Rocky Hill Center Historic District
The Rocky Hill Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Rocky Hill Center Historic District, which encompasses the institutional and residential center of town, is situated just east of the Silas Dean Highway (State Route 99), and extends for more than a mile to the northwest along Old Main Street, almost to the border with the Town of Wethersfield. Historic and modern buildings that comprise the institutional center occupy the triangle formed by Old Main and Church streets, and include the Congregational Church, a readily visible Rocky Hill landmark near the highway at the southern entrance to the district. Glastonbury Avenue (Route 160), Washington Street, and Riverview Road fan out from the center towards the river, and connect with several smaller streets. The Rocky Hill Center Historic District ends just before the boundary of the Rocky Hill Ferry Landing, a historic maritime community included in a recently listed National Register district that also extends across the river into the Town of Glastonbury.
Although much of the center occupies relatively level high ground, 50 or more feet above the Connecticut River, the district is partially bordered by a wooded rocky ridgeline on the northeast. Now a public recreation area (Quarry Park), it includes a historic trap rock quarry to the south and the former rail line of the 1871 Connecticut Valley Railroad along its eastern base. As Old Main Street cuts across the lower western face of this ridge, some historic residential properties on the northeast side sit high above the street, while those across the road slope away to the west.
The Rocky Hill Center Historic District contains 284 resources, of which 232 (80 percent) contribute to its historic character. Historic houses, by far the largest category of contributing resources (75 percent), include a range of architectural styles and types dating from c.1700 to 1956. Among them are colonial dwellings, some dating back to the town's early settlement period, nineteenth-century farmhouses, along with numerous twentieth century suburban homes. Many of these properties contain associated period outbuildings, such as barns and sheds or garages. Contributing institutional development dating from the early decades of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries consists of churches, schools, and other civic buildings, renovated or restored both during and after the period of significance. Non-contributing resources include later institutional buildings, as well as a few deteriorated historic houses, and a limited amount of modern (post 1956) residential infill.
Various domestic colonial types and forms are represented in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District. Usually organized around a center chimney plan, they include two-story Colonials with gabled roofs, and one-story gambrel-roofed cottages, or Capes. The oldest two-story Colonial, the Captain David Riley House, has a three-bay facade, with an eight-pane transom over the double-leaf front door. Built about 1710, this recently restored house faces southeast at the beginning of Riverview Road (3 Riverview Road). The later 1754 Robbins-Arnold House at 542 Old Main Street also has a double door (now covered) with a flared wood lintel.
Other Colonials, such as the 1745 Captain Stephen Riley House, which sits high above northeast side of Old Main Street, often display doorways or other features from later stylistic periods (666 Old Main Street). The earliest five-bay Colonial in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District, it has triple-hung sash at the first floor with projecting cornices, probably added at the same time as the Federal doorway surround. A delicate Federal portico with a coved ceiling was added to the c.1760 James Warner House on the west side of Old Main Street (447 Old Main Street). The Captain Roger Riley House, a 1771 Colonial that occupies a prominent corner lot across from the civic center, features a pedimented portico that may be an original feature (734 Old Main Street).
The quite similar form and fenestration of the c.1760 Bulkeley-Goodrich House (460 Old Main Street) and the much later c.1790 Elijah Roberts House (401 Old Main Street) illustrates the persistence of the plain "Connecticut style" in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District. Located almost directly across from each other partway up Old Main Street, both these houses were embellished with nearly identical Greek Revival style door surrounds in the 1840s. A bolder, slightly recessed, trabeated Greek doorway was added to the Dickenson-Judson House at 23 Riverview Road, the only colonial "half house" with a side-hall plan in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District. Just across the road, the colonial form of the 1787 Federal style Lewis Whitmore House (20 Riverview Road) is embellished with stylish doorways and denticulated cornices. The fanlight above the front door is surmounted by an open pediment.
