Federal Hill Historic District
The Federal Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
Federal Hill Historic District, located in Bristol, Connecticut, is a residential neighborhood of large, stylish, houses dating from the early-19th century Victorian and early-20th century periods. As its name implies, the Federal Hill Historic District is located on a prominent land-rise some 185 feet above the broad plain upon which the city of Bristol is built. As a consequence, the major north-south streets of the Federal Hill Historic District (Summer Street, Main Street, Spring Street, Bellevue Avenue, and Maple Street) all have steep hills on them as they approach the summit, as do the east-west streets which enter the district from the west (Center Street and Federal Street). The streets of the Federal Hill Historic District are lined with tall shade trees, and the houses are mostly situated on large-sized lots well back from the street. Many have garages to the rear which appear to have been made from old barns or carriagehouses. The largest and most elaborate houses have park-like settings with large front lawns and gardens.
At the summit of the hill is Federal Hill Green, a small triangular park which represents a remnant of Bristol's 18th-century common. Facing the Green are two churches and associated buildings (out of a total of four churches within the district) and a 1915 former elementary school. Besides these buildings and the houses, the Federal Hill Historic District includes the Bristol Public Library, one modern block of stores on Maple Street, a nursing home, and several three-story apartment blocks, mostly located on High Street, Main Street, and the southern end of Summer Street.
There are a total of 290 buildings (exclusive of garages, sheds, and other outbuildings associated with houses) in the Federal Hill Historic District; 264 buildings (91%) were judged to make some contribution to the district. Among the 26 noncontributing buildings were the block of stores, the nursing home, the 1947 Trinity Episcopal Church, two modern low-rise brick office buildings, three small, frame multi-family houses, and nine 19th or early-20th century houses which have been so substantially altered that their historic appearance has been lost. The rest of the non-contributors are modern Cape and Ranch style houses and are scattered throughout the district.
Particularly along High and Maple Streets, a number of former residences have been converted to use as professional offices. This has, in most cases, resulted in little alteration to the houses and does not affect the residential appearance of the neighborhood. Two houses are now funeral homes. Many of the large Victorian houses, built as single-family homes, have undergone some division into apartments. The old high school building at the corner of Summer and Center Streets, an 1890 brick Romanesque structure, has been converted into a senior center.
The Federal Hill Historic District is visually defined on the southwest by the Main Street commercial area. The western edge and part of the northern edge are also sharply demarcated with a distinct visual break created by the railroad right-of-way which runs along the foot of Federal Hill. The only street in the Federal Hill Historic District to run south of High Street is a portion of Elm Street, and the boundary there reflects the extent of buildings of the type that gives the district its distinctive character. East of the Federal Hill Historic District, there is a large residential neighborhood, but it is made up of houses which are generally plainer, later in date, or intended as multi-family speculative ventures. Although the district includes some less stylish houses, some built as multi-family properties, and some from the 1920s and 1930s, these are not the type which typify the district, and on the southeast and east edges, the district extends into adjacent residential areas only so far as to include houses similar to those in the district.
The Federal Hill Historic District retains a high degree of integrity, both as an area and in the appearance of its individual buildings. As reflected in the low proportion of noncontributing structures (9%), there are few modern buildings creating visual intrusions among the historic houses. Among individual buildings, the most frequent alteration is the residing of the exterior. Nevertheless, more than 60% of the contributing buildings (160 out of 263) retain their distinctive original exterior materials.
There are a wide range of periods and styles represented in the Federal Hill Historic District. In addition to one Victorianized 18th-century house, several of the Federal style houses retain the traditional house orientation with the ridgeline parallel to the road, even though they have doorways framed by the slender pilasters fashionable in the period 1800-1830. Other Federal houses are oriented with their gable end to the street, and some of those built in the 1830s are transitional in that they combine Federal style fanlights with the heavier proportions of the Greek Revival in their dentils and pilasters. These houses are generally clapboarded, with the gable area treated as a flush-boarded pediment. Notable Greek Revival style buildings include the Congregational Church with its full Doric portico and multi-stage square-plan tower with engaged columns and the Lawson Ives/J.C. Brown House, unusual for its fully flush-boarded facade and dramatic Ionic pilasters and portico. The Federal Hill Historic District includes 12 Federal or Greek Revival style buildings.
