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Main Street Historic District


The Main Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the orginal nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Main Street Historic District comprises the commercial and institutional center of Manchester. A linear district running almost due north and south along Main Street for about seven-tenths of a mile, it includes a portion of Center and East Center Streets on its northern end and the beginning of several secondary streets that intersect with Main Street along its length. The Main Street Historic District includes 64 resources (buildings and objects), of which 50 (78%) are contributing. Constructed mainly from about 1890 through the early twentieth century, the historic buildings reflect the principal styles of that period. The Colonial Revival style predominates, with a considerable degree of classical influence and some examples of Art Deco detailing. With few exceptions, buildings were constructed of brick in a range of hues and patterns, trimmed in limestone or concrete. Except for the 1948 Jarvis Building (806-814 Main Street), all the contributing buildings are more than 50 years old. Of the 13 non-contributing buildings, ten were constructed after 1948 and three are earlier historic resources that are no longer contributing because of extensive remodeling or alterations.

To the south and west of the Main Street Historic District is another historic district (Cheney Brothers Historic District) associated with development of the Cheney silk mills. Nominated in 1978 as a National Historic Landmark, it encompasses most of the Cheneys' manufacturing village to the west and extends east to include several school buildings on Main Street, thereby abutting the southern border of the present district at Eldridge Street. To the east and west of the Main Street Historic District are residential neighborhoods, primarily composed of one-family dwellings which are generally contemporaneous with the period of the district.

Main Street is a broad avenue almost 100 feet wide, allowing for angled parking along its length on both sides and four traffic lanes. Most of the historic commercial development in the Main Street Historic District is found along the seven blocks on the east side of the district from Eldridge to East Center Streets, with most of the modern commercial buildings near the north end. Service alleys extend behind the three southernmost blocks, where there are also large parking lots. One of these alleys, named Purnell Place, swings back to the west to intersect with Main Street. On the west side of the street, the district begins farther north at St. James Street. Resources there include one historic commercial block, a church, two residences, and a major town park at the north end. Within the park grounds are several public buildings. Together with several other nearby buildings, they comprise the institutional and municipal center of Manchester.

The classical influence is most obvious in the predominately Colonial Revival style institutional cluster at the head of the district. Built over a 40-year period, these masonry structures share common motifs and architectural features, especially projecting pavilions or porticos. Often full-height columns dominate their facades, a design exemplified by the Manchester Municipal Building at the northwest corner of the district (41 Center Street). Constructed in 1926 of brick and limestone, it employs the Corinthian order in its columned pedimented portico. A large oval cartouche with swags enriches the tympanum of the modillioned and denticulated pediment; the same modillion course continues around the building's cornice. A two-stage cupola, resting on a quoined base and capped by a gilded dome, extends from the center of the roof. On a large open lot to the east is the 1903 Center Congregational Church, the only wood-framed example in this group (11 Center Street). While the porticoed facade has retained its clapboarding, the other elevations are sheathed in vinyl siding. Sheltered behind the columns of the Doric portico are three entrances capped with segmental-arched pediments supported by fluted brackets; each is surmounted by a swagged panel with corner blocks. Large wooden quoins that embellish the facade at the corners are also found on either side of the portico, which is also flanked by tall round-arched windows with key blocks. The four sides of the first stage of the steepled tower, which rises in front of a steep hipped roof, mimic the design of the portico with pilasters enframing round-arched louvered openings. A large two-story red-brick addition with a slate roof, which was built in 1958 to the back of the lot to the west, extends across and connects to the rear of the church. Its design utilizes a simplified pavilioned entrance with a triple-arched entry on its south facade. Northeast of the church, another more stylized slightly projecting pavilion enhances the main entrance of the former 1913 Lincoln School, also constructed of red brick (494 Main Street). Now called Lincoln Center, it houses town offices.

Across the street to the south is Center Park (also known as Cheney Park), which occupies a full block. Laid out in 1905 in the informal manner of the period with winding pathways and natural landscaping, it is the site of several war memorials and a unique bronze sculpture, the Dancing Bears Fountain, designed by Albert Humphries. The park is also the site of two more classically inspired Colonial Revival public buildings. The earlier example, the former Hall of Records (now Probate Court) at the northwest corner, was built of amber brick in 1896 (66 Center Street). Palladian windows in slightly recessed brick arches enhance its symmetrically balanced facade and side elevations. A modillioned pediment capping the slightly projecting pavilion breaks the eave line of the shallow hipped roof. Similar details are found in the 1937 Mary Cheney Library to the southeast at 586 Main Street, also on park grounds. A long low red-brick building with a central pedimented portico and round-arched windows with tracery, its classical symmetry was maintained when the two nearly matching wings were added at either end in 1961.

