Wilton Center Historic District
The Wilton Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Wilton Center Historic District consists of 15 major buildings, six associated outbuildings, and one stone dam. These resources stand along Ridgefield Road, Lovers Lane, and the south end of Belden Hill Road, which all intersect in front of the Congregational Church that is the central building in the district, The Wilton Center Historic District is in the south-central part of the Town of Wilton. The area is primarily residential, with continuing religious use of the church and community use of the Townhouse (the former Town Hall, built in 1832). The town also maintains a small park at the foot of Lovers Lane. Buildings in the Wilton Center Historic District are mostly late-18th century to mid-19th century, several with Victorian modifications; two Colonial Revival houses are also included. Along Ridgefield Road, the church and the buildings across from it are set close to the road, but to the north and west the houses are set back on landscaped grounds. Along Lovers Lane, a narrow thoroughfare winding among steep slopes, the buildings were placed more to take advantage of limited level ground than to assert any relationship to the street. Mature shade trees surround most of the houses, and there are several small barns that date from the late 19th century or earlier.
The houses in the Wilton Center Historic District have clapboarded or wood-shingled exteriors, stone foundations, and one or two brick chimneys. The Davenport House, at the edge of the district, is a simply detailed 5-bay, 2-1/2-story, center-chimney dwelling, entirely typical of the houses of late 18th-century farmers of middling means. The dwellings closer to the church, though all have massing similar to the Davenport House, all exhibit structural features (e.g., the central-hall plan) or Classically inspired decorative treatments (e.g., pilaster-and-lintel entries, elliptical transoms, window hoodmolds, and round-arched gable-end windows) characteristic of Federal style architecture. The church reflects its 1844 remodeling in the Greek Revival style, particularly the flush-boarded Doric pavilion that was added to the front of the building. Along Lovers Lane, the character of the buildings is not so consistent as in the rest of the district, due to a history of mixed use, including milling, as well as 19th and early 20th century modifications. The Silas Gregory House retains part of its original Federal style entry treatment in the transom and sidelights, but the portico is a Colonial Revival addition. The Gregory-Merwin House has embedded within it some fabric from a small c.1800 house associated with the nearby mill, but its current appearance owes more to Victorian-era remodeling, including the porch with chamfered posts and pointed-arch attic window.
With the exception of the Merwin Barn, the barns in the Wilton Center Historic District are small and unornamented. The Merwin Barn is not only twice as large as the other barns, but features a squat, hip-roofed cupola. The dam was built to take advantage of a natural ledge that creates a 25-foot-high waterfall as Comstock Brook passes over it. The ledge itself served as the spillway, with wingwalls built up at the banks to provide a small forebay.
Overall the Wilton Center Historic District retains a high degree of historical integrity due to the limited construction in the last 100 years. As a result, the district provides a rare opportunity to grasp the diversity of land use in small village centers during the late Colonial and early national periods, with the church, the town hall, one of the town's largest waterpowered mills (not extant), and residences, all within a few score feet of each other. The only two 20th century houses have ample yards in keeping with the setting of the earlier structures, and both exhibit a picturesque Colonial Revival appearance that complements the older houses. Unsympathetic modifications to the Wilton Center Historic District's buildings are few, and major buildings such as the church, the parsonage, and the Nathan Comstock House retain virtually all of their exterior fabric.
The boundaries of the Wilton Center Historic District were chosen to encompass all the visually contiguous resources and virtually all of the historic extent of the small village center. To the south and northwest, the space between neighboring buildings increases to tenths of a mile rather than the few feet between buildings in the district. To the north and northeast is a wooded recreation area, and to the east is the modern Wilton Center, which gets its character from the imperatives of the internal-combustion engine and mid-to-late 20th-century consumerism.
A local historic district, designated Wilton Historic District Number Two, encompasses all the buildings in Wilton Center Historic District except for those on Lovers Lane. The boundary of Wilton Historic District Number Two is delineated on Wilton Town Clerk's Map #2992.
