J B Williams Company Historic District
The J. B. Williams Company 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.
Glastonbury, incorporated in 1693, is located in central Connecticut several miles south of Hartford on the east side of the Connecticut River, across from Wethersfield. James B. Williams established his factory for the manufacture of shaving soap there in 1849 on Williams Street, about half a mile southeast of the Town Hall. All but one of his mid- and late-19th century frame factory buildings that remained standing on the north side of the street were demolished in 1977 by order of the Building Inspector. A larger complex of newer brick buildings, put up soon after the turn of the century on the south side of the street, remains largely intact. These factory buildings together with the Williams family homes located nearby and other structures associated with the Williams factory and family form the subject of this nomination. The streets in the J.B. Williams Company Historic District are Williams Street, running east and west, Hubbard Street, running parallel to and south of Williams Street, and Willieb Street that connects them, running north and south on the west. The brick factory buildings are in the center of the U thus formed, and the houses are on the streets along the three sides of the U, as shown in post-World War II aerial views.
The J.B. Williams Company Historic District comprises approximately 75 acres and 30 properties. All structures but five contribute to its historic character. The boundaries are drawn to include properties with Williams family and factory associations, but in the process several houses without known Williams associations are included and considered contributing because by their character they add to the sense of time and place of the neighborhood. The boundaries are drawn to exclude post-World War II contemporary houses and town houses built in the last decade. One house that was built for members of the Williams family in the 1930's in the Georgian Revival style, 279 Hubbard Street, is excluded partially because of its late date and partially because an insensitive one-story addition across the front has destroyed its integrity.
The one remaining 19th century frame factory building (225 Williams Street) is a simple rectangle of 2-1/2-stories, six bays long, with vertical board siding, corrugated iron gable roof, and brick foundations. Foundations of other buildings, in some cases constructed of substantial brownstone blocks, remain visible.
On the south side of the street the most sophisticated structure in the brick factory complex is the company office building, now serving as offices for the Glastonbury Board of Education. It is a three-story, Georgian Revival brick building on brownstone foundations with chiseled water table and sills, hipped roof, and columned portico. The brick is laid in quoins at the corners. The roof cornice, with modillion blocks, breaks out for the central portico of four round Tuscan columns and entablature with triglyphs. The first floor windows are set in a recessed, round-headed, blind arcade and are themselves round-headed with radial muntins. The half-round transom over the panelled, two-leaf oak front doors carries out this motif. On the second floor the windows are rectangular, and in the roof there are two bull's eye dormers on each side.
At the center of the roof there is a square glass monitor with pyramidal roof. A square shaft extends below the monitor through the third floor to the second, and there is an arrangement of rods and turn buckles to open and close sections of the glass from the second floor. Thus, the cupola supplies both light and ventilation to the heart of the building. An early picture shows this building only four bays deep, with a single bull's-eye dormer, and pyramidal roof. It was lengthened by adding three bays at the time of World War I, not long after it was built.
The four brick factory buildings, with granite foundations and sills, are just east of the office. They are arranged in a U shape around three sides of a courtyard. The fourth (north) side is the mill pond and dam. A central iron-covered structure, built early in the century as a "temporary" building, has recently been demolished as part of a renovation of this complex into apartments. The buildings on the west and south side of the U are three stories high with rows of windows set between pilasters. There is a projecting stair tower with pyramidal roof. The power house is on the north side of the U, still complete with its tall and massive yellow brick stack. The interior construction of these factory buildings is heavy wood posts, joists, and floors typical of New England "slow burning" mill construction that was encouraged by insurance companies. The idea, quite effective, was to make the interior wood elements so heavy that under fire conditions they would char but not flame. The spillway from the pond dam, i.e., the continuation of the brook, runs under the south edge of the courtyard, then runs north and visibly separates the office building from the others, and continues under Williams Street on its way north.
