Left: The Meriden House, on the right, was a hotel that stood on the site of Dexter Richards Hall. Daniel Kimball’s former business partner John Bryant began building it in 1818. Next to it on the left is a store that was owned and operated by two local men, Darius Moulton and Perley Roberts, KUA class of 1861. It is unclear who lived in the house they also owned to the left of the store. A small section of Rowe House dormitory can be seen on the far left. Below: The second Meriden Congregational Church, built in 1797, included the Parish Meeting Hall on the first flour. The building was turned to face the church green in 1846 and a new steeple was added in 1873, about the year this photograph was taken. – Glass Slides, KUA Archives Collection
During KUA’s early years, some student housing was available in the Academy’s class building, but without a dining hall. Those who could afford it, ate at the hotel, while others formed eating clubs and prepared their own meals. It was also common for students to board locally, including in the homes of Madam Kimball and Principal Richards. Most families provided meals for their student boarders; some were more generous with their food than others, depending on their own situation.
Visiting parents and other travelers found it convenient to stay at The Meriden House, although other accommodation was available, such as the Fifield Tavern on Bean Road. It is now a family home, neighbor to the current Poor Thom’s Tavern. In 1825, when Ishmael Tuxbury was proprietor of The Meriden House, its name was changed to the Union Hotel. He was granted a license to sell liquor, but due perhaps to new statewide restrictions on the sale of liquor or the influence of the neighboring church and school, the hotel’s name changed in 1837 to The Temperance Hotel. When KUA bought the hotel in 1853, primarily for dormitory use, it reverted to the original name, The Meriden House, although some people referred to it as The Old Meriden House.
Nearly 72 years after it was built, disaster came to the old hotel on March 20, 1890, the day a massive fire destroyed it, along with both Darius Moulton and Perley Roberts’ store next to it and the house they owned by the store. A shed and barn behind the hotel also burned to the ground. Rowe House to the left and Duncan House to the right of the burning buildings, were heavily damaged by the flames. Embers from the hotel blew across the church green onto the tall steeple of the church, setting it on fire. In those times, the water supply on the Hilltop wasn’t always reliable and that day proved to be one of them; the men fighting the fire were unable to reach the burning steeple. Fortunately, four men climbed onto the church roof with their axes. They chopped through the four main posts of the burning steeple, sending it — along with its ruined bell — onto the green. They saved the church for another day, but the old hotel was gone forever.
KUA built a new wooden, three and a half-story dormitory in 1892 and named it for its main benefactor, the Honorable Dexter Richards of Newport, New Hampshire, a KUA trustee from 1869 through 1898. During the summers, in July and August, it became Meriden’s only hotel, often referred to as the Bird Village Inn, because of its proximity to the Meriden Bird Sanctuary, which brought many visitors to Meriden. This building was replaced by a brick structure, the current Dexter Richards Hall, in 1936.
If you would like to learn more about the early Hilltop fires, look for The Hilltop Damaged by Three Major Fires in the 19th Century, March 28, 1912, or The Meriden Bird Sanctuary, look for A Community Project, April 26, 2019, on this site.