One of the Rocky Hill Center Historic District's distinguishing features is the prevalence of the gambrel-roof form, most notably demonstrated by the 1767 Georgian style Esquire John Robbins House (262 Old Main Street). The only brick house in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District, it features a Palladian window with brick voussoirs and a flared wooden lintel over the door, scribed to resemble brick, and a projecting belt course just above brownstone window lintels. Once known as the Duke of Cumberland Inn, the attic level with its broad gambrel roof and pedimented dormers was reserved for travelers.
Perhaps the oldest use of the gambrel roof in Rocky Hill was on the Goffe House at the north end of Old Main Street (74 Old Main Street). Almost square in plan with a relatively steep lower slope to the roof and an ell at the northeast corner, this one-and-one-half story house was standing by c.1700. Later and similar cottages, often called Capes, a type introduced into Connecticut in the 1740s, may display small fixed windows in the eaves and/or facade dormers. Several gambrel Capes were erected between c.1745 and c.1770 on Pratt Street or on nearby Belden Lane. Two examples of this form at the first bend in Riverview Road, which were built by the Riley family between 1771 and c.1790, display pedimented dormers and a similar pitch to the slopes of the roof (7 and 9 Riverview Road). There is little to distinguish these cottages from the much later c.1830 Henry Webb House (14 Glastonbury Avenue), except for a different fenestration pattern on the end elevations.
Except for the Greek Revival doorways added to some older houses (as discussed above) the influence of this style in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District was quite limited. The transitional Frederick Morton House (442 Old Main Street) is one of the few examples with the gable-to-street orientation associated with this style. Although now sheathed with artificial siding, this house retains the doorway surround, with the sidelights and the high entablature of Greek Revival, as well as the pediment fanlight of the Federal style. The North District School, which was converted to a residence in the 1920s, was rebuilt in this style in 1845.
The Italianate style, as interpreted in Rocky Hill, utilized a cubic villa form and a near-flat hipped roof. Unlike later more elaborate Victorian Italianates, however, the overhanging eaves are not supported by carved brackets. One of the more detailed of these vernacular Italianates overlooks Old Main Street and displays a Tuscan facade porch and narrow attic windows in the frieze (612 Old Main Street). The William Neff House across the street (559 Old Main Street) has similar attic windows and a low hipped roof, but its five-bay facade suggests that this example may have been an earlier Colonial. A more unusual Italianate conversion is found in the Thomas Warner House, also on Old Main Street (207 Old Main Street). Much of the original Colonial facade is hidden by the 1873 projecting three-bay gabled pavilion, which displays a characteristic round-arched, Italianate window. The vast majority of later nineteenth century houses, however, are simple vernacular types with a gable-to-street orientation, many with cross-gable wings and front porches. Typical examples are found on Glastonbury Avenue and Washington Street.
The Colonial Revival style, which appeared in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District by 1900, utilized several forms and was influenced by other styles. It was first combined with Queen Anne massing, as exemplified by the Belden House at the west entrance to the district, which has a wraparound veranda supported by columns with brackets under the eaves (2340 Silas Deane Highway). The classical influence on this style is expressed in the projecting pedimented pavilion at 636 Old Main Street, while the gambrel-roofed form of this style, often called Dutch Colonial, is represented by a 1927 example at 420 Old Main Street. The latter house, which has a broad facade dormer and side pent roofs, features a large Colonial Revival portico with a cove ceiling. A reproduction Connecticut Valley doorway with a broken scroll pediment is the highlight of another Colonial Revival set well back from the east side of Riverview Road (25 Riverview Road). The common practice of updating an older house with Colonial Revival porch was taken to new heights in the colonnaded portico added to the c.1770 Jacob Robbins House in the 1920s (244 Old Main Street).
The Bungalow, a contemporary suburban form, is also present in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District. Two neighboring houses on Old Main Street exhibit the common features of this style: a front porch sheltered under the extended front slope of the roof and either shed or gabled facade dormers (673 and 663 Old Main Street). The first story of the one at #663 is constructed of concrete block molded to resemble rusticated stone, a material first used in the 1920s.