In 1859 James B. Williams built a fine brick Italianate mansion on the hill (18 Wellieb Street) overlooking the factory site to the design of Lucius Thayer of Westfield, Massachusetts. Its pre-eminent feature is a four-story, square tower with pyramidal roof positioned off-center to the north on the front (west) facade. There is a single rectangular window at each of the first three floors and at the fourth floor two round-headed windows on all four sides. There is a wooden loggia with round-arched balustrade below these fourth-floor windows on the front and on the north side. The two-bay principal block of the house is recessed from the front of the tower, to the south. An early picture shows that this section originally was two stories with an attic that had rectangular windows one pane high and two panes wide under the eaves. The roof was well below the loggia then in place on the south side of the tower. At an unknown date this loggia was removed, the roof raised, and the attic thereby made into a full third floor. The quoins that go all the way up the corners of the tower go up only two stories at the corner of this block; when the roof was raised the quoins were not extended. A secondary block one bay wide, recessed further back from the front wall of the tower, is to the north. A wide porch extends across the front on both sides of the tower and continues all the way back on the south side of the house. The eaves of the porch roof are bracketed (there are no brackets on the principal roof and none show in the early photo). Each bracket is over an eight-sided post with round-headed panels. The windows graduate in size. The first story, floor-to-ceiling height windows are 6-over-9; the second floor windows are 6-over-6; and the third floor windows are 6-over-6 but the panes are smaller. The front door opens from the porch south of the tower. It has side and transom lights, and 2-over-2 panels, the upper pair being round-headed. As the house extends to the rear there is a final one-story clapboard section which has a back door with the same pattern of panels as the front door, but the upper panels are glazed. The brick walls appear to have been painted for a long time, perhaps from the beginning. The color is yellow, except for the brick laid as quoins which are painted red.
A large barn or carriage house goes with the house. An early photo shows that it once had a square cupola with two round-headed windows on each face, echoing the arrangement at the top of the tower of the house. The barn has been enlarged, and is now covered with vinyl clapboard siding. In the back, at the lower level, there is still in place a row of doors with the round-headed panels characteristic of this house. Both the house and the barn are now apartments.
J.B.'s son, David S. Williams, built a large frame house in 1892 at 185 Williams Street. It is in the Queen Anne style, but is executed entirely in weathered shingles on granite foundations. Its asymmetrical massing features a round tower with conical roof, a round tower with a Moorish dome, an eyebrow dormer, central gable, and three tall brick chimneys with recessed panels and molded caps. A wide porch starts at the porte cochere at the southwest corner and runs across the front and along the east side, with round posts rising from the shingled balustrade. A horizontal band of four windows in the gable is a contemporary touch indicating that the architect was in step with the times. The roof is basically a gable roof, covered with red asphalt shingles. The first floor windows have leaded transoms, all different. The front door, 53" wide, is composed of 28 coffers, 4 wide and 7 high. The interior combines considerable light from the large windows with oak woodwork in elaborate fireplace surrounds and front stairway.
The accompanying carriage house is equally fanciful in design. It has a square tower at the southwest corner with four-sided, onion-shaped dome, a central gable echoing that of the house, and is covered with a combination of shingles and clapboards. The back (north) wall is entirely clapboards. The former caretaker's cottage, behind the carriage house, has been altered and added on to, and is of more interest for what it was than for what it is. Local tradition has it that this structure was moved to its present location at an indeterminate date from some feet to the west. The framing of the original section of the house shows pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. About 100 feet back of the cottage there is a 12 x 12 foot root cellar built of dressed granite blocks in the side of a hill.
Another big, impressive, well-designed family house is the Samuel H. Williams frame Georgian Revival mansion of 1905 at 242 Hubbard Street, for which the plans were drawn by Davis and Brooks of Hartford. Samuel H. Williams was another son of J.B. Williams. This square block with elaborate trim in the classic idiom and with a wing added to the northeast in 1940 has notable porticos on three sides. The house faces west, overlooking a meadow from its elevated site. The two-story front portico is half-round with four colossal, fluted, Corinthian capitals supporting a heavy entablature. A similar one-story portico projects on the south, forming a side porch with wide steps on three sides. A rectangular, columned porte cochere on the north side protects what in effect is the main entrance as the long drive from the street approaches this side of the house. Balustrades abound — over the north porte cochere and south portico and along the edge of the front porch at the roof line. Siding is wide, flush, horizontal boards. Windows are 12-over-1. The eaves are heavily molded with modillion blocks and dentil courses. The hipped roof is capped with a widow's walk that has "Chinese Chippendale" balustrade. Tall brick chimneys have molded tops. The interior is done in the same mode with emphasis on molded door and window surrounds and beamed ceilings. The two-story carriage house is Georgian Revival. Its central gable with eaves returns is surmounted by a lantern that has a bell-shaped dome. Vertical board-and-batten siding covers the first story and wide, flush, horizontal boards the second.
