West Boulevard Historic District
The West Boulevard Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. 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 West Boulevard Historic District is located in the West End of Hartford between and parallel with Capitol and Farmington Avenues, close to the city line. West Boulevard is 100 feet wide with a central median of 25 feet. Three rows of mature sugar maple shade trees adjoin both sidewalks and run down the center of the median. The houses are located on both sides of West Boulevard between South Whitney Street and Beacon Street and both sides of Rodney Street. All but one were built c.1915/1925. All are 1-, 2-, and 3-family homes, all but three with garages. All are of wood frame construction, covered with shingles or clapboards, except four which are covered with stucco. The houses are similar to one another because all were built according to a single master plan and all by the same developer and contractor.
Most of the houses in the West Boulevard Historic District are in the Colonial Revival style. Single-family homes predominate on the north side of West Boulevard and west side of Rodney Street, following the developer's deed restrictions while two-family homes predominate on the south side of West Boulevard, again according to information found in the Hartford land records. Lots are small, about 0.185 acre on the north side of West Boulevard and 0.220 acre on the south. The representative design in the row on the south side of West Boulevard, outnumbering other designs in the district, consists of a 2-story building with attic floor, oblong in shape consistent with the proportions of the parcel, with gable or hip roof. A porch, originally open but now often enclosed, with round or paneled square columns rising from solid balustrade, runs across the full width of the front elevation. A second-story half porch is common. Most of these houses have a three-sided bay on one side elevation.
Another variation of the Colonial Revival is shown by houses on the west side of Rodney Street. 15, 19, and 21 Rodney Street are square buildings under gable roofs running parallel with the street, featuring front attic dormers, 6-over-1 windows, and wide 1-story front porches. All three porches are open, displaying round and square columns resting on solid balustrades. Five houses in the West Boulevard Historic District, four one-family and one two-family, are in the Dutch Colonial Revival style, exhibiting the characteristic gambrel roof, wide shed-roofed front dormer, pent roof under the dormer, and symmetrical fenestration.
Other houses exhibit individual features. 907 West Boulevard (odd numbers on the west; even numbers on the east) is a one-story, single-family Cape Cod cottage. 926 West Boulevard, a 1-3/4-story, single family house, has the only truncated front gable in the district. 938 West Boulevard is a single-family eclectic stucco house, merging Queen Anne and Dutch Colonial Revival antecedents.
West Boulevard Historic District is significant historically because it is an example of neighborhood planning successfully carried out and completed by private development to the master plan of Horace W. Fox. His plan for layout and character, which reflected the then highly regarded City Beautiful Movement, was faithfully executed for the entire district. Almost all the houses, which are grouped around a carefully planted tree-lined central boulevard, are in the Colonial Revival style, built c.1920s, giving a uniformity of design and integrity of appearance. The West Boulevard Historic District has survived intact without demolition or intrusion to represent a historically significant and distinguishable entity.
The West Boulevard Historic District also reflects the influence of the late-19th century and early-20 century urban parks movement, which envisioned a ring of parks around the city, linked by a set of parkways which themselves would add beauty to the city. West Boulevard is the first of Hartford's five boulevards to be fully built out.
Moreover, the West Boulevard Historic District evidences a unique aspect of the historic demographic development of the city. West Boulevard filled a development gap between the homes of Hartford's professional class to the north of Farmington Avenue and the industrial district of Parkville to the south. It drew its residents from the upwardly mobile working class — independent businessmen, skilled journeymen, and white collar workers seeking to escape the dirt and grime of the central parts of the city.
The land of the West Boulevard Historic District was part of the extensive grounds of Horace W. Fox (1843-1930), president of Capitol City Lumber Company, who lived in a large house, no longer standing, set well back at 180 Warrenton Avenue. His lot ran from Warrenton Avenue on the north to the West Boulevard Historic District boundary on the south, and from South Whitney Street (then Smith Street) on the east to the district boundary, a line short of Beacon Street then not laid out, on the west. The West Boulevard Historic District lies within those borders.