The predominant style among the mid-19th century houses are the 44 Italian Villas, flat-roofed or shallow-pitched roofed houses generally built on a square plan. Most often clapboarded, their decorative details include bay windows, bracketed cornices, wide overhanging eaves, round-arched window shapes, and flat-roofed porches on decorative square columns. A few are elaborate and have belvederes or campaniles (towers), but the majority are simple box-shaped houses. Another half-dozen houses from the 1870s confine their Italianate allusions to a round-arched gable window. Only two houses are in the mansard-roofed French Second Empire style.
The Victorian architecture of Federal Hill Historic District is dominated by the Queen Anne style, of which there are 54 examples. These are large houses with asymmetrical plans and complex roofs, usually a hip roof with large gabled or jerkinhead dormers and wings. The massing of the houses is irregular, with porches, bay windows, towers, cut-away corners, and overhanging stories either singly or in combination. Exterior materials are generally a mixture of clapboards and several types of wood shingles combined, usually on the upper stories. Half-timbering, board-and-batten, diagonal boards, and paneling are also found on these houses. Stick style boards and brackets and Gothic Revival trefoil ornament, bargeboards, carved fans, porches with brackets and turned posts and spindled friezes, and gable-peak bracing are also common (in some cases, these details are so consistent that the house was labeled Stick style or Victorian Gothic rather than Queen Anne). The inherent eclecticism of the style is reflected in the fact that later examples include Palladian windows and other details drawn from the Colonial Revival. In three houses, the emphasis on the shingled exteriors, including wrapping the shingles around curved corners to deeply recessed windows, justified labeling the houses Shingle style. Stained-glass windows are common.
Another 44 houses are from the Victorian period. They have simpler plans and rooflines than the Queen Anne houses, but share the variegated siding and decorative porch detail of the more stylish houses. Together with the Queen Anne houses, these similarly detailed structures make, up over a third of the contributing buildings (98 out of 263).
The Federal Hill Historic District's 27 Colonial Revival buildings generally have hip roofs and details such as Classical-columned porches, balustrades, and Palladian windows. They have clapboarded exteriors and small-pane sash. Other early-20th century types scattered throughout the Federal Hill Historic District include 5 Bungalows, 10 Foursquares, and 9 Triple-Deckers, multi-family houses with 3 levels of porches on their gable-end facades.
The Federal Hill Historic District includes several visual landmarks whose large size and architectural stylishness make them stand out from their neighbors. Among them are Beleden House, 50 Bellevue Avenue, a National Register-listed 1910 Second Renaissance Revival mansion with a tiled roof and two-story entrance portico; the stone Richardsonian Romanesque Prospect United Methodist Church, richly embellished with medieval carvings and contrasting rough-surfaced stonework; the Albert L. Sessions House, a 1903 brick Colonial Revival house with rusticated walls, quoins, balustrades, and a plethora of broken round and scroll pediments; Castle Largo, an 1880 eclectic Victorian house with light stonework contrasting with its brick walls, a mansard roof, round-arched windows, and a tower; the 1892 Walter Ingraham House, whose rough-surfaced stonework, brick walls, terra cotta decoration, pinnacled gables and round arches illustrate the revival of Romanesque forms in the late Victorian period; and the Shingle style William Ingraham House, a dramatic design in which porches, dormers, and a two-story wall of windows are encompassed by the large, broad gable roof and completely shingled exterior.
Federal Hill Historic District is both historically and architecturally significant. It is a location which has been at the heart of the town's community life since 1742, when what became Bristol became a separate parish within Farmington. The first Congregational meetinghouse was located on Federal Hill, as well as a school and the parish's central common. As Bristol developed into an industrial center, Federal Hill became home to the town's economic elite. At the same time, the churches and schools of Federal Hill continued as a focal point of community life. Thus, Federal Hill has associations with many facets of Bristol's early settlement and historical development. The houses and other buildings on Federal Hill also have architectural significance as well-preserved examples of particular architectural styles, including the Federal and Greek Revival styles of the early 19th century, mid-century Italian Villas, the Victorian Queen Anne style, and the Colonial Revival style of the early 20th century. In their form, materials, and architectural details, these houses embody the distinguishing characteristics of these several types of architecture. The Federal Hill Historic District also has, in the large houses of the town's wealthiest citizens, buildings whose architectural qualities are so extraordinary that they rank among the most elaborate examples in the state.
