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Hattertown Historic District


House in the Hattertown Historic District, Newtown, CT, National Register

Photo: House in the Hattertown Historic District, Newtown, CT. The historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Photographed by User:Magicpiano (own work), 2014, [cc-by-4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed October, 2016.

The Hattertown 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.

Description

Located in the southwest corner of the Town of Newtown, the Hattertown Historic District encompasses the nineteenth-century crossroads village of Hattertown. The Hattertown Historic District includes all of the present local district of the same name but expands those boundaries to include resources to the west and south. Lewis Brook, one of the many small tributaries of the Pootatuck River to the east, flows through the Hattertown Historic District, creating small ponds on several properties and bisecting Hattertown Green, a small triangular-shaped parcel at the center.[1] The four roads that meet at the green include three that come down into the village from the north and west: Hattertown Road, the main through street, Hi Barlow Road, and Aunt Park Lane. Below the green, Hattertown Road is joined by Castle Meadow Road, entering from the southeast.

The Hattertown Historic District contains 34 resources, of which 29 (85%) contribute to its historic rural residential character. All 11 houses and most of the associated outbuildings are contributing. The latter include four large nineteenth century barns, four privies, and a former blacksmith shop. The non-contributing resources are all modern outbuildings. All of the houses utilize post-and-beam construction and are mainly sheathed with clapboard. With the exception of one made of brick, foundations are cut granite block over rubblestone. Many of the houses are set off from the roadway by wood fences. They are constructed with pickets or horizontal boards, supported by square posts.

The majority of the nineteenth century houses in the Hattertown Historic District have retained the ridge-to-street orientation, central chimney, and two-story rectangular five-bay form of the standard late colonial house. In fact, so many resemble the Colonial/Federal Gad Benedict House that was constructed by carpenter/builder Isaac Patchen, it is generally held that he was the village's primary builder.[2] Set well back from the corner of Hattertown Road and Hi Barlow Road, this house has a late Federal doorway with attenuated pilasters and a relatively high entablature, but like several other houses in the district, it displays rectangular gable windows that have a multipaned pattern, a feature more commonly associated with the later Greek Revival. The main block utilizes six-over-six sash, the common pattern in the Hattertown Historic District.

A similar doorway surround with a narrower frieze is found on the nearly identical William Taylor House at the foot of the district, also on Hattertown Road. Fanlights are displayed on the gables of the Elam Benedict House at the foot of the green. Its more elaborately detailed doorway has paired slim pilasters separated by five-pane sidelights. The unconventional location of the four-pane transom within its frieze suggests that the surround may be a remodeling of an earlier colonial doorway.

There was a shift to a more fully developed Greek Revival style in three more houses of this type in the Hattertown Historic District. Their boldly executed doorways have wider pilasters and high entablatures, like that of the Morgan House, the most detailed of this group, which faces the green from the northeast. Pilasters frame the slightly recessed doorway, the external ones decorated with molding in a modified Greek fret pattern, a design also found on the broad corner pilasters of the main block. The Morgan House is also the only house of this style in the Hattertown Historic District that has flush-boarded gable pediments, in which the characteristic multipaned window is displayed. Because of the slope of the property away from adjoining roads, the southeast end elevation has a full-height granite foundation, where the original kitchen was located at grade. An extended rear ell incorporates a former hat shop, which may be the one that once stood just below the house next to the road. At the end of an open grassed field southeast of the house is an associated cow barn and the Gregory Orchard's District School. Although it has several later shed-roofed additions, the main part of the barn is believed to be contemporary with the house. The school, which has the typical two-door facade and belfry, was moved about 1975 from its earlier location at the corner of Aunt Park Lane and Hattertown Road.