Preliminary plans for West Boulevard existed at least as early as 1896. The 1896 city atlas shows the Boulevard placed about 100 feet to the south of its present location, curving to the south as it crosses Smith Street (now South Whitney Street), and joining Capitol Avenue at Sisson Avenue. In his History of Hartford Streets, F. Perry Close reports that the street appeared on a map prepared for Horace Fox in 1899. By then, however, its western end had moved south to join the Boulevard in West Hartford but the remainder of the street had moved north, giving opportunity for building lots on both its north side and south side. In its early years, the street was variously referred to as West Hartford Boulevard, Boulevard, W. Boulevard, and West Blvd. The similarity between the 1901 layout and today's district map is striking.
The early maps also show that West Boulevard was originally conceived as part of a longer boulevard, connecting Prospect Avenue with Forest Street, close to the edge of Pope Park. Indeed, city directories in the early 1900s applied the street name "Boulevard" to the part of Capitol Avenue between Forest Street and Sisson Avenue, and buildings along that street carried Boulevard street numbers until the 1920s. By 1907, however, the link from Smith Street to Sisson Avenue had been dropped, apparently reflecting the end of the plan for a boulevard all the way to Forest Street.
The first residents of the developed Fox estate were upwardly mobile artisans and white collar workers seeking to improve their circumstances by moving to the planned neighborhood. Many of them indeed were successful in improving their status. (See below.) The development was thereby successful not only from a real estate point of view but also from a social point of view.
The wide street with central median that is West Boulevard jogs to the left (south) at the city line (Prospect Avenue) into West Hartford, where it becomes a conventional street still known as Boulevard. Frederick C. Rockwell "laid out the Boulevard (in West Hartford), and planned a four-lane highway with central trolley line. His grandiose project was never completed," but Burr gave no date. F. Perry Close in his History of Hartford Streets speaks of Horace W. Fox's 1899 plan. Speculation suggests that as originally contemplated West Boulevard in Hartford was laid out a little south of its present location with the intent of continuing as a straight line to connect with West Hartford's Boulevard.
The layout of a wide street with central median and ambitious planting, variously called a boulevard or parkway, was in line with city and national thinking at the time under the sobriquet of the City Beautiful Movement. Hartford became an early participant in this movement through association with New York architect and planner, John M. Carrere. His firm prepared a City Plan for Hartford in 1912, one of the earliest city plans in the nation. "A street is apt to be nothing but a thoroughfare," said Carrere, "so that we must go and come and travel upon it without enjoyment, which we must seek elsewhere at given points laid out for this particular purpose.... But there is no reason why our streets should not be streets and thoroughfares and breathing spaces and pleasure grounds all in one." In planning the district, Fox and his associates heeded the tenor of the times with a double roadway, grassy expanse in the central median, and three rows of handsome shade trees forming "breathing spaces and pleasure grounds all in one." Hartford created four other parkways in this decade, but West Boulevard stands out because it was planned privately in line with the trend of the times, was the first on which houses were constructed, and, along with Grandview Terrace, was the first to be fully built out.
The Fox land was an oasis of open space in the development of the West End of Hartford. It was the last portion of the West End to be built up. In general, houses in the West End to the north of the Fox estate tend to be larger on more spacious lots, mostly single-family, for a more prosperous clientele than in the West Boulevard Historic District. A small part of the Fox land was developed in this typical West End middle class/upper middle class genre, a fact recognized by the West End South Historic District's southern border which included houses on the south side of Warrenton Avenue, which constituted the northern edge of the Fox estate. The West Boulevard Historic District comprises the balance of the Fox land.
In the 1910s Fox sold an occasional lot on Regent and Rodney Streets to individuals, including Andrew S. Freeburg and Albert Erickson. In one such transaction, for a lot on the east side of Rodney Street, a condition of the sale was that the buyer "forever would not cut or mutilate any trees now standing." Such concern with plant life as an essential component of the neighborhood's visual ambience indicates that Fox was responsible for the planting of the three rows of sugar maples along the Boulevard.
Development did not get under way in earnest until the late 1910s with the emergence of the firm of Freeburg, Erikson & Felth, Inc. (FEF). In a series of transactions in the early 1920s this firm bought land on both sides of Boulevard from Fox, built many of the houses, and re-sold them to individual owners. Freeburg's home and place of business was in the district at the corner at South Whitney Street (so named in 1914) and West Boulevard. Albert Erickson was a builder who in due course lived at 31 Rodney Street, while Carl L. Felth, eventually came to reside at 946 West Boulevard; he was a foreman for Freeburg. Thus, all three were local to the neighborhood as was Fox, and seem to have worked closely together with Fox to begin, execute, and complete the development according to a carefully conceived plan.