Colonists first settled Farmington's West Woods, the area that became Bristol, in the 1720s. The settlers continued under the civic and ecclesiastic administration of Farmington until 1744, when under the name New Cambridge they became a separate parish. The New Cambridge people sought to erect their church at the geographic center of the parish and chose Federal Hill. Once it became the location of the community's most important collective function, the remaining community institutions located at Federal Hill as a matter of course. The first school was erected on Federal Hill in 1754, and the land around the meetinghouse served as a common pasture and the training ground for the militia company; the Federal Hill Green of today is a portion of the 18th-century common. The residents rarely gathered together except when worship or militia field days brought everyone to Federal Hill which thus became the center of social and commercial life too. In 1785 the General Court set off New Cambridge society and West Britain society, its neighbor to the north, as the independent town of Bristol. Town meetings alternated between the two meetinghouses, an indication of the lack of cohesiveness that led to West Britain's incorporation as the town of Burlington in 1806. Then Federal Hill became the sole center of local government for Bristol. Through the early 19th century, the meetinghouse and the area around it were the focus for all non-farming activities.
The all-encompassing role of Federal Hill was reduced as economic growth brought geographic differentiation to Bristol. After Middle Road turnpike opened in 1803 (following approximately the location of today's Route 6), the focus of commercial activity moved to North Village, a cluster of stores where the turnpike crossed North Creek. Manufacturers using the creek also contributed to the growth of North Village. South Village, along the Pequabuck River, grew rapidly in the 1820s around the clock shops of Chauncey Jerome. The Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad, completed through Bristol in 1850, passed through both North and South villages; the depot was placed between the villages, establishing that location as the center of downtown, where commerce and government came to concentrate.
Even as Federal Hill's economic functions atrophied, its role as a religious and institutional center continued. The Congregational Church built its Academy (not extant) on the Green in 1822. Ten years later the parish built a new church, the one still standing. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries other institutional buildings were built on Federal Hill: the new Methodist Church, erected in the mid-1890s at the corner of Prospect Place and Center Street; the 1890 High School at the corner of Center and Summer streets; the 1906 Public Library at the corner of Main and High streets; and the 1923 St. Joseph's Church facing Federal Hill Green.
Federal Hill had always held some favor as an address, and its prestige grew as the industrialists and entrepreneurs with new wealth from clock production built their homes there. The homes of the early industrial elite extended the built-up area down its slopes, and usually took the form of elaborate Greek Revival, or transitional Federal/Greek Revival, dwellings, such as the Lawson Ives/J.C. Brown House at 122 Maple Street, famous for its depiction on many of Brown's clocks. In the 1860s and 1870s, industrialists and merchants built new houses, mostly in the Italian Villa style, that extended the built-up area of Federal Hill even further down its slopes, south along Summer, Spring, and Main streets, west to Richmond Place and Lincoln Place, and east along High Street.
During the Victorian period and the early 20th century, the wealthy continued to build large stylish homes on Federal Hill, which achieved its present building density by the early 1920s. New construction did not extend the built-up area of the Hill any further, but filled the existing streets. Two areas remained mostly open until the early 1890s: the intersection of Summer Street and Prospect Place, and the right-of-way that became Bellevue Avenue, running south from Federal Hill Green. The most prominent families built the city's most elaborate homes in these areas: the Ingraham houses at 12 Prospect Place and 156 Summer Street, the Miles Peck House at 174 Summer Street, and the Sessions houses at 25 Bellevue Avenue, 36 Bellevue Avenue, and 50 Bellevue Avenue, a Second Renaissance Revival mansion named "Beleden." These families were among the wealthiest in Bristol: the Ingrahams owned one of the towns two largest clock factories, Miles Peck was a leading banker, and the Sessions owned a foundry which was one of Bristol's largest employers.
