Stratford Center Historic District
The Stratford Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. 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 Stratford Center National Register Historic District is a 300-building historic enclave situated along the west bank of the Housatonic River immediately to the south and east of the Connecticut Turnpike (Interstate 95) in the Town of Stratford, Connecticut. It contains the intact contiguous portion of an early nucleated village, the origins of which date to 1639. It contains examples of most major architectural styles which found expression in the domestic architecture of west coastal Connecticut between the late-17th century and the present time.
The Stratford Center Historic District boundaries have been drawn to roughly parallel the area laid out into house lots by the first English inhabitants. The site was selected on account of its being readily defensible, with the wide river estuary to the east and impassable tidal marshes on the south and west. A wood palisade marked the northern extent of the settlement (also the present District boundary) at Broad Street.
The north/south thoroughfares, Main and Elm Streets, were laid out with a width of eight to twelve rods, and the three original cross streets (Broad Street, Stratford Avenue and South Avenue) divided the settlement into deep blocks, the centers of which could be farmed in case of a long siege. Main Street has 25-foot-wide aprons (the space between highway and sidewalk), and the houses across it are generally approximately 150 feet apart. Elm Street to the south of Stratford Avenue contains an especially wide (75-foot) apron along its west side. The deep blocks were subdivided during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and the area presently contained within the Stratford Center Historic District measures some seven blocks from north to south and from one to three blocks east to west.
The area to the south of the Stratford Center Historic District still contains some marshland, although much has been filled during the present century for the construction of modern housing and industrial plants. To the south of Birdseye Street are a handful of pre-20th century structures, but these exist in a severely compromised environment of dense housing of recent construction. To the west, the Connecticut Turnpike neatly separated the Stratford Center Historic District from a 20th century neighborhood of sharply differing scale, and to the south of this the west boundary has been drawn to include the nucleated village-scaled, mostly 18th and 19th century structures along Main and West Broad Streets while deleting an early-20th century neighborhood to the west which constitutes an entirely separate developmental entity. To the east, the Housatonic River and some former marshland (now mostly reclaimed and developed for commercial use) form the boundary, which also excludes Academy Hill Terrace, a mid-20th century housing development. The north boundary does not include the modern commercial center of Stratford, which was redeveloped after 1915, and also deletes an unrelating 20th-century residential development between Broad Street and the Connecticut Turnpike. Also not included is a 20th century strip commercial development along Stratford Avenue at the center of the District.
The present Stratford Center Historic District includes most of what was the built-up area of the town at the beginning of the present century. The former farm and woodlands which surrounded it now contain solidly built-up neighborhoods which stand in sharp contrast to what had been developed in previous centuries. The Stratford Center Historic District, then, with its large-scaled house lots and concentration of historic architecture, comprises a clearly-identifiable entity of an historic town center.
Following is a description of the individual streetscapes contained within the Stratford Center Historic District:
Main Street has always been the focal point of the town, the setting for its churches, public institutions and the like and the location of the finest houses. The northern half is highlighted by the First Congregational Church and Christ Episcopal Church, two mid-19th century structures located close by their Colonial burying-grounds, the 19th century library, and St. James Roman Catholic Church, an early 20th century edifice. Nearly half the buildings on this street (as is the case throughout the district) are of pre-Civil War vintage, and later infill structures have maintained the scale and harmony of the existing framework.
Elm Street, once known as Front Street, parallels Main Street one block closer to the Housatonic River. Its houses are only slightly less imposing in general than those along Main Street, and there are some notable pre-Revolutionary dwellings (particularly the William Beach and Captain Samuel Southworth houses) that must have been showplaces of the town two and one-quarter centuries ago.
East Broadway, the northern boundary of the Stratford Center Historic District and highway to the Washington Bridge over the Housatonic River, contains several pre-Revolutionary houses, a smattering of Federal era half-houses, and a concentration of Italianate and Gothic dwellings built in the 1850s.
Judson Place, apparently laid out circa 1880, contains several handsome Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses in the block between Main and Elm Streets. East of Elm Street is a development of identical two and one-half story Victorian Gothic houses built around 1890.
White Street includes additional components of the Victorian Gothic development of Judson Place as well as a mixture of Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne workers' houses.
Broad Street is highlighted by a development of six houses between Main and Elm Streets (apparently coupled with the remodeling of the David Plant House at the corner of Elm Street) that dates from around 1850. The houses face Academy Hill Green. The Main Street end of the grouping is closed off by the present Stratford Red Cross building, an unusually impressive Italianate villa.
Academy Hill Green is an open space of approximately six acres occupying the north and west slopes of "Watch House Hill," the location of seventeenth century fortifications. It was also the site of the Congregational Church in the 18th century, and takes its name from an early 19th century school. Today its only occupants are a Civil War monument and the 18th century Episcopal cemetery.
