River Road-Mead Avenue Historic District
The River Road-Mead Avenue Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
The River Road-Mead Avenue Historic District comprises what is traditionally considered the most prestigious neighborhood in the village of Cos Cob and one of the best examples of a pre-World War I, upper middle-class neighborhood in the Town of Greenwich. Its nineteenth-century dwellings, include notable examples of the Greek Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire styles, as well as three carriage houses that have been remodeled into dwellings. The district's early twentieth-century houses include notable examples of the Colonial Revival and Shingle styles.
Prior to its development, the district's acreage was part of William H. Mead's farm, located between the "lower landing" of Cos Cob to the southwest, consisting of about a dozen buildings and the "upper landing" of Mianus, of similar size, to the northeast. These settlements comprised the primary centers of commercial activity in the Town of Greenwich before the advent of the railroad in 1848, after which the inland settlement of Horseneck to the west, the town's governmental and religious center, surpassed these settlements in commercial importance. In 1835, William H. Mead proceeded to subdivide that part of his farm between the Boston Post Road, to the north, and River Road, to the south, into lots generally measuring one-half of an acre each. This was one of only three such real estate ventures undertaken in town before the railroad came, the others being Mechanic Street in Horseneck (today's Sherwood Place), and the Rocky Neck peninsula (today's Steamboat Road). None of these developments experienced much activity until the decades after the railroad was constructed. In Mead's subdivision the first house was constructed in 1835, right after the subdivision was initiated, but would remain the only house on the street for over twenty years. By the Civil War there were three houses on Mead Avenue, located on adjacent lots that extended southwesterly to the Mill Pond, each owner interestingly identified as a captain in the 1867 Beers Atlas. The southernmost was built for Robert Clark who was the captain of four packet boats, i.e. carrying agricultural produce. His neighbor to the north was William Wilson, who had purchased the first house and was listed in the Census as the captain of a barge and later as the captain of a steamship. The northernmost house was owned by Silas and William Betts, the latter listed as a steamship agent in the 1870 Census while Silas was identified as a Captain in the Beers Atlas.
Although this initial connection with the community's maritime tradition is often recounted, subsequent owners of these and new houses reflected a broader range of upper-middle-class professions, a few of them qualifying as upper class. By 1890, the east side of Mead Avenue showed three houses and the northwest side of River Road showed two houses, including the present Cos Cob Inn. Its original owner, in 1874, was Theodore Clark, proprietor of a hotel on nearby Strickland Road; followed by Douglas Taylor, a prominent New York politician; and Frank V. Poucher, President of the Broadway Savings Bank in New York, who utilized his Cos Cob house as his summer residence. Until the 1950s, the waterfront side of River Road was mostly open water at high tide and mudflats at low tide. Poucher owned the shorefront across the street from his house, and had a long pier constructed across the mud-flats at low tide to deep water, enabling continuous access by watercraft. The ownership of this building interestingly reflects the elevated status of the town as a whole, that of an upper-class summer resort that was gradually becoming a prestigious suburb. This New York connection can be seen in other residents of the district and underscores the status of the neighborhood as a desirable place to live by both local residents and newcomers alike. On Mead Avenue Dr. Robert Taylor and Dr. Kirk Holmes were next-door neighbors. The Holmes house burned down in 1903 and was replaced by the Chamberlain House. The west side of the street counted Alfred Murray, a lumber dealer based in New York and residing in the Matthews-Betts House, as well as Charles Betts, a piano manufacturer living in the Captain Robert Clark House.
By 1910, all of the contributing houses in the district had been constructed. Occupying the multi-lot property at the corner of Mead Avenue and River Road was the house of Elbert F. Lockwood, a prominent oyster grower. Although this house no longer stands, its fieldstone garage and boundary walls remain. On the west side of Mead Avenue the new residents included George A. Finch, who owned a grocery store in Greenwich, Lyman Ferris, a retired farmer and bank director, and George E. Brush, a coal salesman and civic leader. Across the street resided Robert L. Chamberlain, who operated a real estate business and later became a bank president. Other residents included bank clerks, stockbrokers, and bookkeepers, as well as the Superintendent of Schools, Edwin Andrews, who resided in the Matthews-Betts House. Several households included live-in domestic help listed in more than one census, although all of the houses were large enough to accommodate servants. All in all, Mead Avenue could be considered the "Fifth Avenue" of Cos Cob and the adjacent street of River Road, its "Riverside Drive."
