to prevent the ridge from being commercially developed. The State of Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) was able to purchase 557 acres and the Tower in 1966. Unfortunately, the Tower had sustained a great deal of vandalism and theft in the four years it was empty. It was empty for another seven years before the state began a restoration project in 1973.

Heublein Tower in Talcott Mountain State Park opened to the public in 1974, with a few interior renovations that included the removal of the elevator and the addition of a two-way fire-safe stairwell. It has been cared for by numerous hard-working employees of the DEEP since that time and sees nearly 130,000 visitors each year. Heublein Tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

What was Heublein, Inc?

Postcard of the Heublein Hotel, 1875
Heublein Hotel 1920s
Heublein Co

When he came to Connecticut, Andrew Heublein, Gilbert’s father, began a restaurant and hotel business in 1862 and the company began manufacturing A-1 Steak Sauce in America in 1895. When Andrew’s sons, Gilbert and Louis, took over their father’s company, it became known as G.F. Heublein & Bro and expanded into ready-made cocktails and liquor distribution. This business was in decline at the time of Gilbert’s death in 1937. Prohibition in the 1920’s coupled with the Great Depression of the early 1930’s had destroyed the mainstay of their business, which was the importation of liquor, leaving only A-1 Steak Sauce on the market. 

Upon Gilbert’s death, the company was taken over by John G. Martin, the son of Alice Heublein and Percy Martin, Gilbert Heublein’s grandson. Through Martin’s business savvy, G.F. Heublein & Bro. acquired the rights to sell Smirnoff vodka, Don Q rum, and Jose Cuervo tequila. In 1969, Heublein, Inc. began to package pre-mixed cocktails in 8-ounce cans, such as the ‘Brass Monkey’. The company also made acquisitions outside the liquor industry with the purchase of Grey Poupon mustard in 1936 and Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1971. In 1982, Heublein, Inc was sold to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for 1.4 billion dollars. John G. Martin died in 1986, and in 1987, RJR Nabisco sold the division to Grand Metropolitan.

Gilbert F. Heublein and WWI

The first phase of the Tower was completed in the same year that WWI began, 1914. Because Germany was the enemy in this war, there was great national distrust for people of German descent. It was rumored that Gilbert Heublein was using a spotlight mounted on the top of the Tower’s cupola to signal enemy ships in Long Island Sound. In fact, Gilbert was using the spotlight to highlight the views at night for his guests at the Tower. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, Gilbert Heublein offered the use of the Tower to the state and federal governments. Neither of them took him up on it, and the rumors died down.

Post WWI Connecticut Soldiers Parade

Eisenhower at the Tower?

During the years that the Tower was owned by the Hartford Times, Francis S. Murphy was the publisher of the paper. In May of 1950, a new terminal of Bradley International Airport was named after Murphy, and a picnic was held at the Times Tower to celebrate. One of the dignitaries who attended the event was the very popular five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, famed for his bravery during World War II.

At the celebratory picnic at the Tower, a group of prominent local Republicans asked Eisenhower to consider running for the Presidency of the United States in the upcoming 1952 election. This group was led by Prescott Bush, a businessman from Greenwich, Connecticut who became a Senator in 1952 and whose son and grandson are the Presidents Bush. Eisenhower was sitting in the blue leather and wood chair (currently in the Tower’s living room) when they asked him to run for the presidency. Eisenhower accepted and won the 1952 election, serving for two terms as the 34th President of the United States. He is best known for ending the Korean War and for constructing the interstate highway system.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prescott Bush
Grand Outdoor Picnic for Eisenhower at the Tower

Other Buildings

The Heubleins didn’t stay inside their Tower all summer. There were several pavilions and viewing platforms on the property as well. If you walk to the south of the Tower, you will find a flat rectangular area that was used as a croquet court with a lovely rustic pavilion beyond it. The pavilion offers lovely views of the valley and a secluded spot for an afternoon picnic. This is approximately the site of the three earlier towers built on this property.

Heublein Carriage House, now converted into a garage for the Tower use.