There are three other Williams family houses. J.S. Williams lived in an 1890, two-story, clapboard, Italianate structure at 203-207 Williams Street. In addition to the 36 x 44 foot principal block, there is a secondary 24 x 27 foot block to the northeast. The wide front porch, an important design feature with its paired, slender columns, protects the doorway with side and transom lights. The siding of the porch wall is flush, horizontal boards as is the wall section under the projecting roof, between the supporting brackets that have drop finials. The tall first-floor windows are 12-over-12 while those at the second floor are 8-over-8. The low hipped roof is covered with metal.
"The House Under the Hill," 207 Hubbard Street, is where J.B. Williams lived for 10 years when he first came to town. Thought to have been built in 1740, the house has been considerably altered over the years. It is now a long, rectangular, 20 x 48-foot clapboard house with gable end of two bays off center to the left toward the street. The doorway, with a Greek Revival portico, is in the space to the right of the windows. The sash are 12-over-12 on the first floor, 12-over-8 on the second, and 6-over-6 in the attic gable. There is a weathered shingle barn to the rear. In front of the house, in addition to a hitching post, there is a row of seven stone posts that, presumably, once were part of a fence.
"Grandfather Hubbard's House," 247-249 Hubbard Street, was the home of David W. Williams for 15 years and Samuel H. Williams for 15 years. It is a three-bay, 2-1/2-story, brick, Greek Revival house with gable-end pediments toward the street. A turned-and-sawn porch has been added across the front, with a row of vertical spindles under the porch roof. The front door is at the left; steps lead up to it under a gable in the porch roof. The date 1886 is associated with this house but it has the appearance of having been built much earlier in the 19th century; perhaps the porch was added in 1886. At the rear of this property there is a 19th century, vernacular barn of vertical siding; it was once a horse barn for the factory.
There are several less pretentious homes in the J.B. Williams Company Historic District, at least three of which are known to have some association with the Williams factory or family. The small, two-story, gable-roofed, clapboard, square house at 284 Williams Street had an earlier career as a stable for use during the day time by employees who drove or rode their horses to work, before being moved a few feet east to its present concrete foundations. On the north side of this part of Williams Street there are two pairs of modest houses. 267 Williams Street and 289 Williams Street are c.1875 ell-shaped, gable-roofed, modest, frame houses, while 257 Williams Street and 263 Williams Street, both built in 1924, are twin, square, hipped-roof houses with central chimneys, covered partially with clapboards and partially with shingles.
A comfortable double house occupies lots at 227 and 229 Hubbard Street. It is a gable-roofed, two-story, clapboard structure with bay windows, and with an entrance porch at each end. These units were lived in by supervisory personnel from the factory. The 1890 house at 257 Hubbard Street (rear), is a simple, two-story gable-roofed, clapboard house with a long front porch and a secondary block to the northeast. It is the house of Mr. Robert J. McKeown who worked in the factory for 45 years.
The factory and the surrounding houses are a pocket of Williams influence in Glastonbury. Both the remaining factory buildings, with the exception of the office, and the big houses have been converted to apartments, or are in the course of being so converted. The industrial activity and the owners' scale of gracious living are gone. The architectural enframement of the factory and family remains in place, adjusted and adapted to the changing needs of a new set of socio-economic circumstances.
The J.B. Williams Company buildings and the surrounding residences range in architectural excellence from the vernacular to the sophisticated, together constituting the distinguishable entity of a family-owned enterprise and family-dominated neighborhood. The company was for decades the largest employer in town, and made a significant contribution to the history of Glastonbury
The factory buildings are typical of New England, early-20th century mill construction with load-bearing exterior brick walls and heavy timber interiors, but they are better than average in execution and in present condition. The granite foundations and window sills are indicative of the quality of materials and workmanship that went into their construction.
There was one building that was an exception. It was a large, metal-clad, gable-roofed structure, one of the first in the complex, put up as a "temporary" building in what is now the center of the court yard, and demolished. Connectors from units of the U ran at first- and second-story levels to this central building providing needed circulation but also making a dense cluttered appearance. The present arrangement, with the central building removed, of an open courtyard with brick building on three sides and the dam and mill pond on the north is far simpler.
In the usual 19th century sequence, water power gave way to steam engines erected in the boiler plant on the north side of the U, and in the 20th century these gave way to diesel power. The brook continues to flow. Below the dam it first is underground and then running north between the U and the office building is open and visible between brownstone masonry walls. The brick pilasters between the windows in the factory walls, the square stair tower with pyramidal roof, and the tall yellow smoke stack of the power house round out the early 20th century industrial image. The factory was served by a spur of the trolley line, coming east along Hubbard Street. Freight cars (not passenger trolleys) reached the factory via this route.
