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December 7, 2002

Sophia Smith in 'quiet feud'

From: Hampshire Gazette, MA - 07 Dec 2002

By SUNSHINE DEWITT, Staff Writer Saturday, December 7, 2002 -- HATFIELD - Sometimes even the Smiths had to keep up with the Joneses. As part of a rivalry with her sister-in-law, Sophia Smith, the Hatfield benefactor who founded Smith Academy, which celebrated its 130th anniversary this week, and Smith College, built a magnificent Victorian mansion on Hatfield's Main Street.

The house has passed through many hands since then. For its current owner, who spent the last nine years working on it, the act of restoration is a way to connect with Smith's memory.

Smith was born and raised in a farmhouse at 22 Main St., where she lived with her sisters for most of her life. Near the end, however, she made use of some of her fortune in a game of one-upmanship with Hannah Smith, wife of her brother, Joseph. The house she built next door, at 26 Main St., is a testament to the architectural splendor of its time.

According to Rita Prew of the Hatfield Historical Society, Sophia Smith's relationship with her sister-in-law always appeared genteel. "I think it was a very quiet feud," said Prew. "These two ladies were family and they were sort of friends, but there was a rivalry." The two women traveled together each year to Saratoga, N.Y., and to those who didn't know better, it might seem they were close.

The house, however, tells another story. Smith ordered the finest imported pink Italian marble for the mantelpieces, and apparently spared no expense in every detail of her 11-room home, completed in 1867 at a cost of about $19,000.

Yet she lived there for only three years before her death in 1870, and expressed regret for her excesses, saying, "I sometimes feel as though I had done wrong."

A tour of the house with owner Kelly Gigante, who bought it in 1993, conveys its majesty. The ceilings are 10 feet high, and the doors look as if giants could pass through.

"One of my favorite touches in this house is the hinges," said Gigante, pointing out big cast-iron hinges on each door.

Every board in the house, built before machine tools existed, looks cut with precision. As was necessary then, each room had a fireplace, now bricked up. But the mantelpieces remain, all with a singular, ornate beauty.

"Structurally it's a very sound house. We just did a lot of cosmetic repairs," Gigante explained. She spotted the house in 1993 after driving up from New York City with her boyfriend at the time, Chris Hebert, a Hatfield native. She was captivated, partly because of the place's history.

"This is still (Sophia Smith's) house," said Gigante, who works part time as an actress in New York City. "I'm the world's biggest chump. I'm just taking out the trash and paying the bills. It could never be anyone else's house but hers. That's what I love about it."

Gigante and Hebert painted the house's exterior in shades of lavender, playing up the trim. She felt, said Gigante, Smith would have approved.

Several other exterior touches are unique, particularly the rooftop moldings depicting hanging lanterns. Gigante had them painted orange, like a lantern's glow.

Entering the house, a visitor has a breathtaking view up the rounded staircase to the landing of the second floor, where tenants rent two large bedrooms. Gigante wondered aloud what Smith did with all the space, living alone with only servants for company. Three people live in the house now, and it still feels spacious.

Another staircase leads to a huge attic, described by Prew as "the size of a whole house," that resembles a ship's hold. Both Prew and Gigante said several previous residents had reported Smith's ghost in the attic. One young boy was convinced he could hear her pacing the floors at night.

Seen from the street, the house must have been an imposing spectacle when built. Now restored and brightly painted, it still stands in sharp contrast to the white houses and red brick buildings that line Hatfield's Main Street.

The house of Smith's brother and sister-in-law, just down the street, is similar in size and shape but not as tall as Sophia's. The architecture is more conservative, with less decorative woodwork outside.

Sophia Smith was a mysterious character, known more for her legacy than the life she led. "She seemed aloof, lonely and solitary because of her severe deafness," wrote Prew and fellow town historian Helen Bardwell in a booklet called "Notable Women of Hatfield."

Gigante concurs, saying much of the negative judgment about her character stemmed from her hearing problems.

"Here was a smart woman ahead of her time with a vision of women's education. She was feisty and opinionated and outspoken," Gigante said.

© 2002 Daily Hampshire Gazette