East Granby Historic District
The East Granby Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. 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 East Granby Historic District encompasses a large rural residential/agricultural area (approximately two square miles) which extends from the Suffield town line on the north to about one mile below the East Granby town center. It is located on a broad open plain of rolling farmland on the east side of the Talcott Range, a ridgeline that divides the town almost in half. The East Granby Historic District contains a large number of historic farmsteads, along with individual houses, strung out along three principal north-south streets: North Main Street, South Main Street, and East Street. At the town center. Route 20, known as Rainbow Road, and School Street run from east to west.
Since the economy has been based on agriculture since settlement, approximately two-thirds of the land in the East Granby Historic District is occupied by historic farms. Many are still working farmsteads, which consist of a farmhouse with a cluster of associated detached and attached outbuildings set near the road, surrounded by open farmland. Some of the individual barns and sheds are large free-standing buildings; other barns are large composite structures built over a period of years. Together these agricultural buildings account for about half of the contributing buildings in the East Granby Historic District. Some of the barns are attached to the rear of the house by one or more ells in a linear fashion. Some of these ells are apparently older than the main house. This type of arrangement of attached farm buildings is more common in northern New England where the winters are more severe.
The historic rural appearance of the East Granby Historic District still predominates despite some modern intrusion. Its rural character is especially evident north of Route 20 where open fields run behind the houses on North Main Street and between North Main and East streets. The latter street is the location of four undisturbed eighteenth-century farms. While the majority of the historic properties along North Main Street have retained their outbuildings and open land, some modern development has taken place there. Several clusters of houses have been built on small lots subdivided from extensive farm acreage. Open fields still continue behind the houses on the east side; those on the west side now abut two small residential developments, one accessed from Route 20, the other from North Main Street. The farm properties along South Main Street below the town center have been somewhat reduced in size, a process that apparently began in the nineteenth century. The lots there are generally smaller; some compatible modern residential infill has taken place along the road. A good portion of the open land behind the house lots in the southern part of district has been developed. A trap rock quarry, a new school, and a recreational club now make use of this land, but all of them are set well back from the road.
The town center is the location of two historic institutional buildings, a church and a school, the latter now used as the library, and the first town cemetery dating from 1722. It is in this area that most of the modern development has taken place. Some of this development has been excluded from the East Granby Historic District but it has had an impact on the historic appearance of the village. Several modern commercial buildings border the cemetery, such as a gas station and a restaurant. An industrial office building of considerable size occupies the southwest corner of Route 20 and South Main Street, the former location of the Samuel Clark Mansion House, which was demolished about 1920. A small shopping center on Route 20, just to the east of the center, almost totally isolates two colonial farms on the south side of the highway from the rest of the district. Other changes at the center include the widening of Route 20 and Church Road which resulted in the destruction of several historic buildings, including the former Congregational Church parsonage built in 1846. Following a fire in 1968, the Town Hall and firehouse were rebuilt on Center Street on the west side of the town center. They now occupy two Neo-Colonial Revival style buildings. A modern bank now occupies their former site on School Street.
Most of the contributing buildings, the houses as well as the agricultural buildings, are of wood frame construction, set on stone foundations of granite or locally obtained brownstone. There are only five masonry buildings: a stone church in the center of the district, and four brick buildings, a school, two houses, and a hipped-roof carriage house. The historic houses in the East Granby Historic District are one-and-one-half to two-and-one-half stories in height. They range in date from about the middle of the eighteenth century to 1936. Roughly one-third were built in the eighteenth century (37%), with an almost equal number in the nineteenth century (42%).
The eighteenth-century houses are generally large five-bay, center-chimney colonials often with overhangs and gabled roofs. Two examples of this form are the Isaak Gillett House at 33 East Street and the Ezekiel Phelps, Jr., House at 39 North Main Street. Several display exceptional original Connecticut Valley doorways, such as the hand-carved surround of the Richard Gay House at 123 North Main Street, or the Georgian surround with its pulvinated frieze on the Luke Thrall House at 46 East Street. Some of the later Georgian style houses are more detailed. Two prime examples are the Edmund J. Thompson House and the William Rockwell House, both distinguished by a finely-detailed Palladian window over the entrance. The former house also has a colonnaded portico on the south with a pediment dating from the Greek Revival period.
