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National Hall Historic District


The National Hall Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. 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

The National Hall Historic District lies on the west bank of the Saugatuck River in Westport, Connecticut. A mixed commercial/residential district, it lies at the bottom of a hill which flattens into a narrow plain along the west bank of the Saugatuck River. The National Hall Historic District is a small one, consisting of eleven buildings clustered at or near the crossroads of the historic Post Road, a route established for mail distribution in the eighteenth century, and Wilton Road and Riverside Avenue, both of which run parallel to the west bank of the Saugatuck River north and south of the intersection with the Post Road.

The National Hall Historic District extends along the Post Road from the Saugatuck River Bridge west to Wright Street half-way up the hill overlooking the river. On the north end of the district the boundaries extend a short distance north of the Post Road up Wilton Road to include the former Vigilant Fire Station. The south end of the National Hall Historic District includes several buildings along Riverside Avenue. The range of architectural styles represented in the National Hall Historic District includes Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Colonial Revival. Most of the buildings are commercial in nature, although there are also some house/shop combinations and two single-family houses. The former Vigilant Fire Station is the sole public building in the National Hall Historic District. Most of the buildings in the National Hall Historic District are of brick, but nearly half are of frame construction. The National Hall Historic District is low-rise in character, in contrast to the construction on the hill west of the district. The tallest building in the National Hall Historic District is the three-and-a-half story Italianate former First National Bank of Westport/National Hall Building at 2 Post Road West near the Saugatuck River Bridge. The hose-drying tower of the Colonial Revival Vigilant Fire Station rises five stories on the river side of Wilton Road. The remaining buildings in the National Hall Historic District are two or two-and-a-half stories tall.

Visually the core of the National Hall Historic District is centered around the intersection of the Post Road, Wilton Road and Riverside Avenue. The Post Road serves as the main route. Nearly all the buildings in the National Hall Historic District are visible from this intersection.

The north side of the block of the Post Road between the bridge and the Wilton Road/Riverside Avenue intersection has survived remarkably intact. This block includes buildings from two of Westport's periods of growth; the two small gable-front frame early nineteenth-century commercial/residential buildings at 14 and 18 date from the period that the west bank became a shipping and commercial center, while the former First National Bank of Westport/National Hall and 8 Post Road date from the late nineteenth century period of post-Civil War prosperity. The brick facades and bold Victorian ornament contrasts with the simple gable-roofed frame Federal style structures. The south side of the block is completely taken up by 5-23 Post Road, a large two-story brick early twentieth century commercial building. This structure wraps around the corner and extends an equal distance along the east side of Riverside Avenue. Its facade is divided by banded brick pilasters into sections three bays wide. Each section comprises the width of one storefront. This treatment gives the building a faceted shape as it turns the corner, enhancing the interest of a facade which otherwise tends toward blandness. The sheer size of the building helps to balance the taller and more massive First National Bank of Westport/National Hall Building on the opposite site of the street.

West of the intersection of Wilton Road/Riverside Avenue are two houses oriented toward the Post Road. Both are on the south side of the street and both date from the first half of the nineteenth century. The Daniel Platt House, at 25 Post Road dates c.1843 and was altered c.1870. The house's exterior appearance is mainly a product of the c.1870 remodelling, and it closely resembles the common three-bay gable-front Italianate house that was popular in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The Davis Taylor House is a Federal/Greek Revival transitional frame house. Unlike the Platt House, its roof ridge lies parallel to the street and elliptical fanlights with keystones are set in the gable ends. The fenestration and window surrounds appear to be original, but the sash and main entry have been altered.

Two properties on Wilton Road are included in the National Hall Historic District. 1-3 Wilton Road, a small Federal house/shop combination is located on the west side of the intersection and mirrors the style of the Federal style properties at 14 and 18 Post. Road. On the south end of the building is a one-story nineteenth-century wing which houses a store. On the east side of Wilton Road behind 14 and 18 Post Road is the handsome brick Colonial Revival Vigilant Fire Station built in 1931. A five-story hose tower at the rear of the building commands a view of the Saugatuck River. The two-story station stands with its gable end fronting on Wilton Road and a modern garage bay gives access to the truck storage facilities on the first floor. Although the main block is austere in its design, unusual brick corbelling enhances the square hose tower.

