Little Hollywood Historic District
The Little Hollywood Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Little Hollywood Historic District consists of 39 brick apartment houses, most of them three stories high, built between 1907 and 1923 on approximately eight acres of land in the West End of Hartford. Ten of the buildings face Farmington Avenue, Hartford's leading east-west traffic artery; 11 are on Frederick Street, one block to the south, and 16 front on Denison and Owen streets that run north-south from Farmington Avenue to Frederick Street.
All buildings in the Little Hollywood Historic District are apartment houses. There are no infill structures, no stores, houses, or churches. The single function of all the buildings is a chief, distinctive characteristic of the district. All the buildings are considered to contribute to the historic character of the district.
This section of Hartford's West End, with Farmington Avenue as its focal point, was developed largely during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Its architectural milieu is one of multi-story brick apartment houses and small commercial buildings along Farmington Avenue with brick, three-family residences, multi-story brick apartment buildings and modest single-family frame houses on the streets south of Farmington Avenue. A small number of apartment buildings, two- and three-family frame residences and large, single-family frame houses are found on the streets north of Farmington Avenue. Reflecting the eclectic architectural tastes of the main period of its development, the West End contains buildings in the Queen Anne, Shingle, Second Renaissance Revival, Georgian Revival, Jacobethan Revival and Modernistic styles.
The oldest buildings in the Little Hollywood Historic District are located on Farmington Avenue and date from the period 1907-1919 (Numbers 402-404, 412, 416, 422, 429-431, 435, 439-441 and 445). These three- and four-story, light and dark brick buildings stand on broad, tree-shaded lawns. Designed as upper-income apartment buildings, according to established building codes, these buildings vary considerably in their facade treatments. Falling into the broad category of the second Renaissance Revival style, they range in their detail treatment from Florentine arched windows (Number 402-404), to a Palladian porch, (Number 422). During the 1920s, two Jacobethan Revival buildings (Numbers 419-421 and 429-431) and a modernistic building (Number 408) were added to the Farmington Avenue group in the Little Hollywood District. The Farmington Avenue buildings contain the largest apartment units in the Little Hollywood Historic District, with one- and two-bedroom suites, some with fireplaces, arranged along central hallways. Many of these buildings have undergone interior alterations to increase the number of units, but few have witnessed exterior modification.
The two Jacobethan apartment buildings, (Numbers 419-421 and 429-431) on Farmington Avenue by their positions on either side of Owen Street, form a gate onto Owen Street . These structures establish the building height, set-back and shaped parapet roofline theme for the buildings on Owen, Frederick and Denison Streets. Variations of the Second Renaissance Revival and Jacobethan Revival styles are well represented on these streets. Swiss Chalet, (17-19 Owen Street), Mission style (35 Owen Street) and Baroque (21-23 Frederick Street) architectural elements are also found. Built between 1919 and 1923, the Owen, Frederick and Denison streets buildings have less ornate facades and stand on smaller lawns than do those on Farmington Avenue. A number have been grouped around central courtyards as at 23-27 Owen Street and 24-26-28 Owen Street. The floor plans of the Owen, Frederick and Denison Street structures are generally for one-bedroom units, with combined dining and kitchen areas.
These units are often entered from long central hallways. The apartments in the Owen, Frederick and Denison streets buildings are smaller and the buildings are closer together, compared with those on Farmington Avenue. The Farmington Avenue buildings and the Owen, Frederick and Denison streets buildings form a cohesive urban entity bound by building type (apartments), building material (brick), scale (three-to-four stories), and style (early 20th-century eclecticism). Their physical compactness, visual continuity and shared architectural features make the Little Hollywood Historic District a distinctive urban community in Hartford, unmatched by any other neighborhood in the city.
The Little Hollywood National Register Historic District is significant for its variety of eclectic architectural detail in the classic tradition, for its urban cohesiveness and density, and for its unusual integrity as an early-20th century Hartford apartment development. The apartment complex that comprises the Little Hollywood Historic District is also significant in social history because it is a statement of the change in living patterns that developed after World War I throughout the country and in Hartford, particularly for young working women.
Architecture and Architects
The architects are known for all but 12 of the 39 buildings in the Little Hollywood Historic District. Sixteen were designed by George H. Matthews, three by Harry H. Beckanstein, three by Dunkelberger and Gelman, one each by Berenson and Moses, Willis E. Becker, and George Zunner, and twelve by unknown architects. All of the known architects were local men, working in a common community of architectural ideas and state of the art, a fact that helps explain the compatibility of the structures with one another.
The architects for Little Hollywood were the city's second tier of talent, not the leading firms of the day. The position at the top of the profession in the city at the time was held by such firms as Davis & Brooks, who won the competition for the new Municipal Building conducted in 1911 by John M. Carrere and who designed the Orient Insurance Building. Another prominent architect was Edward T. Hapgood, who was associated with Donn Barber in the State Library and Supreme Court Building and who designed many upper income homes in the western part of the city. Another prominent firm was Smith & Bassette, successors to William C. Brocklesby, known for their restoration work on the Bulfinch State House and for their design for the State Office Building.
