Upper Albany Historic District
The Upper Albany Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
Hartford's Upper Albany neighborhood is a large residential area extending on either side of Albany Avenue, one of the city's major traffic arteries, which runs through the center of the Upper Albany Historic District in a northwest-southeast direction and connects the area to downtown Hartford. Upper Albany is characterized almost exclusively by large, two-family frame houses built in the first two decades of the 20th century, when the area was developed as middle-class housing. Although no two of the houses are exactly alike, many adjacent houses are built on a single master plan, and throughout the Upper Albany Historic District there is a great deal of visual unity generated by the repetition of architectural details: mixed clapboard and wood-shingle siding; Colonial Revival detailing such as Tuscan-columned porches and porch roofs treated as pediments with dentils; and stained-glass windows. Overhanging stories, cut-away corners, dormers, and cross-gable wing: 5 lend an appearance of asymmetry and massiveness to the majority of houses. Most houses have at least a partial porch on their second story as well as on the first. Throughout the Upper Albany Historic District the lots are narrow, so the houses are quite close together. The streets are lined with tall shade trees, and most houses have a small, fenced-off front yard separating them from the sidewalk. The concentration of early-20th century houses is extremely high, and given the close proximity of the houses to each other, the streets in the Upper Albany Historic District offer long vistas of repeating columns, pediments, and shingled gables.
The Upper Albany Historic District includes; 668 buildings (exclusive of garages, tool sheds, and other minor structures associated with houses), of which 631 (94%) were judged to contribute to the district. Many of the 37 noncontributing buildings are modern commercial structures located on Albany Avenue, a wide, heavily traveled, and almost fully commercialized street. Other noncontributing structures are recently-built apartment buildings and houses on Vine Street and side streets off Vine and four c.1910 houses which have been so thoroughly remodeled that their age and original form and materials are no longer evident.
The boundary of the Upper Albany Historic District extends one block to either side of Albany Avenue, running north to include Greenfield Street and south to Homestead Avenue, most of which has a different character from the district and was excluded. The Upper Albany Historic District also extends north along Edgewood Street and part of Vine Street to its intersection with Westland Street, with short extensions down side streets off Vine. The boundary was delineated to recognize the historical development of the area and the consequent visual coherence which characterizes these streets. Largely modern buildings at the east end of Albany Avenue and the south end of Vine Street and the industrial buildings on the south side of Homestead Avenue form distinct visual breaks with the district. Other edges were defined by housing types distinct from that in the district: large brick apartment blocks, three-story flats, or frame "triple-deckers." In appearance, the excluded areas are different from streets in the district, and although these other types of houses were built close in time to those in the Upper Albany Historic District, they represent a different form of development, one targeted more to the working class than to the middle-class clerks, foremen, and skilled workers who bought the houses within the Upper Albany Historic District area.
The Upper Albany Historic District includes side streets running off Albany Avenue, from east to west: Irving Street, Magnolia Street, Burton Street, Sigourney Street, Edgewood Street, Cabot Street, Lenox Street, Sterling Street, Deerfield Avenue and Oakwood Terrace. Finally, the Upper Albany Historic District includes the portion of Keney Park originally known as the "West Open," a large open area consisting of a broad meadow bordered by woods. The park has a small man-made pond. The landscaping of the park continues to be faithful to the original 1898 design, and four modern buildings, courts, and playing fields are unobtrusive and generally shielded by trees when viewed from the meadow.
Two architectural styles account for the majority of the Upper Albany Historic District's 668 buildings: the Queen Anne and the Colonial Revival styles. There are 50 Queen Anne style houses with asymmetric plans, overhanging stories, complex roofs, towers, and projecting bays. The most common siding treatment for these houses is a clapboarded first story and shingles on the upper levels. Colonial Revival houses, of which there are 141, are detailed with elaborate elements drawn from the most formal mansions of early America, including Palladian windows, denticular pediments, and Classical columns. Some are quite elaborate, while the majority have only one or two stylistic features. One notable sub-type includes two-story columns for the porch.
The largest number of houses in the Upper Albany Historic District are those which combine Queen Anne massing (complex roof and plan, cut-away corners, projecting bays) with Colonial Revival details, such as Tuscan columns, dentils, balustrades, and Palladian windows. These houses nearly all have mixed clapboard and shingle siding, some sort of overhang, bay window, or cut-away corner, and classical porch columns. In addition, nearly all have some stained glass in the stairway window on the side and above the windows facing on the porch. Floral motifs predominate, with heraldic themes second. Other common decorative features found throughout the district include carvings on the face of the porch pediment, half-timbering in the gables, and a stucco treatment in which odd pieces of brightly colored glass are embedded in the surface, creating a mozaic-like effect. Thirteen houses, such as 386 Sigourney Street, have the shingled exterior and brooding massing which has been identified as the Shingle style. Other styles represented are one Spanish Colonial, eight Bungalows, and ten two-story Craftsman-influenced houses.
