Newtown Borough Historic District
The Newtown Borough Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. 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 Newtown Borough Historic District is a town center that includes more than 200 houses and other buildings on Main Street, South Main Street, West Street, Church Hill Road, Currituck Road, and Hawley Road in Newtown, Connecticut. The area is a mix of residential, commercial, religious, and public buildings, ranging in style from the plain vernacular architecture of the colonial period to various Victorian styles to the Colonial Revival style of the early 20th century. The buildings are generally 1-1/2 or 2-1/2 stories high, with exteriors covered with clapboards or wood shingles; there are also a few constructed of brick or stone. Unlike some town-center settlements, Newtown does not have a village green. However, the setback of the houses, the shade trees, and the sidewalks running through the broad green areas along the road give a village-like character to the district, despite the heavy traffic along the mile-long stretch of Main Street and South Main Street that forms the spine of the Newtown Borough Historic District.
The houses in the Newtown Borough Historic District are spaced closely together, with tall shade trees on the small front lawns that separate them from the sidewalk. The earliest houses in the Newtown Borough Historic District have the broad-side-to-the-road orientation, symmetrical five-bay facade, and small-pane divided sash typical of colonial Connecticut's domestic architecture. In general, the Newtown Borough Historic District's 18th-century houses are plainly detailed, but one house, the General David Baldwin House at 38 Main Street, is an elaborate Georgian design with a central pediment, fluted corner pilasters, a Palladian window, and richly embellished cornices. Some early 19th-century houses in the Newtown Borough Historic District exhibit cornice or entry details associated with the Federal or Greek Revival style, but most houses from this period have been altered with later elements, such as the brackets and round-arched gable window at 42 Main Street, applied to a house that originally dates from c.1810. Among the dwellings from the Victorian period are Italianate inspired houses with bracketed cornices, bay windows, arched window shapes, and elaborate porch detail, including several with the square-plan, hip-roof form reminiscent of Italian country villas. Other Victorian styles represented in the houses of the Newtown Borough Historic District include the Second Empire; the Gothic Revival; the Queen Anne; and the Shingle. A few of the 19th-century houses are so plain as to lack a distinct architectural style.
A number of the residential properties have outbuildings that are counted as contributing resources. About two dozen sizeable barns dating from the middle to late 19th century can be found behind the row of houses facing on Main Street; most have vertical-board exteriors and some sort of cupola.
In addition to houses, Main Street also includes buildings serving commercial purposes, such as the c.1860 Newtown General Store, an early 20th-century bank, a printing business, and houses that have been converted for use as real estate and attorney's offices. There are two churches in the Newtown Borough Historic District: Trinity Episcopal Church, an 1870 Gothic Revival-style building constructed in gray granite at the top of Church Hill Road and its southeast intersection with Main Street, and the c.1808 Congregational Meetinghouse, 31 Main Street, primarily Greek Revival in style as a result of its c.1850 renovations. Current or former public buildings include a small brick building erected in the middle of the 19th century to store the town records, the cobblestone Craftsman-style former Beach Memorial Library, and large elaborately detailed Colonial Revival-style brick buildings that serve as the current public library and town hall.
The Newtown Borough Historic District includes as a contributing site a large expanse of open, undeveloped land immediately south of the built-up part of the village. Known as the Ram's Pasture, the meadow was part of Newtown's original common land. At the southern end are a small pond and stone-faced arch bridge presented to Newtown as a gift in 1930 from Mary Elizabeth Hawley, a longtime resident and the town's leading philanthropist.
The inventory of properties in the Newtown Borough Historic District also includes two notable objects: the granite Soldiers and Sailors Monument, located on a small triangular grass plot on the east side of Main Street and the 110-foot tall steel flagpole at the intersection of Main Street and Church Hill Road. The flagpole, the successor to the village's Liberty Pole originally erected in 1876, is counted as contributing, even though it is somewhat less than 50 years old because it is the latest in a series of in-laid replacements and because it has been the object of spirited community efforts to preserve it for its landmark qualities.
The boundary of the Newtown Borough Historic District occupies most of that part of the Town of Newtown administered by a borough government, which was first established in 1824. It also is nearly co-terminus with the boundary of the local historic district known as the Borough of Newtown Historic District. However, the National Register nominated Newtown Borough Historic District includes the west side of Academy Lane, where there is a c.1870 house similar to others in the district nearby, and it excludes a property on West Street that is set so far back that it is barely visible. Also, the boundary of the Newtown Borough Historic District follows property lines on Main Street wherever possible, rather than a set distance that cuts across all lot lines.