Wilton Center Historic District is significant because it embodies the distinctive architectural and cultural landscape characteristics of a small village center from the early national period. The clustering of ecclesiastic and civic institutional uses, combined with a nearby waterpowered grist mill, recalls the concentration of public functions in the state's small agricultural communities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The institutional buildings in the Wilton Center Historic District, the Congregational Church and the Townhouse, display the most common formal architectural styling of the same period; the 1790 church was modified into a Greek Revival building in 1844, and the 1832 Townhouse retains it original Federal style construction. The three examples of Federal style domestic architecture that are located in view of the church and the Townhouse contribute to the district's character as the formal center of what was otherwise largely an agricultural community. The mill dam, as well as the mill-related tenant house and barn, all located immediately downhill from the church, signify both the vernacular building techniques associated with rural enterprise and the lack of functional separation in community land use during the early national period. The historic significance of the Wilton Center Historic District derives from its role as the institutional center of Wilton during Wilton's first generation as an independently incorporated town (Wilton was incorporated in 1802). Originally an outlying community of the town of Norwalk, Wilton had located its meetinghouse in two different locations before this site atop a small hill was chosen as the place for the new church of 1790. The church only reinforced the area's functional centrality based on regular traffic to and from the mill, and made the area the obvious choice for locating the Townhouse. In the mid-19th century, the presence of Wilton Academy, a prestigious private school, further augmented the institutional character of the district.
The area that became the town of Wilton was originally part of the northern expanse of the town of Norwalk. The earliest Anglo-European settlers arrived in the first decade of the 18th century. By 1726, some 30 families who had established farms in the area successfully petitioned to create their own parish, build their own church, and seat their own minister. The first miller to utilize this water privilege, Benjamin Hickox, had begun grinding grain at that time, and Wilton's most authoritative chronicler asserted that the mill served as the gathering place where local inhabitants formulated their drive for parish status (Hubbard, p.10). The first church was located close to the southern boundary of what is now the Town of Wilton, a short distance west of the north-south thoroughfare known in the 18th century as "County Road," which closely followed the course of what is today known as Route 7 or Danbury Road. The second church, erected some 14 years later, stood about one-quarter mile north of the first one, and just east of County Road.
When the second church fell into disrepair in the late 1780s, much acrimony ensued regarding the location of a new church. In the two generations since the first church was built, settlement had spread to the northern limits of the area that is now Wilton, and northern residents desired a more convenient meetinghouse site. The location that was chosen was reasonably central for all residents, many of whom were already accustomed to traveling to the gristmill in the immediate vicinity; a donation of land by members of the Hickox family, who owned the mill at that time, sealed the decision. The continued operation of the Comstock Brook gristmill and the presence of the meetinghouse made this area the first choice for locating the Townhouse, or town hall, that Wilton citizens voted to build in 1828, especially after Nathan Comstock agreed to donate land. Upon completion in 1832, the Townhouse had space for records storage and public meetings on the first floor, and the second floor housed the Wilton Academy, run by Hawley Olmstead. The area soon acquired the appellation of Wilton Center, which it retains to this day.
Wilton Center, with the Townhouse, meetinghouse, and school, served as the institutional core of the town, while the economic changes of the 19th century affected other parts of the community more fully. County Road became the main commercial link between Norwalk and the towns of upper Fairfield County, notably Danbury. The Danbury and Norwalk Railroad closely paralleled this road, confirming in iron the concentration of economic activity in the valley east of Wilton Center. In 1855, a flood destroyed the gristmill in Wilton Center. Under H.G. Middlebrook, who operated the mill at the time, a new gristmill (not extant) was built slightly downstream, and a sawmill (not extant) across the brook from it; the dam that exists today is probably the structure that was built following that flood. The Merwin family later acquired the mill property from Middlebrook. Hawley Olmstead's son, Edward, in 1868 moved the Wilton Academy from the Townhouse to a small barn or utility building adjacent to his family's house (the building that is today 33 Lovers Lane).
In 1930, when the local government faced the need to build a larger town hall, it chose a location in the heavily developed corridor along Danbury Road. Apart from the construction of two Colonial Revival houses, and some Colonial Revival alterations to existing buildings, Wilton Center bore little impact from continuing commercial and residential development in the town during the 20th century. Thus it retains today the scale, the extent of construction, and most of the buildings that arose from the area's central role in the public life of the community.
The earliest dwelling in the Wilton Center Historic District, the c.1791 Davenport House, was built at virtually the same time as the church that began this area's institutional development. Unlike the more formal dwellings that soon followed, the Davenport House thus typifies the Connecticut farmhouse of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with its braced-frame post-and-beam construction, center chimney, and five-bay fenestration. With a simplicity that borders on starkness, it nonetheless expresses a certain elegance rooted in solidity and functionalism, unlike the self-conscious stylization that soon transformed the neighborhood.
