Charter Oak Place Historic District
The Charter Oak Place Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 with a boundary increase addendum listed in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from copies of the original nomination documents. [†, ‡] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
Charter Oak Place Historic District is comprised of a short, tree-lined street in the south end of downtown Hartford. Although it is only a block from the main street, offices and factories, it is quiet and somewhat isolated because of the sharp turn at the north end and hills on three sides which reduce traffic. All but three of the 16 major buildings on Charter Oak Place are large homes of the Victorian period. Charter Oak Place was an upper class residential neighborhood in the 19th century, but now most of the houses have been divided into apartments; many are in poor condition and some are unoccupied. Recently, however, the City and local preservationists have targeted the area for rehabilitation and Charter Oak Place may regain its historical character as a residential neighborhood.
The Charter Oak Place Historic District is quite cohesive. One house, 11 Charter Oak Place, was replaced in the 1950's by a 3-story brick convent. Because its scale, material and block-like form are appropriate, it is not a significant visual intrusion. There are also two large apartment buildings, built around 1920, on the west side of the street. Despite their lack of conformity, these buildings are a product of the historical development of the neighborhood and contribute to an understanding of its evolution. Built on the site of the home of a prominent Hartford family, the apartment building at 39 Charter Oak Place is a four-story, red brick, U-shaped mass whose plain facade is relieved only by a Neo-Classical balustrade along the edge of its flat roof. Number 29 is smaller, 3 stories high and more decorative. Built on a vacant lot around 1920, the brick building seems Jacobethan in inspiration, with battlements, two Gothic-arched porticos, paired small-paned windows and a first story faced with stone, with deep horizontal joints. There were also more 19th-century houses which have disappeared: there was one on each side of the southern end of the street and two between #22-24 and #34-36. These lots are now vacant. Despite these additions and removals, the concentration of 19th-century architecture here is still impressive, especially for Hartford, a city which has undergone considerable rebuilding.
Beginning at the north end of Charter Oak Place, across from the large apartment building, one encounters the first of a series of houses in the Romano-Tuscan Renaissance Revival style. Number 38-40 is a brick double house, block-like in form, 3 stories high with a nearly flat roof. Because of the slope of the land, there is a full basement story not visible from the front. The windows, which have flat projecting caps and stone sills, are graduated in height with those of the third story greatly reduced. The main facade is symmetrical, four bays wide, with the entrances in the middle sheltered by a flat-roofed portico. The portico roof is supported by three square panelled columns in front and corresponding pilasters. It is not very Classical but beneath the projecting cornice is a row of round-arched ornaments resembling dentillation, a scheme repeated in the brick below the main cornice. There are remains of delicate iron balconies under the first-story windows.
Number 34-36 is also a double house of the same material and form, but it has several differences. The small windows on the top story are round-headed, and the bays flanking the portico have paired narrow windows instead of single openings. The cornice decoration along both the main cornice and the round-columned portico is slightly different, a band of round arches. It appears that the bottom windows have been partially filled in and the plain boxed cornice is probably a replacement of a jutting one like its neighbor.
After a stretch of vacant land, upon which two similar houses once stood, is another Renaissance Revival House, #22-24. Like the others it is a brick double house, three stories tall, with a four-bay main facade and portico. The top window openings are small and have round segmental-arched heads, as did the second-story windows above the portico, to judge from remaining stone lintels; these windows and those above have been bricked in and others added. The windows on the first floor have also been rearranged and doors added; wooden, partially enclosed, shed-roofed porches flank the portico, which is supported by three Corinthian columns. The projecting main cornice is decorated with widely spaced carved brackets. The portico cornice is also bracketed, with extra-large brackets over the columns. An interesting feature of the house are the full-height bays, half hexagonal in plan, which extend from both sides of the building.