The U. S. Post Office, built at the northeast corner of Main and East Center Streets in 1932, incorporates both Georgian and Colonial Revival influences in its design (479 Main Street). Its porticoed entrance, set on an angled facade which cuts across the corner, utilizes limestone columns with Ionic capitals. It is flanked by tall round-arched windows with keystones, features found on the secondary facades facing each street. A brick and limestone frieze forms a parapet for the hipped slate roof, which is surmounted by a cupola. The immediate neighbor to the east is the 1926 Neo-Classical Masonic Temple, which has a recessed entrance in antis flanked by three-story columns (25 East Center Street).

Across the street here are two additional major Colonial Revival buildings, Orange Hall (70-74 East Center Street) and the Southern New England Telephone Exchange (52 East Center Street). Built in 1902 as a meeting hall with commercial establishments at street level, Orange Hall has a facade elaborated by white-painted bricks around its central Palladian window and pilasters of alternating brick and limestone. The front gable is detailed with a modillioned cornice and cresting. Brick piers set off the original plate glass storefronts, and the central recessed round-arched, street-level entrance to the second floor has brick voussoirs and repeats the keystone found above the facade windows. The original portion of the Southern New England Telephone Exchange to the immediate west was built in 1929. Its stylized facade demonstrates the influence of Art Deco with concrete pilasters terminating in Greek fret capitals and the use of geometric patera blocks at the corners of concrete window lintels. A large c.1950 brick rear addition is now connected to a new exchange building that extends almost to Main Street on the west. It replaced the Odd Fellows Hall located there. Part of that site is occupied by the Vietnam Memorial Park with its c.1985 monument.

Farther south on Main Street are the last of the freestanding institutional buildings in the Main Street Historic District, the 1908 Salvation Army Citadel (661 Main Street) and 1876 St. James Church (896 Main Street). The Citadel, a Military Gothic building built of red brick on the east side of the street, displays crenellated octagonal towers at the corners but its round-arched windows and central entrance are more Romanesque in feeling. The design of St. James Church, the earliest building in the Main Street Historic District, is fully Gothic Revival in the ecclesiastical manner. Sheathed in aluminum siding, it utilizes a buttressed Basilican plan with a corner tower (steeple missing) on the left and displays lancet-arched windows. The arch of the main facade window has been filled in but its stained-glass rose window remains. The nearby 1892 rectory (896 Main Street) was remodeled in the Colonial Revival style in the 1920s.

Fully three-quarters of the historic buildings in the Main Street Historic District were devoted to commerce. Then as now, the first level was used for retail businesses and the upper floors for apartments or offices.[1] There is a high concentration between Maple and Oak Streets on the east side of Main Street, an unbroken commercial stretch that illustrates the general appearance of Manchester's downtown business district as it developed in these three blocks from 1894 to 1920. Here, the historic commercial buildings, which range in height from one to four stories, may share common or party walls, or be free-standing structures. The single commercial block on the west dates from 1928 to 1948.

Most of the buildings have retained their historic facades above street level and again, the Colonial Revival style is the most commonly employed. The majority have decorative parapets concealing flat roofs; only a few of the buildings display a heavy or projecting cornice. Only one, the c.1897 Thomas Weldon Block (901-907 Main Street), employs a more residential roof design, hipped with round-arched dormers, in keeping with its Colonial Revival style. Typically, decorative treatment, often utilizing contrasting brick, is limited to the facade, but a few corner buildings have detailed secondary facades along the side streets. Such is the case with the 1920 Watkins Brothers Furniture Store (935 Main Street), built of red brick at the northeast corner of Oak Street, where limestone delineates the parapet and frames the storefront. There the first three bays of the side elevation repeat the design of the Colonial Revival facade above street level: three round-arched recesses with key blocks that extend from the second floor level almost to the frieze, which contain multiple-paned narrow windows in banks of five at each level, surmounted by a fanlight at the third story. Similar arched recesses complete the remaining eight bays of the side elevation. Many of these details are echoed in a smaller complementary building joined to the rear elevation (13-17 Purnell Place). Another example, which utilizes contrasting brick stringcourses to outline the parapet and define the storefront cornice of the facade and secondary elevation, is the 1926 20th-century commercial building at the corner of Eldridge Street at the south end of the district (1077-1081 Main Street). It is joined to the three-story Forest Building to the north (1063-1067 Main Street) by a low one-story connecting structure (1069-1073 Main Street), which has a simplified parapet with a pediment, a typical solution for infill construction, both historic and modern, in the district.

