Georgetown Historic District
The Georgetown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. 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 Georgetown Historic District is a residential/industrial village in a valley of the Norwalk River in the southwestern corner of Connecticut. Apparently only a geographical designation and never a political entity, the village encompasses part of Wilton, Redding, Weston, and Ridgefield. The Georgetown Historic District itself includes only sections of Redding and Wilton. It is roughly bounded by Route 7 on the west, Route 107 on the east, and the Ridgefield town line on the north; it extends to the south across Route 107 for a short distance. It contains 144 buildings and sites; 123 contributing and 21 non-contributing. The residential component was built primarily in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a high concentration of contributing historic buildings (84%). Of the contributing residential buildings, 40% were built in the nineteenth century and 60% in the twentieth century (before 1936). The industrial component is a large factory complex owned by the Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company, which contains more than 30 industrial buildings constructed on more than 30 acres of land with a 12-acre mill pond, Sixty percent of these buildings were built between 1874 and 1927. Of the 11 major buildings constructed after 1936 at Gilbert and Bennett, at least five are long, low warehouses constructed of aluminum on a steel frame: some are in the typical "Quonset hut" configuration, others have an extended gable roof.
With the exception of Portland Avenue, which circles around the Gilbert and Bennett factory complex and its mill pond to the east and north, most of the residential streets in the Georgetown Historic District are concentrated to the south and west of the factory complex. They include North Main Street, Church Street, Smith Street, South Church Street and New Street. The railroad of the Danbury-Norwalk Line runs through the center of the district roughly following the path of the Norwalk River. Church and Smith streets were bisected by Route 107, (from west to east) in the twentieth century, so portions of these streets are located to the south of the highway. Apparently a road in this location in 1897 only extended to Church Street.
Prior to 1889 some of the Gilbert and Bennett factory buildings were located further to the south on the Norwalk River, on what was known as the lower Mill Pond. Today the entire complex is located within the Georgetown Historic District. Many of the historic factories built of brick are long, low buildings ranging in length from 100 to 300 feet, with an average width of 40 feet. They include buildings utilized for such specialized purposes as wire weaving, twisting, galvanizing, and annealing. The earliest surviving building is a two-story, brick pier loom building (50' x 300') with a monitor built in 1874, with segmental-arch lintels and stone sills (20 North Main Street). A disastrous fire of that year destroyed most of the rest of the factory. A few of the early twentieth-century buildings, namely the high and low pressure boiler houses, are constructed of concrete. Although the factory has relied entirely on steam power for most of its history, a functioning water wheel with an open headrace supplies water as a coolant for the machinery. The complex also includes two concrete dams about 80 feet long with spillways and gates (one rebuilt in 1874); 2000 feet of railroad siding, a spur dating back to 1874; five bridges, two of concrete and two of steely and one timber railroad bridge; sixteen storage tanks; and assorted wood frame garages to the south across North Main Street from the factory. A large water storage tank completes the complex. A 1909 office building built of small cobblestone with an overhanging eave supported by shaped rafters continues to be used for this purpose. It has been extended to the rear with a large modern brick addition.
Most of the nineteenth-century residential development consists of two main types or styles. While there are a few cube-form Italianate style houses, the vast majority are gable-to-street wood-frame buildings with small front porches. Occasionally the basic rectangular plan of these houses is elaborated with a cross gable or a bay window. Originally all were sided in clapboard; some today have aluminum siding, or stucco, and a few of the porches have been enclosed. Some of these modest dwellings were multi-family tenements constructed for Gilbert and Bennett workers. The Hiram St. John House (circa 1860) at 49 Church Street, or the Aaron Davis House (18 Church Street) across the street, are representative examples of the Italianate style as found in the district. They share common characteristics, the cube form, the carved eave brackets, but most notably, extended attic windows below the eaves. The Davis House still retains two hexagonal panes in these windows, a feature found on most of the other houses of this style, not only in the Georgetown Historic District but elsewhere in the Georgetown area. Although the double pane has been replaced on the St. John House with a single light, it is undoubtedly the most elaborate house of this style in the district. The foliated carvings on the double brackets under the eaves and the use of bead-and-reel molding under the cornice are just two of its special features. Both these houses have retained their original barns or carriage houses. The St. John House has a large red barn to the south of the main house, and the Davis House has a barn converted to a carriage house with a cupola, to the north and rear of the residence. Other examples of this style are 1 Church Street and 50 North Main Street.