Most of the Upper Albany Historic District's houses have gable roofs, or, especially among the Colonial Revival houses, gambrel roofs. Hip roofs, however, are found on both Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses, as well as on the amalgam which most characterizes the district. In addition to the hip roof houses with a strong stylistic intent, there are 57 of the simplified type with a square plan and plain detailing called Foursquare.
Although they were excluded on the edge of the Upper Albany Historic District, there are 14 brick apartment blocks, 6 triple-deckers, and 13 Neo-classically detailed flat-roofed, bow-front brick flats scattered among the two-family houses which make up the major part of the district. The only street characterized by mostly triple-deckers and flats is Lenox Street, in the middle of the district. Because these buildings are contemporary with the others in the Upper Albany Historic District and generally retain their historical appearance, they were judged to make a contribution, though a secondary one, to the district.
The Upper Albany Historic District includes two large brick houses of worship on Greenfield Street, both of which were built as synagogues serving the largely Jewish population of the early 20th century.
The integrity of the Upper Albany Historic District as a whole is evident from the very small number of vacant lots and modern buildings interrupting the unbroken march of similar historic houses. Most of the demolition and new construction has been confined to the commercial zone on Albany Avenue. The integrity of individual properties varies from virtually unaltered exteriors to houses which have been remodeled and covered with asphalt, composition, aluminum, or vinyl siding. Siding has generally not been carried out with wholesale removal of architectural detail. Approximately one-third of the houses have been sided and/or remodeled. The others have their original exterior material and few changes other than the enclosure of the second-floor porch or the replacement of some porch posts. Albany Avenue provides the most drastic examples of alteration, with storefronts built onto the facades of the houses which line the street. Although all first-story detail is gone, these buildings are still recognizable as Queen Anne/Colonial style houses, and their shingled gables and Palladian windows add to the visual richness of the area.
The physical condition of the buildings ranges from good to deteriorated. From the street, the structural condition of nearly every building seemed adequate. The majority of buildings and yards in the Upper Albany Historic District are well-kept. However, a sizeable number of houses exhibit some form of exterior deterioration, including failing paint and rotted-out porch supports. A few houses show sign of extensive fire damage.
The Upper Albany Historic District is a significant historic resource because it reflects the population and economic growth of Hartford in the early 20th century, and because the houses are well-preserved examples of stylish, middle-class housing typical of the period 1900-1920. The area was developed primarily by two real-estate companies catering to the clerks, bookkeepers, and skilled industrial workers who earned their living in the city's thriving manufacturing, financial and commercial sectors. The city's population growth in the period, and the fact that many people held comparatively well-paying jobs, created a demand for housing that was more commodious and stylish than the typical tenement dwellings. The extension of electric street railway service along Albany Avenue opened up this land as a site for such residential development. The residents of the area reflected the ethnic make-up of the city: the families of Yankee and Irish heritage who predominated initially were soon followed by Jewish, Italian, and other more recent immigrants. In the 1950s, the area once again reflected the city's changing ethnic make-up, as the proportion of Blacks increased. The houses which accommodated these families are representative examples of early-20th century residential architecture, with typical Queen Anne and Colonial Revival style forms, materials, and detailing. Although the houses closely resemble each other in size and overall form, they are nearly all different in detailing, and the richness of the architecture on these tree-lined streets creates a unique visual diversity in the Upper Albany neighborhood.
Prior to the 1890s the land which is included in the Upper Albany Historic District was occupied by family farms or by large estates associated with some of Hartford's leading families; it was mostly open. In 1871, the construction of the Connecticut and Western Railroad (south of Homestead Avenue) attracted some industry to the area, but for the most part the land remained undeveloped. Albany Avenue had been a major thoroughfare since it was established as a turnpike at the beginning of the 19th century, but there were few houses along it. Most of the land along Albany Avenue was owned by railroad and insurance entrepreneur James Goodwin, with additional acreage held by James Goodwin Batterson, a quarry owner and president of the Travelers Insurance Company. The Goodwin and Batterson estates were the major features of the area in the 19th century.
Just prior to 1900, the extension of Hartford's electric streetcar system up Albany Avenue enhanced the area's residential possibility. Real estate development companies quickly capitalized purchasing the acreage, laying out new streets, platting out house lots, and constructing most of the houses which now stand in the district. Twenty-one new streets were established between 1897 and 1909. The Homestead Park Corporation laid out Irving, Magnolia, Burton, Edgewood, and Cabot streets. The Nevels Brothers construction firm erected and sold most of the houses on Oakland Terrace, Deerfield Avenue, and the side streets running west from Vine Street. Although many lots were sold off to individuals who erected their own houses, for the most part the houses in the Upper Albany Historic District were built by one of these two firms as part of their massive development efforts.