In addition to the large brick commercial at 5-23 Post Road one other contributing building in the National Hall Historic District fronts on Riverside Avenue. Located on the east side of the street adjacent to 5-23 Post Road, 11 Riverside Avenue is a modest two-story brick turn-of-the-century commercial building. The corbelled brick frieze is the sole ornament of the pleasant commercial building. Joining 5-23 and 11 Riverside Avenue is an infill building of mid-twentieth century date. This tiny one-story commercial structure with its stone facade is the only structure which does not contribute to the district.

The original appearance of the district is somewhat difficult to determine, although several old photographic views, a woodcut and the early maps help to create a sense of the bustling commercial hub. A woodcut of Westport's west bank c.1835 shows a low-rise, but densely built commercial section oriented toward the riverbank and its shipping.[1]

Turn-of-the-century photographs[2] show, with the exception of the early twentieth-century structures, that the district has changed very little. Early nineteenth-century frame commercial/residential buildings similar to those on the north side of the Post Road lined the south side of the Post Road between the river and Riverside Avenue. These were replaced c.1925 by the present brick commercial structure. On the west side of Wilton Road, outside the district, was located the wooden firehouse of the Vigilant Hose Company. The east side of the street was not densely built, and only a few frame storage buildings (now demolished) were located in the rear of National Hall. Farther north, outside the district, was a compact cluster of frame buildings (also demolished), several of which were oriented towards the river. South of the Post Road, outside the district, was the former starch factory complex. On the hills above the district were scattered houses. The nine contributing buildings which form the core of the National Hall Historic District have changed little since c.1931, when the last building in the district was constructed.

Significance

The National Hall Historic District is significant because it is representative of the evolution of Westport's important west bank commercial center. It includes a core of early nineteenth-century commercial/residential buildings, a rare survival in the state. These buildings were associated not only with land-based enterprises, but with the coastal shipping trade of the period. The few buildings which survive from what was once the business center and social center of Westport between c.1800 and c.1935 have been modified and remodelled over the years, but still retain their integrity. They embody the distinctive characteristics of the type of commercial and residential buildings constructed during this period. The National Hall Historic District is also important because it is associated with several of Westport's leading nineteenth-century businessmen, including Davis Taylor, Daniel Platt, Philo Jones, William Edgar Nash and Horace Staples, not only as their place of business, but in the case of Taylor, Platt and Nash, as their residence.

History of the District

Westport is a small shoreline town on Long Island Sound approximately fifty miles northeast of New York City. The Saugatuck River bisects Westport from north to south and empties into the Sound. Originally the land on the west bank of the Saugatuck River was part of the Town of Norwalk while the property on the east bank belonged to the Town of Fairfield. Settlement of the area which later became the Town of Westport began in the second half of the seventeenth century. The core of what became the village of Saugatuck, a community of wharves, warehouses, stores and a tavern, was built on the west bank of the river near the King's Highway (later known as the Boston Post Road) in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. After the Revolutionary War the village began to develop as a shipping center and a bridge was built connecting the two banks of the river at approximately the same spot as the present Post Road bridge.[3]

During the nineteenth century the west bank near the bridge served as the area's commercial hub. Shops, the local newspaper office and the town's first bank were located there, and a large amount of coastal shipping cargo was loaded and unloaded at wharves adjacent to the bridge. The prosperous economy and enlarged population encouraged Daniel Nash, a leading resident of the west bank, to apply to the General Assembly for permission to incorporate a new town. The charter for the Town of Westport was granted on May 25, 1835.[4] The economy of the newly incorporated town centered around shipping; at least ten people in town owned one or more ships at the time that Westport was founded and the 1840 census shows forty-eight people engaged in marine activities, of which ten were ship captains.[5]

The earliest buildings in the National Hall Historic District date from the early nineteenth-century. These five buildings include three house/shop combinations at 14 and 18 Post Road West and 1-3 Wilton Road, as well as two houses at 25 and 35 Post Road West. 14 Post Road was built c.1830, probably for Daniel Platt. Platt owned a store and wharf on the west bank by 1830 and he also operated a carriage shop on Riverside Avenue. 18 Post Road was probably constructed a little earlier than its neighbor, possibly as early as c.1820. The original owner is unknown, but the property was sold to Davis Taylor, William Burwell and Samuel Gorham III by Thomas Whitlock in 1837. Davis Taylor was the proprietor of a hat shop on the west bank as early as 1830, and contemporary advertisements suggest that he also ran a general store, perhaps at this site. Philo Jones was in the saddlery and harness business and he occupied the second floor of Davis' shop. Jones was a respected and prominent citizen of Westport. In the course of his business he taught many apprentices his trade and in 1848 he was appointed deputy to High Sheriff Charles Isaac of Norwalk. Jones served in this capacity until 1854, and was later elected High Sheriff of Fairfield County. In 1850 he was appointed Assistant U.S. Marshall and was also in charge of taking the census in Westport, Weston and Easton. During the Civil War he served as enrolling officer for Westport and Weston. Jones was also active in church affairs, sitting on the building committee of Christ Church (built 1834), where he was a warden of the church.[6]