Three of the houses dating from the colonial period were built with an unusual interior feature. On the second floor, a swinging partition between chambers could be raised and hung from the ceiling to make a ballroom. These include the James Moor Tavern, the Gay House, and the Samuel Clark House that was demolished in the town center.
Other colonial forms, such as the gambrel or saltbox, are uncommon in the district. Only two houses still have the saltbox form with the lean-to at the rear, the Deacon Samuel Owen House and the John Holcomb, Jr., House. Some may have originally been built in this configuration such as the Ebenezer Mills House. The gambrel roof also was rarely used, although some of the original ells have this form. Again, there are only two examples: the small Oliver Moor House at 20 School Street and the James Moor Tavern, a brick house built by the same family at 171 North Main Street and used as a tavern. The latter building has several unusual features for this period. The roof pitches are flattened and extended to accommodate the unusual width of the building and the single end chimney is located at the rear. Also the use of the end elevation as the principal facade is more common in eighteenth-century commercial buildings.
Houses from the nineteenth century are well represented in the East Granby Historic District. A number were built in the Greek Revival style and some were remodelled in this mode. Three of the four almost identical temple-fronted buildings at the head of South Main Street remain. Two of these were originally built as stores; today all three are in commercial use. Simple farmhouses utilizing the temple form can be found along both ends of Main Street. A typical example is the farmstead on North Main Street known as the Charles T. Hillyer House. A slightly more elaborate version is located at the intersection of East Street and Rainbow Road, the Isaac Owen II House. An earlier house (1730) is incorporated into the building. A late example built of brick at 11 School Street in 1860, the Thomas H. Lee House, owes more to the Gothic style with its scroll-sawn bracketed porch. Its roof with exposed rafter ends in the gables is probably a replacement.
The most architecturally distinguished Greek Revival-style building in the East Granby Historic District is the East Granby Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) designed by the noted Connecticut Valley master builder, Isaac Damon of North Hampton, Massachusetts. A solid masonry building of ashlar granite, it has a square belfry tower which has been recently resided.
Very few of the Victorian era styles are found in the East Granby Historic District. Most of the farmhouses built after 1850 are simple vernacular buildings, displaying little adornment. The Gothic Revival-style James H. Alderman House, near the north end of North Main Street, is one of the few exceptions. Some of the houses display stylistic features which are the result of remodellings in this period, such as the turret and veranda added to the circa 1750 Joseph Phelps, Jr., House about 1900 and the addition of Italianate-style porches to the late Federal style Phelps-Forward House, both on North Main Street. The latter house is located on a corner with its large detached composite barn visible from the public roadways. A few farm cottages, which may have been used to house farm workers in the nineteenth century, remain in the district.
Three of the thirteen contributing houses built or remodelled after 1900 are Bungalows. One at 91 South Main Street is part of a complex with several large barns, an unusual juxtaposition of forms. This house was originally built with a center chimney about 1820 and completely remodelled as a Bungalow about 1915.
Colonial Revival style houses of several types were built in the 1930s. They range from a reproduction Cape on North Main Street (1936) to a brick Georgian Revival at the corner of East Street and Nicholson Road. The latter property is a formal interpretation with a Georgian-style doorway and quarter round lights on the gables. Today this house is somewhat overshadowed by its immediate neighbor, a brick office building on the north. Although the new building has a residential appearance, it is much larger in scale than the house.
