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Aspetuck Historic District


The Aspetuck Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.

Description

Aspetuck Historic District encompasses approximately 80 acres in the towns of Easton and Weston, in Fairfield County. A long, narrow district with a north-south axis, it roughly follows the Aspetuck River, which forms the border between the two towns. The Aspetuck Historic District consists of 22 major buildings (all houses), 17 outbuildings (barns and garages), and two structures (a bridge and a dam). Twenty-four of the buildings were judged to contribute to the significance of the district, with fifteen noncontributing; both structures are contributing. Overall, the Aspetuck Historic District presents the appearance of a farming community from the late colonial-early national period. The houses are spaced widely apart, with substantial acreage surrounding each one that reflects the dooryard gardens and barn yards of the area's former agricultural use. Most of the houselots also feature barns. The edges of yards are marked by stone walls and picket fences, many with gates that suggest their former use as pastures. Mature deciduous trees line the streets.

Most of the buildings in the Aspetuck Historic District are houses from the middle of the 18th century through the middle of the 19th century; most of them exhibit the traditional two-and-one-half story, center-chimney, five-bay form that typified the houses in Connecticut's inland farming communities. The Aspetuck Historic District also includes one-and-one-half story and three-bay variations on this form. Several of the houses from the late 18th and early 19th centuries feature modest Georgian derived entry detailing, such as slender pilasters and a molded cornice. One building, the 1840 Orando Perry House, displays the impact of Greek Revival architecture in its small porch with Doric columns and flushboarded pediment. With the possible exception of several barns, the Aspetuck Historic District lacks any buildings from the second half of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Colonial Revival styling influenced the substantial modifications to many of the buildings in the Aspetuck Historic District. In some cases, such as the Bradley House at 7 Old Redding Road in Easton, modification entailed enlargement with gable-roofed wings. In others, such as 200 Redding Road, the original house received new details modeled on the high-style urban architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: paneled chimneys, ornate cornices, and Adamesque window treatments. The Helen Keller House, represents a true Colonial Revival dwelling, built in the 20th century after late 18th-century precedents rather than the 20th-century modification of an earlier house.

The cultural landscape of the Aspetuck Historic District retains a high degree of historic integrity. There are only five houses built in the last 50 years; because all are on three-acre lots, they do not impair the overall character of the district, which depends on wide spacing among buildings and ample open land.

Significance

Summary

Aspetuck Historic District is significant because it embodies the distinctive architectural and cultural-landscape characteristics of a farming community from the late colonial and early national periods. The widely spaced distribution of houses, most accompanied by a barn and all with ample yards that once served as pasture, field or garden recalls the appearance of an inland Connecticut farming community when agriculture was the basis of the local economy. The predominant type of building in the Aspetuck Historic District — the traditional center-chimney, gable-roofed dwelling — is also characteristic of Connecticut farming communities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Aspetuck Historic District also embodies the distinctive characteristics of Colonial Revival architecture, in which the more ornate buildings of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were reinterpreted as houses that were at once commemorative and commodious. The historic significance of the Aspetuck Historic District derives from its origins as an outlying community of the town of Fairfield, an outlying community which entered a long slow decline into the 19th century, only to become an affluent suburb of Bridgeport and then New York City in the 20th century. Finally, the Aspetuck Historic District gains significance because one of its buildings was the long-time home of Helen Keller, who lost her hearing and sight at an early age, and whose long struggle to overcome these handicaps has provided inspiration to millions.

History

The area that became the town of Easton was originally part of the northern expanse of the town of Fairfield, an expanse that was divided into the "Long Lots" by the Fairfield proprietors. The Long Lots were a means to solidify claims on the land, rather than actual homesteads, and not until the 1720s did Fairfield people begin to settle in the northern reaches of the town. There were two clusters of northern outliers, one to the west and one to the east of the Aspetuck River. The western group successfully petitioned the General Assembly for their own parish, Norfield, in 1756. Six years later, in 1762, the families east of the river also received a charter for the parish they named North Fairfield. The area in this district, which lies along the river, stood between the two parishes. In 1787 the two parishes were incorporated as the town of Weston, and the town of Easton broke off from Weston in 1845.