The Charles Benedict House to the south, set well back from Hattertown Road with two small ponds in the front yard, is a simpler version of the Greek Revival. The doorway, flanked by pilasters and sidelights, is its major style feature. The rectangular window in the north gable has three small panes instead of the more common multipaned type; the one on the other end has been replaced by a full-size window surmounted by a fanlight. The barn to the north is a late nineteenth-century type, resembling others here in its fenestration pattern and detailing, especially the one associated with the Taylor House farther down the road. They both have vertical board siding, with a sawtooth pattern at the overlapping base of the gable, and trim boards over the windows have a slight pediment.

The last of these Hattertown Historic District house types influenced by the Greek Revival is the Ralph Benedict House on Castle Meadow Road. Except for its Greek Revival doorway, it resembles the earlier Federal style Benedict houses. Changes made in the present remodeling include the addition of a large two-story rear ell. Rectangular three-pane windows in the gable ends, which have cornice returns instead of a full pediment, have been replaced with double-hung windows capped by fanlights that extend into the joining of the rakeboards at the peak. The barn to the south, which is markedly different from others in the district, may be contemporaneous with the house. Built into a slope, it has the features of a bank barn with the main doors on the long north side to what would have been the threshing floor at the second level. The gable end facing the road has a shed-roofed extension with plain garage doors. The Benedict blacksmith shop that once stood north of the house next to the road has been moved to the rear of the property, also the location of a privy, which has a plastered interior.

The Greek Revival style is more conventionally interpreted in the Hattertown Historic District by a single example of the gable-to-street temple form. Its Doric-order portico, which faces the green, shelters a six-panel door with sidelights, but pronounced cornice returns substitute for a full pediment. Again the rectangular multipaned window appears in the gable. Like some other rural farmhouses of this style in the region, it has one-bay shed-roofed wings recessed on both side elevations. It is said that an outbuilding to the rear, now serving as a garage, was a former Hattertown button factory.

Among the rest of the houses in the Hattertown Historic District, which are generally smaller with fewer stylistic details, is the Levi Taylor House, possibly the oldest in the village. Its unbalanced four-bay facade suggests that the left side of this Cape may be older and date from about 1750. It too has an attached rear ell that once was a hat shop. Other additions include a shed dormer across the rear slope of the main roof and an added rear lean-to on the north end of the main block, which gives that elevation a saltbox appearance. A simple two-story farmhouse on Hi Barlow Road was owned or occupied by the Briscoe family in 1856. Set high above the road and barely visible, it has a four-bay facade, with a rectangular Greek Revival window in the left end gable. An accompanying modern horse barn to the west and rear presents its gable end to the road. Across the street, an unusual two-story gable-to-street building is set into a steep slope. Because of its siting and more vertical massing, as well as the high exposed rubblestone foundation on the east side, all more consistent with industrial use, this house may have been the hat shop shown on or near this site on mid-nineteenth-century maps. The shed-roofed addition on the south end has a small porch at the southeast corner, supported by turned posts, probably all constructed when the building became a residence. The last house to be built here is also a Cape. It overlooks the Hattertown Historic District from the hill between Aunt Park Lane and Hattertown Road. Constructed about 1855, it has a later Victorian-period porch with turned posts across the facade gable end that faces generally northwest.

Significance

The Hattertown Historic District is an exceptionally well-preserved early nineteenth-century crossroads village, one which was devoted almost exclusively to the hatting trade, a specialized cottage industry closely identified with Connecticut's Western Uplands. These historical associations are especially significant since so little remains elsewhere in the region to mark the evolutionary period of this industry prior to its consolidation in Danbury. The Hattertown Historic District also achieves considerable distinction as a cohesive body of rural vernacular architecture, in which stylistic interpretations of traditional colonial forms include fine well-Grafted examples of the major styles of the period, the Federal and the Greek Revival. Added significance is derived from the integrity of the historic setting, which is enhanced by a collection of well-preserved period outbuildings, and visually integrated by its appropriate-to-period fencing.