By contrast, the first building in the Little Hollywood Historic District for which the architect is known, 402-404 Farmington Avenue, 1912, was designed by Burton A. Sellew who had started out in 1900 helping his father, a builder. Sellew, after several years, opened his own office as an architect and in the same year that he did the Little Hollywood building, 1912, also designed a six-family apartment at 42 Wolcott Street and a larger structure at 195-197 Maple Avenue, which were less prestigious addresses. All three are versions of the Neo-Classical Revival with such elements as keystones in splayed lintels and modillioned cornices. The Farmington Avenue structure is, appropriately for its location, the most ambitious of the trio with its rusticated-stone first story and Florentine-arched windows. It probably was one of the largest and most expensive buildings of Sellew's career.
Its neighbor, 408 Farmington Avenue, 1920, was designed by Sellew's contemporary, George Zunner. In fact, Sellew and Zunner practiced briefly (1908) in partnership. In his Farmington Avenue building, Zunner displayed his awareness of the Chicago School by using the popular tripartite windows, but under a stepped and gabled parapet taken from the archeological approach to design that was then in vogue. So far as is known, these two adjacent Farmington Avenue apartments represent the apex of these architects' careers in terms of size, elaboration, and expense.
The Berenson and Moses building, 439-441 Farmington Avenue, 1917, is one of three they are known to have designed on the Avenue, the other two being 260 and 467-469 Farmington Avenue. Their work at 439-441 by its brick pilasters with triglyphs capitals indicates their commitment to the classical idiom, which developed at 260 Farmington Avenue into a fully-articulated Georgian Revival design. The Berenson & Moses firm was not a great success, and in the Great Depression went out of business for lack of work.
Dunkelberger & Gelman were the architects for 17-19, 31 and 35 Owen Street, 1923. These three buildings have in common inventive and attractive, but low budget, decorative detail, such as is found in other work by this firm. The firm's most visible commissions are the highly decorative bridges of the Merritt Parkway in southwestern Connecticut which they created, each one different, out of poured concrete, with a variety of textures and design motifs. Dunkelberger & Gelman's large apartment building at 1-9 Wethersfield Avenue, in the South Green Historic District, is executed in various shades of tan and brown brick in a theme of Tudor/Jacobean Revival styles with rectangular drip stones, gargoyles, owl finials and a castellated roof line, most of the trim, again, in inexpensive poured concrete. At 17-19 Owen Street twin, green-tiled gables on the facade, unlike anything else in the district, are combined with brick courses to give a truly eclectic half-timbered/Swiss Chalet effect. Their use of red, green and blue diamond-shaped and oblong tile inserts on the facade was carried over to 31 and 35 Owen Street where the basic design is derived from the Spanish Colonial Revival or Moorish architecture and carried out with a stucco facade and a tile pent roof, again enlivening the street with the low-budget ingenuity that was the Dunkelberger & Gelman trade mark.
George H. Matthews, who alone is responsible for most of Frederick and Denison streets, had a brief career of only several years as an independent, practicing architect. Earlier, in 1915, he had distinguished himself by designing at 670 Broadview Terrace what is probably the earliest example in Hartford of the California-type, asymmetrical Bungalow with deep front porch under projecting gable roof and rafters, but he spent most of his life as a draftsman for others. When he died in 1935 his brief obituary notice stated simply that he was a draftsman for the Factory Insurance Co., making no reference whatsoever to the 16 buildings he designed for Little Hollywood in 1922-23 or whatever architectural work he may have done.
Matthews gave a great deal of thought to the facades of his Little Hollywood buildings, continuing the eclectic classical approach found in the buildings already constructed. 9-11 and 13-15 Frederick Street typify his work. The facade of 9-11 Frederick Street has a central Tudor entrance surround with a pointed arch, a hood mold with label stops, and a crocketed gable with a fleur-de-lis finial. At second-floor level, above the entrance, is a stone cartouche and above it a title pent roof supported on consoles. The third floor is stuccoed, with diamond-shaped panels, and the roof line is a stepped parapet. It seems as though he left out nothing. What else could a potential tenant possibly want? Perhaps he would like a front porch, and if so he could step next door to 13-15 Frederick Street where Matthews provided two tiers of porches, on either side of the central entrance, giving six apartments access to outdoor living.
The Farmington Avenue buildings, built before the War, are larger, more elaborate, constructed of more expensive building materials, and laid out, originally, in larger apartments for higher-income families. The Owen, Frederick, and Denison street buildings, built after the war, are lower budget structures with smaller apartments, intended for single occupancy. The entire Little Hollywood Historic District's eclectic, fanciful derailing in the Jacobethan, Renaissance, Spanish Colonial and Swiss Chalet Revival styles is of fine quality, and reflects mainstream American architecture of the early 20th century, where various styles of the past were still used as "design mines" for buildings of thoroughly new functions.