West Broad Street, once a segment of the Boston Post Road, is separated at this point by the South Parade Grounds, a small public common. At the west end is the Frederick Benjamin Mansion, one of the state's best examples of a fully-developed Italianate villa.
Stratford Avenue includes the previously mentioned commercial strip which has been omitted from the Stratford Center Historic District. East of Elm Street it becomes a narrow lane that connects with the Lower Dock (see Shore Road for description). The south side here is lined with early houses of a generally lesser scale than those found in the rest of the village, and were perhaps the homes of workmen connected with port activities. The north side has not been included in the district as it consists of a row of World War I-era two family houses which are incompatible with the Stratford Center Historic District in terms of density and scale.
Shore Road skirts the Housatonic River from Mac's Harbor to the Lower Dock. It includes the Housatonic Boat Club, a late Victorian structure. At Lower Dock is a public wharf (now known as Bond's Dock), the origins of which go back at least a century and a half. There is also a cluster of port-related buildings, including a store, several early houses, and what was apparently an oysterman's cottage.
South Avenue, the center of the earliest English settlement, transverses an area known as "Sandy Hollow." Its houses are generally lesser reflections of the architectural styles represented on the main streets.
The old center of Stratford contains a substantially intact 17th-century village plan, later adapted for use as a suburban community with the advent of the railroad and the trolley car. One of the earliest places to be settled along the coastline of Long Island Sound, the Stratford Center Historic District has a well-preserved concentration of historic buildings which represent the architectural development of a Connecticut seaport town over a period of some three centuries. The 17th and 18th century homesteads, Federal period town-houses, Greek Revival and Victorian villas, and early-20th century suburban, houses have thus far withstood massive redevelopment efforts and continue to evoke a strong sense of small town antecedents. The Academy Hill Green area, site of 17th century fortifications, presents the potential for archeological investigation.
The Town of Stratford was founded in 1639 by the Rev. Adam Blakeman and a contingent of his followers from the settlements of the Connecticut River Valley. From its beginnings, it was included within the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Colony (its neighbor to the east, Milford, was part of the New Haven Colony). The early English settlers were drawn to the location by its situation at the mouth of a navigable river, with its safe anchorage, as well as by prospects for trade with inland regions, by its extensive available pasturage in the form of salt meadows, and by its fertile, ledge-free soil and marine climate. The township extended west to what is now Park Avenue in Bridgeport and north to the Halfway River and included all or part of the present towns of Bridgeport, Trumbull, Easton, Monroe and Huntington.
Prior to the 1650s the inhabitants had managed to fence off a number of peninsulas jutting into the Sound for livestock pasture and crop cultivation. These were known by such names as Old Field, New Field, and New Pasture. By the 1660s three gristmills — two powered by the tide and one by a swift-flowing inland stream provided for the needs of the town. For at least the first quarter century all dwellings were located within the confines of the village center for protection against Dutch or Indian attack.
Stratford appears to have been an important and influential town during its early years. The area laid out into house-lots, for example, was much larger than at adjoining Fairfield or Milford, both also established in 1639. Stratford was the parent town of a number of other settlements, including Woodbury (set off in 1674 after an ecclesiastical dispute in the Stratford Church) and Newtown in 1705. There was an extensive coastal and West Indies trade as well as an important linen industry.
Like most areas of New England, Stratford was a Puritan community, with its Congregational meeting house at the summit of a hill at the town center. However, there were also a substantial number of followers of the Church of England, which resulted in the founding of Connecticut's first Episcopal parish here in 1707. One especially influential citizen during the eighteenth century was Dr. Samuel W. Johnson, "Father of Episcopacy in Connecticut," who was also the founder of King's College (now Columbia University) in New York. His son was William Samuel Johnson, member of the Constitutional Convention, first President of Columbia College, and first United States Senator from Connecticut.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, Stratford's influence was at its zenith. The town still controlled its originally-granted hinterlands, and its large population (5,555) made it the largest town in Fairfield County. Its port, centered at the Lower Dock, carried on extensive trading of local produce in the Southern colonies and the West Indies and was a base for the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound fisheries. The village was the commercial center for a wide area of southwestern Connecticut.
For some unknown reason (or perhaps because of the conservatism of established businessmen) the influence of Stratford Center began to decline after the war. Many young veterans settled at the western edge of the town around Newfield Harbor where a village was laid out in the 1780s. This village, by 1800 called Bridgeport, seemed to sap the vitality of both Stratford and Fairfield, its neighbor to the west, and its growth and power mushroomed in the shipping boom of the early nineteenth century. By 1821 Bridgeport held a majority of voters over Stratford Center, and it was decided that the two communities be officially separated (the northern two-thirds of Stratford had become the independent, town of Huntington in 1789).
