Division Street Historic District
The Division Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Division Street Historic District is a 200-building Victorian residential neighborhood located on 12 city blocks immediately west of downtown Bridgeport. It is laid out in a general east/west direction parallel to the Connecticut Turnpike and the New Haven line railroad tracks, both located a short distance to the south. The east boundary of the Division Street Historic District is formed by the Route 25 Expressway, a raised highway which forms a barrier between the residential neighborhood and the Lafayette Plaza Renewal Area of downtown, which was rebuilt in the 1960s. To the north is a commercial strip fronting on State Street, constructed for the most part in the early 20th century along a streetcar route. South of the district is an industrial area along the railroad tracks. Also to the south, Park City Hospital, the Park Avenue Restorative Health Care Center, and Roosevelt School, all non-relating structures built-in the 1960s and later, have been omitted from the Division Street Historic District. To the west, the primary street axis changes at Iranistan Avenue from east/west to north/south, and the character of the buildings changes as well from late-Victorian single-family and double houses to early-20th century flat-style two-families. The Division Street Historic District boundary, then, includes all buildings fronting on the east/west streets while deleting all those from Iranistan Avenue west.
The Division Street Historic District includes examples of nearly all phases of Victorian architectural development that found expression in the City of Bridgeport from early immigrants' housing on the fringes of the built-up area to the grand high-style mansions of the industrial aristocracy. There are single, double and row houses built of both wood frame and brick. The following is a description of the three major developmental themes found in the neighborhood:
Early Workers' Housing — The first streets to be built upon in the Division Street neighborhood were Hanover Street and Black Rock Avenue, as well as a small portion of Lewis Street. Located as they were outside the city limits and adjacent to a cemetery, these streets attracted lower income workers and newly-arrived immigrants. Houses are generally simple late Greek Revival structures, typically 2-1/2-stories high with either front or side-gable roofs, having little pretense to architectural sophistication. Constructed entirely of wood frame, these include examples of both single- and double-house types.
Post-Civil War Mansions — Attracted by the last desirable open land within what was the city limits, wealthy families turned the west side of West Avenue into a showplace of mid-Victorian design by 1870. The single and double houses are generally built with a "French roof," but Italianate and Victorian Gothic styles are also represented. The east side of the street developed some 20 years later with the same scale in adaptations of the Queen Anne style. Park Avenue, the city's ceremonial thoroughfare to Seaside Park, retains two examples of postbellum Second Empire architecture, but the majority of its houses are built in the Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne styles of the later 1870s and 1880s.
Barnum-Sherwood Development — At the geographical center of the district is a development of workers' cottages laid out in 1874 by P.T. Barnum and his partner David W. Sherwood. Built from the designs of the architectural firm Palliser, Palliser & Co., these houses line Lewis Street and Cottage Street and are also represented on Hanover and Seeley Streets and Park and Black Rock Avenues. They include both single- and double-house types in the Italianate, Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne styles. They are set back uniform distances from the roadways and form disciplined streetscapes unified by their massing, cornice heights, and the rhythms of porches, gables, towers and bays. Stylistically, the individual components of the development conform to the description Michael Tomlan made in his introduction to Palliser's Late Victorian Architecture: "decidedly vertical proportioning, all the more pronounced for their simplified Gothic detailing and thinly enframed, grouped Queen Anne sash." Most have square or octagonal front bay windows, verandas with elaborate sawn-wood ornamentation, narrow-width clapboarding (frequently in combination with novelty wood shingles) and Gothic cross-pieces in the attic gables.
In addition to the above housing categories, there are two institutional buildings of note within the Division Street Historic District. The Sterling Widows' Home (1884; Henry A. Lambert, architect) and the Y.M.C.A. Dormitory (1917) are both four-story brick structures that occupy the north side of Prospect Street between Park and West Avenues.
The Division Street Historic District as a whole has suffered remarkably few detrimental inroads in the present century despite its vulnerable downtown location. Aside from Park Avenue, which has seen three of its best houses demolished, the neighborhood has been bypassed by both commercial and high-density residential developments. Its buildings have undergone the vicissitudes of lost landscaping and wood detail and the application of artificial siding. They maintain the scale and ambiance of their 19th-century origins, however, and a sufficient number remain in virtually pristine condition to suggest the lost character which might easily be restored.