The neighborhood remained stable for the 38 years following the construction of its last contributing building—no additional houses were built during this period. Although there were no deed restrictions and no zoning until 1926, the lots averaged a generous setback of 50 feet from the street, which, along with a general minimum of width of 100 feet, created a spacious feeling to the neighborhood. Several of the houses included multiple lots, providing a particular estate-like appearance, including the Poucher residence, the Andrews residence, and the Lockwood residence. However, changes were occurring on the neighborhood's northern border. In 1916, prolific local builder Bernard Schubert commenced a development of 17 bungalows to the north and west of the neighborhood's northern corner. While still one-family dwellings, they were noticeably smaller and on smaller lots, some of them much smaller, significantly less than current zoning would allow. In 1926, Schubert redeveloped the northernmost lot on the east side of Mead Avenue, moving the original house to the rear of the lot and constructing a new street (Miami Court) and three houses. At the same time these developments were taking place, new neighborhoods were being built in Cos Cob and elsewhere in the town that were attracting the same clientele that would have chosen Mead Avenue and River Road only a decade or so before. Still, the neighborhood's stability suggested that the prestige of the neighborhood was such that it was withstanding such competition remarkably well. The event that signaled the end of the district's period of significance was the post-World War II building boom which commenced in 1946 with the subdivision of the Andrews estate into ten building lots facing the new street of Mulberry Lane in effect establishing the down-zoning of the area from an informal minimum lot size of one-half an acre to a formally sanctioned 7,500 square feet, or a little over one-fifth of an acre. In 1949, the former Lockwood estate was subdivided into ten lots, slightly larger than those on Mulberry Lane. However, unlike that subdivision, the main house of the Lockwood estate was demolished although the garage was retained as well as the boundary walls. During the next thirty years, all of the district's lots would be subdivided except for the northernmost lot, which was slightly too small to be subdivided. The neighborhood's visual integrity has been maintained, however, because its rather long lots were severed in half, leaving the original houses in place on the front half while the rear half was sold off to be developed with a new house, accessed from the street by a 20-foot strip of land. In three cases the carriage house standing on the rear lot was retained and remodeled into a dwelling. Because of this fortuitous method of development, the neighborhood has maintained, for the most part, its former prestige and continues to stand out as a special area, its commodious contributing houses, all over one hundred years old, and its spacious lots, complemented by mature landscaping, create a veritable historical and architectural oasis located only a short walk from Cos Cob's business district straddling U.S. 1 and clearly visible from I-95's heavily traveled viaduct crossing the Mianus River.
The district has a diverse collection of nineteenth-century dwellings, one of the most comprehensive in the Town of Greenwich and unsurpassed in the village of Cos Cob. The district's oldest house, the Cummings-Wilson House, is one of the best examples of the Greek Revival style in Greenwich, showing details that tend to be individualistic rather than standardized, particularly at its full-length front porch, supported by round Roman Doric columns, rather than the more common squared versions. At the porch entrance the wide, denticulated entablature exhibits an elliptical arch cutting into the frieze while the cornice forms a shallow, incomplete pediment which shelters an elliptical sunburst motif above the arch cutting into the frieze, a very unusual treatment. The fully developed main entrance, showing sidelights and a full transom, is framed by wide pilasters supporting a broad entablature decorated with paterae. Federal influence is present in the half-round windows lighting each of the side gables. The sophistication of the design contracts strikingly with more conventional local examples and points to a level of refinement in the little seaport of Cos Cob that preceded the coming of the railroad, often referred to as a catalyst for architectural development in subsequent buildings.
The district includes three examples of the Second Empire style which is relatively uncommon elsewhere in the town. The oldest was built for Captain Robert Clark circa 1858 on the northwest corner of Mead Avenue and River Road, its facade oriented to the latter although now obscured by vegetation and a boundary fence. It features several unusual elements including a full-length, L-shaped porch supported by chamfered posts appearing tapered because of widening chamfers, and distinguished by a stick-work rail of square and octagonal cutouts that may be of Gothic Revival derivation. The house's coved cornice is unconventional, while the mansard roofs gabled dormers show considerable refinement, each flanked by curved buttresses and tiny, perforated brackets, and accented by a sunburst pediment. Old photographs reveal a rather prominent cupola crowning the roof. The largest and most elaborate of the three is the Cos Cob Inn, built in 1874, currently the only example of the style in the town showing a cupola, lavishly detailed with chamfered posts and attendant curvilinear brackets supporting a concave-profiled, pyramidal roof, and framing a trio of round-arched windows at each side. The house also exhibits rusticated wooden quoins at each corner, this feature being one of only thee examples in town, a second example being 31 Strickland Road (the Amos Mead Brush House) in the nearby Strickland Road Historic District. Both cupola and quoins are uncommon in the style as a whole, again pointing to the architectural sophistication of the district. Additional notable details include the entrance's stilted segmental-arched transom showing a sunburst design of muntins, and its multiple polygonal bays, all surmounted with a prominent bracketed cornice similar to that of the main cornice. The third Second Empire dwelling is the Benjamin P. Smith House, constructed in 1875 and somewhat smaller than the Cos Cob Inn, but retaining its original porch, consisting of chamfered posts with prominent capitals that support what appears to be flattened arches but is actually adjacent lateral brackets supporting the porch's plate but having the same thickness and so appearing as one element.