Agriculture was the basis of the local economy from initial settlement through the time that Easton was incorporated as a town in 1845. The millseat in the Aspetuck Historic District, developed by Moses Dimon in the 18th century and operated by the Perry family in the 19th, processed grain and lumber for both parishes. The value of the millseat had been amplified by its location between the two parishes, an advantage that Perry and several of his neighbors also exploited by operating stores in the vicinity. However, because the boundary between Easton and Weston followed the Aspetuck River, this area, which became known as Aspetuck or Aspetuck Corners, was relegated to a remote corner of both towns once Easton was incorporated: the civic institutions and commercial functions of both towns were miles away from Aspetuck.

Like most of the later-settled farming communities of Connecticut, Aspetuck was characterized by hilly terrain and rocky soil, and was ill-equipped to resist the decline of agriculture in the state during the 19th century. Some farmers sold milk and produce to the expanding neighborhoods in the nearby industrial city of Bridgeport. A later owner of the Perry Mill operated a wooden-toy factory on the site. But for most of the sons and daughters of Easton farmers, earning a living meant moving away, and between 1850 and 1900 the town's population fell from 1,432 to 960, a decline of almost one-third.

In the early 20th century, the land and resources in Easton became valuable again, not for what they were but for what they were near. The Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, a privately owned water company, began to acquire land and water rights in Easton for the reservoirs to supply that city. Bridgeport Hydraulic built three major reservoirs in Easton, and today owns some 43 percent of the land in the town. Aspetuck Corners escaped the effects of the damming that submerged dozens of farms, and served another role in relation to the nearby urban industrial communities, that of quiet retreat for the chief beneficiaries of industrial growth. As well-to-do people from Fairfield County and New York City bought the idle or struggling farmsteads of Aspetuck, the area made a seamless transition from agricultural backwater to affluent suburb, which it remains today.

Architecture

Many of the houses in the Aspetuck Historic District typify the dwellings of Connecticut farmsteads from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The houses at 25 Redding Road, 65 Redding Road, and 135 Redding Road, 7 Old Redding Road in Easton, and 14 Old Redding Road in Weston all feature the braced-frame post-and-beam construction, center chimney, and five-bay fenestration that characterized the vernacular Connecticut dwelling of that period. Moreover, several examples display the use of Georgian, or Federal, details in the characteristically limited fashion of rural communities. These farmers did not build fully realized Federal houses, but rather dressed up their entries with pilasters, sidelights, and perhaps a molded lintel. As much for their limited application as for their stylistic derivation, these details mark the houses as the distinctive products of their particular time and place. The Orando Perry House illustrates the partial adaptation of later 19th-century architectural style to the country house. Perry, a mill owner and storekeeper, was one of the wealthier citizens of Aspetuck in the mid-19th century, a status reflected in the Greek Revival entry treatment he bought for his house.

The houses of Aspetuck attracted two remarkably energetic restorationists of the early 20th-century Colonial Revival movement. Architect Cameron Clark, locally renowned for his "masterly handling of Colonial details, from chimneys and cornices to paneling and mantelpieces"[1], worked on some 20 houses in Aspetuck, including the Moses Dimon House. He probably had a hand in the remaking of 200 Redding Road as well.

Even more influential on the appearance of Aspetuck today was Gustav Pfeiffer, who gained enormous wealth from the manufacture and licensing of medicinal products. In the 1930s Pfeiffer owned most of the houses in the southern end of the district, as well as the dam and millsite. He worked on most of the houses on Old Redding Road (on the Easton side of the river), and on Redding Road (south of the intersection with Westport Road). Pfeiffer embraced early American material culture with an eclectic exuberance unburdened by the fine distinctions of the academic specialist. He traveled to the restorations at Williamsburg, Virginia, and Deerfield, Massachusetts, and entertained visions of implementing a similar enterprise on the banks of the Aspetuck. (Pfeiffer's extensive involvement in many other causes and organizations prevented the fulfillment of this ambition.) He lived in the Moses Dimon House, on which he bestowed extensive effort. Pfeiffer refrained from applying the lavish exterior detailing that characterized Clark's work, with the result that the restored entry of the Moses Dimon House retains the simplicity that likely characterized its original appearance. Pfeiffer was also a renowned philanthropist, and his generosity was directly responsible for Helen Keller's residence in Easton.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was born in Alabama to a well-to-do family. At the age of 19 months, she was deprived of sight and hearing by a severe illness. Following her parents' appeals to the nation's leading educators of disabled people, Anne M. Sullivan (later Mrs. John Macy) came from Massachusetts to tutor the young Keller, who responded with such extraordinary prowess that she completed the regular secondary-school curriculum by the age of 19. Keller entered Radcliffe College in 1900; while a student she completed her first book, The Story of My Life. After graduating in 1904, she lived with Anne and John Macy, and wrote magazine articles about many social causes, such as women's suffrage, mine workers' struggles to form unions, and the problems of urban slums. After World War I, Keller became active in relief efforts on behalf of those blinded in the war. This effort marked the start of the work that occupied Keller for the rest of her long career.