Continuing along the east side, one encounters the house at 20 Charter Oak Place. The building is brick, 2-1/2-stories high, with saw-tooth courses marking the stories. Its mansard roof has small shed dormers with cut-out decorations as brackets. The houses's entrance, greatly altered, is on the south side rather than in front. The facade facing the street features a hexagonal bay, two stories in height, with an intricate ironwork cresting on top. Extending from the main roof over the bay is a pyramid-roofed crown whose open front is trimmed with bargeboard. There are also full height mansard-roofed bays on the south and north sides. The latter has on the first story a cut-away corner with a small Corinthian corner inserted. Matching the Second Empire style of the house is a 1-1/2-story mansard-roofed brick carriage house in the rear.
The next two houses are in the Queen Anne style. The first story of #16 is brick, but the other story and a half is frame and shingled. The basic roofline of the house consists of a gable roof, with ridge parallel to the street, which sweeps down to the first story on the north side of the main facade, where it shelters a partially recessed porch (the main entranceway) and is supported by groups of round columns. On the south half of the main facade is a wall dormer whose gable roof is at right angles to the main roof; there is a Palladian window in this gable. Built into the south wall is a rather simple brick chimney. Its neighbor, #14, is an earlier Queen Anne house. Block-like and built of brick, it is 2-1/2-stories tall with a complex roofline. It is basically a hipped roof, with shingled, gable-roofed wall dormers on the front and sides. On the south side is a bay whose hexagonal plan creates an overhang by the dormer above. Running across the main facade is a wooden shed-roofed porch with turned columns and a railing of rectangular openwork. A tall flaring chimney with panelled sides is built into the south wall.
The last house on the east side is #12, a 2-1/2-story, clapboarded frame house. Extremely irregular in plan and massing and somewhat eclectic in style, the overall effect, especially the verticality, is Gothic. The main facade is dominated by a square tower, 3 stories high with a steep pyramidal roof. In front of this is a small gable-roofed entrance porch. To the right of the tower is a gable-roofed section with a two-story bracketed bay underneath the gable. Gabled dormers and a low chimney with recessed arched panels protrude from the roof. On the other side of the tower the house has a hipped roof, mostly obscured by dormers. On the north side are two gable-roofed bays, one of which sports its own bracketed bay like that in front, only one story in height. All the many gabled parts of this house have steeply pitched roofs, and most have pierced bargeboard, central pendants, and Stick style brackets. There are also a few shed-roofs with brackets over some windows and side doors. In the rear is a 1-1/2-story carriage house with a pointed cupola. Several additions to the front obscure its lines, but it echoes the main house with its gabled roof and dormers.
Beginning at the southern end of the other side, one encounters first the side wall of a commercial building on Wyllys Street, a vacant lot, and then #7, a Shingle style house whose gambrel roof curves slightly outward at the eaves. There is a large gable-roofed dormer on the north side of the roof and on the south side, two gabled dormers, below which on the first story are bow windows. There are similar bow windows on either side of the main entrance, but they are less visible because of a porch across the front, which has slender paired columns and a rail of turned balusters. On the second story of the main facade are two pairs of windows, the top halves of which have lozenge-shaped panes. Above each pair is a carved frieze with festoons and a molded cornice. In the peak of the roof is a recessed group of four windows, the middle two of which extend, in V-formation beyond the plane of the wall, drawing with them a swelling in the shingled wall above.
After the convent the next house is #15, a large 2-1/2-story brick double house in the Second Empire style. The main facade is symmetrical: a central pavilion contains the two entrances, a mansard-roofed porch, and above, two pairs of narrow rectangular windows. On either side of the central bay is a single large opening at each story. The mansard roof is covered with bands of colored fishscale slates and is surmounted by a flat-roofed square belvedere. Although the trim around the window openings is rather restrained, the dormers, of which there are three in front, have roofs of semi-circular arches which extend outward, creating a deep window reveal. The dormer over the central pavilion is larger, has a flatter roof, and contains a pair of round-headed windows. The dormers, belvedere and entrance porch are decorated with small carved brackets. The symmetry of the building has been interrupted by a full-height brick addition grafted onto the south side.