The streetscapes vary widely in character, although all are troubled to some extent by a lack of adequate or sympathetic maintenance. Park and West Avenues constitute the surviving remnant of an upper-class district that once extended east to Broad Street. The remainder of this neighborhood was demolished in the mid-1960s in the city's Urban Renewal program. These structures are primarily in use today as apartments or rooming houses. The rest of the Division Street Historic District's dwellings are occupied for the most part by the working people for which they were originally constructed and continue to serve their intended purpose.
The Division Street Historic District constitutes one of Bridgeport's two largest remaining 19th-century neighborhoods (the other is the National Register listed East Bridgeport Historic District). Its individual houses rank, as some of the most highly, developed examples of Victorian architecture in the city, and taken as an aggregate they give a feeling of the diversity of 19th-century urban life that is unparalleled anywhere in the community west of downtown. Unlike the East Bridgeport neighborhood, in which housing was integrated with businesses and factories, Division Street was almost totally residential in character, its different classes of housing strictly segregated by street.
The Division Street Historic District takes its name from the old name for Park Avenue, which divided Bridgeport and Fairfield prior to the 1870 annexation. The name was also used colloquially for the Bridgeport and Stratfield Burial Ground, which formerly occupied much of the land to the west of this thoroughfare.
The Division Street Historic District's buildings demonstrate the patterns of Bridgeport's growth in the second half of the last century. For descriptive purposes they are separated into three historical divisions that correspond to their architectural categories:
Early Workers' Housing — This was located almost entirely to the west of Park Avenue. Black Rock Avenue, projected at one time as a major highway across the West End salt marshes to the village of Black Rock located 2-1/2 miles distant, was in existence prior to 1850. Its inhabitants listed in the first Bridgeport City Directory (1855) were mostly employed as carpenters and their houses reveal the status of that occupation in the antebellum period — they are smaller than most Bridgeport dwellings which survive from this time, but show an attentiveness to detail that is often lacking in more pretentious structures. Hanover Street first appeared in the 1862 City Directory (the previous edition was issued in 1857) populated almost entirely by Germans and Irish. Most of the Irish occupied small (4 room average) dwelling units and were employed as laborers, but the Germans appear to have entered the ranks of the city's professionals by this time and were living in somewhat more opulent (8 to 10 room) houses, albeit still far removed from the city's Yankee aristocracy's precincts surrounding Golden Hill. These two streets, and particularly the latter, are perhaps the finest collection of pre-Civil War workers' housing left in the city outside of East Bridgeport. Although they may be individually lacking in great architectural distinction, they are among the last vestiges of an important era in the ethnic development of the city and are the only significant concentrations of Greek Revival urban dwellings in the city's center.
2. Post Civil War Mansions — The 50-acre square bounded by Broad and State Streets and Park and South Avenues was Bridgeport's principal residential neighborhood in the early years of its development (c.1835-70). Beginning at Broad Street on the east with its Federal and Greek Revival structures, the houses of this area progressed stylistically as they approached Park Avenue on the west, the furthest extremity from the business center. The roughly 10-acre section that was not demolished by Urban Renewal in the 1960s was the last phase of this development, built up in the late 1860s (an 1869 newspaper article states, "The ground in that locality is being fast covered over with fine residences"; one that appeared a few months afterwards adds, "Many people prefer to build within the limits of the city when they build a residence for themselves, where they can avail themselves of the privileges and benefits of a good municipal government...we shall soon expect to see all the unoccupied lots east of Division Street covered by fine houses"). Today only Washington Park in East Bridgeport compares with this area as an intact example of a mid-Victorian suburb in Bridgeport. Many of its houses were designed by Abram Skaats, architect for the city's elite in the late 1860s and early 1870s (Skaats was listed in City Directories of the period residing within the district on "Park Avenue near West Liberty Street," although the exact location of his residence has not been determined). Skaats was similarly responsible for much of the appearance of Washington Park. Charles Beers, a builder who lived in the house at 317 West Avenue, appears to have had a prominent role in the construction of many of these dwellings. Original residents included several prominent manufacturers as well as merchants, bankers and attorneys.