Keller worked concurrently with two organizations, the American Foundation for Overseas Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. Besides serving as a director of both, she held many different staff positions and, over forty years of extensive and near-constant travel, became the most prominent and recognizable spokesperson for the blind and the deaf-blind.

In 1929 Keller began a fund-raising drive to provide an endowment for the American Foundation for the Blind. She wrote thousands of letters soliciting funds, including one to Gustav Pfeiffer, who contributed $500. He followed with further cash contributions and, after Keller visited him in 1931, he gave the foundation 150 shares of preferred stock in his pharmaceuticals corporation. In 1932 Pfeiffer accepted an invitation to serve on the foundation's board of trustees and became one of its most active members, heading both the budget and executive committees.

In 1938, Pfeiffer convinced Keller to move her small household (including a secretary and a helper) from Forest Hills, New York, to Aspetuck. He provided the land, donated much of the building cost, and helped to raise the rest. Keller named the home Arcan, a Gaelic word meaning "teacher," her name for the late Mrs. Macy. Although Keller was a citizen of the world, and her extraordinary contributions to humanity are associated with many other locales, Arcan was her home and her retreat. If not central in her work, it was central in her life, as she expressed in a letter to the Pfeiffers:

"How wonderful it all is! You, Mr. and Mrs. Pfeiffer, have so taken me by surprise with your delightful plotting and planning, can hardly speak... There is no counting the treasures to which the key symbolically opens the door. It means a home in New England to which affection and memory have ever bound me, a place nearer Heaven where Teacher is, a sanctuary where rural solitude will again sweeten my days."(2)

To another friend Keller wrote:

"We have never loved a place more than Arcan Ridge. It is a Colonial house surrounded by meadows, woods, brooks, and the old New England stone walls you will remember. I am especially delighted with my study which has spacious bookshelves, thirty-five cubbyholes and windows hospitable to the sun."(3)

In 1946, while Keller was in Europe championing the plight of wounded soldiers and civilian victims of World War II, her cherished house burned to the ground. When she returned, Pfeiffer provided lodging in one of his other nearby houses and, with contributions from other neighbors and friends of Keller, began to build another house on the same site. This 1946 house, 163 Redding Road, was Keller's home for the rest of her life. She produced her later writings, notably the 1955 biography, Teacher, during sojourns in Easton. After a stroke curtailed her activities in 1961, she spent all her time in Easton, until her long and productive life ended in 1968.

The house at 163 Redding Road contributes to the significance of the Aspetuck Historic District because of its association with Helen Keller. It is not 50 years old, and is therefore an exception to the 50-year criterion for eligibility. The exception is justified because of Keller's transcendent significance in 20th-century American life.

Endnotes

[1]Partridge, 175.

[2]As cited in Lash, 664.

[3]Ibid., 664.

References

Atlas of New York and Vicinity. New York, 1867.

Burr, Zaiman B., Historical Sermon Preached at Weston, Connecticut on Sunday, August 16, 1857. Bridgeport, 1907.

Farnham, Thomas J., Weston: The Forging of a Connecticut Town. Weston, 1979.

Lash, Joseph P., Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York, 1980.

Map of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Philadelphia, 1958.

"Keller, Helen Adams," in National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 57:277-278. Clifton, N.J., 1977.

Partridge, Helen, with Francis Mellen, Easton --Its History. Easton, 1972.

† Matthew Roth and Bruce Clouette, HRC and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Aspetuck Historic District, Easton and Weston, Fairfield County, CT, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Aspetuck Historic District Map

Street Names
Old Redding Road • Redding Road • Wells Hill Road • Westport Road

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