Most of the historic commercial buildings, such as the 1910 Johnson Block (705-713 Main Street) or the c.1920 Jaffee & Podgrove Building (811 Main Street), have modern storefronts. Even though there has been no concerted effort to reproduce historic storefronts, quite often the original recessed entrance pattern flanked by display windows has been retained. The original street-level cornice, along with the entrance to the upper floors, remains on a few buildings, as in the Colonial Revival Dewey-Richman Building built in 1926 (765-773 Main Street). Such is also the case for part of the 1911 Tinker Building to the south (785-793 Main Street). The latter example, a much larger structure, has retained its panelled storefront cornice as well as its recessed Colonial Revival main entrance but on the right side of the building, this panel was removed for a modern storefront.

Several buildings stand out because of their historic function, unusual style, or scale. One is the 1894 Orford Hall Hotel (867-877 Main Street), a Romanesque Revival building of imposing scale. One of the largest and probably the earliest extant commercial building in the Main Street Historic District, it utilizes contrasting brick to frame the four-story towers and define the round-arched openings of the facade. Contrasting brick also was employed in the facade of the 1924 State Theater (745 Main Street). Although the marquee was replaced when the building was converted for religious purposes, the classical entrance surround, composed of full-height concrete pilasters and a large arched window remains. A large theater auditorium is attached at the rear. The Patrick Gorman House, another unusual building, is the only other historic residence in the district (750 Main Street). Built of banded yellow brick about 1900, it utilizes the earlier slated mansard roof in what is essentially a Colonial Revival design, one which displays a wealth of classical detail. It is now somewhat isolated on its large lot on the west side of Main Street by modern gas stations on either side, both excluded from the district. Just to the south is the block which contains the Jarvis Building (806-814 Main Street). Although erected in 1948, it displays some of the same type of simplified Art Deco detailing utilized earlier in the district.

Significance

Encompassing most of Manchester's historic downtown, the Main Street Historic District is a fine representative example of early twentieth-century commercial and institutional urban development. It derives further significance as an exceptional demonstration of the evolution of the Colonial Revival style from about 1890 to 1940. As the Colonial Revival progressed from turn-of-the-century classicism to the modern period, forms and detailing were simplified and even stylized and well-preserved examples of every stage can be found in the district. Although the Main Street Historic District's cohesiveness and historic character are well established by this prevailing stylistic influence, a remarkable degree of architectural variety is still achieved, especially in the commercial architecture, through differences in scale, form, and materials, as well as the introduction of several other contemporary revival styles. Included in these contributing buildings is the 1948 Jarvis Building. Although less than 50 years old, it is an integral part of an older commercial block and stylistically compatible with other district buildings because of its simplified Art Deco detailing. Of particular architectural significance is the superior institutional grouping at the head of the district built between 1896 and 1937, which illustrates the almost universal preference for symmetry and classical design in Colonial Revival public buildings of that period.

Historical Background

Without question, the development of Manchester's downtown was a direct response to the growth of the Cheney Manufacturing Company, producers of silk textiles, the city's premier historic industry. Once the largest industry of its kind in the United States, it flourished from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s.[2] Although the Cheney brothers provided most of the workers' housing and many of the public facilities in South Manchester, as this part of town was then known, the continued expansion of the company engendered a general economic prosperity that is reflected in the central business district. Main Street evolved in a relatively short period, with residential stock rapidly replaced by large commercial blocks devoted to providing a full range of goods and services, a growth pattern that was tied closely to the rise and fall of the Cheney fortunes. Not only did the Cheneys directly participate in this development, but members of the family donated land and/or funding for public buildings and the municipal park.