Many of the earliest houses were intended for single families, and their first residents came from the ranks of small-business proprietors. Very soon, however, the developers began concentrating their efforts on two-family houses with tasteful architectural details, houses that were targeted to the city's large and growing middle class. Tremendous demographic and economic growth characterized Hartford around the turn of the century. Between 1890 and 1920, when most of the Upper Albany Historic District's houses were built, the city's population grew from 53,230 to 138,036. Old industries such as firearms, leather products, and machinery continued to prosper, and new industries such as typewriters, bicycles, rubber tires, and electrical devices contributed to the healthy manufacturing sector; all these manufactures required not only unskilled and semi-skilled production workers, but numerous highly skilled tradespeople and supervisors. Hartford also had a thriving financial sector, serving not only as a national insurance center but also as a regional center in banking and wholesale trade; these businesses provided thousands of jobs for clerks, bookkeepers, actuaries, and other office workers. The booming and diverse economy also provided opportunity for numerous suppliers and secondary producers, as well as providers of food, clothing, household goods and other consumer products. The people who worked in the factories, offices, and small businesses of Hartford all needed housing, and in the right circumstances were potential homeowners .
The right circumstance for many was a home in the Upper Albany neighborhood, which has been called Hartford's best example of the "streetcar suburb." The proximity of the streetcar line meant that a resident of the neighborhood could commute to work anywhere in the Hartford area. The two-family home was important because for the clerical or skilled blue-collar worker, and even many small proprietors, financing the home was more feasible with a rent helping to pay the mortgage. In some cases the second unit accommodated a related family.
In the early 20th century Hartford was no longer a Yankee city. The Irish and their descendents were the largest non-Yankee group, and by 1900 they dominated much of the city's politics, building and industrial trades, and small business, especially construction. The former Irish neighborhood known as the East Side (along the Connecticut River) was an area of run-down tenements in which new immigrants were replacing the Irish as the dominant group. Second-generation Irish families settled in the newer areas of the city, including the Upper Albany neighborhood.
The largest single group among the newer immigrants, and by 1920 the largest single foreign-born group in the city, were East European Jews. Although they initially settled on the East Side, the city's Jewish residents moved to better quarters as their means permitted. Whether by choice or restriction, most of the city's upwardly mobile Jewish residents settled in the Upper Albany area. This phase of the area's history is reflected in the former synagogues 500 Woodland Street (Emmanuel Synagogue) and at 221 Greenfield Street (Agudas Achim). The district also included a yeshiva (Hebrew school), conducted in a house at 151 Vine Street, and among many prominent Jewish residents in the 1920s was Morris Silverman, a rabbi and historian of the city's Jewish communities.
Although families of Italian heritage tended to settle in the city's southern sections, numerous Italian families also bought houses in the Upper Albany area. By the end of the 1920s the district was a multi-ethnic area with distinct Jewish, Irish, and Italian elements.
During and following World War II, the number of Black families living in Hartford increased dramatically, more than tripling as a percentage of the city's population between 1940 and 1960. Upper Albany continued to reflect the ethnic make-up of Hartford, as Black families bought homes in the neighborhood. Today, numerous West Indian and Hispanic families reside in the neighborhood.
Part of the attraction of this area as a residential neighborhood was Keney Park. Henry Keney, one of the city's leading merchants, bequeathed a substantial sum of money to create a park in the north end. Charles Eliot, of the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, created a design for the park in 1898 which emphasized natural landscaping with walks and carriage drives. There were four separate components, each with its own character. The part included in the Upper Albany Historic District, the West Open, was to be an open meadow with native plants and woods along the margin and a small pond at the southeast corner. Eliot anticipated that once cleared and planted, the meadow would take its natural course. Today the park retains its essential character, with paths and drives in the same location and modern buildings and recreation facilities generally not intruding on the meadow. A model farm for children, complete with dairy cows, was intended to provide a glimpse of rural life for the children of the city; it is not extant.
Keney Park's effect on the residential development of the area was threefold: it provided a limit to the residential expansion possible, it guaranteed substantial open space in the neighborhood, and it created higher real estate values around its borders. The houses facing the park tend to be larger and more elaborate than most in the district, and they include a higher percentage of single-family homes than the other blocks in the district.