The Colonial Revival Cape style was favored in the residential boom that began near the end of the Great Depression. Although some Capes display slightly different doorways, the common elements of the continuous row of these houses that line the west side of Old Main Street include attached one-car garages with breezeways. Another group of Capes from this period down the street on the east side have small detached garages. Similar postwar counterparts, such as those built on Washington Street around 1950, often incorporate two-car garages. Although there were a few examples of the Ranch style in the immediate postwar development period, most houses of this type in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District were constructed after 1960.
Most of the contributing institutional buildings in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District have been remodeled over time. The 1808 Rocky Hill Congregational Church, an individually significant building, was listed on the National Register in 1982 (805 Old Main Street). Fully detailed in the Federal style, with a pedimented projecting pavilion and a Palladian window, it was modeled after a similar church in Middletown designed by Lavius Fillmore. Originally constructed with a spire, it now displays a two-stage bell tower, which dates from the 1830s. The complementary parish house addition of 1948 at the rear of the church was designed by Henry S. Kelly (the brother of restoration architect J. Frederick Kelly). In 1958 a parish hall was added to Gothic Revival style, United Methodist Church of 1895, which is located at the opposite (north) corner of the institutional triangle between Church and Old Main Streets (623 Old Main Street). While displaying the steeply pitched roofs and offset belfry tower so characteristic of this style, here bold triangular window shapes were substituted for the more typical Gothic pointed arches. Although they appear to be an alteration associated with the residing of the building, these design elements are depicted in a c.1944 photograph and may be original.
Remodeling of other historic institutional buildings in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District include the rebuilding of the 1803 Academy Hall (785 Old Main Street) after a fire in 1839 and its restoration in 1973 to house the Rocky Hill Historical Society Museum. The first town hall, a Neo-Colonial Revival structure erected in 1954 at Church and Old Main streets, has a c.1970 rear addition.
Later buildings in the town center, which are considered non-contributing only because of their more recent construction dates, include the present 1967 Cora Belden Library, a brick and cast stone building at 33 Church Street and the 1962 brick fire-department building for Rocky Hill Company No. 1. The latter structure replaced an earlier wood-framed firehouse, which still stands at 35 Church Street. The most recent building, the present Town Hall erected in 2000, replaced (or incorporated) Center School, a wood-framed structure built in 1916 and enlarged in 1941 (761 Old Main Street).
Rocky Hill Center Historic District embodies the historical development of a river town in the Central Connecticut Valley from c.1700 to 1956. Participation in an international maritime economy, as well as direct access to overland transportation networks, carried a colonial parish of Wethersfield to political independence as the new town of Rocky Hill in 1843, and ultimately transformed a basically agrarian community into a residential suburb, a process that is reflected in the evolving historic architectural character of the center. Highlighted by well-preserved, representative examples of the Colonial style, the Rocky Hill Center Historic District also includes a group of civic, cultural, and religious resources. Although some of these buildings have been remodeled or replaced in the wake of rapid suburban growth, collectively this complex still functions as the historic institutional center of Rocky Hill.
Historical Background and Significance
Rocky Hill was part of Wethersfield for nearly two hundred years. One of the first three River Towns in Connecticut, Wethersfield was settled by families from Watertown, Massachusetts, and England between 1634 and 1636. A shipyard and ferry were established at the river landing in the "lower community," as Rocky Hill was once known, by town fathers in the 1650s. But it was not until the Great Flood of 1700 changed the course of the Connecticut River upstream, that Rocky Hill Landing became Wethersfield's principal port. By 1722 the lower community was large enough to support a separate Congregational church society, and the new parish took the name of Stepney in 1723. The first meetinghouse, erected in the middle of Old Main Street in 1727, was not completed until the 1760s. By then, however, a booming merchant trade with access to international maritime ports had transformed a struggling subsistence economy into a prosperous market town of nearly 900 people.