Most of the simple nineteenth-century domestic houses or tenements can be found on Smith Street, West Church, or south of Route 107 on what is now called South Church Street. In this latter area are a group of tenement buildings that clearly functioned as multiple family housing in the nineteenth century. The one exception here is the Malcolm Gregory House, a unique building which today displays many Greek Revival features but may date from the eighteenth century (4 South Church Street). Smith Street is lined with simple gable-to-street houses, with two exceptions. A Sears Roebuck Bungalow style house at 10 Smith Street was built about 1920. Across the street is a Queen Anne style house (15 Smith Street) now used as the rectory for the Bible Church (formerly the Gilbert Memorial [Congregational]) Church on North Main Street. It is a larger building with a veranda wrapping around the facade and the north elevation. In comparison to the neighboring cottages, it has a considerable amount of detail including imbricated shingles in the gable pediment of the veranda and in the gable peaks. Church Street, as well, has a few of these simple nineteenth-century houses, particularly at the lower end where it now intersects with Route 107.
Several institutional buildings remain in the Georgetown Historic District including four churches, two schools, and a post office (now vacant). The churches display a wide range of styles. They include the Greek Revival style Methodist Episcopal (now United Methodist) Church at 37 Church Street and across the street a Carpenter Gothic style Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart which is distinguished by some exceptional stained glass windows in rose and green tones (30 Church Street). Almost directly opposite the Gilbert and Bennett factory is the Gilbert Memorial Church (now the Bible Church), built of stone in the Gothic Revival style in 1902 (7 North Main Street). Although small in scale, it utilizes many other features found in larger churches built in this style at that time, including buttresses and pointed arch windows, a square main tower, and on the west side a round turret with a conical roof. An unusual feature of this same elevation is a porte cochere with a separate door leading into the church. The step for this doorway is located at the height of a carriage, possibly a feature installed for the benefit of the Gilbert family. To the rear of the church is a small cemetery containing the graves of Edwin Gilbert and his wife. At 44 Portland Avenue is the Swedish Lutheran Church, built originally in 1908. A wooden enclosed portico added about 1950 somewhat obscures its historic appearance. It too has fine stained glass windows on the end elevations. The immediate adjacent neighbor on the north is the church rectory, a cross-gable house displaying the Queen Anne influence (44 Portland Avenue).
Two schools were constructed in the Georgetown Historic District in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a one-room schoolhouse now used as a residence on Route 107 (27 Redding Road) and the Gilbert and Bennett School, an elaborate buff brick building constructed in the Beaux Arts Classical style in 1915 (49 New Street). This latter building also displays a red terra cotta tile roof and utilizes molded plaster consoles under the overhanging eaves. The Flemish gable of the entrance is elaborated by decorative brickwork. The unaltered interior of this building contains a large assembly room just inside the main entrance. It is decorated with a mural depicting the original Benjamin Gilbert and his wife when they first began manufacturing hair sieves, the start of the Gilbert and Bennett industry. An unusual feature of the layout of this building is that all of the classrooms open both to a central corridor and to the outside. A playing field which extends from the building all the way to Route 7 to the west is also included in the Georgetown Historic District.
Most of the twentieth century residential development took place on two streets, New Street and Portland Avenue. The development on New Street accompanied the building of the school by Gilbert and Bennett in 1915. Only two houses clearly predate the school in this area. They are located at 5 and 9 New Street Extension and are identical houses of the Folk house type, built in 1913. A limited variety of Colonial Revival style houses and Bungalows are located along the east side of New Street. Two of the representative examples are located at 34 and 38 New Street. New Street Terrace contains a group of four buildings built just prior to World War II. Although technically non-contributing they deserve mention because of their common characteristics, most notably the use of rusticated cinder block foundations, a construction material first used much earlier in the twentieth century.