Historical Background and Significance

In the early nineteenth century conditions in the Western Uplands favored development of a widely dispersed hatting trade, providing both raw materials and means of production. Hatting originated in Danbury about 1780 and by the 1820s at least one family was devoting itself to this cottage industry in almost every uplands town. From fabricating the fur felt to forming the product, hatting involved a series of labor-intensive processes which required an abundant water supply and depended on the availability of small fur-bearing animals, such as beaver, muskrat, and fox. Much of the hatting process was dirty and hazardous, the first steps being washing and drying of the animal pelts. Mercury was used to remove the fur from the skins and workers were often poisoned, giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter." Bonding of the cut fur, sometimes mixed with wool, into felt required pressure and heat, usually with hand-operated presses, and hat forming was done by hand. Since, unlike most other early industries, none of these processes really required waterpower or specially designed buildings, hat making could take place almost anywhere in the region that was near a brook or stream, literally in cottages, or in hat shops, small free-standing outbuildings. Primarily due to the relatively ephemeral nature of hat shops and the short duration of rural hatting, these artifacts generally disappeared from the landscape by the late nineteenth century.

The dispersal of the hat trade followed a definite sequence, seemingly predicated on the availability of local fur. By 1800 hat production in Danbury had reached 20,000 hats a year, requiring a large supply of felt. To meet the demand, fur pelts began to be imported from foreign countries and domestic rabbit hair and wool were used to supplement the local supply. Some Danbury hatters elected to set up shops in neighboring towns such as Bethel, where local and cheaper fur was more readily available. Their sons, in turn, moved on to more distant hamlets, such as Hattertown in Newtown, and there were others in Roxbury and New Milford, a migration that generally took place in the early 1820s. Individual sites and houses associated with hatting families in the region have been identified, such as the Sanfords of Bridgewater, but Hattertown became one of the few places where an entire village was so directly involved in the trade.[3]

The Taylors and the Benedicts came to the village in 1821. Like most in the business, their families had been engaged in the regional hatting trade. There were several advantages to this location. In addition to brooks and ponds in the area, a natural habitat for muskrat and beaver, there was a nucleus of a village already in place. It was just one of many small farming settlements in the riverine valleys of Newtown, a community fragmented by rolling terrain and north-south ridgelines. Except for the town center along a ridgeline to the north established at the end of the seventeenth century, most of Newtown's population was so scattered that 21 school districts were formed in 1788, an unusually large number. Though remote, the village that became Hattertown was not isolated from the outside world, but connected by the Monroe-Newtown Turnpike (present-day Hattertown Road). Access to this highway was important, since the Benedicts and the Taylors would not be independent producers or local retailers. Instead, their hat shops were outposts of a regional trade network. They supplied rough-formed hats, which were either sold to wholesalers in Danbury or shipped directly to New York "front shops" for finishing. It is likely that the Danbury middlemen were essential because they had already developed a strong market in the Deep South.

Levi Taylor (1790-1833) came here soon after his son, William (1819-1862), was born in Bethel. They were descendants of Joshua Taylor, a Danbury hatter. Levi moved into the small Cape facing the green and probably enlarged it at that time to accommodate his family of seven children. Both William and his father died in their early 40s.[4] At the time of Levi's death, William was only 14. He may have moved into his Colonial/Federal, a house built in the 1820s at the south end of the district, at the time of his marriage to Polly Durand in 1846. By 1856 he is also identified as the owner of the Taylor Cape. It is said that his brother, Charles, also followed the family trade, but apparently not in Hattertown.

Elam Benedict, who was the first of his family to live here, bought the house next door to Levi Taylor, a Colonial/Federal dating from about 1800. He and his wife had 11 children, including Charles, who later owned the Greek Revival house south of the green between Hattertown and Castle Meadow roads. Another son, George, was a partner in his father's hat shop that once was one of two on the Morgan property. His nephew, Gad Benedict, probably the first of the family to build in Hattertown, hired Isaac Patchen to construct his Colonial/Federal at the head of the district. Another son, Ralph, elected to become a blacksmith with a forge and shop next to his house. After his death the shop was moved to the rear of the property near the existing privy.