Next is #30, one of three houses in the Italianate style. The 2-1/2-story, clapboarded, frame building is composed of irregularly massed rectangular solids and has a flat roof. The bulk of the house is an L-shaped part with a one-story bracketed bay window and the main entrance. On the north side is a second block, smaller and somewhat recessed behind the plane of the first.
Charter Oak Place Historic District is one of few remaining concentrations of 19th-century domestic architecture in Hartford. Although it comprises a short street, it is a virtual catalog of Victorian building, offering the observer some half-dozen different styles. The neighborhood has remained residential, despite the deterioration of the buildings, and is a target for local preservation and revitalization efforts. Many of the features which made Charter Oak Place attractive to its first, upper-class residents — proximity to the downtown, physical isolation, pleasant density and scale of building, and the quiet, tree-lined street — may entice people (with resources sufficient to rehabilitate the houses) to again reside in the city.
The questions which are stimulated by the architecture of Charter Oak Place Historic District are those which can be asked of all Victorian architecture. Certainly the sampling is representative: Italian villa, Romano-Tuscan Renaissance, Second Empire, Gothic, Queen Anne and the Shingle style. That diversity was a major facet of 19th-century architecture is readily apparent. Although they are not the most elaborate or "correct" examples to be found in Connecticut, the houses on Charter Oak Place show the most typical features of each style. Despite the relative restraint in design there is in detail and workmanship a competence which makes the Charter Oak Place Historic District useful to the student of our architectural heritage.
But is there a unity to it? Certainly the designs are all derivative, drawing ideas from foreign and/or historical sources, but this revivalism was merely the medium for expressing architectural ideas. A more significant unity is that all these styles had to solve the problem of enclosing much more living space, a result of increased comfort and reliance upon domestic servants. Even the most disciplined and confining design, the block-like Renaissance house, was altered to increase space: #38-40 and 34-36 have hidden basement stories in the rear, and #23 has a large ell. The irregular massing of the Italianate, the Baroque scale of the Second Empire, the complex plan and roofline of the Gothic and the carte blanche allowed in the Queen Anne all were ways of increasing interior space without becoming monumental. The use of projecting bays made possible larger and more interesting rooms. Bays are found even when style would seem to preclude them: the Gothic #12 has some with bracketed cornices and #22-24 departs from the Tuscan cube by adding full-freight bays on the sides.
Another architectural feature of interest is the number of double houses: all of the Renaissance Revival houses on the east side of the street (and probably two more no longer there) and the Second Empire #15 were built to accommodate two families. This pattern seems somewhat unusual in an age of conspicuous consumption and individualism. Number 38-40 was occupied by the two Pease brothers and their families; they were both tobacco merchants. Business partners also lived next to each other in #15; Charles Robinson and James Smith were partners in the flour business of Charles Northam (#12). Several other houses had more than one family living in them, usually relatives and sometimes partners in the family firm.
In such an upper class neighborhood, it is not surprising to find people of national renown: Gideon Welles, a member of Lincoln's cabinet, retired to Charter Oak Place, although his house is no longer standing (it was on the site of the convent). Richard J. Gatling lived in #27 for years. He invented agricultural machinery as well as the weapon which bears his name and which he manufactured at nearby Colt's Firearms. Although the Gatling gun was a major breakthrough in weapon technology, it saw little wartime service. It was mostly used domestically against Indians and striking workers.
For the historian, Charter Oak Place Historic District prompts some interesting speculations about residential development. The area was originally a single estate and was offered for sale in 1857. When there was no one interested in maintaining it intact, it was subdivided into house lots and a street was informally laid out. The first residents, as has already been indicated, were from Hartford's business class: wool, flour lumber, furniture and tobacco dealers, lawyers, manufacturers, and insurance agents. Some people were connected with the Colt Armory located nearby: James Kenally (#34-36) was an inspector there, Asa Cook (#20) rented space in the armory and manufactured machinery, as did Gatling. All but one of the families employed servants, usually two or three Irish women. The homes with carriage houses generally employed larger staffs with a coachman. In 1880 there were 20 households listed in the Census. Of these, there were three headed by immigrants, one each from Germany, England and Ireland. Throughout the nineteenth century, the neighborhood showed a surprising degree of stability, with about 80% of the houses occupied by the original owner or heir (in contrast, the city as a whole experienced a 70% turnover each decade). After 1900 the area began to lose its upper class character and by 1920 many of the homes had been converted to rooming houses. It was at this time that the large apartment buildings were erected. Charter Oak Place had become similar to the ethnic working class areas which surrounded it.