The West Boulevard Historic District was deliberately designed to attract a modest but upwardly mobile population. The deeds for most of the undeveloped lots contained a standard restriction that houses built in the next 20 years must be either single-family at a cost of at least $6,000 or two-family at a cost of not less than $9,000. At least three lots on the north side of West Boulevard were deed-restricted to single-family usage at a cost of not less than $6,000. The prohibition on apartment buildings and the inclusion of a minimum construction cost made clear that a certain level of "quality" was to be maintained in this new development and reinforced the distinction between West Boulevard and the nearby apartment house district on Capitol Avenue. The emphasis on single-family houses on the north side of the boulevard reflected the planning decision to group the single-family houses in one part of the development. Moreover, the boulevard served as a barrier to encroachment from industrial Parkville. While two streets, Regent and Rodney, permit entry to West Boulevard from the north, there is no entry from Capitol Avenue to the south at any point in the three-block stretch between Beacon Street and South Whitney Street. Thus the layout and alignment of the West Boulevard Historic District is by no means accidental.
Further cooperation between Fox and Freeburg, Erikson & Felth, Inc. occurred in the financing. In each sale of land, Fox accepted a mortgage in partial payment, thereby providing working capital that the builder needed for construction. The mortgages were duly paid off after the properties were sold. In many real estate development projects financing purchase of the land and cost of construction is a major problem. In the case of West Boulevard, the arrangement with Fox precluded this problem for the developers.
At about the same time that Fox was selling West Boulevard to FEF, he sold Rodney Street to another buyer, John A. Farrell, who developed that block. The deeds to Farrell did not include price minimums but did bar the construction of anything larger than a two-family house. Farrell followed the same pattern as FEF, constructing only single-family houses on the west side of Rodney Street and, with one exception, only two-family houses on the east side of Rodney Street. The architectural styles of these houses are similar to those on West Boulevard.
The new West Boulevard neighborhood became home to a developing middle class, reflecting the upward mobility of the 1920s. An examination of Hartford city directories and the Hartford land records from 1915 to 1930 shows that most residents of the West Boulevard Historic District, and especially most owner-occupants, were businessmen running blue-collar-based businesses, skilled craftsmen, or white collar workers. In general, the employment level of those who owned single-family houses tended to be higher than of those who owned two-family houses, although the difference was not consistent.
For example, Ernest Caron, treasurer of the Berlanger Woodworking Co., lived at 923 West Boulevard. Samuel Nussbaum, secretary of the Bon Tober Sporting Goods Co., lived at 940. William A. Murray at 968 West Boulevard was a heating and plumbing contractor. Charles H. Partridge at 968 West Boulevard was the chief inspector at New Departure Company. These were all owner-occupied single-family homes. Similarly, Timothy Fanning at 21 Rodney Street was a department manger. Andrew Freeburg (905 West Boulevard), Albert Erickson (32 Rodney Street), Carl Felth (946 West Boulevard, and John Farrell (145 Rodney Street) were all builders. At least two single-family homes were occupied by politically active owners William White at 19 Rodney Street was a selectman and Raymond Slocum across the street at 22 Rodney Street was secretary of the Board of Street Commissioners. Thure Chader, an assembler, initially bought 942 West Boulevard, but within a year he sold it to Edmund Fothergill, a mechanical engineer who by 1927 was vice-president of the Hartford Gas Appliance Co. Single-family home owners with lesser job titles included an aligner, a clerk, and a machinist. What is significant about the homeowners is that they tended to be businessmen who came from working class, blue-collar backgrounds. The doctors, lawyers, and other white-collar professionals by and large lived elsewhere.
Owners of the two-family houses included some of similar stature, but more appear to have had wage-earning jobs. For example, along West Boulevard Alfred Bohman (911-913) and George Zwick (919-921) were machinists. Thomas Gallagher (914 West Boulevard/32 Rodney St.) was a janitor. James Bailey (915-917 was a clerk. Frederick Duennebier (947-949) was a superintendent and James Girling (931-933) an assistant superintendent. George Geckler was an estimator. Ernest Nelson (955-957) was a painter.