By the 1840s changes in the industry sounded the death knell for local hatting. Some, like the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution and distance from markets, affected all rural industries. Others were more trade-specific, such as the fact that with the depletion of the region's fur-bearing animals, all fur had to be imported. More importantly, all the stages of fur processing and hat forming were becoming fully mechanized, especially in Danbury. Local hat shops could not compete with urban hat factories that had sophisticated water- and steam-powered systems and a large skilled workforce. Though hatting persisted in Hattertown at least through 1856, with two of the original five hat shops still operating as shown by historic maps at that time, soon after the Civil War hatting was fully reconsolidated in Danbury, which had become a major railroad junction with a ready supply of immigrant labor. Danbury supplied international markets by the 1920s and became known as the "Hat Capital of the World." By the 1950s, faced with increased foreign competition and declining popularity of hats for men, the city's single-industry economy faltered. Although hats continue to be made there, today the economy has been diversified by an influx of high-precision technology industries.

Though 40 prosperous years in the hatting trade produced Hattertown, it was the village's later history that preserved its resources. When hatting died out, the same families lingered on here in the same houses, keeping them and their outbuildings in good repair. In frugal Yankee fashion, several attached obsolete hat shops to enlarge their houses, so even those artifacts have survived. Farming remained the underlying basis of the local economy, a village history that is as similar and unremarkable as most were in Connecticut in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century newcomers gradually replaced old families as caretakers of this special heritage and established a local historic district to assure its continued protection and preservation.

According to the map of 1905, three of the Benedict houses and one Taylor house were still owned by their respective families at that time. As was so often the case in New England villages, the surviving heirs were unmarried women. Among them was Celiste A. Benedict, a physician in the village. Although she reportedly moved her practice to Bridgeport after 1883, the Elam Benedict House remained in her name. A Miss. P. Taylor lived in the Levi Taylor House, later owned by two more generations of the related Briscoe family; her neighbor in the Greek Revival next door was Miss. E. Crandall. As late as 1971, the Charles Benedict House was still owned by a granddaughter and her husband, Handley Tipton. Their property was probably the last working farm in the Hattertown Historic District.

The survival of so many well-maintained barns confirms that farming remained a way of life into the twentieth century. Some descendants of hatting families turned to farming as their primary occupation, accounting for the large barns of the late 1800s in the district. The remaining earlier barn types indicate that at least the Ralph Benedicts and the Morgans had always been dairy or cattle farmers. O.E. Morgan, possibly a grandson, had a farm on the hill overlooking the village, which earlier had been the farmstead of the Briscoes.

Architectural Significance

With its gleaming white houses and red barns, the Hattertown Historic District is the quintessential Connecticut village, so often imagined but rarely found. Though the sights, sounds, and odors of the bustling hat trade are long gone, a picturesque historic landscape of exceptional integrity remains. Little has changed since the nineteenth century. The same period houses still cluster about the pocket green, while their properties fan out behind them, most still complete with their historic barns and other outbuildings, giving the Hattertown Historic District a remarkably high percentage of contributing resources. The few more recent outbuildings are unobstrusive and hardly visible from the road.

For architectural historians, the Hattertown Historic District presents a rare opportunity to closely observe the craftsmanship and skill of a country builder in a contiguous setting. While it has been generally held that cultural conservatism produced the rural domestic vernacular of the early nineteenth century, this demonstration of the stylistic development of a single form through a period of at least 30 years is quite significant. Its attribution to a single builder, Isaac Patchen, is a long-held local tradition, but one that seems to be borne out by the architectural evidence in at least five and possibly six of the houses.[5] Although updating older colonial houses in this period was quite common, examples of such treatment abounding right through the Greek Revival period, it is most unusual to find colonial design constraints operating so generally on residential construction in one locality.