Actually, what is unusual is that Charter Oak Place retained its original character as long as it did. The explanation lies in the ideas about the city held by the upper class. At mid-19th century, there were two distinct and somewhat competing patterns of residence among Hartford's merchant-manufacturer elite. The dominant pattern was one of living close to the downtown businesses, but there was a secondary mode, a move to the western area of the city, away from the riverfront, the downtown and the Irish areas. By 1880 the latter pattern was much more apparent: a distinct upper class sector had developed, especially in the Asylum Hill area. This movement was an attempt to express status through residence in a large house in a particular neighborhood. In part, it was anti-urban, idealizing country life.
Charter Oak Place Historic District may be seen as a remnant of the earlier attitude which did not reject urban living. This would explain why an upper-class neighborhood could form so close to the busy Main Street and nearby factories; why well-off people lived in duplexes; and why these houses, while large and well-built, lack the ostentation of other Victorian homes. Whether or not this interpretation is correct, these buildings constitute a unique set of evidence for the social historian trying to understand how the 19th-century city functioned.
The purpose of this amendment is to alter the boundary of the Charter Oak Place National Register Historic District at its southwest corner to include the house at 1-3 Charter Oak Place. This house was moved from 22 Congress Street in May 1980 pursuant to Memorandum of Agreement prepared by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
When the Charter Oak Place Historic District was established, the original intent was to extend the district south to Wyllys Street. This plan was not carried out.
1-3 Charter Oak Place is now positioned on the boundary line, resting in part within the Charter Oak Place Historic District and in part outside the district. Accordingly, it is proposed to revise the boundary.
The revised boundary continues the existing line that is the rear property line of properties facing east toward Charter Oak Place farther south to Wyllys Street. The boundary then runs easterly along Wyllys Street to Charter Oak Place, and then northerly along Charter Oak Place.
1-3 Charter Oak Place
1-3 Charter Oak Place is a 2-1/2-story, frame, Queen Anne style house with gable roof, irregular plan, and several gables and porches, facing east toward Charter Oak Place. The porches have round columns and the front gable has a small Palladian window, elements that derive from the Neo-Classical Revival. The siding is clapboards for the first floor and shingles above.
The foundation walls visible above grade at the Congress Street location were brick, and they are faced with brick at the new location. Also, on the facade the height of the visible, new foundation wall is about the same as it was. The front porches were moved, and the steps leading up to them will be about the same as the old steps. A similar condition with respect to the visible foundation wall exists on the north elevation.
On the west and south elevations, however, the ground of the new site slopes off, exposing more of the foundation walls than formerly was the case. This condition is being taken advantage of to provide better light and access to the basement than was possible at the old location. A retaining wall parallel to the south foundation has been built preparatory to constructing stairs down to the new basement entrance. The contour of the ground permits this access to be unobtrusive.
The house at 22 Congress Street was one of six structures in the Congress Street rehabilitation project scheduled for demolition as provided in a Memorandum of Agreement ratified by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and noted in their letter of April 16, 1979 to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Subsequently, at the instigation of the Hartford Architecture Conservancy, arrangements were made to move the house instead of to demolish it. This change of plans was recorded in a further Memorandum of Agreement ratified by the Advisory Council July 17, 1979.