The development of the Little Hollywood Historic District was no happenstance either in time, or place or function of the buildings. Several currents of community development came together to stimulate construction of buildings of that type at that time at that place. In the first quarter of the 20th century, a basic change occurred in life style in America and in Hartford that created a demand for new and unprecedented character for apartments, particularly small units, in a desirable location, Little Hollywood satisfied the demand.
By the time of World War I, Asylum Hill had passed its zenith as the most desirable residential section of the city. Some of the old families were either dying out or moving out, further west. The big new homes were being built further west along Farmington Avenue or on streets in the northwest quadrant of the city, or beyond the city line. Some apartment houses were being built in Asylum Hill, a number of them on Farmington Avenue. The district's Farmington Avenue apartment houses were built as a part of that trend. They were elaborate structures with large apartments built for upper income families who elected to follow the trend of the times toward apartment living and who liked the "good address" of Farmington Avenue just west of Asylum Hill. It was a convenient location, too; street cars provided good service to downtown. These forces encouraged the construction of the district's Farmington Avenue apartments during the decade of World War I.
A separate life style development was also occurring at this time that accelerated in momentum at about the time of World War I. This development related to living conditions for young people and single people. Traditionally, young people and single people, up to this time, tended to live at home with their families, or perhaps if no family unit was at hand, to live in boarding houses. Boarding houses constituted a way of life, but in the first quarter of the 20th century boarding houses started into a period of terminal decline. In the decade after World War I, young people and single people of good background no longer were satisfied to live at home or in a boarding house. They wanted small apartments.
The trend was helped along by the feminist drive for independence and for recognition of job capability separated from the question of sex. The women's suffrage movement achieved success at this time. More women were successfully pursuing higher education and education in fields formerly reserved for men. These women did not wish to live at home or in a boarding house. But they did want to live in a pleasant, convenient, and well-thought-of part of town. Fortunately, the former Owen farm, lying between Farmington Avenue, the North Branch of the Park River, and the House of the Good Shepherd, was still available for development. It had once been owned by Mr. Frederick Denison Owen, whose names are used for the streets. Developers sensed the opportunity in the early 1920s and proceeded to construct small, inexpensive apartments, convenient to transportation and in what was still a good part of town. They were able to build the right apartments in the right place at the right time to satisfy a new demand of unprecedented character.
The extent to which young, professional women took advantage of the opportunity to live in Little Hollywood in a totally unprecedented manner is reflected by the city directories. For example, the 1926 directory lists 12 tenants for 9-11 Frederick Street, eight of them female. Occupations are given for five of the eight: telephone operator, teacher, nurse, assembly worker in a factory, and clerk in a factory office. Thirty-eight tenants are listed for 16 Owen Street, 21 of them female. Occupations listed for the women are teacher (3), bookkeeper (3), stenographer (2), clerk (3), machine operator, and "at Aetna" (presumably an office worker at the insurance company). The names were exclusively Anglo-Saxon; Alice M. Benjamin, Mary E. Pendegast, Anne Y. Philips and Mary M. Ayers were typical.
The Little Hollywood Historic District became popularly identified with this new type of independent young woman, said to be beautiful and said to lead glamorous lives. Hence the name Little Hollywood.
In the years after World War II, Asylum Hill, Little Hollywood, and Hartford in general, suffered problems common to all other cities. The automobile and suburban living drew desirable tenants from Little Hollywood, and the neighborhood went into decline. Many of the apartments now  are not occupied, some have suffered fire damage, and most are in need of maintenance, but plans are now in hand for rehabilitation of the buildings.
The buildings in the Little Hollywood Historic District illuminate and give meaning to the history of a particular phase of the social and architectural development of the Hartford community. Local architects in the facades of these apartment houses displayed a panoply of eclectic, classical motifs in a final burst of such activity before the onset of modern architecture. Young and single people, especially an avant-garde of newly-independent young women, occupied the apartments as an expression of the ongoing development of the American lifestyle between World War I and World War II.
The source of information about architects (and the dates of construction) is the city building permits. The first city building permits occurred in the mid-1890s, but the name of the architect was not always shown. This practice of showing the architect's name sometimes but not always continued through the first quarter of the 20th century.
Interview August 8, 1979 with Sidney Moses, son of the architect.
One of Matthews' employers was the L. F. Dettenborn Woodworking Co., cabinet makers, who produced the fixtures, many of which are still in place, for the Stackpole, Moore and Tryon store (listed in the National Register of Historic Places).
Hartford Daily Times, January 9, 1935, 31:1.
Atlas of Hartford, New York: Sanborn Map Co., 1920.
Hartford City Directories.
Hartford Daily Times, January 9, 1935.
Interview with Jenny Heiser, resident, 40 Owen Street, December 5, 1979
Interview with Sidney Moses, August 3, 1979.
† Merle Kummer and David Ransom, Hartford Architecture Conservancy, Little Hollywood Historic District, Hartfor, CT, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.