Sigourney Square Historic District
Sigourney Square Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
Sigourney Square Historic District is a residential area of approximately 45 acres built in the 1890's. It is centered around Sigourney Square Park, one mile west of the center of downtown Hartford (Old State House). The Sigourney Square Historic District is in the shape of a narrow oblong, five blocks west from Garden Street to Woodland Street and two blocks from Ashley Street north to the railroad tracks behind Sargeant Street.
Within the residential district are 169 structures 156 built as middle-class, one - and two-family homes, two stores, one church, and ten apartment houses. The buildings appear to be structurally sound. They are presently fairly well maintained; a strong neighborhood civic association is encouraging upgrading of the area.
Sigourney Square Park, the center of the Sigourney Square Historic District, is a full square block, each side about 340 feet long, bordered by Sargeant, Sigourney, Ashley, and May Streets. A circular walk around its four sides, shown in a turn of the century photograph, is gone and the entire area is now open space used for recreational purposes by neighborhood residents.
Most of the building lots in the Sigourney Square Historic District are 40 to 50 feet wide and 150 to 160 feet deep, a size typically used for middle-class housing in Hartford at the turn of the century. The houses are usually placed about 25 feet from the street, and occupy most of the width of the lots, thus establishing a unified neighborhood streetscape.
A variety of materials are used in the exterior surface treatment of the houses. Many are brick or wood, while some have a combination of brick or stone first story with shingles above. But whatever the material, fanciful Queen Anne design prevails throughout the Sigourney Square Historic District. The eclectic use of elements from a variety of architectural styles for which the 1890's is noted, is expressed here with exceptional density. Among these architectural features are picturesque roof lines, jagged gables, two-story bays, pseudo Palladian windows, dentil courses, Ionic columns, applique plaster decorations, colored glass, shaped shingles, and sawn and turned woodwork. Turrets and towers are common. Yet all of this variety is executed within a neighborhood standard of modest scale and picturesque massing, insuring a remarkable cohesiveness and unity.
The four houses on May Street facing the west side of the square have many characteristics typical of the district. One such typical circumstance is the fact that the house on the corner of Ashley Street, No. 43-45 May Street, and its neighbor, No. 47-49, are an identical pair. "Two of the same" often were constructed at one time. These two are of frame construction, two stories plus an attic, on brownstone foundations. The dominant design feature is a three-story octagonal tower having an eight-sided pyramidal roof with flared eaves, topped by a finial. The tower is balanced on the other side of the facade at third floor level by an overhanging pedimented gable, supported by brackets, in which is a row of three windows. Under the gable is a broad front porch. In the middle of both sides of the two houses is a two-story polygonal bay capped with a cross gable which overhangs the wall of the house to the extent that the gable wall is flush with the central section of the bay. Thus, the gable is partly projecting over the bay.
Next door to the north is another frame double house, No. 51-53 May Street, with clapboards at first floor level and shingles above. At both front corners are entrance porches. These two porches are similar in size, location and function, but quite different in design, providing a perfect example of the prevalence of variations on a theme. In this instance the porch to the south projects from the corner, is canted, and has its own small triangular pedimented roof. Above it in the body of the house is a recessed second-story porch. On the north corner the entrance porch itself is recessed and over it is an oval window having eight lights separated by radial muntins surrounded by a molded frame with four keystones. The two porch designs are tied together by use of identical open work "valences" consisting of an array of ball and stick elements whose balls are arranged to form festoons. Such imaginative use of turned and sawn woodwork abounds throughout the Sigourney Square Historic District.
The fourth and largest house in this row is No. 55-57 May Street. At its northeast corner, encircled by a broad front porch, is a massive round three-story tower with a conical roof. The porch has Tuscan columns and a turned balustrade. Three Palladian-inspired windows give special interest to the design; one large tripartite window at first floor level has its transom sections divided into many small square lights. Another in a front gable has its central section divided by curved muntins into seven pointed lights, while a third in the top of the tower has many small diamond shaped panes.