Portland Avenue contains a number of duplexes constructed by Gilbert and Bennett after World War II and rented to employees. Interspersed among them are several earlier gable-to-street houses built about 1880, also owned by the company. The twentieth century housing utilizes two basic plans: square and rectangular. Variety is added by varying the roof treatments of the rectangular houses. Some of the better examples are 145, 162 and 71-73 Portland Avenue. The American Foursquare style houses are concentrated in the center of this development, alternating on opposite sides of the street. 142 Portland Avenue is an example of this type.
A rare survival of rural industrial history, the Georgetown Historic District is a significant and cohesive entity which has retained its nineteenth and early-twentieth century historic character. A company town for over 160 years, almost exclusively associated with the Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company, national producers of wire products, the Georgetown Historic District contains all its well-preserved historic components: residential, industrial, and institutional architecture dating from about 1820 to 1936. Several styles are represented in the residential architecture, including a small notable group of Italianate style houses and a larger number of modest examples of nineteenth and early-twentieth century housing. The latter include a large group of Colonial Revival style duplexes, workers' housing.for employees of the Gilbert and Bennett Company.
Nineteenth century Georgetown was substantially created by the Gilbert and Bennett Company. Although there is no reason to believe that Georgetown was a social experiment, or that there was a conscious attempt to create a planned industrial community there, the company played a major role in the social and economic structure of the village in the nineteenth century and established many of its major institutions. Guided by nineteenth-century paternalism and enlightened self-interest which carried over well into the twentieth century, the company shaped a community which today resembles the rural industrial village of nineteenth-century Utopian ideology.
Nothing in the company's recorded industrial history explains this phenomenon. Most companies which survived for long periods in the same location in New England have similar histories. Capitalizing on one man's ideas, the Gilbert and Bennett Company survived the proto-industrial period, mechanized production, and adopted modern business practices by the mid-nineteenth century. After a disaster (a fire which destroyed most of the plant), the company reorganized its financial structure, and concentrated on the manufacture of a specialized product. The early part of the twentieth century saw a major capital development program as Gilbert and Bennett became producers of wire products on a national scale.
Benjamin Gilbert, the founder, a Georgetown resident, was a tanner and currier by trade. He conceived of the idea of weaving cattle and horsehair into sieves. According to tradition the hair was woven on a loom by his wife while he formed the hoops out of wood with a draw shave. Demand for his novel product created a cottage industry involving several of his neighbors. Several improvements to his original concept, which included a machine for picking (similar to one used for picking cotton) to straighten and prepare the animal hair for weaving, required waterpower, and the business eventually moved into an old sawmill on the Norwalk River downstream from the existing factory. The animal hair that was unsuitable for making sieves was also utilized for mattresses and carriage cushions, with the firm supplying the carriage manufacturers of New Haven and Bridgeport with hair for this purpose. Another side line of the company about 1850 was the manufacture of glue, again an animal by-product. In 1834 a mill site was purchased near the present Georgetown railroad station to the south of the district, remaining in operation until 1889. A salesman was employed to peddle the goods throughout New England.
The firm remained a family-oriented business. Sturgess Bennett of Wilton, who married Benjamin's eldest daughter, joined the firm about 1828. Edmond Hurlburt, also of Wilton, another son-in-law, along with William J. Gilbert, the eldest son of the founder, joined the company in 1829. In 1842, Edwin Gilbert, the second son, became a member, five years before his father died in 1847.
By the Civil War the company had installed power looms for the weaving of wire cloth, a process formerly done by the company on hand carpet looms when it produced the first insect screening in the United States. The first wire mill which was to become the foundation of the later nineteenth and twentieth century development was built in 1863. In the spring of 1874 a major fire destroyed most of the existing factory complex, with an estimated property loss of $200,000. Immediate rebuilding took place, accompanied by reorganization as a joint-stock corporation. The Danbury and Norwalk Railroad (which had run by the factory complexes both at the upper and lower pond since 1850) provided a spur line into the complex.
