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09/18/2019 08:00 AM

‘Jessica’ House at Fairview Farm Has a Storied History

Fairview Farm house. Photo courtesy of the Old Saybrook Historical Society

While the Old Saybrook house used for the exterior scenes of the low-budget horror movie classic Let's Scare Jessica to Death is famous among horror film fans, not everyone might know the fascinating history of this Victorian era architectural landmark.

Local History of an Old Farm House

The old 13-room farm house, known for a time as Fairview Farm, is adorned with a gingerbread-looking four-story tower. It sits on 72.5 acres and it's up for sale—along with two additional parcels totaling 51 acres for a total of about 124 acres—for the current asking price of $5,795,000, unchanged from when it was first listed in October 2017. The property was removed from listing twice, according to its online sales history, and went back on the market for a third time in late March.

Listed as 220 Middlesex Turnpike (Route 154), the house has been owned by the Piontkowski family since Fred and Bertha Piontkowski, Polish immigrants, purchased the property around the time of the Great Depression. The prior owner was J.P. Newton, a Hartford native who purchased the home and surrounding land, then known as Fairview Farm, from the Denison family in 1889, according to historical documents. Newton had a dam built in a stream behind the property to create the reservoir that's part of the property today and boasts a private beach. Newton was a goods marketer and he planned to make Fairview Farm a working farm to supply produce in Hartford, while using the house as his summer home. In winter, the frozen reservoir was farmed for ice for iceboxes (no electric refrigeration back then) and the water was piped to Saybrook Junction for use in steam locomotives.

When the Piontkowskis purchased the property, they too farmed the land. Fred worked as a laborer at times, and it's rumored that some of the rooms were used to board immigrants from Poland and Germany during World War II, according to local history. Fred and Bertha raised two sons and two daughters in the house, and the property was bequeathed to their eldest son, Carl, who then passed it on to his family.

It is unknown when the house was vacated and left to weather to be slowly reclaimed by nature's creeping vines and nesting animals. Piontkowski family members have long made themselves unavailable to speak with historians or journalists about the house, and according to their current realtor, the family is rightfully concerned about the nuisance fascination the house has attracted over the past 48 years—thanks to the horror movie to which it is so indelibly associated.

Movie Stardom

While the 124-acre Piontkowski property has commercial development potential, it's the stately house on the hilltop just north of Interstate 95 at exit 67 that solicits the most public interest. The home was built in 1875 just after the start of the Gilded Age, and yet today the home at 220 Middlesex Turnpike has its greatest fame from its appearance in the 1971 classic low-budget vampire horror film Let's Scare Jessica to Death.

When writer/director John D. Hancock, a Harvard graduate, was searching exterior locations required by the Jessica script, line producer Bill Badalato thought the Fairview Farm house was just right to serve their needs with its foreboding, haunting look.

"He [Bill Badalato] had a weekend house nearby in East Haddam, Connecticut," Hancock stated for an interview that appears on the website. The two drove around looking for locations for the film and Hancock said of the house, "I was certainly happy to find it."

This film marked then 31-year-old Hancock's feature directorial debut, which he co-wrote with Lee Kalcheim (credited as Norman Jonas), while Hancock used the penname Ralph Rose for his writing credit. A short film that Hancock made right before filming Jessica earned him an Academy Award nomination, so he felt he was ready to tackle the 88-minute feature-length project.

In several scenes of the film the house is shrouded in fog. The fog was a happy accident, according to the filmmakers. The first day they arrived on set the house was covered in the eerie stuff, like in many films about things creepy. That fog-bound house was immediately photographed and then intercut in the final edit to act as establishing shots throughout the movie.

While the Piontkowski farm house was used to represent the Bishop farm house as it was referred to in the movie, the E.E. Dickinson House at 34 North Main Street in Essex was used to represent the interior of the Bishop house. Additional locations in Chester appearing in the film include the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, the Pattaconk Reservoir, the dam at Jennings Pond, and Route 9 at exit 6 for the opening sequence. The cemetery appearing early in the film belongs to First Church on Town Street in East Haddam, and the barn and apple orchard scenes were shot on Petticoat Lane in East Haddam at an orchard that closed years ago.

One of the most disturbing sequences in the film occurs at Devoe Paints, where a group of old men stare down the unwitting main characters shortly after their arrival in the fictitious town of Brookfield, foretelling of terribly sinister things to come. Today, the building used for Devoe Paints in the film, at the corner of Main and Maple streets in downtown Chester, is empty with a "For Rent" sign hanging out front. And the white house with the "Fresh Eggs" sign in the movie is a private home located directly across the intersection that sports the stonewall-circled rotary.

To this day, aficionados of Let's Scare Jessica to Death will trace the locations used in the film, reveling over the half-century old creepy vampire story about a woman recovering from a mental breakdown.

Future of the House—Unknown

For years, many people have expressed concern over the neglect of the stately Piontkowski home, some of them historians and journalists who lament the possible loss of the structure. Although the house is in poor condition today on the outside, the structure is sound, according to the realtors who have listed it.

"If someone had enough passion and [the] finances, the structure can be brought back to its former glory," says Old Saybrook Building Inspector Tom Makowicki.

If the house is not rescued and restored by someone with the financial wherewithal and a sensitivity toward architectural and film history preservation, the old Fairview Farm house will at least live on in cinematic history. Many cinephiles consider Let's Scare Jessica to Death to be one of the very best low-budget horror movies ever made.

A few years ago, the top half of the four-story tower was repainted in yellow for a TV commercial. Perhaps that newer yellow paint—unlike the fog at the beginning of the 1971 film—is a portent of better days to come for the old Fairview Farm house. The next owner of the property might just restore the famous house to its former glory to live on as a reminder of local Victorian architecture and great American independent filmmaking.

Further information on the Let's Scare Jessica to Death movie, or the history of the Piontkowski Fairview Farm house, is available:







Fred and Bertha Piontkowski’s wedding, March 1926. Photo courtesy of the Old Saybrook Historical Society
Fairview Farm house. Photo by Jason J. Marchi