Sterling Hill Historic District
The Sterling Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. 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 Sterling Hill Historic District is a two-block enclave of 19th-century urban residential architecture encompassing some 43 structures. It includes the remnants of an early housing development laid out when Bridgeport was a newly independent town (1821), and incorporates a number of later structures built when it became the center of the city's working-class Irish community as well as monumental buildings resulting from a concerted gentrification attempt in the post-Civil War decades. Bridgeport's focus of developmental activities over the course of the present century has been in other areas, and as a result Sterling Hill survives to the present day in substantially its 19th-century form.
Sterling Hill occupies a portion of the north slope of Golden Hill, an 80-foot ridge running in a northeasterly southwesterly direction, cradling the city's downtown along the harbor-front. Beginning at the summit of Washington Avenue, Milne (pronounced "Millen" locally) and Pequonnock Streets descend more than 40 feet in elevation in the one-block distance to Harral Avenue. The steep slope gives the district a distinctive character, with many of its houses constructed on small stone-walled terraces. The hillside contains the neighborhood most effectively and forms a strong buffer against the adjacent Routes 25-8 Expressway and the downtown business district beyond it.
Sterling Hill's component structures can be divided into three broad categories: Pre-Civil War buildings; post-Civil War structures of the Irish community; and products of the gentrification movement. Following is a capsule description of each:
Pre-Civil War buildings comprise 16 of the Sterling Hill Historic District's 43 components and do much to define the neighborhood's overall quality. Entirely of wood-frame construction and of modest scale, they display minor stylistic elements that characterize them as being Federal, Greek Revival or Gothic Revival in design inspiration. Most have either front or side gable roofs, although two were built with hip roofs, and there is an almost equal representation of single family and double-house types. Twelve of the 16 were built by "Yankees" prior to the major wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s; two of the remaining four Irish-built structures were elements of the St. James the Apostle parish complex. A schoolhouse and two one-time commercial buildings, all later converted to residential use, are included in this category.
Post-Civil War structures of the Irish community continued the previously established scale of Sterling Hill. They number 19 of the 43-building total, and include a larger percentage of double houses and four-family tenements, although single-family dwellings continued to be erected throughout the 19th century. Entirely of wood-frame construction like their predecessors, they reveal the increasing preoccupation of Victorian-era builders with style consciousness. There are examples of Italianate and Queen Anne modes as with most Bridgeport neighborhoods of this period, but by far the majority of the houses were built in an adaptation of the Victorian Gothic style, relatively rare in other sections of the city. Two commercial blocks also date from this time. A number of the elements of the earlier "Yankee" neighborhood, some of them moved to new locations, were stylistically upgraded during the last third of the 19th century.
Products of the gentrification movement number six, with three in a row (plus an associated outbuilding) along Washington Avenue and one each near the summits of both Milne Street and Pequonnock Street. These buildings were all grandiose in scale, of masonry construction, and among the most highly developed examples of their respective styles Bridgeport produced during their period of developmental activity. Included are two single-family mansions, a six-unit block of row houses, a "French flat" apartment house, and a residential hotel.
A later convent (1955) and apartment house (1972) complete the district.
The Sterling Hill Historic District contains the earliest urban residential area to survive in Bridgeport. With its simple, modestly scaled dwellings, it became the city's first "ethnic" neighborhood within two decades of its initial layout. Later, the prestige of the adjoining south slope of Golden Hill (to the west along Washington Avenue) and the advantageous situation overlooking the downtown and Long Island Sound caused a redevelopment of the hill's summit and the construction of some of Bridgeport's most important examples of late 19th and early 20th-century architecture.
Golden Hill remained exclusively pastures and woodland until after Bridgeport achieved its independence from the Town of Stratford in 1821. With its stony, thin soil in contrast to the alluvial plains surrounding it, the hill was set aside as a reservation for the Paugusset Indians by the Connecticut Colony in 1659 (Note: The wigwams of this Native American settlement were located at "Indian Island," today a peninsula jutting into the Pequonnock River at East Washington Avenue northeast of the district; this last portion of the reservation was retained by the tribe until 1799. Also, a burial ground was unearthed in 1888 on the site of 210 Washington Avenue, two blocks west of Sterling Hill and adjoining a "sacred spring." It is thought that any archeological significance within the district would have been minimal, and would have been obliterated by the extensive disturbances that took place over the course of the 19th century). Golden Hill Road, which became Washington Avenue in the 1840s, was a cartway dating back to the 17th century, and Peqaonnock Street was laid out by the Borough of Bridgeport in the first years of the 19th century to connect the new seaport town with the older inland village of Stratfield.
It was 1822 when Sylvanus Sterling bought an 8-1/2-acre "orchard lot" from Ezekiel Hubbell for $803.12 to begin the development of the hillside (Bridgeport Land Records, Volume 1, page 57). It should be noted that Hubbell, a sea captain, was the first American to circumnavigate the globe from New York. In 1828 Sterling purchased an additional 1-1/2 acres "adjoining (his) houselot" (Volume 2, page 280), thus assembling the core of the historic district. Sterling (1787-1848) was a native of the town of Trumbull, and had been a merchant for a number of years on the West Indian island of Antigua. Moving to Bridgeport, he became a progenitor of the town's major industry of that period, saddle making. He was a member of the first Common Council when Bridgeport achieved city status in 1836 and in 1838 was made president of the Bridgeport Bank.