The Newtown Borough Historic District is significant because it recalls the importance of the area as a political, religious, social, and commercial center for much of the surrounding town. From the time of Newtown's earliest settlement, Main Street has been the setting for town government, churches, and school buildings as well as the homes of many of the town's families. Established as the town common and the location of the meetinghouse of the Congregationalist majority, the area around Newtown center continued as a focal point for the community throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The present-day physical characteristics of the Newtown Borough Historic District — the remnant of town common preserved as the Ram's Pasture, the closely spaced buildings, and the broad, tree-lined Main Street — continue to reflect its origin as the historic town center. Finally, the Newtown Borough Historic District has significance because it illustrates an important early 20th-century historical development, the rise of small-town philanthropy. Particularly through the generous donations of Mary Elizabeth Hawley, a wealthy lifelong resident of the town, Newtown center was able to acquire a number of public amenities that added to the quality of life in the community.
The Newtown Borough Historic District has architectural significance because many of the buildings embody the distinctive characteristics of particular periods and styles of American architecture. For example, the Newtown Borough Historic District's earliest buildings feature typical New England Colonial elements, such as a symmetrical five-bay facade, small-pane divided sash, and a large central chimney, while the district's Victorian houses include several that are typical of Italianate Villa architecture and other styles popular in the period. The Newtown Borough Historic District also includes some buildings that are especially notable works of architecture: the richly detailed Georgian house at 38 Main Street, the Gothic Revival 1870 Trinity Episcopal Church, the former Beach Memorial Library, a cobblestone expression of Craftsman architecture, and the elaborate Colonial Revival town hall.
The development of Newtown was typical of early 18th-century Connecticut towns. The area, first settled by the English in 1708, lay along a broad ridge that proved to be ideal for agricultural activity. It soon evolved into a small farming community, with four-acre house lots set out along Town Street (Main Street) and two intersecting roads known today as Church Hill Road and West Street. Fields and pastures extended down the slope behind the houses. To the south, a large grassy area known today as the Ram Pasture was reserved as town common land, where each farmer was allowed to graze a certain amount of livestock. Newtown was formally incorporated as a town in 1711.
In 1719 the community took the first step toward developing the area bound by the district. A center was created not only for the original settlement but also for families taking up land in the more outlying parts of town. In that year, the community built a small structure at the intersection of Main Street and Church Hill Road to serve as the town's first Congregational Meetinghouse. In 1732, the meetinghouse was joined by another house of worship erected by Church of England adherents. Both were subsequently rebuilt in the 19th century on the same sites, testifying to the area's long-standing role as a central place for the town's religious bodies.
From the earliest days of English settlement, the area also served as a center for political activities. As was customary in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Congregational meetinghouse accommodated town meetings as well as religious services. Around 1845 the town built a brick building (30 Main Street) to house the town clerk's office and provide vault space for records, and town meetings were held on the second floor. Starting in 1874, the building also housed the town's first library; subsequent library buildings in 1900 and 1930 continued the pattern of locating town services along Main Street. A church built by the Universalists but no longer in use was converted to a town meeting hall in 1883 and served until the present Edmond Town Hall was completed in 1930.
By the third quarter of the 18th century, the area around the meetinghouse and church was already a relatively large village center; in 1781, when Comte de Rochambeau's French army camped nearby, there were a few dozen houses ranged along Main Street. Some served as taverns, including the house at 32 Main Street, built about 1765 and hosted by two generations of the Baldwin family. Although the great majority of families made their living by farming (an activity still evidenced today by the district's numerous old barns), some Newtown residents also engaged in trade. Located in the third tier of towns from the coast, Newtown was still only 20 miles from Black Rock Harbor (Bridgeport), a major shipping point on Long Island Sound.