The East Granby Historic District is a historically significant farming community which illustrates the broad patterns of agrarian history and rural town formation in Connecticut in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Criterion A). An architecturally significant group of historic rural properties, the East Granby Historic District is distinguished by a superb collection of well-preserved farmsteads dating from the Colonial and Federal periods
The East Granby Historic District encompasses most of the Turkey Hills Ecclesiastical Society, as the community was known for over 100 years. Its historical development follows a now familiar pattern common to second and third generation villages in Connecticut. Due its small size, limited natural resources, and geographic isolation, it never really achieved full autonomy but remained part of a larger geographic and political entity throughout most of its history.
East Granby evolved from the division of three towns. It was part of Simsbury until the Town of Granby was formed in 1786. Despite the efforts of the Turkey Hills citizens to become a part of Windsor, the East Granby Historic District remained a section of Granby until 1858. In that year East Granby was established and the East Granby Historic District became the political and institutional center for the new town. The town (and some of the district) boundaries that exist today were the result of the settlement of several border disputes. A portion of the Windsor Half Mile was annexed in 1858. This area, which encompasses the East Street section of the district, was historically associated with the Turkey Hills Society since settlement. The earlier resolution of a border dispute with Suffield on the north had resulted in the addition of one lot at the north end of North Main Street.
The East Granby Historic District was the last arable land to be laid out in the Farmington River Valley. It was first surveyed by the Simsbury proprietors in 1688, but it was not until 1715 that any settlement took place. The first settlers, some descendants of the settlers of Windsor and the parent town of Simsbury, built small, often crude houses; some were little more than a cellar house. In a few cases, their first houses were log cabins. Lots of 60 to 100 acres were laid out in strips running perpendicular to the present day North and South Main streets. Although there has been some subdivision, the general configuration of these properties has been maintained. Some of the houses built in the East Granby Historic District from this period were incorporated in later buildings or became the rear ell of the mansion houses built in the later eighteenth century.
From the very beginning the mountain ridge that divides East Granby contributed to the isolation of the people of Turkey Hills. By 1729, the settlers in the district were petitioning the General Court to have their own church society rather than travel nine miles over the mountain to Simsbury for church services. This petition was not granted until 1736. In that year, construction began on the first meetinghouse, but the building was not ready for services and town meetings until 1744. The delay was not unusual for an outliver town such as Turkey Hills, but the usual problems of limited resources were compounded by claims to the church site by the neighboring property owner. The Reverend Ebenezer Mills, the first minister, built the first parsonage, now part of the house at 100 South Main Street.
Turkey Hills was a largely self-sufficient community of subsistence farmers with a barter economy from settlement through the early nineteenth century. Most goods and services were supplied by local men. Housewrights in the district, such as Isaak Gillett and Joseph Phelps and his sons, probably built their own homes and those of their neighbors. It is known the Gillet House was partially finished by Isaak at his death and completed by his sons. Reuben Barker, a joiner who had his shop across the street from 23 East Street (he was the second owner), supplied the woodwork and windows for Ezekiel Phelps, Jr., at 39 North Main Street. Oliver Moor, a jack of several trades, owned a shop near his small gambrel on School Street. He employed three men to make glass, locks, and furniture.
While all of these men were farmers as well as craftsmen, some had other trades as well. Joseph Cornish, who built his house at 143 North Main Street, made potash; Joseph Phelps was also a shoemaker. The latter was a wealthy man who owned several slaves; they were inherited by his family, with each slave being allowed to choose his new master among the surviving Phelps children.
Other household needs were met by district men, John Holcomb, Jr., was a tailor, as was Nathaniel Mather. Ezekiel Phelps, one of several blacksmiths, is said to have made the hardware for the unusual cupboard in the base of his chimney. William Rockwell and Samuel Forward were tanners; Rockwell had tanning vats in the stream behind his elegant Georgian-style house on School Street. Part of the house at 81 North Main Street was used for a coopering and chairmaking business. Charles Tudor and George Thompson were carriage makers; the latter's sons followed him in the business and built several houses on South Main Street, including the remarkable Georgian/Greek Revival with the Doric portico at 99 South Main.