Most of the farmers, mariners, and tradesmen who built homes in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District were descendants of Wethersfield proprietors. Although deference was paid to the clergy, social status here and in most colonial settlements, was largely derived from land wealth. At the top of the social scale were the landed gentry who played prominent roles in the religious and civic affairs of the community, and often employed marriage and inheritance practices that conserved family assets for the benefit of future generations. This hierarchy of status conferred by land ownership is exemplified by the Robbins family, direct descendants of Gentleman John Robbins. The eldest of five brothers who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England, Robbins removed to Wethersfield about 1638 and invested heavily in the proprietorship. He married the sister of Thomas Welles, a colonial governor, and became a member of the General Court and town selectman. The large brick Georgian in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District was built by his grandson, Esquire John Robbins, one of the wealthiest men in the colony, and keeper of the Duke of Cumberland Inn (262 Old Main Street).
A gentlemen farmer and slave owner, Squire Robbins grew wheat and corn, and grazed livestock in the river meadows, which were held in common by all proprietors. Although subsequent generations consolidated the family's wealth with cousin marriages, Esquire John and his children maximized their holdings through strategic marital alliances with other prominent Rocky Hill families, such as the Russells, Warners, Bulkeleys, and Rileys. Upon his death in 1798, his 11 children by three marriages and numerous grandchildren shared in a large estate. It is said that the widow's third received by his last wife, Polly Russell, daughter of Daniel Russell, Stepney's Congregational minister, was compensation for her father's land that she brought to the marriage. The Robbins house passed down to his youngest son Frederick, whose style of living and social position more than equaled that of his father. Following his father's example, Frederick represented the town in the General Assembly and served in the Revolution, both as a soldier and as a privateer. Other surviving family houses in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District were built by Jason Robbins (John's brother), Jacob Robbins, and Elias Robbins. Esquire John's sister married her cousin, Nathaniel Robbins, a deacon of the Stepney church. The house of their grandson, Elijah Robbins, also still stands on Old Main Street (401 Old Main Street).
The Warners of Rocky Hill, related to the Robbins family by marriage, were descendants of Deacon William of Wethersfield. His grandson, Daniel, married Sarah Robbins, Esquire John's daughter, who owned considerable property in her own right, which she received from her father during his lifetime or by inheritance. Although their home in Rocky Hill has not survived, Sarah owned other real estate, which she distributed among all her sons and daughters in her will of 1807. Eunice, the wife of Samuel Dimock, received a tract in the Great Meadow, as did Daniel Warner (2nd). One of the few Rocky Hill mariners in this family, Daniel lived with his wife Abigail in a house built on the site of present 577 Old Main Street. Although Daniel was said to be an indifferent farmer after he retired from the sea, in the next generational cohort, Thomas and James Warner were among the more successful farmers of the antebellum period.
Rocky Hill's economy was dominated by the export trade from about 1750 to 1820. According to Stiles' History of Ancient Wethersfield, 40 percent of the men in Rocky Hill between 16 and 60 were engaged in some type of maritime activity at the turn of the century. Although Stiles included peripheral participants, such as the farm boys who raised a few chickens for export, or aspiring young mariners enrolled at Academy Hall for training in navigation and mathematics, the principals who truly prospered from trade were the ship builders, sailing masters and merchants, as well as local and regional farmers. Farm produce and livestock were shipped from Rocky Hill Landing to East Coast ports and the West Indies. Some goods came by ferry from across the river, but by 1802 much of the produce of Hartford, Wethersfield, and as far away as Farmington, was carried to the port by wagon along the new Middlesex Turnpike, which ran through the district along Church and Old Main streets. The wealth generated by the maritime trade is reflected in the new Congregational meetinghouse of 1808 (805 Old Main Street). Built on Robbins' land at a public cost of $9000, an extraordinary sum for a town of this size, this high-style Federal building now known as the Rocky Hill Congregational Church, was the equal of many built in large urban centers.