The basic reason for demolishing or moving the house was the fact that larger brick apartment houses had been built close to it some decades ago, on either side. The newer, larger structures tended to cut off light to, and close in, the smaller frame structure. Its attractiveness if rehabilitated on its original site was questionable. Moreover, its removal facilitated access to mandated parking areas planned for the interior of the block. The moving of the house from 22 Congress Street to 1-3 Charter Oak Place enhanced both the Congress Street rehabilitation project and the integrity of the Charter Oak Place Historic District.
1-3 Charter Oak Place occupies approximately the site of a former house at this location, and thus returns the streetscape to its historic character. The house before being moved was determined to contribute to the Congress Street Historic District in which it was located. In its new location, the structure fits in well with its neighbors.
The historical arrangement of houses and lot lines at the corner of Charter Oak Place and Wyllys Street is shown by the 1880 city atlas. City lot 260, known as 1 Charter Oak Place, fronted east on Charter Oak Place and by an ell to the south included all of the Charter Oak Place frontage to Wyllys Street. Lot 259 fronted south on Wyllys Street. No change in this arrangement appears until the 1929 atlas, which shows an apartment house on lot 259. This apartment house was 54 Wyllys Street (demolished). In the 1930s the ell of land along Charter Oak Place was transferred to become part of the lot on which the apartment house was located. The house at 52 Wyllys Street also has been demolished, leaving the entire corner clear.
Under the impetus of the move of the house from 22 Congress Street, the lot lines of the corner have been re-drawn. The northern section of lot 260 will be annexed to 7 Charter Oak Place. All the remaining corner land will become the lot for the moved house, now 1-3 Charter Oak Place. 1-3 Charter Oak Place is positioned a few feet south of where the original 1 Charter Oak Place stood from before 1880 to after 1950. The boundary of the southwest corner of the Charter Oak Place district is changed to coincide with the boundary of the new lot.
By taking the place, or very nearly the place, occupied for three-quarters of a century by the former 1 Charter Oak Place, 1-3 Charter Oak Place will fill a void at the southwest corner of the Charter Oak Place Historic District that was created by demolition in the 1950s. The Charter Oak Place Historic District will more closely resemble its historic appearance because an appropriate house will again be in place where traditionally a house was located.
Most of the houses on Charter Oak Place are larger and grander than the house from 22 Congress Street. In the 19th century, Charter Oak Place was a residential neighborhood for wealthy families, while Congress Street was developed for middle income people. In this sense, 1-3 Charter Oak Place will be an exception on the block. On the other hand, the frame Queen Anne house style is more characteristic of Charter Oak Place than of Congress Street. The house diagonally across Charter Oak Place from the new lot is a fanciful, frame, Queen Anne structure. The house at 7 Charter Oak Place is a frame, shingled house, not a great deal larger than 1-3 Charter Oak Place, and compatible in mass and proportions as well as materials. The moved house will fit in better on Charter Oak Place than it has over the years on Congress Street. With the sensitive siting and ample yard 1-3 Charter Oak Place will anchor the south end of Charter Oak Place again, as it was anchored for decades, and will strengthen the streetscape of well-spaced homes from the second half of the 19th century.
Atlas of the City of Hartford, Springfield: L.J. Richards & Co., 1896, 1909,
Atlas of the City of Hartford, New York: Sanborn Map Co., 1921.
Atlas of Hartford, City and County. Hartford: Baker and Tilden, 1869.
City Atlas of Hartford, Connecticut. Philadelphia: G.M. Hopkins, 1880.
Hartford Architecture Conservancy, File on Charter Oak Place.
Hartford City Directory (title varies), 1860-1900.
Hartford, Connecticut. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1885.
U.S. Census Office, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. Population Schedules for Hartford, National Archives Microfilm 653-78.
The preparer of this form is presently writing a dissertation on 19th century Hartford and drew upon that research.
‡ Bruce Clouett, consultant, Connecticut Historical Commission, Charter Oak Place, Hartford, CT, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
† David F. Ransom, Hartford Architectural Conservancy, Charter Oak Place Boundary Increase, Hartford, CT, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.