The imaginative planning that went into these four houses on the west side of the square extends in general throughout the district, but there are three categories of exceptions to be mentioned: first, the houses which predate 1890, second, the apartment houses; and, third, the church.
The oldest houses in the Sigourney Square Historic District, Nos. 8, 18, and 22 Ashley Street, were built about 1850 while the area was still the Town Farm. These houses form a striking contrast to others in the district, being simple Italianate in design, and built of brick with brownstone lintels and sills with flat surfaces and overhanging roofs.
The apartment houses are of several different types. Brick "perfect sixes" such as Nos. 27-29, 310-312, and 314-316 Sargeant Street, built perhaps ten years after the majority of the single and double houses, blend well with the neighborhood scale and proportions. Larger, drab apartment houses, built in the last 50 years clearly are intrusions. In a middle position on the scale of design acceptability, between the "perfect sixes" on the one hand and the modern apartment houses on the other, is one 1916 four-story apartment block at No. 270 Sigourney Street whose dominant architectural feature is a heavy cornice made up of modillions, moldings, and antifixa. Adding a bit of charm are four tiers of wooden porches adorned with "Chinese Chippendale" balustrades between columns supported on high plinths. This building is not considered an intrusion.
The Sigourney Square Historic District's only church is at No. 19 May Street, constructed in 1929 by the Advent Christian Church of Hartford which continues to occupy it. While the date is late compared with other buildings in the Sigourney Square Historic District, the modest, red brick church has a simple gable front with pointed arch windows which adds merit to the district.
Sigourney Square is unique because it was all built as a middle-class neighborhood during less than ten years in the 1890's, and remains today very much in its original condition without damaging intrusions. Its picturesque Queen Anne architecture with asymmetrical massing of towers and turrets, gables and bays embellished with classic revival detail and sawn and turned woodwork comprise an important example of nineteenth century urban design which was practical yet inventive and modest yet comfortable.
The high degree of neighborhood stability is indicated by the longevity of two neighborhood retail stores which have been in their present locations since the turn of the century: a drug store at 245-247 Sigourney Street has been maintained at the southeast corner of the square in what was built as a double house; and half a block away, at No. 99 Ashley Street, Sigourney Market has been in business since 1901 in a building apparently built for the purpose.
In the mid-nineteenth century the area now occupied by Sigourney Square Historic District was the Alms House and Town Farm. The Alms House buildings, no longer standing, were located just east of what is now the park, and the Town Farm ran from Garden Street to Woodland Street and from the rear lot lines of estates on Asylum Avenue to the rear lot lines of estates on Albany Avenue with little interruption. A section of what is now the park was used as the Alms House burying ground; 49 smallpox casualties were buried there.
The three Italianate bricks at Nos. 8, 18, and 22 Ashley Street are thought to be the oldest houses in the Sigourney Square Historic District. The street, then a dead-end less than one block long, was named Alms House Road on an 1869 map, so possibly these houses were built for farm workers.
The chronology of the Sigourney Square Historic District's development is recited by the dates of the streets and the railroad. The Connecticut Western Railroad laid down its tracks by 1880, effectively establishing the northern boundary of the district. Ashley Street was accepted by the city in 1892; Sargeant Street was laid out on the map in 1885 and constructed by 1892. The cross streets were laid out in the 1880's and early 1890's; three were named after prominent local citizens, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, John M. Atwood, and Samuel H. Huntington.
The Alms House and Town Farm were abolished during the transition when the town government was consolidated with the city government, a process completed in April 1896. It was this change that made the area available for development. As part of the change, the city set off the square for park purposes on 9 December 1895. Landscape designer for the park was J. Alex McClunie, who advertised an office at 177 Asylum Street for preparation of plans for parks, cemeteries, and private grounds.
