East Bridgeport Historic District
The East Bridgeport Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. 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 East Bridgeport Historic District is situated on the last bank of the Pequonnock River opposite the northerly part of the central business district. It comprises a 260-building Victorian planned residential and industrial community on twenty-five city blocks surrounding a central square, Washington Park. It is bounded on the south by the main trackline of the New Haven branch of the Penn Central Railroad, an effective barrier (raised trestle) that shields it from a parking lot-dominated area below where the Bridgeport Jai Alai Fronton is located. On the west is a natural boundary, the 100-yard-wide Pequonnock River. On the east the East Bridgeport Historic District is bounded by the rear property lines of buildings facing East Main Street, a commercial thoroughfare, so that neither this street nor the World War I era tenement neighborhood east of it is included. To the north the boundary is Arctic Street and includes the structures on both sides. Above Arctic Street is another neighborhood that differs visibly from the East Bridgeport Historic District, with a preponderance of wood frame two-family flat style houses that date from the 1890s and later rather than the Italian villas, Gothic cottages and brick row houses that dominate the area to the south.
The streets of the East Bridgeport Historic District are laid out in a regular pattern and meet at right angles. Knowlton Street is the only exception, following basically the line of the river which it adjoins. The terrain is generally flat with a gradual slope toward the river from William Street west.
Buildings within the East Bridgeport Historic District fall into four major categories. The first is the industrialists' houses, which encircle Washington Park and are scattered throughout the rest of the district. Dating primarily from either the late 1860s or the 1880s, they are mostly of the Italian Villa style (in some cases modified by a Mansard roof) or the Queen Anne. The major church structures of the East Bridgeport Historic District, four in number, all front on the park. Secondly, houses of artisans, tradesmen, and factory supervisors line the blocks surrounding Washington Park. They are both single and double house types in scaled-down adaptations of the styles of the larger nearby houses. Third is the houses of the laboring class, concentrated in the William Street area but integrated to some extent throughout the district. These include brick row houses (generally in blocks of from four to six units) and four family frame tenements in addition to smaller single and double houses. Lastly, the industrial buildings of the district line both sides of Knowlton Street and extend to the Pequonnock riverfront. They are constructed of brick and are from two to four stories in height. Originally they were built to house carriage building, lumber milling, and metal goods manufacturing concerns.
The following is a description of the major streetscapes of the East Bridgeport Historic District, beginning with the north-south streets at the riverfront and continuing east:
KNOWLTON STREET is an entirely industrial street and marks the west boundary of the East Bridgeport Historic District. It is built largely on made land, the area having been reclaimed from tidal mudflats in the 1870s. The river is lined with wooden wharves, some of which are in good condition although the majority are in varying states of disrepair. The block between Congress Street and East Washington Avenue contains some good quality Civil War era mill buildings and is dominated by a four-story brick and granite structure with a cast iron storefront at the southwest corner (12 Congress Street). The block between East Washington Avenue and Arctic Street, which contains several vacant lots and modern one-story buildings, is dominated by the four-story gable-roof Armstrong Mill and its auxiliary structures.
WILLIAM STREET contains a mix of brick row houses and wood frame and brick tenement houses that date from the 1880s as well as single houses constructed earlier. The block bounded by William Street and Harriet Street and Crescent Avenue and East Washington Avenue was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by a 12-story buff brick senior citizens apartment house. This incongruous structure remains the only major violation of the Victorian skyline of the East Bridgeport Historic District.
ARMSTRONG PLACE is a narrow one block-long street of thirteen identical workers' cottages built right up to the sidewalk. The street connects the Frank Armstrong House with the mill at the other end.
HARRIET STREET contains three blocks of brick row houses along with middle class wood frame single and double houses that date from between 1851 and 1890. At the corner of Barnum Avenue is a concrete octagon house (erected 1853).