Barnum-Sherwood Development — Perhaps even more significant from an architectural standpoint than the postbellum mansions are the workers' cottages developed by P.T. Barnum and David W. Sherwood on the site of the Bridgeport and Stratfield Burial Ground. Designed by the firm of Palliser, Palliser & Co., they represent what is probably the first major effort of that firm and constitute what may well be the largest remaining stand of their early work.
The "Division Street Cemetery" was laid out in 1818 to replace the 17th-century Stratfield Burial Ground on Briarwood Avenue, by then located an inconvenient distance from the town center and nearly filled to its limits. Active interment at Division Street lasted until the 1860s, when it was in turn superseded by the rural Mountain Grove Cemetery. Division Street's graves were removed to Mountain Grove in the fall of 1873, and the land was subsequently taken over by Barnum and Sherwood. A perusal of the Bridgeport Standard from this period reveals an unusual silence on the part of that newspaper in reporting the event. Aside from three legal notices (published 19 April, 2 July and 23 August 1873) the subject is almost entirely ignored.
However, an article entitled "Daughters of '76 Disturbed" that appeared in the New York Sunday World on 7 June 1897 (some 6 years after Barnum's death) describes in detail the events surrounding the removal of the graves. It accuses Barnum of getting himself elected to the Connecticut General Assembly and "cleverly (working) through the Legislature a bill whereby he was given the right to remove the dead buried in the old cemetery." Barnum retained a retired butcher to superintend the operation, and was severely called to account by local citizens for the haphazard manner in which it was carried out. Coffins were carted through the streets in broad daylight, and, as the World story alleges, headstones were re-erected "wherever it suited the convenience of the workmen." In addition, the article notes that "two or three" plot owners threatened to sue Barnum if their parents' graves were disturbed. Barnum then was elected Mayor of Bridgeport, and "got a bill through the Common Council whereby Cottage Street was...laid out" through the middle of these graves and the city, rather than Barnum became liable.
What the World report dismisses as the "75 cottages" that were "rushed up" by Barnum stand today as possibly Bridgeport's most significant contribution to the development of American Victorian architecture. George and Charles Palliser, the architects of the Barnum-Sherwood development, were English-born, settling in Bridgeport in 1873. Here they began publication of a notable series of design books, starting with Model Homes for the People in 1876. This book, which includes a number of the Barnum-Sherwood cottages among its 48 plans, is credited, with establishing the practice of mail order architecture in America. In his introduction to a reprint of a compendium of the Pallisers' works, Michael Tomlan states, "If any one firm in American architectural history might be cited as contributing the most to the democratization of late 19th century domestic ideas, that firm must surely be Palliser, Palliser & Co. ...(They) were among the foremost disseminators of architectural designs of their time."
The Pallisers were by far the most prolific of Bridgeport architectural firms between the mid-1870s and the time of their removal to New York in 1882, They designed hundreds of houses across the city, specializing in duplex and multi-unit tenements as well as small single houses which workingmen could afford. The remainder of their work in the city, however, is widely scattered, with few significant concentrations in any one neighborhood. Also, since the Barnum-Sherwood Development was apparently their earliest major effort, it exhibits a good deal of creativity and experimentation which seem to be lacking in later years as the firm developed set formulas for their designs. The Division Street Historic District, then stands as the greatest monument in their adopted city to these outstanding Victorian architects.
P.T. Barnum also had a hand in trying to upgrade Hanover Street as a desirable adjunct to his development to the south. A story in the Bridgeport Standard of 29 March 1882 notes the widening and straightening of the roadway and the remodeling of older dwellings. It adds "Hanover Street will in a very short time be as neat and desirable for residences as Cottage and Seeley Streets."
The contributions of P.T. Barnum and the Pallisers combined with its representative store of 19th-century architecture make the Division Street Historic District an area of first-rate importance to Bridgeport.
News clipping file, Historical Collections, Bridgeport Public Library.
Palliser, George and Charles: Model Homes and Model Homes for the People. (Reprinted) Watkins Glen, New York: American Life Study Foundation, 1978.
Bridgeport City Directories, 1855-1930.
Scofield, H.G. Atlas of the City of Bridgeport, 1876.
† Charles W. Brilvitch, Bridgeport Architecture Conservancy, Division Street Historic District, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.