The Daniel Platt House at 25 Post Road and the Davis Taylor House at 35 Post Road were built c.1843 and c.1820 respectively. Later 35 Post Road was the home of Hezekiah Nichols, the manager of the Westport Hotel, located on the east bank of the river on the Post Road at the present site of the Westport YMCA.[7] In 1875 the house was purchased by William Edgar Nash, a prominent citizen of Westport. Nash owned a drug, book and stationary store in Westport for many years and was active in the local Library Association, the Willowbrook Cemetery Association, the State Street Railroad Company and the Westport Electric Light and Water Company.[8]

The origins of 1-3 Wilton Road, another house/shop combination, are not well documented. The building does not appear on this site until after 1879,[9] although in style, construction and function it is obviously similar to 14 and 18 Post Road. It may be that this building was moved to the corner of Wilton Road and the Post Road from a nearby site as Westport grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The next period of construction represented in the National Hall Historic District is the late nineteenth-century. During this period of post-Civil War prosperity three buildings were constructed in the district: the former First National Bank of Westport/National Hall building at 2 Post Road, a commercial building at 8 Post Road and a commercial building at 11 Riverside Avenue.

The largest and perhaps the most impressive building in the National Hall Historic District is the former First National Bank of Westport/National Hall Building, constructed in 1873 to house the local bank, two stores and a large meeting hall, called National Hall. Although National Hall post-dates most of the other buildings in the district, it is a key structure in interpreting Westport's history, and more particularly the history of the west bank. The prosperous times which followed the Civil War seemed to herald a new era, and National Hall is representative of this new era. The bank had originally been housed in a frame Federal style structure which once stood on the site of 8 Post Road adjacent to the present National Hall. When National Hall was built it was the most important business block in town. Unlike its early nineteenth century neighbors, it was built of brick and its three-and-a-half-story height towered over the landscape when viewed from the east bank. Its construction confirmed the west bank as Westport's main commercial center, even though by the 1870s another commercial center, on the east bank, was also established. Much of the town's business continued to be transacted on the West bank and the construction of a large meeting hall on the top floor of the new bank building made the structure the social, as well as the business center, of town. Nearly every graduation exercise, dance, card party, play or carnival held in Westport was held at National Hall through the early twentieth-century.[10]

Horace Staples, a leading Westport businessman, was the driving force behind the construction of this important Westport landmark. Staples owned and operated a highly successful lumber and hardware business on the west end of the bridge and he also controlled a large amount of the farm land in Westport. In 1852 he was one of the incorporators of the Saugatuck Bank (later the First National Bank of Westport) and he served as bank president for forty-four years. Under his presidency National Hall was built. Staples also had a great interest in public education, and he was among the earliest and most ardent advocates of a public high school in Westport. In 1866 he offered to donate land for a graded high school, but community interest was lacking. By 1884 he succeeded in establishing a graded high school and until the fine new brick school was completed oral tradition maintains that National Hall served as classrooms, thus making it the site of Westport's first public high school.[11] Staples High School, since its establishment in the late nineteenth century, has been known for the high standard of academic excellence it maintains.

In the late nineteenth century the bank shared the first floor of the building with Charles Fable, who operated a furniture store and undertaking business, and Oscar I. Jones, who operated a plumbing business. The offices of the local newspaper, the Westporter-Herald were located on the second floor while social clubs and fraternal orders met on the third floor in the meeting hall. National Hall, was the original meeting place for Temple Lodge F & A.M. and Foresters of America, and later became a meeting place for the Knights of Columbus and the Shepherds of Bethlehem. By 1929 the Connecticut State Police maintained an office in the building. Most recently the building was occupied by the Fairfield Furniture Store, but it is now vacant.[12]

8 Post Road is an Italianate commercial building with a brick facade. It was probably constructed c.1880, under the ownership of John Burke, who owned the property between 1875 and 1896. In 1896 John S. Jones, the editor of the Westporter-Herald, purchased the building and the paper was published at this site for a short time.[13]