With the general prosperity of the early nineteenth century, there was an increased demand for imported goods in Turkey Hills. Several stores were opened in the East Granby Historic District: a general store in the ell of the house at 1 North Main Street, and several new buildings constructed for this purpose. John Viets, whose descendants still live in the district, was a horse dealer, with a store at 7-9 South Main Street.
Horse breeding has a long history in the East Granby Historic District. Near the site of a modern horse farm on East Street, John Thrall raised horses for export in the early eighteenth century. His house was bought by Matthew Griswold, a brick maker, who appears to have had few customers in the district. Griswold, along with several other men of the district, served as overseers at the Newgate Prison, East Granby's famous historic landmark.
The general exodus from Connecticut towns which took place after the Revolution began in the district by the mid-eighteenth century. East Granby had a limited amount of arable land, most of which is located in the East Granby Historic District. Family farms were not large enough to divide among all the heirs and there was little room for expansion. Although the sons who stayed in the community and inherited were clearly prosperous as evidenced by the large "mansion houses" built from the eighteenth century through 1820, natural increase in the next thirty years did not compensate for out-migration. The population dropped from an estimated high of 1,500 in 1820 to 1,200 by 1850. In the last half of the nineteenth-century, East Granby suffered even greater population losses. By the Civil War the population was only 851 and dropped to a low of 661 by 1890.
The industrial development which took place in most Connecticut towns passed East Granby by, but a new cash crop rescued the economy. Tobacco, introduced in 1850, became a major crop by 1870, with 117 families participating. This labor-intensive crop required not only the work of all family members, but imported labor as well. In addition to Blacks from the south, district farmers drew upon an unusual labor source. For at least 30 years, state paupers were auctioned off to district farmers and housed in sheds behind two houses on North Main Street. Some of them were hired out as field hands and also may have worked at rolling cigars, the related cottage industry. More barns were built in the district than houses; some of the large tobacco storage sheds built in this period are still standing today . Anson Bates, a local attorney and tobacco dealer, built his new house on Main Street, one of the few constructed in the East Granby Historic District in the late nineteenth century.
Improved methods of transportation opened the East Granby Historic District to the outside world after the Civil War. A regular stagecoach left East Granby for Windsor and Hartford from 21-23 School Street. By 1902, the trains of the Central New England Railroad ran through the center, providing farmers with a better and more direct access to markets. District high school students took the train to Simsbury High School until 1918. Although the tracks and the station house in the center have been removed, the station master's house at 4 North Main Street is still standing. The automobile era was ushered in when David Viets opened a commercial garage in the district behind 11 South Main Street about 1915.
Tobacco remained a major cash crop in the East Granby Historic District in the twentieth century. It was successfully combined with dairy farming because cow manure could be utilized to fertilize the tobacco fields. The tobacco-dairy farmers of the district remained independents and did not participate in the growing of the new shade leaf tobacco, leaving this specialized crop to the large syndicates in neighboring towns such as Windsor. For the first time, however, tobacco was purchased in the field rather than after storage, subjecting the local tobacco growers to the fluctuations of the marketplace. The lean years were balanced out by the relatively steady income provided by supplying Hartford dealers with wholesale milk from their dairy herds. Eventually, however, because of economic pressure, district farmers became part of a dairymen's cooperative, the Connecticut Milk Producers Association. Today only seven farms are still operating in East Granby, with six of the seven in the district, all to the north of the center. Tobacco is no longer a cash crop, but dairy and beef cattle are still raised.
Few rural areas in Connecticut have remained as unchanged as the East Granby Historic District. Fewer still contain such large numbers of eighteenth and nineteenth century historic farms which have retained their historic fields and meadows. The historic pattern of these fields is imprinted on the land. Old property boundaries are still defined by stone walls or tree lines and scrub growth. They follow the original plot lines of the land division of Turkey Hills over rolling pastures, interrupted only by the low lying swales, where brooks run through the marshes.