The homes of the major nineteenth century stockholders and officers still remain in the Georgetown Historic District, including the Aaron H. Davis House (18 Church Street), the Matthew Gregory House (4 South Church Street), the Edwin Gilbert House (50 North Main Street), and the Hiram St. John House (49 Church Street). Gregory was an early financial supporter of Benjamin Gilbert. The David H. Miller House, reputedly a fine Italianate mansion which stood across the street from the St. John House on Church Street, was torn down in this century and replaced by a modern house. Its carriage house still stands on North Main Street. Miller was one of the first non-family members to play a major role in the company. An English immigrant, he became its bookkeeper in 1856, later vice-president and treasurer, then president when Edwin Gilbert died. The St. John family, all Gilbert and Bennett stockholders, had lived in Georgetown since the eighteenth century. They were directly involved with the establishment of the Methodist Protestant Church in Georgetown (a separate group from the Methodist Episcopal).
From an early period Gilbert and Bennett's management was associated with this sect, including Benjamin Gilbert and his wife, reputed to be members of the first "class." Meetings were held at the home of Sturgess Bennett, his son, and church officers included John O. St. John, who donated the land where the church was built, and his son, Hiram whose house is still standing at 49 Church Street. After the Methodist Protestants in Georgetown voted to become Congregationalists, the Gilbert Memorial Church was constructed in 1902 by Edwin Gilbert (7 North Main Street). David H. Miller established a large trust fund for the church at this time.
Catherine Miller, the wife of David H., had been involved earlier in the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Georgetown. An Irish Catholic (born in Dublin), she supplied the construction mortgage for the church (30 Church Street). The land was provided by James Corcoran, who built his house next door (20 Church Street). The deed to the church property was first held by Thaddeus Walsh, a priest who had been supplying a "mission" to Georgetown's Irish population for several years.
The labor history of the company in the late nineteenth century has been well documented from the surviving manuscript records of the business. Apparently a Knights of Labor union was established in the Georgetown area, but the company never became a closed shop. It is clear that its pay scales were comparable for the period. In fact, Gilbert and Bennett's laborers received almost precisely the average hourly wage of all manufacturing concerns in Connecticut at this time (about $1.50) a day. The pay books of the company indicate that there was a company store (possibly the Bennett Store on North Main Street) and deductions for cord wood and rent. Tenements were rented for $4 or $5 a month, the standard rate for the period.
Most of the labor force was drawn from the major immigrant groups. Many Irish lived in Georgetown (near the lower mill) and worked at Gilbert and Bennett. Swedish immigrants actively recruited by the company arrived in great numbers by the end of the century. The Swedish neighborhood was first located in the Weston section. In the twentieth century they occupied the housing provided on Portland Avenue by the company, where they built their church (44 Portland Avenue). Scandinavian surnames also predominated on New Street by 1927. Ethnic neighborhoods were also established by the Polish and Italian immigrants in Georgetown (outside the district), although a few Italian Americans lived in the Wilton section of Portland Avenue.
Like many nineteenth-century companies, Gilbert and Bennett involved itself in the lives of its employees, requiring absolute temperance, and encouraging home ownership to the extent that it supplied low-interest mortgages. "Model" company tenements were built after the Civil War, but their number cannot be determined. Some officers of Gilbert and Bennett owned houses which they rented out to workers. It would not be until the twentieth century that the company made a concerted effort to supply workers' housing.
The twentieth century was a period of rapid expansion for Gilbert and Bennett. By 1900 Gilbert and Bennett had 147 employees, according to the Twelfth Census of the United States, representing 20 percent of the wire industry workers in Connecticut. By 1906, the last year under direct Gilbert family leadership, the company employed 600 workers and had built most of the large brick mills used for specialized manufacturing processes at the factory complex. Following World War I, undoubtedly to attract more workers to the area, the company laid out Portland Avenue in the Redding section of Georgetown on land it owned overlooking the mill pond. A few earlier houses were already located there, possibly company tenements (66, 112, 132 and 152 Portland Avenue). It proved to be an ideal location for the Colonial Revival style duplexes built as rental housing between 1920 and 1925. It is not known whether this housing, which seems to be of a level suitable for middle management, was rented by this group, or by unskilled workers. The development continued to be used as rental property until December 1947, at which time Gilbert and Bennett sold the entire group of houses apparently to their then-current residents. Many of the grantees at this time had Swedish-American surnames.