The well-designed office building provided a suitable corporate headquarters in the accepted architectural fashion of the times, Georgian Revival. Its hipped roof with bull's eye dormers, round-arched first-floor windows, and columned portico suggest the work of a competent architect, but his identity is unknown. The Board of Education, the present occupant, has a notation, source unknown, that the building was constructed in 1909.
The dates for the factory buildings themselves also are undocumented, but a fair indication for the whole complex is given by the Glastonbury assessor's Taxable List (at the Glastonbury Historic Society) which shows the value of the mill building in 1890 at $9,000, in 1900 $30,000 and in 1910 at $170,000. There was a fire in 1890 that damaged existing buildings on the south side of Williams Street; whether the $9,000 valuation for that year was before or after the fire is not known, but the fire may have helped encourage the building program.
Somewhat more information is at hand regarding J.B. Williams' Italianate mansion on the hill. An undated photo at the Glastonbury Historic Society, taken before the third story was added, has a hand written notation that the house was built in 1859 and that the architect was Lucius Thayer of Westfield, Massachusetts. The connection is provided through a Glastonbury girl, Julia Hubbard, who attended school in Westfield and while there lived with the Thayer family. Julia Hubbard later became the second Mrs. J.B. Williams and lived in the house. While the Thayer family is prominent in Westfield history, Lucius Thayer, architect, is not. There was, however, one Lucius Fowler Thayer, "engaged in engineering, banking, and farming" living in Westfield in the 1850's. Possibly his abilities in the field of engineering qualified him to draw the plans for the house. Its asymmetrical massing, bold four-story tower, roof overhangs, panelled porch posts, and windows graduated in height at each story show the work of a contemporary architect well informed on the fashion of the day. Repeated use of the half-round arch for windows and for door moldings was a strong characteristic of both the house and the carriage house.
Unfortunately, the name of the architect for the 1892 David W. Williams House, is unknown. The Queen Anne/Shingle style design is well done, in the best of materials. Its fanciful towers and gables are set on granite foundations, and its many leaded, colored glass windows and its carved oak interior detail are the work of fine craftsmen. With its appendages to the rear of equally audacious carriage house, caretaker's cottage perhaps dating from the 18th century, and finally the dressed granite root cellar, it contributes considerable interest to the district.
The identity is known of the architects, Davis and Brooks, of the Samuel H. Williams 1905 Georgian Revival house because blue prints of the construction drawings are in the possession of the present owner. The Hartford firm of F. Irwin Davis and William F. Brooks was known for its work in the spirit of the Classic and Georgian Revivals. They carried out an early historic preservation project in 1914 by moving the Corinthian portico and Gibbsonian spire of Hartford's Fourth Congregational Church (1850, S.M. Stone, New Haven) to become the front of the new Horace Bushnell Church at the intersection of Albany Avenue and Vine Street. Their elaborate Beaux Arts design won them the commission, in competition, for the Hartford Municipal Building (1915), and their Orient Insurance Building (1905) on Trinity Street, now the State Treasury, is a further example of work in a similar idiom. Their talents were given free rein in the Samuel H. Williams House.
Over the years workers' houses have co-existed in the neighborhood with the mansions. While the assessor's Taxable List of 1910 shows that the company owned eight houses, unidentified, there is no indication that the company ever had a mill village of the type often found near textile mills, probably for two reasons. First, Glastonbury was an established community, not a remote location, making it unnecessary to build workers' housing when the company was started in mid-19th century. Second, the number of employees in the 19th century was in the dozens, and did not reach the hundreds until the turn of the century by which time the era, and the need, for constructing mill villages had passed. Seven workers' houses are clustered at the eastern end of Williams Street. One of these is a former company stable, two were built in 1924, and the other four, approximately 100 years old, may have a history linked with the factory. On Hubbard Street the double house is thought to have been owned by the company and lived in by supervisory personnel. Mr. McKeown's house was once owned by a member of the Williams family, rather than by the company.
James Barker Williams (1818-1907) was born in Lebanon. In 1934 he became a clerk in a general store in Manchester, becoming a partner in 1838. A studious young man, he developed an interest in chemistry and began experimenting with soap formulations in an effort to devise a product better than any of the soaps carried in the store. In 1840 he withdrew from the store and began manufacturing and marketing Williams Genuine Yankee Soap. In 1849 he moved operations to Glastonbury, taking over a small former grist mill owned by the father of his first wife, Jerusha Hubbard. This grist mill is thought to have been located near the dam of the mill pond on the south side of Williams Street. In 1850 he was manufacturing soap, blacking, and ink, with seven employees. By 1880 the number of employees had grown only to 15, and the principal product was shaving soap. William Barber's Bar Soap was exhibited at the company's booth at the 1876 centennial exposition in Philadelphia.