Business was booming at the Cheney mills in the early decades of the century. By World War I more than half (58%) of the 33 extant historic commercial buildings had been constructed in the district, including two hotels. As was common in that period, social and commercial interests converged in Orange Hall 70-74 E. Center Street), which was meeting place for seven different fraternal organizations, some of ethnic origin. Following a brief lull during the war, construction continued apace until the Great Depression. Though technically still a town, the community took on many of the aspects of a bustling city. Having outgrown the old town hall, in 1926 Manchester erected its new Municipal Building on that site (41 Center Street). The State Theater (745 Main Street) was constructed in this period, along with several imposing business blocks. Some, like the Watkins Brothers Furniture Store (935 Main Street), were devoted exclusively to one business; the majority housed several retail establishments and professional offices. National chain stores, such as Woolworths (775-777 Main Street) and Montgomery-Ward (822 Main Street), made their appearance on opposite sides of Main Street by 1930, soon followed by W.T. Grant's, which moved into the Jaffe and Podgrove Building in the 1930s (811 Main Street). By 1929 so many telephones were in service that Southern New England Telephone built its new exchange (52 E. Center Street). The Cheneys were forced to retrench during the Depression: negotiating government loans, selling off most of their housing stock, and transferring ownership of their schools to the town and their gas and electric plants to local utility companies. Except for the two public buildings funded by the federal government, construction in the district essentially ended, not to resume until after World War II.

At least three buildings in the Main Street Historic District were the result of several generations of Cheney philanthropy. They included the Mary Cheney Library (586 Main Street), which, like the Post Office, was a Depression-era project; Cheney trust funds set aside for its construction in 1913 were matched by the Public Works Administration. Land for the Hall of Records (66 Center Street) was donated by Frank Cheney (1817-1904) and the park by his wife, Susan. The Dancing Bears Fountain was also a gift to the town from Mary Cheney. Land and possibly construction funds were provided by the family for St. James Church, the first parish church for Roman Catholics in South Manchester. Most of its members worked at the Cheney mills.

Not surprisingly, the Cheneys were among the first to locate a commercial building on Main Street. Their first general store, located several blocks south of the district, was destroyed by fire in 1898, a common occurrence for wood-framed commercial buildings, which accounts for the almost universal use of brick masonry in the Main Street Historic District. A few wood-framed, free-standing commercial buildings survived on the side streets and two remain in the district: a c.1900 example at 18-20 Bissell Street and a group of connected buildings at 24-32, 34, and 38 Oak Street. The present Cheney Block (969-985 Main Street), which housed a number of businesses as well as the South Manchester Post Office, was built in 1899. Along with Thomas Weldon, who had rebuilt his c.1890 commercial block after a fire in 1897 (901-907 Main Street), the Cheneys are credited with initiating the commercial development of this northern section of Main Street, previously a residential area. A number of other early buildings in the Main Street Historic District were replaced by fireproof masonry structures, including the 1897 Oak Hall Building which burned down in 1908 and was replaced by the 1909 House and Hale Building (945-963 Main Street). It housed Hales' drygoods store, which evolved into a department store with a self-service grocery by 1920, as well as another Cheney enterprise, the Manchester Building and Loan Association, organized in 1891 to provide residential mortgages for their workers.

Architectural Significance

The quality, variety, and craftsmanship of the commercial buildings in the Main Street Historic District are exceptional. Although generally limited to the historic facades above street level, the level of preservation is quite good. Several restored or original storefronts still enhance these resources; especially notable are the ones at Orange Hall (70-74 E. Center Street) and the Thomas Weldon Block (901-907 Main Street), both of which are distinguished by overall facade integrity. Although the scale or design of some newer storefronts is incompatible with the rest of their historic facades, others have retained enough of their storefront plan and detail to provide a model for their restoration.

Similar detailing and materials, as well as repetition of form, help integrate the commercial blocks, which are anchored by a number of stylish buildings of exceptional merit. Through their larger scale, the streetscape's undulating rhythm is established. Such items as key blocks over windows and flat or stepped parapets are common design motifs. For example, the design of the flat parapet and frieze of the Watkins Furniture Store (935 Main Street) is repeated in several other buildings of similar scale or style, including the 1905 building to the south which now is occupied a bank (1007-1015 Main Street). On a smaller scale, the parapets of the Rubinow (841-857 Main Street) and Tinker Buildings (785-793 Main Street) echo the exaggerated decorative pediment of the Cheney Block (969-985 Main Street). Although lacking a definitive stylistic influence, the half dozen buildings designated as 20th-century commercial still utilize a variety of contrasting brick to define levels and cornices (1077-1081 Main Street).