One of the developers who was active in the district was Fred Mahl (1846-1897). In 1891 he bought land from the town for the ten modest Queen Anne brick houses on Ashley Street, six (Nos. 31-51) on the south side and four (Nos. 38-48) on the north side. He arranged construction mortgage money in the amount of $3,000 each with Mechanics Savings Bank, constructed the houses, and sold them to families who lived in them until the late 1930's and early 1940's. The question of who drew the plans for Mahl's house is unresolved as, indeed, it is for almost all the houses in the district. Presumably, he followed a pattern book, or, perhaps, simply duplicated houses he had already built elsewhere.
Fred Mahl himself was a product of the times. An immigrant, he arrived in this country from Germany at age four and grew up the eldest in a family of six brothers, several of whom worked in the building trades. At age 51, after constructing and selling a number of buildings in various parts of the city, he fell overboard and drowned while bringing his yacht up the Connecticut River from Essex, leaving an estate inventoried at $115,228, a sum to which his Ashley Street houses made some contribution.
On Mahl's houses and most others in the district, the sawn and turned woodwork for porches, gables, verge boards, valences, finials, brackets, and balusters constitutes a remarkable collection fully equal to what is found in a book published on the subject. Ben Karp in Wood Motifs in American Domestic Architecture has collected 250 photographs from two dozen towns which are no more spectacular than what can be seen by walking the streets of Sigourney Square. The Sigourney Square Historic District provides a living museum of outstanding importance for the craft of sawn and turned woodworking.
While it is doubtful that Fred Mahl and his peers employed architects for the houses they constructed, some of the larger homes have the look of professional design. Little information is at hand regarding individual architects who may have contributed to the neighborhood, but Hartford architect Melvin H. Hapgood (1859-1899) is known to have worked in the district. He wrote about his work in The Art Interchange, a nineteenth century periodical published in New York City, and while his words deal with interiors they nevertheless epitomize the thinking behind the creation of many of the district's houses. Hapgood had under way two houses (not identified) on the "sunny side" of Ashley Street. He wrote: "The problem of designing these houses was rather difficult, for considerable accommodation was needed, and the appropriations were small...The westerly house was nine rooms and an attic, and the easterly one ten rooms and an attic...The cost of the two houses will be under $4,000 each...
"A careful color-scheme is made for both houses, so as to not only furnish agreeable tones in each room, but to make the effect of vistas as pleasing as possible. In the westerly house the hall is deep saffron, the parlor olive, and the dining-room strong golden buff. The ceiling is pale buff in each case. These walls are in tempera, but the kitchen and pantries are painted pale canary, except between the shelves of the latter, where the wall is colored Indian red to throw out the china. In the second story the child's room is sage-grey, with a paler ceiling; the parlor chamber, cafe au lait; ceiling, salmon-pink; dining room chamber, cafe au lait; ceiling, pale blue; guest room, yellow brown; ceiling, pale buff; and the bathroom...pale flesh tint; ceiling, a little paler...One of the two attic rooms is in dull warm pink, and the other in medium buff."
Hapgood's eloquent discussion of interiors suggests the notion that these houses were designed from the inside out, certainly an important trend in the development of nineteenth century domestic architecture. This fair point was noted by a French architectural critic of the American scene quoted by Arnold Lewis in his introduction to American Victorian Architecture, "These houses expressed 'an art truly individual which does not find its equivalent with us,' he wrote. Picturesque, comfortable...they appeared to be poetic solutions to domestic architecture. The shape, size and placement of the rooms, determined by the habits of the family and not by the empty rules of symmetry, resulted in irregular plan, while the exterior, naively conceived, showed off the ingenuity of its designer."
These remarks by Hapgood and his French contemporary give a good insight into the objectives of the care and planning which went into the building of Sigourney Square.
American Victorian Architecture, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975 (reprint of 1886 Paris publication).
The Art Interchange, p. 104 (volume unknown).
Ben Karp, Wood Motifs in American Domestic Architecture, New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1966.
The Picturesque Parks of Hartford, Hartford: American Book Exchange, 1900.
† Davis F. Ransom and Merle Kummer, Hartford Architecture Conservancy, Sigourney Square Historic District, Hartford, CT, nomination document, 1977, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.