Sterling began parcelling his orchard into houselots in 1828, when Bridgeport was a small but rapidly expanding community of some 2500 inhabitants. In that year he sold one acre to William Smith "on the new street running back from Golden Hill Road," the first recorded reference to Milne Street (Volume 2, page 344). The street, however, was not to be accepted as a public thoroughfare officially until March of 1865. In 1829 Sterling sold a quarter acre to Russell Morgan for $100 (Volume 2, page 407), followed by a $200 sale of a half acre to Robert Milne (Volume 3, page 509).
In 1833 Lemuel Coleman plotted a development on the adjoining south slope of Golden Hill for the town's wealthiest residents, giving impetus to the sale of Sterling's lots. Over the course of the following year more lots were sold — a quarter acre to John W. Stratton for $75 (Volume 4, page 351); another quarter acre to James Robinson at the same price (Volume 4, page 352), and a half acre to Andrew Morris for $115 (Volume 4, page 377). By 1837 J.W. Barber, in his History of Connecticut, called Golden Hill "a delightful situation for an upper town; from this elevation is a fine prospect of the Sound and surrounding scenery."
Bridgeport's elevation to city status was brought about in 1836 in order that bonds could be issued for the construction of a railroad line up the Housatonic River valley to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. With the onset of railroad construction, dozens of Irish immigrants came to Bridgeport to take advantage of employment opportunities. Daniel Thatcher, Bridgeport's earliest major real estate developer, rushed up a large number of small, inexpensive dwellings across Washington Avenue on Arch Street and High Street (demolished for redevelopment, late 1960s). It was not long before this Irish settlement spilled over to the opposite side of the hill, perhaps pointed in that direction by the building of St. James the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, Fairfield County's first of that denomination, on Washington Avenue in 1841.
It appears that a full-fledged "neighborhood flight" took place at Sterling Hill over the course of the 1840s, as each of the initial Anglo-Saxon Protestant home builders sold out to Irishmen or turned their homes into absentee-owned rentals. By the time the first City Directory was published in 1855, the turnover was nearly complete — of the early residents, only Andrew Morris remained. The subdivision of modest single-family dwellings to accommodate as many as six housing units suggests the overcrowding that must have been prevalent.
The fortunes of Bridgeport's Irish community changed for the better with the expansion of local industry during the Civil War. St. James Church was found to be inadequate by its parishioners, who were beginning to seek social parity with their Protestant neighbors. In 1864 it was replaced by the opulent St. Augustine's Church, prominently situated on the hill's south slope. Many of the small, plain houses of Sylvanus Sterling's development were remodelled after the war in fashionable styles, and a number of others were moved to less visible locations (particularly to lower Milne Street below the bend, officially extended through to Harral Avenue in 1870). An article in the Bridgeport Standard of October 19, 1870, spells out the situation:
"A very decided improvement is now being made in Washington Avenue. The street has been laid out 55 feet wide with sidewalks 12 feet wide. All those old houses, which for years have stood near the old Catholic church to the annoyance of every one passing by, have been removed...and patched up for tenement houses, where they will for years to come serve as Hibernian residences, while on the ground they formerly occupied there are soon to be erected some fine houses."
Gentrification took place along the length of Washington Avenue and on Pequonnock Street, where virtually all the earlier houses were removed to Milne Street and replaced by larger, more stylish structures in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. But Washington Avenue, with its prestigious name, was the focus of this redevelopment initiative, again noted in the Standard on October 7, 1876:
"There is no place in the city which is being more rapidly improved than the summit of Golden Hill. Formerly occupied by very inferior dwellings, it has not attracted the attention it deserved as the most desirable location for fine dwelling houses in the city."
The gentrification of Washington Avenue was an expansion of the "Yankee" South Slope neighborhood, while that of Pequonnock Street was undertaken by the Irish community's own "aristocracy." With the construction of the Edinburgh Crescent, Bridgeport's most urbane townhouse block, in 1889, and the sophisticated Enoch Hincks House a half-decade later, Sterling Hill reached its pinnacle of social status. Within a few short years, however, improved roads and transportation enabled wealthy citizens to reside far removed from tenement districts. By 1920 (December 26), a headline in the Bridgeport Herald proclaimed: "Sacred Golden Hill Ground Invaded by Commercialism/Strong Stand of Select Families is Broken."
During the twentieth century Golden Hill has undergone tumultuous change. The South Slope, save for a handful of pallid remnants, has been swept away, its aristocratic precincts replaced by an expressway and office and apartment buildings. The historic Irish neighborhood has likewise largely vanished: the older part of Leverty Street for the Charles F. Greene housing project in the 1950s, and Arch, High, Fulton and Franklin Streets for the Congress Plaza Urban Renewal project in the 1960s. Yet Sterling Hill remains, in the midst of this change, little altered in physical appearance over the past 100 years. It is to this day an "ethnic" enclave, an Italian population having replaced the departing Irish after World War II until it in turn gave way to the Portuguese who predominate today.
Barber, J.W. History of Connecticut: (1837).
Bridgeport City Directories, 1855-1950.
Bridgeport Municipal Registers, 1871-1900.
City of Bridgeport Building Department Records.
City of Bridgeport Common Council Proceedings, late 19th century.
City of Bridgeport Land Records.
Historic maps file. Historical Collections, Bridgeport Public Library.
Historic news clippings files, Historical Collections, Bridgeport Public Library.
Palliser, George and Charles. Model Homes for the People (1876).
Scientific American Architects and Builders Edition, 1892 and 1897 volumes.
Town Clerk's maps, Volume 1, page 57.