The institutional component of the Main Street Historic District is distinguished by its level of style and superior integrity. While each is significant in its own right, together they comprise an exceptionally well-designed and integrated group. Although only three architects are known, undoubtedly all were designed by professionals, who, while working within a relatively restricted formality of the classically inspired Colonial Revival, achieved a remarkable diversity by employing the full range of classical orders and motifs. Because of its central location and impressive level of style, Center Congregational Church (11 Center Street) is a commanding presence here. The use of red brick and simplified detailing in its stylistically compatible addition provides a suitable background, one which enhances the pristine appearance of the fully detailed church. With its tripartite symmetrical massing and monumentally scaled portico, the Municipal Building (41 Center Street) is a handsome structure, one that is quite typical of civic architecture in this period. Its contrasting limestone detailing and portico played off against a red-brick ground is a common convention, one also employed in the Cheney Library (586 Main Street) and the U. S. Post Office (479 Main Street). Even though both are the more standard academic interpretations of the Colonial Revival associated with Depression-era municipal architecture, their carefully executed designs and superior craftsmanship demonstrate the commitment of the federal government to quality public architecture at that time. The Post Office, listed on the National Register in 1986, was designed in 1931 under the supervision of James Wetmore, acting head architect for the U.S. Treasury at that time. A Cheney family member, Frank Parley, designed the library. He was the grandson of the Susan Cheney who donated the land for the park. Although not as monumental as the other civic buildings, the earliest example, the Hall of Records (66 Center Street), with its relatively complex use of Palladian motifs, is perfectly scaled and proportioned, and also notable for its use of amber brick. It was designed by the Hartford firm of Hapgood and Hapgood, which was noted for its public buildings.

Three commercial examples demonstrate the variation found in the changing face of the Colonial Revival style in the district. With its bold classical elevations highlighted by tall arched window recesses, the integrated Colonial Revival design of the well-preserved 1920 Watkins Brothers Furniture Store (935 Main Street) exhibits a level of style on a par with the district's municipal buildings. A number of smaller companion buildings of this style are typical of the understated simplicity of the later Colonial Revival. Among them is the well-preserved Dewey-Richman Building (765-773 Main Street), which has retained its fine classical entrance surround as well as it storefront cornice. Although recognizably Colonial Revival in style, the Southern New England Telephone Building achieves the ultimate simplification in its stylized facade, where an Art Deco influence is quite obvious (52 E. Center Street).

Important contributions are made by other individually significant buildings, such as the imposing Romanesque Revival Orford Hall Hotel (867-877 Main Street). Contrasting brick is effectively used to integrate and emphasize the repeating arched rhythms of its facade, one which also displays a superior level of masonry craftsmanship. Another standout is the miniature castle built for the Salvation Army, appropriately called the Citadel (661 Main Street). It is a well-preserved and rather unique example of Military Gothic, a style fully compatible with the goals of this organization.

Endnotes

  1. Today the upper floors in several buildings are condominium offices or apartments (935 Main Street and 945-963 Main Street).
  2. The history of the silk industry in Manchester has been extensively covered in several publications. Among them are William E. Buckley, A New England Pattern, 1973; Ellsworth S. Grant, "The Silken Cheneys," Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin, 44:3, July 1979; and "Cheney Brothers Historic District," NHL, National Park Service, 1978.

References

Aero View of Manchester, 1914. New York: Hughes and Bailey, 1924.

Buckley, William E. A New England Pattern: A History of Manchester, Connecticut. Chester, Connecticut: Pequot Press, 1973.

Grant, Ellsworth Strong. "The Silken Cheneys," Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin, (44:3). July, 1979.

Historical and Architectural Resource Survey of Manchester Connecticut: Main Street and East Side Neighborhood, Connecticut Historical Commission, 1993.

Manchester, Connecticut: West Side Neighborhood Cultural Resource Survey, Connecticut Historical Commission, 1995.

Spiess, Mathias and Percy W. Bidwell. History of Manchester. Centennial Committee of the Town of Manchester, 1924.

Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates, Ltd. and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Trust, Main Street Historic District, Manchester, CT, nomination document, 1995, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

See Map

Street Names: Bissell Street, Center Street, Center Street East, Oak Street, Purnell Place, Route 44, Route 6, Route 83

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