Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District
The Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. 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 Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District, situated in the center of Greenwich's downtown business district, is a complex of public buildings, parks, and monuments developed during the period between 1893 and 1938. Bisected by Greenwich Avenue, the town's primary shopping street, the Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District extends easterly along Havemeyer Place to Milbank Avenue, and westerly across Havemeyer Field to Field Point Road. It is bounded to the north by the Central Business District and a mixed residential area of apartment buildings and small one-family dwellings, to the east by a residential neighborhood of larger, originally one-family dwellings, to the south again by the Central Business District and another residential district of one-family dwellings, and to the west by an area of recently built corporate office buildings.
The Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District includes six contributing masonry buildings erected between 1893 and 1938, and designed in the following styles: Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Classical Revival, Georgian Revival and Art Deco. Most of them have served more than one function over the years but their original uses were: the Town Hall, the Post Office, the fire house and police station, two high schools, and one combined elementary/high school. Most of the district's 21.6 acres is covered by the 16.8 acre Havemeyer Field, located west of Greenwich Avenue. Besides two of the aforementioned schools, the field includes a contributing war memorial erected in 1921, a non-contributing war memorial erected in 1956, and a non-contributing parking garage built in 1987. The small (.1 acre) triangular park in front of the post office includes a contributing war memorial obelisk erected in 1927. The ratio of contributing resources to non-contributing resources is, therefore, eight to two.
The oldest and most geographically central building in the Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District is the Havemeyer Building, constructed in 1893 as the Havemeyer School at the eastern end of Havemeyer Field, facing Greenwich Avenue. This two-story, limestone-trimmed, yellow brick edifice is of Richardsonian Romanesque design, featuring a prominent Syrian arch framing the recessed main entrance, and an elliptical-arched loggia running in front of the auditorium wing. Its park-like setting includes large specimen trees (primarily oak, maple, beech, and horse-chestnut) as well as two war memorials: a bronze statue of Colonel Raynal C. Bolling, a Greenwich resident killed in World War I, who was also instrumental in organizing the Air Service; and a World War II and Korean War memorial including the names of those town residents who died in action, and subsequently updated to include those who died in Vietnam. Alterations to the Havemeyer Building's exterior and its surroundings have been relatively minor. The building has lost the balustrade surmounting its cornice, while the south entrance (originally identical to the front entrance) and most of the loggia's arches have been enclosed with windows. Parking lots have also been constructed at the north and south ends of the building.
Facing the Havemeyer Building across Greenwich Avenue is the Arts & Senior Center, formerly the Town Hall (1904). This vertical cube of Beaux Arts design rises three stories and is constructed of grey brick, rusticated at the first story and quoins. Its limestone-trimmed central pavilion consists of two-story Ionic columns resting on the first-story base which contains the main entrance, surmounted by a prominent incomplete pediment. The low, slate-covered mansard roof rises above a copper cornice and features a clock set below a domed, copper-covered cupola. The flanking one-story wings were added in 1962 but their design continues the rusticated treatment of the original first story.
To the south is the Post Office (1916), a one-story buff-brick edifice facing the triangular Memorial Plaza Park, formed by the acute angle of Greenwich Avenue's intersection with Arch Street. This corner is complimented by the Post Office's concave facade, which consists of a long recessed portico flanked by end bays distinguished with an arched niche. The neo-Classical design also features foliated capitals on the columns and pilasters, and a parapet punctuated by a series of symmetrically placed balustrades. In the middle of the park stands the World War I memorial obelisk constructed in 1927.
Located east of the old Town Hall is the 1938 Central Fire House & Police Station, a three-story limestone ashlar building situated at the northwest corner of Havemeyer Place and Mason Street. Designed in the Art Deco style, it features a complex massing consisting of a Greek cross with lower blocks filling the interstices, and a restrained use of ornament-mainly marble spandrels and door enframements. Occupying the adjacent block between Mason Street and Milbank Avenue is the Town Hall Annex (now apartments), originally the Town's first high school, built in 1906. This symmetrical cream-brick edifice consists of a three-story central section flanked by 2-1/2 story wings, all surmounted by low mansard roofs with moderately pitched copper-covered lower slopes.