Judging from architectural evidence, Stratford did not completely languish in the shadow of her daughter town during the first half of the nineteenth century. New structures were built, but they fit within the old traditional Colonial framework of town development. House-lots remained large, and wide streets never needed to be encroached upon. There are a number of examples of Stratfordites moving to Bridgeport or New York to make their fortunes and returning to the village for the summer months, which perhaps accounts for some of the sophisticated Greek Revival architecture encountered.
The New York and New Haven Railroad, completed in 1848, did little to attract industry to the town, but it did consolidate the business district in an area between the station and the Congregational Church as well as make the village available to Bridgeport commuters for suburban house sites. A number of impressive Italianate Villas of the 1850s and '60s still distinguish the village.
A nineteenth century writer described the character of Stratford Center in this period:
"Our Stratford, if not a place of pilgrimage or fame, has advantages and charms which are not to be summed up in one single sentence. Nor has it committed itself to any fixed idea or exhausted its strength in any one direction. The place is unique, with a character and ways of its own; it has the flavor of wealth without the turmoil of commerce or manufactures; the flavor of exclusiveness without the pretenses of fashion; the flavor of culture without any tinge of pedantry. It is rural, yet neither primitive nor crude; easily accessible, yet isolated by its contrast to its surroundings; picturesque, though it offers little to the seeker of wild and romantic scenery; a place of 'summer resort' yet affording no facilities to the vulgar tourist. It is in New England, yet curiously unlike New England in most of its characteristics, while its quiet, mellow tone, tending to soothe the mind and inspire contentment, generally suggests the remark that it is 'so English.'"
Stratford's population in 1890 stood at 2,608, centered mainly in the village with the remainder scattered on outlying farms. The Bridgeport Horse Car Company extended its lines down Stratford Avenue in 1891, however, making available low-priced building lots without high city taxes and beginning the town's period of growth as a bedroom town for urban industrial workers. Public gas and water were made available in 1905, and electrification took place in 1908.
An intensive boom period began around 1914 with the expansion of Bridgeport's munitions industry. Hundreds of new homes were built all over the town, and by 1918 the population was estimated at 10,000. An article by Ruth Ogden appearing in the Bridgeport Sunday Post of 3 October, 1915 describes the new Stratford Trust Company and gives an insight into developments at that time: "...Business is business and Stratford is growing — is in fact coming into its own at last according to the views of Walter Goddard, secretary-treasurer of the new concern, who feels that Stratford would have been the logical place for a city to grow up, rather than Bridgeport, and that if its inhabitants had shown some signs of enterprise in the far past. Main Street, Stratford, would now have the white lights instead of Main Street, Bridgeport. Looking out on the beautiful wide street, placid in the sunlight of a rare October morning, one — or at least I — felt rather inclined to congratulate the early settlers on their lack of push. However, that is neither here nor there. The people are coming to Stratford, and coming fast, and apparently the new Trust Company has seized upon the psychological moment to make its appearance upon the stage."
The article goes on to deplore the destruction of a Colonial house allegedly built in 1670 for the construction of the bank's new headquarters.
The movement towards preservation of this house, while unsuccessful, drew such notables as Mrs. William Howard Taft to the town and perhaps served as inspiration for the retention and restoration of other early buildings.
At any rate, it is apparent that Stratford's, historic architecture came to be appreciated in the early part of the present century. Feature articles in Bridgeport newspapers focused attention on important buildings and lauded efforts at adaptive reuse. Several historic houses were moved out of the way of new construction to more protected locations, and new buildings reflected pride in the area's heritage in its general use of Colonial Revival forms. As with many old New England village centers that came to be populated by people of means, a de facto historic district came into existence which controlled architectural designs by neighborhood pressure, succeeding in preserving it as an historic enclave in the midst of modern developments.
Stratford has grown to a population today in excess of 50,000. During World War II aircraft manufacturing came into prominence as a local industry, which continues at present. The nearby Bridgeport Municipal Airport and the Connecticut Turnpike have taken their toll on the historic ambiance of the village, and new apartment, office, and commercial developments surround it on all sides. It remains, however, a noticeably, different environment, a seventeenth century village plan still functioning in the midst of a modern industrial suburb with its essential qualities of space and scale intact.
The only major changes from pre-World War II character to date have been the conversion of many houses to office use. However, the existing balance is a delicate one, and only a handful of scarring, incompatible intrusions could destroy the qualities that have been retained after more than three centuries and blend the historic center in with the rest of the mainly undistinguished town.
Town of Stratford Land Records
Wilcoxson, William Howard: History of Stratford, Connecticut. Stratford: Stratford Tercentenary Commission, 1939.
Stratford Historic District Study Committee: Report on the Proposed Academy Hill Historic District. Submitted Fall. 1976.
† Charles W. Brilvitch, consultant, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Boston Post Road Historic District, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.