The three dwellings that stand in view of the church were all built after the church, all utilized some extent of Federal style features, and all reflected both the status or pretensions of their occupants as well as the evolving institutional character of the area. The c.1800 Daniel Gregory House features the central-hall plan often used in Federal style houses, as well as an elliptical transom that suggests the Georgian inspired decorative treatments of Federal architecture. The next dwelling built in the district, the c.1820 Nathan Comstock House, also has a central-hall plan but was in fact built in two episodes; the western two bays were added to the eastern three bays sometime after original construction. The final form of the house seems to have been anticipated during the initial construction; the later portion completed the central-hall plan, and the entablature with molded cornice is consistent on either side of the joint between the separately built parts of the house. In 1832, the Congregational parish built the parsonage that brought fully realized Federal architecture to the neighborhood. Besides the central-hall plan, it features a pilaster-and-lintel entry and molded lintels for all the windows. Though all are well-proportioned, and though all drew from the same stylistic vocabulary of Classicism filtered through the taste of Georgian England, these three houses all represent distinct moments in the progress of Federal architecture. The incremental accretion of stylistic detail evident in the three dwellings manifests growing prosperity, increasing confidence on the part of owners and builders in their ability to apply the building practices of more cosmopolitan communities, progressively greater concern for appearance and, perhaps, some status-conscious rivalry that motivated the owners to outshine their neighbors.
The Congregational Church embodies some 50 years of evolution in formal architecture, although the present exterior appearance largely portrays the Greek Revival style. The original church of 1790 featured a rectangular plan (40x54') with an engaged, square tower on the facade and, in all likelihood, some Georgian inspired entry or tower detailing. The spire was added in 1800. In 1844, the parish extensively remodeled the church in the Greek Revival mode. The shallow portico added at that time includes all the fundamental characteristics of the style inspired by ancient Greek temples: pedimented gable-end, flush-boarding that was thought to resemble masonry, and Doric pilasters and entablature. The impeccable proportions and exquisite detailing of the church could have served as textbook illustrations of the Greek Revival. The 1832 Townhouse presents a far more chastely detailed appearance than the church, and a certain awkwardness in its tightly grouped fenestration that contributes a feeling of blankness or incompleteness to the facade. Nonetheless, its well-preserved condition and the comparison it affords with the church provide a tangible reminder that Connecticut farmers of the early national period rendered more fully unto God than unto Caesar.
The houses along Lovers Lane (formerly called Mill Street) all reflect multiple stages of construction. The Silas Gregory House, for instance, is said to incorporate a small vernacular, 18th-century dwelling once associated with the Hickox family who first exploited the nearby mill privilege. The main body of the building, however, is a 3-bay Federal style house which, though modestly scaled, features an exuberantly detailed entry treatment with tracery muntins in the sidelights and semi-elliptical transom. The north wing, added in the 1860s, as well as two more additions from 1871 and 1880, all display the mass-produced woodwork, such as brackets and chamfered posts, characteristic of Victorian vernacular houses with a suggestion of Italianate influence. Similarly, the Gregory-Merwin House incorporates a small center-chimney dwelling from the Colonial or early national period, but assumed its present appearance with remodeling in the 1870s; its mass-produced exterior woodwork displays not only the Italianate influence on otherwise simple Victorian houses (e.g., the chamfered porch posts), but also the Gothic influence (e.g., the pointed-arch attic window). The original portion of the Grist Mill Tenant House is a simple vernacular cottage of the mid-19th century, interesting primarily for the half-story attic made possible by the use of 16-foot-tall posts that achieved extensive use during that period.
A. The Congregational Church (1790/1844) is still in religious use but its significance derives from its architectural distinction and from the role it played in establishing the institutional character of this neighborhood.
B. The former Parish Hall (1871, now Wilton Playshop) was moved in 1952 from its original location next to the church to its present site. Its contribution to the district is based in part on its association with the church, which is somewhat vitiated in the new location, but also on its architectural character, which is still discernible.
Atlas of New York and Vicinity. New York, 1867.
McCahon, Mary. "Cultural Resource Survey of Wilton, Connecticut." Wilton, 1989.
Eighteenth Century Dwellings in Wilton. Wilton, 1976.
Hubbard, G. Evans. Annals of Wilton, Volume III, Wilton Village: A History. Wilton, 1971.
Hurd, D. Hamilton. History of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Philadelphia, 1881.
Map of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Philadelphia, 1858.
One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary of the Organization of the Congregational Church, Wilton. New York, 1876.