The Barbecue Pit is a building that was put up for the picnic/sheep roast that was held for the opening of the Murphy Terminal at Bradley International Airport in 1950. Distinguished guests at that picnic included future Senator Prescott Bush and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. There were many other small buildings perched on outcroppings of the mountain, overlooking the Farmington River Valley. Parks staff and the Friends of Heublein Tower are in the process of searching for archival and physical evidence of all of the structures.

The Pavilion
Gazebo (No Longer on Property)

John G. Martin Purchases the Rights to Smirnoff

Only six years after the end of Prohibition, and with America still in the throes of the Great Depression, John G. Martin made the biggest gamble of his career. A Ukrainian émigré had set up a company in Bethel, Connecticut not too far from Heublein’s location. The émigré’s name was Rudolph Kunett and he was a refugee from the Russian Revolution who arrived in the United States with little more than the rights to an unknown product called Smirnoff vodka.

Since Kunett was struggling with his business, selling only 4,000 cases of vodka each year, he approached Heublein and offered to sell them his business in exchange for $14,000 and a job. Heublein became the owner of the Smirnoff name and the rights to manufacture Smirnoff vodka in America. The acquisition seemed foolish to many people at the time, leading them to call it, “Martin’s Folly”. This was because almost no-one in the United States drank vodka at the time, and Kunett’s business was failing.

Martin was able to turn Smirnoff vodka into an asset after a mistake: some of the vodka bottles were accidentally sealed with corks labeled “whiskey”. Those bottles were sent to a distributor in South Carolina, who was puzzled by this new whiskey he was expected to sell. Unlike every other whiskey he’d ever encountered, it had no color, no scent, and no taste. He decided to advertise it to the public as ‘white whiskey’, and promote the idea that it didn’t have any taste or scent.

Smirnoff became very popular because people liked the idea of getting drunk, but didn’t like the strong taste of whiskey or having to worry about the tell-tale smell of whiskey on their breath. They could also mix vodka with virtually any other liquid to form tasty alcoholic drinks, such as the screwdriver. When Martin found out why his vodka was starting to sell so well in South Carolina, he marketed Smirnoff vodka all over the country as ‘white whiskey’ that left drinkers ‘breathless’, and it became extremely popular.

John G. Martin

The Moscow Mule

Vintage Moscow Mule Advertisements
Vintage Moscow Mule Advertisements

The Moscow Mule is a cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime. It was invented in 1941 by John G. Martin and two of his friends. Martin, of course, wanted to sell his Smirnoff vodka. His friend John Morgan was trying (unsuccessfully) to sell ginger beer in America, and Morgan’s girlfriend had inherited a company that manufactured copper goods. Together, they came up with the Moscow Mule: Smirnoff vodka mixed with ginger beer and lime, served in a copper mug.

The Moscow Mule became very popular and helped sell a lot of vodka and ginger beer. However, during the late 1940s and 1950s, with the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in full swing, many people were wary of any products associated with the enemy. After a bartenders’ union marched in protest of the Moscow Mule, Martin had to issue a press release to reassure the American public that Smirnoff vodka was now manufactured in the United States and had no ties at all to the Soviet Union.

Below: John G. Martin tells the story of the Moscow Mule creation

What’s going on at the Tower now?

You’ve visited Heublein Tower at an exciting time. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is working with the Friends of Heublein Tower to renovate portions of the Tower and to educate the public on the past, present, and future of this unique structure. Some new things to see during your visit to the Tower:

  • The new parquet floor in the Observation Deck
  • New traffic flow pattern to ensure visitors don’t miss seeing anything as they go up and down the Tower stairs.
  • New displays in the living room.
  • New paint in the living room and foyer. In the spring of 2010, the Friends of Heublein Tower funded a paint analysis study of the living room. With information from 5 tiny chips taken from the walls and ceiling in this room, we were able to determine that Gilbert and Louise Heublein painted this room the very color that you see today.
  • Steps are being taken to return the foyer to its original state: future projects include remodeling this space to make it as much like it was in the time Gilbert and Louise Heublein as possible.
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