Whether Patchen embellished his houses with Federal or Greek Revival details, there is little or no variation in their basic colonial form right down to the central chimney floor plan. Of particular interest is the fact that in addition to more up-to-date detailing, the Patchen houses made another concession to progress. The roof plates are generally studded higher, though other colonial proportions remained the same, giving a subtle verticality to his facades. This change is particularly obvious in the Morgan House, where the height is accentuated by the broad corner pilasters, but all but one of these houses in the district have the greater distance between the second-story windows and the roof. Only the Elam Benedict House, probably the earliest of these structures, has windows closer to the eaves. Together with the surviving transom over the door, it is more truly late colonial in form and massing and may be the work of another builder.

There is a charming rural simplicity in the detailing of these houses, especially the well-crafted doorways. Composed of plain boards with simple moldings, they reveal the builder's understanding of the essential elements of proportion and style. The only real change that took place over time was in the width of the applied material, as seen in a comparison of the basic Federal doorway surround, which was perfected in the Gad Benedict and William Taylor houses, with the doorways of two later Benedict houses. The Morgan House, however, was a departure. Here the applied detail of the molded pilasters, a Greek fret design that may have been taken from a carpenter's pattern book of the period, and its full pediment make this Greek Revival the most stylish in the Hattertown Historic District. Only the house on the opposite side of the green, with its more "modern" orientation and Greek Revival portico, is comparable.

The other houses in the Hattertown Historic District extend its architectural range and add variety to the streetscapes. Typically the Cape is well-represented, a common type favored in rural areas for more than a century. Like many such small houses, they often were extended and enlarged over the years, as demonstrated by the Levi Taylor House. The many well-preserved barns also play an important supporting role, clearly establishing the temporal range of the district. From the Morgan and Benedict barns of the mid-nineteenth century to the later examples built by Benedict and Taylor descendants, they are an exceptionally representative demonstration of the changing functional form of these agricultural resources over time.

Endnotes:

  1. Originally just a wide place in the road, this pocket green was landscaped in the twentieth century. The land is still part of adjacent privately owned parcels.
  2. The builder's name is inscribed in the attic of this house.
  3. Glover Sanford and his son, Frederick S. Sanford, owners of an Italianate villa on Hat Shop Hill in Bridgewater (listed on the National Register in 1988), ran a hatting business called Sanford & Sons across the road from the house. It was established in 1823 by Glover Sanford, who previously had apprenticed to his brother, John, a hatmaker in Salisbury, and later in Brookfield. The Sanfords were more successful than most in the trade. Their business, which employed 125 men and produced $300,000 worth of hats per year, was moved to Bridgeport in 1870 to be closer to major rail and shipping routes.
  4. The causes of their deaths are not known and might have been genetic, but they may have succumbed to mercury poisoning. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that mercury was banned, largely due to the efforts of unions in Danbury to improve labor conditions industry-wide.
  5. A comparison of other possible Patchen houses in Newtown with those in the district could be fruitful. However, such an analysis must await the results of the ongoing architectural survey of Newtown, which may identify and locate other work by this builder.

References

Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899.

Cunningham, Janice P. "Frederick S. Sanford House." National Register nomination, 1988.

Gilchrist, Alison. "P. Robinson Fur Cutting Company." National Register nomination, 1982.

"Historic District Study Committee Report," Town of Newtown, 1969.

Historic Maps of Newtown, 1854, 1856, 1905 (Newtown Public Library).

Newtown, Connecticut: Directions and Images. Newtown: Eastern Press, Inc., 1989.

Newtown Connecticut: Past and Present. New Haven: Walker-Rackliff Co., 1955.

Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates, Ltd., and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Hattertown Historic District, nomination document, 1996, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Hattertown Historic District Map

Street Names
Aunt Park Lane • Castle Meadow Road • Hattertown Road • Hi Barlow Road

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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