The twentieth-century expansion of Gilbert and Bennett was overseen primarily by the Miller family. David H. Miller, who became president in 1906, was succeeded by his son, Samuel J. Miller, in 1915, followed by his grandson, D. Henry Miller III, in 1936. In 1954 the presidency of the company was taken over by John Milliken, a son-in-law of David Miller II and currently serving. Raymond C. Miller, the son of D. Henry Miller III, is now vice president and secretary of Gilbert and Bennett. The Millers clearly followed the earlier Gilbert and Bennett tradition of community involvement and commitment to the social welfare of their workers. Under their leadership, the company was concerned in the education of its employees' children. It built the Gilbert and Bennett School and donated it to the town (49 New Street). It is now owned and operated as a private school, the Landmark Academy on New Street. Although it was reputed to have been built at company expense, it is clear that the employees indirectly helped pay for its construction since they agreed to forego pay raises for a specified number of years to help defray the cost of the building.
Expansion of the physical plant of the company in Georgetown in the twentieth century was accompanied by addition of new buildings elsewhere in the nation, starting in 1895. That year a large manufacturing plant was purchased in Blue Island, Illinois to serve the company's western market. Other companies in the same field were bought out by Gilbert and Bennett, including Coatings Engineering of South Natick, Massachusetts, and the Roman Wire Company of Sherman, Texas; by 1981, Toccoa, Georgia had become the site of Gilbert and Bennett warehouses. Some of its more recent products which demonstrate its command of the technology in the field of weaving, twisting or welding wire including "Yard Gard" and "Rabbit Gard" (patented fencing).
While Georgetown Historic District residents still speak with pride about the company, the modern industrial plant which exists today in Georgetown has few direct connections with the community. Although some are third-generation workers, less than ten percent of the 260 employees still live in Georgetown.
The Georgetown Historic District is a twentieth century anachronism: peaceful, tree-lined residential streets converge on a functioning industrial complex; well-preserved historic houses stand cheek-by-jowl with modern factories; the deteriorated slum neighborhoods associated with modern industry do not exist.
This residential pattern was exceptional even in the late nineteenth century. The elite of Georgetown, almost exclusively people associated with Gilbert and Bennett, lived in the midst of their workers. The predictable ethnic neighborhoods did exist in Georgetown, outside the district for the most part, but their employees were apparently encouraged to occupy, or build houses next to the mansions of the managers and officers. Furthermore, while it would be expected that the workers would live near the factory in this period, it is most unusual to find upper-class houses in this location.
Built within a short time frame (1860-1880), these Italianate style houses are well-preserved and architecturally similar. Their architectural significance is perhaps enhanced by their setting and the contrast with the more modest neighboring houses, but as a group their local architectural significance is undeniable even though they are similar in style and lack the individual architectural assertiveness common in a Victorian period. Two are individually architecturally significant, the Hiram St. John House (49 Church Street) and the Edwin Gilbert House (50 North Main Street). Despite the fact that the latter house has stood vacant and been allowed to deteriorate, it still displays most of its exceptional architectural features: eave brackets, window hoods, and the front porch with its second-story balustrade. The St. John House is exceptionally well-preserved. All of its hand-crafted details remain in place. Of particular note are the foliated brackets carved in high relief, set off by the almost austere facade. Another major difference in this house is the use of the Palladian window over the portico, an interesting and successful combination of the Georgian and Italianate styles. Although most of the sash are replacements, the architectural detailing of the verandah is original, including the unusual cutwork design of the skirt. Here the flushboarding wall of the porch enhances the decorative effect.