The houses in the Upper Albany Historic District have architectural significance as well-preserved examples of early-20th century domestic architecture. In their form, materials, stylistic references, and architectural details, they embody the distinctive characteristics of the type and methods of construction typical of the period 1900-1920. The aesthetic principles of the Victorian age influenced the builders and architects who devised these houses, and in many ways Victorian ideas nicely accommodated the more practical needs of the middle-class families who settled the area. For example, the Victorian ideal of a large house with an asymmetric plan and complex roof broken up by dormers and cross-gables allowed the developers of this area to construct attractive two-family houses with spacious quarters for each. The Queen Anne style house at 22-24 Burton Street is a good illustration: two-story bay windows on the facade and side allow large, comfortable rooms within; the side bay continues up to a tower-like dormer providing additional light to the attic space; and the second-floor family's front porch is treated as a secondary gable whose half-timbering relates it more to the main roof than the porch below. In this way, a two-family house could be made to resemble a large single-family residence more than a multi-family tenement. Since one of the hallmarks of the Queen Anne style is the profusion of dormers, towers, gables, and bays, the style worked well for this type of development.
Another characteristic of the Queen Anne style which aptly suited it for the development of this area was the style's emphasis on surface variety and texture. Like the asymmetry of massing, this was an attempt to create picturesque houses and to evoke the look of archaic buildings. In the Upper Albany Historic District, surface variety derives mainly from the use of mixed clapboard and wood-shingle siding, with stucco or half-timbering constituting another commonly found variant. Other houses achieved variety with brick lower stories contrasting with shingles on the second or gable levels: in some cases (such as 472-474 Edgewood), the brick appears to be a single-course veneer applied over a wood-frame structure. Because the production of clapboards, shingles, brick, and other building materials was fully mechanized by 1900, and most of the developers working in this area were buying in considerable quantities, the houses could be given the necessary surface variety, and consequent middle-class appeal, at modest cost.
Similarly, builders could make these houses attractive to upwardly mobile buyers by including Colonial Revival detailing. Colonial architecture in this period had connotations of elegance, tradition, and patriotism; the fact that the Colonial details were drawn from the most elaborate early American mansions made them unrepresentative of colonial architecture, but no less appealing to those wishing a certain architectural richness in their home. The Palladian windows, dentil mouldings and Tuscan columns which appear repeatedly in the district undoubtedly represent manufactured "off-the-shelf" items. Nevertheless, they helped create visual interest and a sense of stylishness which persists in the houses of the district to the present day.
Minor architectural details, also repeated throughout the Upper Albany Historic District, are typical of turn-of-the-century expectations of architectural elaboration: the beautiful leaded and stained-glass windows found throughout the district, the natural-wood doors with oval beveled-glass lights, and the carved ornament applied to porch pediments. Rarely are details repeated on adjacent or even nearby houses. Stained glass in particular shows a great deal of variety, with different flower and leaf motifs as well as heraldic devices creating a vast diversity. At the same time, careful inspection reveals that the same window is often found at the opposite ends of the street, and an apparently identical lion's-head carving is found everywhere in the district, interspersed on some streets with swag and floral designs.
In short, the massing of the houses, their architectural style, and the variety of ornament used to make them attractive all relate closely to the development of the area as middle-class housing. By putting up a number of houses at once, using a single master plan with differences in the placement of porches and bays, buying machine-made architectural details in quantity, and then dispersing identical items throughout the project, the builders of these houses accomplished three goals: they built two-family houses suitable for their market, they kept their costs down, and they made the houses attractive according to the taste of the day. Today the architectural qualities of these buildings continue: their individuality, spaciousness, stylishness, and richness of detailing make Upper Albany a handsome and distinctive neighborhood.
Building records indicate 21 separate firms or individuals as architects of buildings in the Upper Albany Historic District, though most buildings (568) in the district do not have an architect identified. The architects include well-known Hartford architects such as William D. Johnson and Whiton & McMahon, and lesser-known architects whose firms are not memorialized by major downtown commissions. Johnson was the architect for the Telephone Building and City Missionary Society on Pearl Street, and Whiton & McMahon were specialists in institutional architecture, designing many of Hartford's largest schools and churches. Most architects have been associated with only a few buildings in the district. However, six houses were designed by Fred C. Walz, 21 by George Zunner, and 38 by William H. Scoville. These men appear to have had the greatest influence in designing the houses in this district. Walz was a carpenter by trade and served as business agent for the Carpenters Union. George Zunner advertised himself as a construction superintendent as well as an architect, and he, like Scoville and most of the other architects, had large practices designing houses for Hartford's burgeoning residential areas in Upper Albany and in the outlying parts of the city to the west and south. William H. Scoville acted as a developer as well as an architect and builder, advertising "houses for sale in good locations." Architect William Katzenstein himself lived in a house now part of the district, at 52 Magnolia Street.
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† Bruce Clouette and Matthew Roth, Historic Resource Consultants and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Upper Albany Historic District, Hartford, CT, nomination document, 1986, Nation Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.