Federal Hill was not built up according to a comprehensive plan, even though the homes of the elite came to predominate. In the 1870s and 1880s, before most of the streets were filled with houses, speculative builders constructed apartment blocks intended for working people: the brick blocks at 22-28 Spring Street, 318-322 Main Street, 336-342 Main Street, and 8-30 Summer Street, and the wood-frame block at 116-122 High Street. They offer a sharp socio-economic contrast to the impressive homes of the employers, all the more striking because the mansions and the tenements stand in such proximity to each other.
Since the 1920s, Federal Hill has become less a symbol of the Yankee upper class and more incorporated into the city as a whole. Middle-class housing has filled in to the east, creating a less distinct physical and social division between Federal Hill and its neighboring areas. Federal Hill retains an institutional role in the life of the city, since four churches, the Public Library and the Senior Center (in the 1890 High School) are located there, but no longer does the Hill reflect the divisive social effects of industrial capitalism.
Federal Hill Historic District includes numerous large, stylish, and well-preserved examples of domestic and institutional architecture representing most of the styles current between 1790 and 1920. The majority of the Federal Hill Historic District's houses typify the upper middle-class dwellings of their respective periods, but the district also includes several landmark houses which are exceptional in the richness of their detailing and their overall design. The tree-lined streets, the variety of styles, the high concentration of historic buildings, and the visual qualities of the individual houses combine to make Federal Hill a valuable architectural resource.
Except for one Victorianized 18th-century house, the oldest houses in the Federal Hill Historic District show the influence of the Federal style. The Miles Lewis House's center-hall plan and the understated pilaster-and-lintel entry treatment are typical aspects of the Federal style, appended to a traditional house form. Stylishness became more evident as trade brought Bristol into contact with more cosmopolitan communities, and by the 1830s the well-to-do had adopted the formal architecture seen in the coastal cities. The 1834 Samuel Smith House, 77 Maple Street, illustrates the transition between the Federal and Greek Revival styles: the finely proportioned pilasters and semi-elliptical attic window are characteristic Federal elements, while the pedimented front-facing gable with heavy dentils is more in the Greek Revival mode. The 1838 Ives/Brown House at 122 Maple Street embodies the pure Greek Revival. The style's inspiration in Greek temples is evident in the Ionic order of the facade, and its flush-boarding, which was thought to resemble masonry. The romantic, historical impulse in American building that accounted for the popularity of the Greek Revival found continued expression in the Italian Villa style. The Federal Hill Historic District's houses illustrate several levels of Italianate design, but all feature the style's characteristic square plan, flat or nearly flat roof, and round-arched window shapes.
The exuberant Victorian period in American architecture coincided with Bristol's most explosive industrial growth, and the late-19th century homes of the town's economic elite constitute the district's most stylish group of buildings. Among the Queen Anne style houses are many examples that depict the style at its most elaborate. The first William Sessions House is a model of the Queen Anne: its plan a complicated series of cutaway corners and projecting bays; its roof a welter of gables; its surface a mixture of clapboards, patterned shingles, and half-timbering; and its details an eclectic mixture of Eastlake-inspired, medieval, and Classical motifs. The Queen Anne style's textural and decorative effects depended upon mass-produced wooden ornament, which was also used to adorn otherwise simple, gable-roofed houses; like the Queen Anne houses, this vernacular architecture illustrates the Victorian taste for picturesque variety in surface texture and intricate ornamental detailing.
Victorian exuberance is also evident in the Romanesque house at 72 Prospect Place. The medieval buttresses, gables, and tower; the intricate carvings and terra cotta designs; and the broad arched openings were often used for institutional buildings (such as the old Bristol High School and the Methodist Church) but only a large house like this one could accommodate such detailing in a residential design. Two Shingle style houses, 156 Summer Street and 66-68 Merriman Street, with their round corners and skins of uniform shingles, contrast with the more upright and variegated appearance of their neighboring Victorian buildings. The Summer Street house, with its 2-story window wall and wide, sweeping gable roof, gives a light, airy, and open appearance, instead of the brooding aspect often associated with the style; this house is among the state's most attractive and interesting Shingle style dwellings.