Many of the Rocky Hill Center Historic District's master mariners were descendants of James Riley who came to Wethersfield in 1645. Captain David Riley, the first of the family in Rocky Hill, built his house about 1710 just off Old Main Street at 3 Riverview Road. So many of his seafaring sons and grandsons built houses nearby, this intersection was once known as Riley's Corner. Among them is the two-story Colonial at 734 Old Main Street, thought to be the home of Roger Riley, master of the sloop Polly in 1798. Captain Stephen Riley (1729-1813) built his Colonial farther up the street and a Cape for one of his sons nearby. In addition to an association with merchant shipping interests in Hartford (Riley & Brown), the Rileys, often in partnership with neighbors, such as the Mortons and Warners, invested in shipbuilding for many years. Beginning as early as 1732 with the sloop Stepney, built at the yard at the Rocky Hill Landing, in 1813 they owned shares in the brig, Commerce, which was launched from a Wethersfield yard and wrecked off the coast of Africa on its maiden voyage. Active as privateer captains during the Revolution, several Rileys engaged in the trans-Atlantic Triangle trade and the lucrative but hazardous West Indies trade after the war.
Two generations of captains were named Charles Bulkeley. Charles (2nd), who died of smallpox in the West Indies in 1799, had married Eunice Robbins in 1785 and built his house at 530 Old Main Street. His widow stayed on in the house until her death in 1835 and it passed down to her unmarried daughter Augusta. Charles Senior's Colonial just up the street was erected about 1760 (460 Old Main Street). Tradition holds that Captain Elizur Goodrich, who also succumbed to smallpox in the West Indies about 1740, once lived in the Thomas Williams House at 1 Belden Lane. One of his descendants may have been Jasper Goodrich, a retired sea captain in 1860, possibly the last surviving mariner in the center.
Although Rocky Hill Landing apparently survived the restriction of trade during Jefferson's Embargo and the War of 1812, with the dredging of the sandbars upriver by 1820, it lost its navigational advantage. Not only did Wethersfield reassert its dominance as the principal shipping port, steam power had begun to replace sail on the river. Side-wheelers that plied the Connecticut as far north as Hartford soon made scheduled stops at Steamboat Wharf in Rocky Hill, where Henry Webb was a coal dealer. By 1850 only a few district residents had any direct maritime connections: Enos Holmes, who lived in the former Captain Stephen Riley House (666 Old Main Street) and Talcott Arnold who bought the Jason Robbins House in 1831 (542 Old Main Street). Both men listed their occupation in the federal census that year as ships caulker, possibly at still active yards in Glastonbury or Wethersfield.
By 1850 the new town of Rocky Hill was a relatively stable, self-sufficient agrarian community. With its human and natural resources in economic equilibrium, there was enough productive land to support a population of 1042. In fact, the number of new houses built in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District at mid-century suggests that the town had adjusted to the loss of the maritime trade and was fairly prosperous. Like many Connecticut towns, her surplus population had been siphoned off to the frontier or to the cities for more than 50 years. Some of her young men who had sailed to southern ports as factors or peddlers never returned home. Among them was son of Thomas Danforth, a Middletown pewterer who set up his shop and built a house in the center in 1787 (826 Old Main Street). Trained in the craft by his father, he sold his wares in southern cities and eventually settled there. Whereas many towns in Connecticut never fully recovered from this mass exodus and rural populations continued to decline, a process exacerbated by declining marriage and birth rates, in Rocky Hill the population remained fairly stable, hovering around 1000 for the rest of the century.