The East Granby Historic District's exceptional collection of historic farmhouses is almost perfectly preserved. With few exceptions, the eighteenth-century houses still display their simple exterior features, the clapboard siding, wooden sash, overhangs, and center stone chimneys. Most of these buildings have the typical straightforward, unembellished rectilinear form popular in Connecticut until well after the Revolution. While a few of the houses may have been restored to their original appearance, very few built in this period display the later architectural features commonly added in the nineteenth century. Most of the farmhouses built after 1800 are equally austere, simple functional buildings where the only concession to architectural fashion may be a different orientation to the road.
East Street is a remarkably undisturbed eighteenth-century enclave, providing a glimpse at how the entire district must have appeared at that time. The only intrusion in this area has been the later nineteenth and early-twentieth century barns. Given the fact that the form and method of construction of agricultural buildings has changed very little in Connecticut since 1800, these barns reinforce, rather than diminish, the historic rural ambience of this area. A more typical developmental pattern is found elsewhere in the district where equally fine examples from the colonial period are interspersed with later-nineteenth and twentieth century houses.
Several houses from the 1800s are individually significant. They include the Luke Thrall and Richard Gay houses, both of which display exceptional doorways. The surround of the Thrall House, probably added after the Revolution, is quite formal. With its pulvinated frieze and protruding cornice, it has a Georgian appearance. The doorway of the Gay House is probably original, a simply executed, but fine example of the craftsmanship of the period. The plinths do not have the elaborate carving found in other Connecticut Valley doorways, but the proportions and form are similar to this genre. Unique to the district is the brick tavern built by the Moor family. The gambrel form constructed of brick is not unusual and is found in neighboring towns to the east, such as Windsor and East Windsor, but both the end chimney placement and the orientation of this house to the road are rare in Connecticut. The Moor Tavern is also noted for its fine, well-preserved, but uncommon brickwork. The soldier courses over the windows are quite tall and the end facade displays several string courses that protrude from the wall surface. These latter features do not extend the full width of the building and are apparently purely decorative in nature.
Two late Georgian houses are particularly notable for their degree of style. The relatively elaborate facades of the Rockwell and Thompson houses, with their Palladian windows and modillion courses, were a common sight in entrepot towns in the Post-Revolutionary period, but unusual in an isolated rural community. In fact, the Thompson House with its colonnaded end portico has several counterparts in Litchfield, where attempts were made to duplicate Mount Vernon, albeit on a smaller scale, creating an enduring architectural genre for that town. While the residential construction of the next century produced a fine group of buildings which illustrate the history of East Granby, none ever approached the individual significance of these Georgian examples.
Roughly one third of the nineteenth-century houses are the typical temple form farmhouses of the Greek Revival style, with side or rear ells, built until the Civil War. Well-preserved and maintained, these houses make an important contribution to the East Granby Historic District. It is the Greek Revival-style East Granby Congregational Church, however, that makes an architectural statement. Eliminating the colonnaded portico commonly used in religious and institutional buildings in this period, the designer/builder settled for a minimalist approach to this style with a simple pediment and brick pilasters. The lack of a spire is also unusual, but can be attributed to Damon's preference for the square belfry tower. The recent residing of this tower, however, has obscured its original design and materials.
Most of the contributing buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are barns of various types, including the large tobacco storage sheds, commonly called barns. Once more numerous throughout the district and throughout the central Connecticut Valley, these vacant unused buildings are gradually falling into decay, but remain as important artifacts of the tobacco agriculture practiced in the district for almost a century. Better preserved because they remain in use are the animal barns which were built in great numbers and make a significant contribution to the historic rural character of the East Granby Historic District.
Report of the Historic District Study Committee: East Granby, Connecticut, n.d.
Springman, Mary Jane, and Betty Guinan. East Granby; the evolution of a Connecticut town.
New Canaan, New Hampshire: Phoenix Publishing, 1983. Survey of Architectural and Historical Resources, East Granby, Connecticut.
†† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates, Ltd., and David Ransom, consultant, and John F. A. Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, East Granby Historic District, East Granby CT, nomination document, 1988, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.