The remaining nineteenth century residential architecture is a major contributing component to the Georgetown Historic District. Although none of the houses is exceptional in its own right, this group is generally well-preserved and for the most part has retained its architectural integrity. Some of the better examples have retained their original siding and modest Victorian detail. They include 6 Church Street, a well-preserved example of a quite plain nineteenth century gable-to-street house and the W.R. Smith House, a Victorian cottage at 54 North Main Street next to the Bennett House, which is set off by its foliated bargeboards.
The nineteenth century churches in the Georgetown Historic District are also architecturally significant, well-preserved examples of ecclesiastical architecture, especially the fine Carpenter Gothic style Church of the Sacred Heart. It is an exceptional example of its type and it has retained all of its exterior features (30 Church Street). This style is also executed in stone in the Gilbert Memorial Church, almost a miniature of similar cathedrals of the period (7 North Main Street). Typical of institutional architecture, particularly libraries and chapels built around the turn of the century, this church is distinguished by its exceptional stonework and degree of detail, which is set off by the original slate-shingled roof. The only major stone building in the district, it was located right next to the factory, a site chosen by Edwin Gilbert.
The twentieth century housing development created by Gilbert and Bennett is remarkable for two reasons: first, as a rare example of twentieth century workers' housing, and second, because it is exceptionally well-preserved. Most of the houses still display architectural features which were installed to provide variety to quite similar forms. These include not only a variety of roof types and porches, but, for example, dentil work in the cornices and imbricated shingles found on the pedimented gables of the American Foursquares, of which there are five on the street (142 Portland Avenue is one of the best-preserved examples). The degree of style used on these multi-family houses is in itself unusual, adding significance to this body of architecture.
The industrial complex itself contains a number of significant buildings. For the most part there has been little modification to the exterior of the historic mills. The fenestration pattern, the sash, and the variety of openings, stone and brick arches, and lintels, have been preserved. Rather than change these buildings, there seems to have been a deliberate effort on the part of Gilbert and Bennett to retain the historic facades, do interior modifications where necessary for modernization, and connect these buildings to more modern additions. Running along North Main Street on the west side of the complex is an example of this type where three or four different styles of industrial building are joined together and extend for more than 1,000 feet. One of the best examples of the historic factory buildings at Gilbert and Bennett is also located at 20 North Main Street along the south side of the complex. Built in an unusual shape to accommodate its location between the spur track of the railroad and the Norwalk River, it has retained all of its exterior integrity and is an exceptionally well-preserved example of early nineteenth-century industrial architecture. Most of the other historic buildings at the factory are obscured from view, either due to their location in the complex or because of the presence of the exceptionally large, metal-framed, warehouses built in the last 20 years, which tend to overwhelm some of the smaller neighboring historic buildings. The early-nineteenth century building which still serves the company as an office is an architecturally significant example of its type. Really a Bungalow executed in cobblestone, it makes quite a contrast both in scale and type with the larger industrial buildings behind it. Again, a need for more space resulted in an addition to the rear of this building rather than a modification to its existing form or exterior.
Baldwin, Irene. "Georgetown and Its People," Danbury State College 1965. (On file, Mark Twain Library, Redding, Connecticut).
Feeley, Marc B. "Gilbert and Bennett: An American Success Story" (Typescript on file, Wilton Public Library, n.d.).
Georgetown, Connecticut. Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company, MSS. 1856-1947.
Hurd, D. Hamilton. History of Fairfield County, Connecticut with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis and Company, 1881.
Knowles, Phillip H., and Raymond C. Miller. The Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company, 150th Anniversary. Georgetown, Connecticut: The Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company, 1968.
Norwood, Frederick A. A History of the United Methodists and Their Relations. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.
Rockwell, George L. History of Ridgefield. Ridgefield: 1927 (1979 reprint).
Simpson, Matthew. Cyclopedia of Methodism 5th ed. Philadelphia: Louis Everts, 1882.
Todd, Charles Burr. The History of Redding, Connecticut. New York: 1906.
Warner, Lucien. "Proposed Union of the Congregational United Brethren and Methodist Protestant Churches." Reprinted from the Bibliotheca Sacra, 1906.
† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Georgetown Historic District, Fairfield County, CT, nomination document, 1987, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.