Commercial activity was aided in the early 19th century by the establishment of turnpike roads, three of which converged on Newtown center. The earliest was the 1801 Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike, which ran along Main Street and extended north to New Milford and south nearly to Long Island Sound. In 1803 the east-west Middle Turnpike crossed the earlier road, and in 1820 a southwest turnpike to Norwalk was chartered. In addition to bringing business to Newtown's inns and taverns, the traffic generated by the roads encouraged numerous general stores and shops of artisans; at least a dozen are shown in the area bounded by the district on the 1854 map. It also gave the town's farmers greater access to markets; commercial sheep raising was a major activity for many years.
By 1824 the village was sufficiently populous and densely built that the local citizens decided to form a borough government. Administered by a warden and board of burgesses, boroughs in Connecticut provide particular parts of towns with services that are outside the scope of ordinary town government, such as fire protection, water, and, eventually, street lights and sidewalks. The boundaries of the Newtown Borough Historic District lie within (and make up the major part of) the Borough of Newtown, an entity that waxed and waned over time but remains in active existence today. According to Barber, the borough included 40 to 50 houses in 1836.
Neither the coming of the railroad nor industrialization in other parts of town seriously threatened the borough's role as the town's principal central place. Although it bypassed the center itself, the Housatonic Railroad (1840) passed less than a mile to the east, where there was a small station stop just off Church Hill Road. Newtown developed a number of small-scale industries in the 19th century, including woolen mills, button and comb factories, and fabric fire-hose manufacturing; except for Sandy Hook, site of the latter and its own stop on the railroad, none of the manufacturing centers grew to a size that came close to rivalling Newtown Borough. In part this was because many of the manufacturers were local people who chose to live in the center village rather than in a more remote part of town. Similarly, several men with business interests in Bridgeport and beyond continued to live in Newtown, taking the train to work. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Newtown's stores, inns, and small shops continued to serve a thriving village. A weekly newspaper, the Newtown Bee, began publication in 1877 and built its present facility on Church Hill Road in 1903.
The center of Newtown Borough also accommodated important public ceremonial functions, notably the town's large Liberty Pole/Flagpole, first erected in 1876 and rescued from over-zealous highway advocates in the 20th century by tradition-minded citizens. At the opposite end of Main Street the town erected its Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 1930.
Like many other Connecticut small towns, Newtown Borough in the early 20th century was endowed by wealthy local residents with facilities intended to both memorialize their families and serve the greater needs of the community. In 1900 the descendants of John Beach, Newtown's first Congregational minister, provided funds for a small public library named in honor of their ancestor. The gesture was repeated three decades later when Mary Elizabeth Hawley donated money to pay for an expanded library, named in honor of her grandfather, Dr. Cyrenius H. Booth. Hawley (1858-1930) was Newtown's greatest benefactor. The daughter of a wealthy businessman, she lived the life of a recluse following a brief marriage. Her largesse made possible not only the new library, but also the preservation of the Ram's Pasture, the pond and arched bridge on Hawley Road, new gates to the local cemetery, a large public school (the latter two lie outside the district), the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and the Edmond Town Hall (named for her great-grandfather Judge William Edmond), which provided not only an expansive space for town government but also a theater for movies and other community entertainments.
Today the history of Newtown is recalled by the many historic properties in the town center. A vestige of the town's original common lands remains as the Ram's Pasture, and the flagpole and Soldiers and Sailors Monument testify to the village's role as a place for town-wide symbols of community. The successor buildings to the town's early Congregational and Episcopalian houses of worship recall its function as a central place for religious activities, as do the several houses that have served as ministers' residences or parsonages at one time or another. Two stores and an inn remain in operation in 19th-century buildings, survivors of Newtown's commercial heyday. The former town records building, the present and former library buildings, and the Edmond Town Hall all demonstrate the village's long-standing status as a focal point for local government. Houses and barns recall not only the farming families with whom many were associated but also the many other activities that made up village life. The house at 17 Main Street, for example, was the home of Arthur J. Smith, publisher of the Bee; that at 3 Church Hill Road was for many years occupied by Cornelius B. Taylor, stationmaster for the railroad and a flour, feed, and coal merchant; and the Italianate house at 46 Main Street was the dwelling of David Johnson, who ran the Newtown General Store across the street. Finally, the properties in the Newtown Borough Historic District reflect the far-reaching philanthropy of Mary E. Hawley, from the arched bridge at the southern end of the district all the way to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument near the northern boundary.