11 Riverside Avenue was built c.1900 and in the early twentieth century Leonard H. and John K. Gault operated Gault Brothers, a coal and feed business in this two-story brick commercial building.[14]

The last major period of construction in the National Hall Historic District was the period between World War I and World War II. Both 5-23 Post Road, a large brick commercial building, and 10 Wilton Road, the former Vigilant Fire Station, were built during this period. 5-23 Post Road was built c.1925[15] and this large two-story structure housed a variety of stores with offices on the second floor. The former Vigilant Fire Station was built in 1931 on Wilton Road on property formerly owned by the Burr family. The Vigilant Fire Company was an off-shoot of the original Saugatuck Fire Engine Company which was founded when the town received its charter. In 1874, after the construction of National Hall, the Vigilant Fire Engine Company was formed specifically to protect the west bank from damage by fire. The participants were property owners and businessmen of the district. Oscar I. Jones, the owner of the plumbing business in National Hall, was the president of the organization. Fred Sherwood, who owned a store on the west bank served as foreman. The fire engine was purchased through donations provided by Horace Staples (see above) and Edward H. and Andrew C. Nash, local merchants. The first fire engine, was purchased second-hand in New York, but it had originally served the City of Baltimore, where it had been christened "Vigilant." The company took their name from this first fire engine. A small wooden firehouse was built on the west side of Wilton Road, north of the Post Road intersection. Eventually the functions of the volunteers' fire-fighting force were delegated to the direction of the municipal government and in 1924 a site for a new and modern fire station was purchased across the street. The fire chief reported in the Westport annual report of 1931 that "a new brick Fire Station and Hose Tower is in the course of construction at the present time to replace the old wooden house of the Vigilant Hose Co." Thus, the present Colonial Revival fire station, with its unusual hose tower, was constructed, the newest building which contributes to the significance of the district.[16]

Endnotes

  1. Edward Coley Birge, Westport, Connecticut (New York: The Writers Publishing Company, Inc., 1926), frontispiece.
  2. Collection of Westport Historical Society.
  3. "History of Westport," Westport Historical Society brochure.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sixth Annual Federal Census, 1840, population schedule, Town of Westport.
  6. Westport Land Records. See also "Ownership of Real Estate in Westport One Hundred Years Ago and Sidelights," unpublished manuscript by Judge Joseph Adams, 1951, available in the collection of the Westport Historical Society. See also "The Staples Scrapbook," unpublished collection of Westport newspaper clippings dating back to the nineteenth century in the collection of the Westport Historical Society.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Commemorative and Biographical Record of Fairfield County, p.522.
  9. 1879 Map of Westport, by G.M. Hopkins, C.E., 320 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, published by F. Bourquin's Steam Press, 31 South Sixth Street, Philadelphia, PA., 1879.
  10. "Your Westport and Mine" newspaper clipping dating from 1929, available at the Westport Historical Society.
  11. "Staples Scrapbook," clipping from the Westport News January 27, 1971.
  12. "Your Westport and Mine."
  13. "Ownership of Real Estate in Westport."
  14. Ibid.
  15. Westport City Directories, published by Price and Lee.
  16. "Staples Scrapbook," p.30. See also Annual Reports of Officers of the Town of Westport, 1931, p.34.

References

Annual Reports of Officers of the Town of Westport, Westport, 1931.

Commemorative and Biographical Record of Fairfield County. (Hartford: J.H. Beers and Company, 1899).

"History of Westport," Westport Historical Society brochure, reprinted from The Jennings Trail Tour Guide (Westport: 1975).

"Ownership of Real Estate in Westport One Hundred Years Ago," Judge Joseph Adams, unpublished manuscript available at the Westport Historical Society, 1951.

Sixth Annual Federal Census, 1840, population schedule for the Town of Westport.

"Staples Scrapbook," unpublished manuscript available at the Westport Historical Society, compiled by Mrs. William C. Staples, 1889-1909.

Westport Land Records, Town Hall, Westport.

"Your Westport and Mine," newspaper clipping dated 1929, in the collection of the Westport Historical Society.

† Kate Ohno, consultant, Wetport Historic District Commission and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, National Hall Historic District, Westport, CT, nomination document, 1983, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

National Hall Historic District Map

Street Names
Post Road West • Riverside Avenue • Route 1 • Route 33 • Wilton Road

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