WASHINGTON PARK is bounded by Barnum, East Washington, and Noble Avenues and Kossuth Street. The park itself is laid out formally, with sidewalks radiating from a central point and maple, elm, and linden shade trees planted in matching pairs. The bandstand in the center, erected 1884, was designed by the Bridgeport architectural firm of Palliser, Palliser & Company. A colonial style brick comfort station, the sidewalks, benches, and most of the shade trees date from 1917. A cast iron fence which probably dates back to 1865 encloses the five acre space.
The park is surrounded almost entirely by harmonious nineteenth century structures. Houses are built in facing pairs across the park, and buildings in the center of each block are set back an additional distance. The largest buildings are those which anchor the corners. The architect for the development is undocumented, but Abram Skaats is known to have designed many of the post-Civil War period structures, including virtually all the buildings along the north front. Individual houses range in size from ten to thirty rooms.
NOBLE AVENUE north of Washington Park contains a mixture of high-basement brick row houses from the 1880s and double wood frame houses of the '60s. The block bounded by Noble Avenue and Arctic, Harriet, and Maple Streets is an open space surrounding the two-story Romanesque Barnum School at the center.
PARK STREET, developed mostly in the 1860s, is lined with single and double Italianate houses with an admixture of Queen Anne cottages. Many of its original bluestone sidewalks and cobbled treelawns remain intact.
KOSSUTH STREET north of the park is similar in character to Noble Avenue with several Italianate double houses built in the late 1860s as well as some later Victorian single and double houses.
BEACH STREET contains single Italianate houses and later flat-style two families. The integrity of the east side of the block between Barnum Avenue and Maple Street has been compromised by the demolition of three non-contiguous houses for the creation of parking spaces.
The east-west side streets generally assume the character of the nearest north-south thoroughfare.
The East Bridgeport Historic District is Bridgeport's most intact nineteenth century neighborhood, and here can be seen in a concentrated area the development of the city as a whole in the Victorian period. It was planned from the onset as a totally integrated community with industries, businesses, and all classes of housing in close proximity to one another.
East Bridgeport was laid out in 1851 on what had been vacant farmland across the river from Bridgeport. Its promoters were P.T. Barnum, already well established as a showman and a local resident for five years, and William H. Noble, a lawyer whose family owned much of the land (he was later to become Civil War occupation governor of Florida). Many of the streets were named for members of the Barnum and Noble families. In his book Struggles and Triumphs Barnum detailed the plan:
"In 1851, I purchased from Mr. William H. Noble, of Bridgeport, the undivided half of his late father's homestead, consisting of fifty acres, lying on the east side of the river, opposite the City of Bridgeport. We intended this as the nucleus of a new city, which we concluded could soon be built up, in consequence of the many natural advantages that it possesses.
Before giving publicity to our plans, however, we purchased one hundred and seventy-four acres contiguous to that which we already owned, and laid out the entire property in regular streets, reserving a beautiful grove of six or eight acres, which we enclosed, and converted into a public park. We then commenced selling alternate lots, at the same price which the land cost us by the acre. Our sales were always made on the condition that a suitable dwelling-house, store, or manufactory should be erected on the land, within one year of the date of purchase; that every building be placed at a certain distance from the street, in a style of architecture approved by us; that the grounds should be enclosed with acceptable fences, and kept clean and neat, with other conditions which would render the locality a desirable one for respectable residents, and operate for the mutual benefit of all persons who should become settlers of the new city.
The entire property consists of a beautiful plateau of ground, lying within less than half a mile of the center of Bridgeport City. Considering the superiority of the situation, it is a wonder that the City of Bridgeport was not originally founded upon that side of the river...
We built and leased to a union company of young coach makers a large and elegant coach manufactory, which was one of the first buildings erected there, and which went into operation the first of January, 1852, and was the beginning of the extensive manufactories which were subsequently built in East Bridgeport.