The Newton Borough Historic District has architectural significance because among its buildings are many well-preserved examples of particular styles and periods of architecture. From 18th-century vernacular dwellings to the Colonial Revival style prevalent in the early 20th century, the buildings in Newtown's center illustrate the history of American architecture.
The domestic architecture of colonial New England is represented in the district by numerous houses embodying the genre's typical features: clapboarded (or wood-shingled) exteriors, symmetrical five-bay facades, small-pane divided sash, and large central chimneys of stone or brick. The Matthew Curtiss House (44 Main Street), now a historical-society museum, reflects the simple form and plainness in detail that were characteristic of the vernacular dwellings of the period. However, the Georgian style General Daniel Baldwin House (38 Main Street) provides an outstanding counterpoint: although retaining the form and fenestration of the commonplace dwelling, it reflects an awareness of formal architecture such as that depicted in James Gibbs's Book of Architecture (1736, but not widely known in America until the last quarter of the 18th century). While its Palladian window, central pediment, fluted corner pilasters, and cornice enrichment are standard Georgian details, the applied balusters below the Palladian window, three-quarter engaged columns, and cut-away pavilion (all of which appear in an 1854 view) are unusual if not unique interpretations of Neo-Classicism.
The Federal style is primarily recalled in the Newtown Borough Historic District in the form of delicate cornice enrichment found on houses that have been modified at later times. The distinctive characteristics of the Greek Revival style are epitomized in the mid-19th century renovations to the Congregational Meetinghouse, initially built in 1792. Its wide pilasters and entry lintel recall the architecture of ancient Greek temples and reflect the heavier proportions that set the Greek Revival apart from earlier interpretations of Classical motifs.
Unlike some town centers, Newtown remained reasonably prosperous throughout the 19th century; as a result, the Newtown Borough Historic District contains numerous buildings that reflect the elaborate woodwork and eclectic sources of inspiration intrinsic to Victorian architecture. The brackets, bay windows, pedestaled porch columns, and round- and segmental-arched shapes that characterized the Italianate style are found on buildings throughout the district, ranging from small commercial structures to the square-plan hip-roofed houses inspired by the villas of the Italian countryside. The distinctive mansard roof of the Second Empire style, best represented in the Newtown Borough Historic District by the National Register-listed Beers House, also appears on smaller dwellings. The medievalisms that made up the Gothic Revival are apparent in the hammer-beam bracing, bargeboard, and steeply pitched roofs of the house at 12 Main Street and in the buttresses, lancet windows, clerestory, pinnacles and crenelation of Trinity Church. The church is one of the few buildings in the Newtown Borough Historic District for which an architect is known; it was designed by Silas N. Beers (1837-1873), a local surveyor and amateur architect who is said to have designed many of the mid-19th century houses in Newtown.
Although the architectural styles that appeared at the end of the 19th century are represented by fewer examples, notable buildings in the Queen Anne, Shingle, and Craftsman styles add to the architectural richness of the district. The Scudder-Smith House epitomizes the Queen Anne style with its variety of exterior materials, complex plan and roofline, and combination of Classical porch columns with late medieval overhangs. However, as a duplex (it was built to accommodate two related families), it struggles hard to maintain the necessary asymmetry (or at least irregularity of plan) that was part of the style. The house at 20 Main Street illustrates a common Shingle style characteristic: the use of a gambrel roof, sloping directly into the surrounding porches, to unify the house and create a sense of mass that transcends its Colonial Revival detailing. Finally, the former Beach Memorial Library must be counted as among the Newtown Borough Historic District's architectural treasures. While its rounded and jerkinhead roof forms and diamond-pane casement sash are suggestive of Tudor-period English thatch-roofed cottages, its exposed rafter ends and cobblestone masonry represent the search for "natural" materials that characterized the Craftsman style and that found expression in the Bungalow architecture of the 1910s and 1920s.
As Newtown headed into the 20th century, its most impressive architecture was built in the Colonial Revival style, including a number of houses, a now-altered bank building, the Booth Library, a fire station, and the Edmond Town Hall. The latter, completed in 1930, was inspired by high-style colonial precedents, perhaps including Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Its elaborate cupola, columns, and pediment, along with its red-brick exterior and arched windows, had connotations of tradition and patriotism, thereby providing a link between Newtown of the 1930s and the days of William Edmond (1755-1838), Mary Hawley's illustrious ancestor.
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Maps and Views (in chronological order):
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