The 1903 Colonial Revival house at 25 Bellevue Avenue is a notable example of the connotations of elegant living, tradition, and patriotism afforded by the architecture of the Colonial period. It uses features found in the most ornate 18th-century houses (scroll pediments, Classical columns and cornices, red Flemish-bond brickwork), but colonial buildings never offered them in such intense concentration. The result fulfills the serious intentions of the Colonial Revival, an appearance at once nostalgic and monumental.
Architects and Builders
Most of the buildings in the Federal Hill Historic District are not attributed to an architect. The Congregational Church of 1832 is probably the first building in Bristol that was designed and constructed by someone from outside the town: Benjamin Palmer, a builder who designed and erected public buildings throughout the state. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the public buildings and the homes of the more prominent citizens were usually designed by professional architects. Miles L. Peck hired his cousin, Theodore Peck of Waterbury, to design his Queen Anne house, and no doubt helped him win the commission to design the 1890 High School. The Shingle style house of William S. Ingraham came off the drawing boards of Babb, Cook and Willard, a New York City firm that designed many large houses in the metropolitan area, usually of masonry and in the Romanesque style. Wilson Potter of New York City, who specialized in academic buildings, designed the Colonial Revival Public Library of 1906. "Beleden" was designed by Samuel Brown, architect of many elaborate residences in and around Boston, his home city.
The person most responsible for the distinctive appearance of the Federal Hill Historic District was Joel Case. He laid out Spring Street in the mid-1880s and built every house on it, including the brick apartment house known as the Case Block; Case was responsible for some two dozen other houses by 1886. Case's work is distinguished by a singularly eclectic sense of design, including the incongruous juxtaposition of details, and the use of shapes not usually found in houses. Examples are found at 52 and 60 High Street and 277 Main Street, and all along Spring Street. His most idiosyncratic work is "Castle Largo," the mini chateau at the corner of Main and Center streets, a tour de force of brick masonry and Gothic forms. One architectural historian recently offered this astute summary of Case: "His work, often bizarre and sometimes beautiful, is unique to Bristol" (quoted in C. Hourihan, Federal Hill; unpaginated).
Beals, Carleton. Our Yankee Heritage; The Making of Bristol. Bristol: Public Library, 1954.
Clouette, Bruce and Matthew Roth. Bristol, Connecticut; A Bicentennial History, 1785-1985. Bristol: Bristol Public Library, 1984.
Hull, George W. and Dorothy Manchester. An Epic of Bristol, 1785-1960. Bristol: [Bristol Public Library], 1960.
Peck, Epaphroditus. A History of Bristol, Connecticut. Hartford: Lewis Street Bookshop, 1932.
Smith, Eddy N., George Benton Smith and Allena J. Dates, comps. Bristol, Connecticut (In the Olden Time "New Cambridge"). Hartford: City Printing Company, 1907.
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Bristol Press, 1871-1984.
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Maps and Views
Atlas of Hartford City and County. Hartford: Baker & Tilden, 1869.
Bird's Eye View of Bristol, Conn., 1907. New York: Hughes and Bailey, 1906.
Blodget, William. A New and Correct Map of Connecticut. Hartford, 1792.
Norris, George E. Bristol, Conn., Looking North-East. Brockton, Mass., 1889.
Postcard Collection (RG 800), Connecticut State Library, Hartford, Connecticut.
Tenney, C. E. Map of the Borough of Bristol. Philadelphia, 1896.
View of Bristol, Conn. Boston: O.H. Bailey, 1878.
Woodford, E.M. Map of the Town of Bristol, Hartford County, Connecticut. Philadelphia, 1852.
Hourihan, C. Federal Hill: A Series of Walking Tours. Bristol: Bristol Development Authority, 1985.
† Bruce Clouette & Matthew Roth, Historic Resource Consultants and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Federal Hill Historic District, Bristol, CT, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.