In 1880 J.B.'s eldest son, David Willard Williams (1851-1909), started a second enterprise, manufacturing laundry soap powder under the trade name Ivorine. Production facilities were located on the north side of Williams Street. The remaining building there may be an Ivorine building. In 1885 the two enterprises were combined and incorporated as the J.B. Williams Company. At an unspecified date thereafter the laundry soap business was terminated and the Ivorine trade name was sold to Proctor and Gamble.
During the 19th century the business prospered as indicated by the 1859 J.B. Williams Italianate mansion and the 1892 David W. Williams Queen Anne/Shingle Style house, but production facilities were on a comparatively modest scale. An 1890 group photo shows 17 factory workers. At about the turn of the century, as use of shaving soap became widespread, the business burgeoned, increased in scale many times over, and the brick buildings were constructed on the south side of the street. Floor space exceeded 225,000 square feet. The years between World War I and World War II were the company's years of greatest strength. After World War II additional products and trade names were developed and purchased (Aqua Velva, Lectric Shave, Kreml, Conti, Skol) but continued success was elusive. In 1957 control of the company was sold to Pharmaceuticals, Inc. of New Jersey. In 1960 Pharmaceuticals consolidated operations in New Jersey and sold the Glastonbury land, buildings, and machinery to a group of former J.B. Williams Company employees who continued manufacturing operations under the name of Glastonbury Toiletries, Inc., continuing to supply the old products to Pharmaceuticals, Inc. until operations in Glastonbury discontinued in 1977.
Over the years the J.B. Williams Company confined itself to production of shaving soap and toiletries with one important exception. There was a single industrial customer, Cheney Brothers silk mills of Manchester. Williams supplied Cheney with soap in wooden barrels for use in finishing silks for many years, until soap was replaced by synthetics.
Robert J. McKeown, then a small boy, arrived from Ireland as the last (Building 11) of the brick buildings was being constructed. He began his 45 year career in the factory as an office boy. In due course he became foreman of the Finishing Department where he supervised 30 workers. He retired in 1960 after J.B. Williams Company was sold. Mr. McKeown recalled that tallow, stearic acid, and cocoanut oil were among the principal raw materials used by the factory. Production started at the six soap kettles in the central building (now demolished) with the mix then pumped to Building 8A for further processing before coming to (his) Finishing Department on the third floor of Building 8 for drying over cans, emerging in sheet form. The sheets were compacted under hydraulic pressure and cut into cakes in which form they were marketed as shaving soap, to fit into shaving mugs. In Building 6 the Shipping Department was on the first floor, packaging and wrapping on the second, more of the Finishing Department on the third, and box making facilities on the fourth. In Building 11 the first and second floors were devoted to talcum powder, the third floor to shampoo, and the fourth floor to Lectric Shave and Aqua Velva.
According to Mr. McKeown's estimate, in the 1950s there were about 40 employees in the office and perhaps 300 production workers, men and women. The J.B. Williams Company, he says, was considered a "wonderful place to work." There were paid holidays early on. "We hated to see Fridays coming," he recalls. "We looked forward to Monday. We were interested in our work." The company's position in the community was unique as Glastonbury never became an industrial town. J.B. Williams Co. was by far the largest employer and largest contributor to the community's economic base.
Interview with Charles M. Goddard Jr., President of Glastonbury Toiletries, May 17, 1979.
Interview with Robert J. McKeown, employee of J.B. Williams Co. for 45 years, May 15, 1979.
"Memorial Service, Lucius Harrison Thayer, D.D.", North Congregational Church, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, October 25, 1931. (At the Westfield Athenaeum, Westfield, Massachusetts.)
Samuel H. Williams, The House that James Built, Glastonbury, 1948. (At the Glastonbury Historical Society.)
________, Shaving Soap Manufacturing in the 1870's, privately printed, 1945? (At the Glastonbury Historical Society.)
________, James Baker Williams Family Album, privately printed, 1944. (At the Glastonbury Historical Society.)
Interview with Richard G. Williams, June 20, 1979.
Laura Woodbridge, "A Victorian Family — The Williams of Glastonbury", 1979, ms. at the State Library.
† David F. Ransom, architectural historian and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, J. B. Williams Company Historic District, Glastonbury, CT, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.