Besides the inducement which we held out to purchasers to obtain their lots at a merely nominal price, we advanced one-half, two-thirds, and frequently all the funds necessary to erect their buildings, permitting them to repay us in sums as small as five dollars, at their own convenience. This arrangement enabled many persons to secure and ultimately pay for homes which they could not otherwise have obtained. We looked for our profits solely to the rise in value of the reserved lots, which we were confident must ensue. Of course, these extraordinary inducements led many persons to build in the new city, and it began to develop and increase with a rapidity rarely witnessed in this section of the country."
Another mortgage policy instituted by Barnum in 1864, which has been called the "forerunner of the F.H.A." required a twenty percent down payment which could be paid in labor or material as well as cash. It was available to any "industrious, temperate, and respectable individual." By purchasing building materials in large quantities for cash the price of "nice dwellings, painted and furnished with green blinds" was kept to $1500.00 to $1800.00, including house, lot, and fences. An advertisement headed "The New City" in the Bridgeport Republican Farmer of November 21, 1854 boasted "There are no mud holes, or grog shops, or other nuisances; a new Church is now in course of erection, and one of the largest and best School-Houses in the State is to be built forthwith. Gas and water are soon to be introduced through the New City, and no inducements are lacking for respectable families to secure lots thereon."
The East Bridgeport carriage company already alluded to was followed by the removal of the Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Company from Watertown in 1857. The factory was located across East Main Street from the district between Barnum Avenue and the railroad tracks; the last of its buildings was demolished in the early 1970s for a Housatonic Community College parking lot. Company employees (around 1000) swelled the population, and approximately one third of the large houses surrounding Washington Park were built by Wheeler & Wilson Company executives.
In 1862 Elias Howe moved his sewing machine company to East Bridgeport, erecting a plant on the Pequonnock River south of the railroad tracks (buildings demolished in the early 1970s for the Bridgeport Jai Alai Fronton). He also employed around 1000 hands, and helped make East Bridgeport the acknowledged sewing machine capitol of the world in the last century. Other important industries located around the periphery of the residential district included the Winchester Arms Company, the Bridgeport Brass Company, and the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. By 1869 it was estimated that East Bridgeport contained one-fourth of the population and three-fourths of the manufacturing capital of the entire city.
The integration of different classes of housing within the East Bridgeport Historic District did not last long into the twentieth century. East Bridgeport, with its extensive munition works, became known as the "Essen of America" during World War I, and the city's population jumped from 115,000 to 175,000 between 1914 and 1916. Wealthy people fled the aging Victorian houses on the fringes of an industrial zone, and most were divided into rooming houses and apartments for Italian and East European immigrant workers. A contemporary newspaper account noted:
"Undoubtedly Washington Park has already more than paid for itself but it is no longer an asset to the property owners. This is due to the wrong locating of the park. While it brought good dwellings to its neighborhood in the first place these dwellings are running down because of the park's adjacency to the foreign section. The women and children from the tenement section on the other side of the railroad overflow into the park on a hot day and ruin the neighborhood as a residential section."
Today the Victorian enclosure of Washington Park remains basically intact, although the removal of towers, monitors, decorative wood trim and landscaping have compromised its integrity somewhat. Low maintenance siding covers at least half the buildings. The side streets that relate to the park have kept their original ambiance in varying degrees, but all retain a strong nineteenth century flavor.
More than any other Victorian neighborhood in Bridgeport, East Bridgeport bears the marks of being a planned community. Located away from the mainstream of business expansion, its original design has never suffered major changes, and private restoration activity which is already underway promises to make the area again a model of nineteenth century urban design.
Barnum, Phineas T. Struggles and Triumphs. New York: American News Company, 1871.
Bridgeport City Directories, 1855-1920.
Orcutt, Samuel W. History of the City of Bridgeport. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1887.
News clipping files Buildings, Houses, Historic, and Bridgeport — East Side at Historical Collections, Bridgeport Public Library.
† Charles W. Brilvitch, Washington Park Association, East Bridgeport Historic District, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.