The address that may best capture the upward mobility of the time and place is 977-979 West Boulevard, owned by Herman Wahlberg, an early resident of West Boulevard who in 1916 was listed in the City Directory as the head janitor at the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. building at 36 Pearl Street, a blue-collar job. Wahlberg's sons, Frederick and Clarence, also lived in the house. Frederick was a clerk at Connecticut Mutual and Clarence was an assistant underwriter at Travelers. Both held white collar jobs that were socially a step up from their father's. By 1923, Frederick had progressed from clerk to bond salesman. By 1927, Frederick had moved out of the house; Clarence had been promoted to underwriter; while Herman, the father, was a city health commissioner and had advanced from head janitor to assistant superintendent of his building. This pattern of social status transition was characteristic of those who lived on West Boulevard in its early years.
Architecture of houses in the West Boulevard Historic District has unity and harmony because the entire development was carried out pursuant to a single cohesive plan. The lots are of similar (small) size, the mass and shape adopted make the buildings compatible with one another, and the whole is tied together by the parkway.
The identity of what architect(s), if any, designed most of the West Boulevard Historic District homes is unknown. The usual source of the name of the architect responsible for a building in this neighborhood is Hartford Architecture, Volume Three: North and West Neighborhoods which record architects' names systematically from examination of individual building permits. For almost all West Boulevard Historic District building permits the space for architect's name simply is left blank. The fact that George Zunner is the only architect's name in the Inventory indicates that his was the only architect's name recorded, leading to the speculation that most buildings simply were constructed by Freeburg, Erikson & Felth, Inc., using knowledge the firm had, proceeding without architects' drawings.
George A. Zunner, Sr. (1861-1931), the only known architect, left his native Hamburg, Germany, to come to America. By age 28 he was married and living in New York City. He worked on the German buildings at Chicago's World's Colombian Exhibition (1891-1893), then went to Boston for three years, arriving in Hartford in 1896. He conducted a prolific practice here for four decades, designing primarily working-class and middle-class houses and apartment buildings. He has the design of more buildings credited to him than any other Hartford architect. He did other work as well, including the Church of the Sacred Heart (1916) on Ely Street, for a German-American congregation, where there is a stained-glass window, made in Germany, in his memory.
The first, and very early, house of the general description of Zunner's West Boulevard work is 981-983 West Boulevard (1911). The general configuration of an oblong 2-story building with open wide front porch and partial second-floor front porch may well not be original to West Boulevard. Such general design is prolific throughout the city, particularly in South Hartford. Zunner used the hipped roof with front hipped roof dormer, and similar side dormers. Variations exist on this norm, but perhaps half a dozen houses on the south side of West Boulevard potentially reflect Zunner influence.
Atlas of the City of Hartford, Connecticut. Springfield, Massachusetts: L. J. Richards & Co., 1896.
Atlas of the City of Hartford and the Town of West Hartford, Connecticut. Springfield, Massachusetts: L.J. Richards & Co., 1909.
Baldwin, Peter C. Domesticating the Street, The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930. Ohio State University Press: Columbus, OH, 1999.
Burr, Nelson R. From Colonial Parish to Modern Suburb, A Brief Appreciation of West Hartford. West Hartford: The Noah Webster Foundation and Historical Society of West Hartford, Inc. 1976, rev. 1982.
Close, F. Perry. History of Hartford Streets. Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Society, 1969.
Hartford City Directory. Hartford: Geers Publishing Company. Various years 1900-1939.
Hartford Land Records. Various entries 1900-.
Historic Hartford Handbook. Hartford: Hartford Architecture Conservancy, 1985. West End, p.73.
Kummer, Merle, ed. Hartford Architecture, Volume Three: North and West Neighborhoods. Hartford: Hartford Architecture Conservancy, 1980.
Ransom, David F. Biographical Dictionary of Hartford Architects. The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin, 1989, 54:1-2, 108-114.
Walsh, Andrew, Hartford urban historian and professor at Trinity College, communication March 25, 2005 to authors, The Historical Significance of West Boulevard.
† David F. Ransom, Hartford Preservation Alliance and Raphael Podolsky, West End Rising Star Neighborhood, West Boulevard Historic District, Hartford, CT, nomination document, 2005, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.