Havemeyer Field extends to the north and west of the Havemeyer Building and consists of several former High School athletic fields at different levels, the field bordering Greenwich Avenue having been re-named Greenwich Common. To the west, across the lowest-lying field, is the present Town Hall, situated on a hill overlooking Havemeyer Field and the rest of the district, but facing Field Point Road, to the west. Constructed of red brick with marble trim over a steel frame, this large three-story Georgian Revival building was originally the town's second high school, erected in 1925. It features a centrally placed, two-story Ionic portico that is supported by a rusticated ashlar base containing the main entrance, and surmounted by a modillioned pediment inset into a hipped drum crowned with a tall, slim, Ionic-columned cupola. Each flanking classroom section shows large multi-paned windows and terminates with a projecting end block showing a large arched marble niche. The conversion of the high school into the new Town Hall in 1977 resulted in the demolition of the high school's rear (east) wing which, along with the eastern ends of the north and south wings, was constructed in 1934 and consisted of five stories, the two lower stories having been built into the hillside. The only other significant alteration of the site was the recent construction of a three-level parking garage built into the hillside north of the Town Hall.
The Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District is of local historical significance because it is the town's municipal focus, and because it developed in response to the town's period of most rapid growth (1890-1930) and its transformation from a farming town into a wealthy suburb of New York City. The district is also of local architectural significance because of the high architectural quality of its buildings (which include examples of Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Classical Revival, Georgian Revival, and Art Deco styles), and the excellent incremental site planning in which the buildings relate positively towards each other and the district as a whole.
Although Greenwich is one of the oldest towns in Connecticut (settled in 1640), its scattered settlement pattern never produced an acknowledged municipal focus until its period of most rapid growth, between 1890 and 1930. The "boom-town" aspect of this growth is typified by the development of this district: all of its buildings (as well as most of the adjacent commercial buildings) were erected on vacant farmland, i.e. the area never went through an intervening residential period typical of towns with slower growth. The fact that the first of these buildings was a school with a large acreage is also important because its open space gradually began to serve as a public common while adjacent lots were being developed into intensive commercial and residential use.
The Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District's period of significance coincided with the era when the erection of substantial public buildings was the norm in many cities and towns, often aided, in this case particularly, by abundant local philanthropy. The wealthy benefactors in Greenwich were mainly summer residents whose primary home was in New York City but who nevertheless also came to view Greenwich as their home and correspondingly played a major role in the dramatic transformation of Greenwich from a rural farming town with small, generally undistinguished public buildings, to a cosmopolitan summer resort and suburb with substantial public buildings. Henry O. Havemeyer (1817-1907), the sugar magnate, was typical of this particular breed of newcomer, and, along with his wife Louisine, was the initial and most important developer of the district. They selected the site of the Havemeyer School and donated the money for its construction in 1892. The height of the building's roof, however, disturbed another prominent resident, Commodore E.C. Benedict (1834-1920), broker in gold and gas and a renowned yachtsman. It seems that the roof blocked the view of his yacht on Long Island Sound from his home on West Putnam Avenue. He paid $2,600 to have the roof lowered and promised another $10,000 towards the construction of a gymnasium, which would have been located under the original roof. The town never did build the gymnasium, balking at the expense of its maintenance, while the lowered roof has contributed to the distinctive, horizontal aspect of the building. The next episode in the development of the district was initiated by another prominent philanthropist, Robert M. Bruce (1822-1909), whose fortune was made as a cotton broker during the Civil War. Along with his sister, Sarah E. Bruce, he donated the Town Hall (now the Senior/Arts Center) and its land to the town upon its completion in 1905. The district's core of public buildings was assured in 1909 when Louisine Havemeyer donated the triangular plot of land at the corner of Arch Street and Greenwich Avenue for use as a public park and sold the adjacent property to the United States government for the construction of a new post office, which was not built until 1916. In summation, the Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District essentially owes its existence to the aforementioned philanthropists, who combined foresight and money to create a civic streetscape that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace today.