The district contains two notable examples of the Italianate style. The older of the two is the Matthews-Betts House, a two-and-a-half-story, 1862 example of the style's simple hipped roof subtype, in this case characterized by a cupola crowning the roof. It features a number of interesting elements at its attic story, lit by octagonal windows at the facade, and delineated at its base by a molded stringcourse that forms a stilted double-pitched segment above a bay of paired windows. Overhanging the attic story are bracketed eaves surmounted with at least five prominent pediments, an unusual roofline design. The fenestration seems to have been remodeled at some point later in the nineteenth century as Queen Anne sash dominates the facade and north elevation while the paired windows and polygonal bay of the south elevation display multi-pained transoms.
The Charles Elbert Smith House is also an example of the simple hipped roof subtype but it features a longer, five-ranked facade, like that of its neighbor, the Cos Cob Inn, perhaps in both cases to take advantage of their originally unobstructed view of the Mianus River. Another similarity to the Cos Cob Inn is the centrally placed polygonal bay at the second story, suggesting that these houses were designed by the same builder or architect, this house being only a year older. The symmetry and length of the facade also serve to accentuate its full-length porch, its distinctive chamfered posts displaying a classically derived, three-part design (base, shaft, and capital), as well as the roofline and its flushboard frieze, these showing large curvilinear brackets alternating with two-paned attic windows.
The district contains three nineteenth-century carriage houses that have been converted into dwelling houses. Interestingly, neither example built for Second Empire houses is Second Empire in style, but follows a vernacular sort of carriage house design generally showing a side-gabled roof with at least one cross gable. The Clark-Poucher Carriage House features a decorative truss of Stick Style derivation in its cross-gable. The Benjamin P. Smith Carriage House, however, shows a round-arched loft door and an elaborate cross-gabled cupola displaying paired, round-arched vents at each side, possibly of Italianate influence. The William A. Reed Carriage House, a later example (1889), also shows a similar roof design, but is not as tall and crowned with a simpler, pyramidal-roofed cupola.
The district's architectural theme was completed in the first decade of the twentieth century with notable representatives of the Shingle and Colonial Revival styles. The George E. Brush House is an interesting, late example of the Shingle style, its complex but integrated form identified by the placement of the expansive, L-shaped front porch under the main roofline's front slope, as well as the multiple polygonal bays, especially the one forming the large, tower-like dormer at the facade's second story, and the one composing the mid-level oriel at the north elevation. At the upper stories, the house displays a continuous surface of scalloped wood shingles, without corner-boards, typical of the style, with the resulting smooth surface uniting the house's irregular outline. The district's Colonial Revival dwellings show noticeable variation in design. An excellent example of the style's gambrel-roofed phase, or "Dutch Colonial Revival" is the Robert L. Chamberlain House which features an unusually tall, cross-gambrel roof enveloping its second and third stories, the latter lit by a Palladian window at the front gambrel. The height of the house is balanced by a long, Tuscan-columned front porch that wraps around both north and south elevations. The house also retains its original wood siding, clapboard at the first story and shingles at the upper stories. The Jacob Oscar Smith House is a notable example of the style's centered-gable sub-type, except that this house shows a central, cross gambrel instead, flanked by hip-roofed dormers, which, along with its side gables pedimented with pent roofs, produces an especially diversified roofline. The use of stained glass is also of note, located at the entrance's sidelights and transom, as well as the transoms of the polygonal bay above the entrance and the two-story bay to the north.
† Nils Kerschus, Consultant, Town of Greenwich Planning & Zoning and Lucas A. Karmazinas, Consultant, Greenwich Historical Society, River Road-Mead Avenue Historic District, Fairfield County, CT, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.