This district is also of local significance for the high quality of its buildings' architecture and the compatible manner in which the buildings relate to one another to create the ambience of the district. The most important building is the Havemeyer Building because it was the first to be erected and it set the standard for excellence in architecture and site planning that would be adhered to by the rest of the district's buildings. Its Richardsonian Romanesque design shows a pronounced horizontality (increased by the lowering of the roof) that embraces the slightly elevated, park-like site. Accenting this horizontality is the building's most important elements, the focal Syrian arch framing the recessed main entrance, and the elliptical-arched loggia extending along the auditorium wing. Counterbalancing this horizontal aspect are prominent vertical elements, i.e. the two-story window bays flanking the entrance, the narrow paired arched windows above the entrance, and the tall arched auditorium windows.
The other buildings (except for the Fire House) were all designed in styles employing classical elements. The old Town Hall shows Beaux Arts exuberance in its colossal Ionic columns and its rusticated base and quoins, while its vertical form contrasts effectively with the Havemeyer Building across the street. The Town Hall Annex shows its classical proportions in a more abstract manner: a rusticated, raised brick basement (base); recessed window bays and intervening brick piers (shaft); and a low third story rising above the main cornice (cap). The neo-Classical Post Office shows more readily recognizable classical influence in its long recessed portico but its most important design element is the dramatic curve of its concave facade, an excellent example of a building relating positively to an acute-angled street corner. The Georgian Revival design of the second High School (the present Town Hall) is an outstanding example of a style commonly chosen for schools in the 1920s. The lavishly detailed central pavilion recalls the Beaux Arts design of the old Town Hall, but on a much grander scale for a much larger building. Massive end blocks with arched niches (a device also used in the Post Office) nicely balance the long facade, while careful working of secondary design elements is also noticeable, i.e. the marble trim and refined proportions of the classroom wings.
The two contributing war memorials are also of classical inspiration, relating favorably to their immediate surroundings. The tapered, obelisk form of the World War I memorial in front of the Post Office not only accentuates the acute angle of the street intersection, but contrasts with the relatively low form of the post office, the curved facade of which relates to this corner in a completely different manner. Facing this memorial from the Havemeyer Building's front lawn is the Raynal C. Bolling memorial statue, handsomely sculpted in bronze and admirable sited in regard to the obelisk and the Havemeyer Building.
Departing from the otherwise classical theme of the Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District, the Central Fire House and Police Station is designed in the Art Deco mode with the emphasis on the subtle proportions of its complex massing and the quality of its ashlar masonry. The stepped aspect of its massing and the slightly tapered, cornice-less roofline are its main Art Deco hallmarks. The overall effect, however, does not detract from the streetscape, but adds variety to it, being a legitimate representation of architecture in the late 1930s.
On the whole, the Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District has changed relatively little over the last fifty years, but there have been alterations that reflect the prevailing attitudes of the town toward its public buildings. Except for the Post Office, which is owned by the federal government, most of its buildings have been candidates for demolition at one time or another, and the broad expanse of Havemeyer Field has been coveted by real estate developers. Only one of these alterations can be considered major, i.e. the demolition of the second High School's five-story rear wing when the school was converted into the present town hall in 1977. The overall integrity of the Greenwich Municipal Center Historic District survives, however, because the rest of its buildings and open spaces are essentially intact. The exterior alterations to the Havemeyer Building (the loss of its roof balustrade and the enclosure of most of its arched openings) are not readily evident, and the attempt to harmonize new construction with existing buildings is noticeable in the additions to the old Town Hall, faced with rusticated grey brick and the new Town Hall parking garage, which shows concrete-trimmed brick walls.
In summation, the high quality of this district's architecture and the interesting spatial relationships resulting from their siting have produced an excellent example of urban planning which, however informal and incidental, transcends much of today's so-called urban design, and reflects that era's innate sensitivity to one's surroundings that is so rarely evident today.
Greenwich in Pictures. Greenwich, Ct.: Greenwich Press, 1929.
Greenwich News. 26 February 1909.
Greenwich News & Graphic. 28 December 1915, 26 June 1917, 23 May 1919, 26 November 1920, 13 January 1922, 10 April 1925, 11 November 1927.
Greenwich Time. 9 April 1956, 29 January 1987.
Insurance Maps of Greenwich, Ct. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1920.
Property Atlas of "Lower" Fairfield County, Connecticut. Philadelphia: Franklin Survey Co., 1938, Vol. 1.