Even though subsistence farmers were still to be found in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District (especially on Washington Street and Glastonbury Avenue), federal census data indicates that at least a dozen farmers apparently had enough land to raise a surplus for market. Surprisingly few farm households included live-in hired hands, which became a common practice in the later 1800s, and even some of the wealthier district farmers still depended upon their sons for farm labor. Others may have employed African American farm laborers, who were listed in the census as living with their families in tenant houses off Old Main Street (probably on Parsonage Lane). Livestock was no longer raised for export, but there was a regional inland market, especially for potatoes, apples, and onions, which by 1871 could be shipped by rail. Like many towns on this side of the river, Rocky Hill, which had actively promoted the coming of the railroad ever since 1850, issued a bond to fund its share of the construction costs of the Connecticut Valley Line. A passenger station was completed in 1875 and a freight house by the end of the century.
Larger nineteenth-century farms in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District were still owned by descendants of Wethersfield proprietors, but others had changed hands, and a few were bought by newcomers to town. The brick Georgian built by Esquire Robbins which passed down to Walter Robbins, together with the land and outbuildings, was valued at $7000 in the 1870 census.
Relatives still engaged in agriculture included Roswell Robbins, who inherited the 1790 house and farm of his grandfather Elijah Robbins, real estate worth $4000 in 1850 (401 Old Main Street). Like so many others in the family, Roswell had married his cousin, Eliza Robbins. His father William, a state senator, may have added the Greek Revival doorway. Elias Robbins, who inherited his grandfather's house, never married (244 Old Main Street). The property, which had decreased in value by 1860, was still part of his estate eight years after his death (according to the 1869 map).
Thomas Warner, the farmer who converted his Colonial to an Italianate style house, may have been the last of his line to farm there (207 Old Main Street). In 1860, when his farm was worth $6000, Thomas lived there with his wife and Abijah Griswold, a farmhand who also owned some of land. By 1870, however, the property was rented to Michael Connery, an Irish immigrant. Bartholomew McCarty, another Irish tenant farmer, lived across the street (214 Old Main Street). James Warner had taken over the old Deming place, which was valued at $10,000 in the 1860 census (447 Old Main Street). Gershom Bulkeley, the namesake of the early Wethersfield minister, and his son-in-law, Lucius Beaumont, lived in a former Riley House on Old Main Street, and claimed farm property worth $15,000 in 1860 (650 Old Main Street).
The Goffe farm at the north end of Old Main Street changed hands several times after the heirs died or left town in the early 1700s (74 Old Main Street). John Havens, shown as the owner on the 1869 map and worth $5000 in the 1870 census, also may have removed to the frontier, as his wife died in Missouri in 1887. Benjamin Smith, who bought the Reverend L. Burton Lockwood House at 42 Riverview Road, continued to harvest apples from the orchard set out by the minister and valued his property at $5000 in 1870.
Among the other newcomers to town who made their homes in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District were New York born Milo Salls, whose farm and new Greek Revival house were valued at $6000 (132 Old Main Street), and merchant William Neff, who lived in an Italianate at 559 Old Main Street and ran a wagon shop at the Landing. A.G. Parker, a merchant from New York, bought the Williams House at 1 Belden Lane, and tailor Obed Pulsifer from New Hampshire built his Greek Revival at 54 Church Street about 1850. Undoubtedly some of these houses were erected by local builders, a group that included joiner Hiram Hickok, who may have built his own house at 38 Washington Street, cabinetmaker Walter Warner and his son, Horace, a carpenter (406 Old Main Street), and Samuel Packard, who came here from Massachusetts. In 1870 Packard lived in one of the Riley Capes at 7 Riverview Road; the other one was occupied by cabinetmaker Ira Hubbell (9 Riverview Road). By then the earlier Riley Colonial nearby was owned by Rufus Griswold, a physician (3 Riverview Road).
Several trades practiced in the district were agrarian based. At the bottom of the economic ladder were shoemakers like Linus Deming, who lived in a gambrel-roofed Cape at 56 Pratt Street and Frank Lovejoy, who came here from New York to live with the Goodrich family in the former Charles Bulkeley House (460 Old Main Street). Broom-making was a cottage industry in the center, with an annual output of 5000; several outbuildings were devoted to the business at the Robbins-Arnold House (542 Old Main Street).
Stagecoach service on the Middlesex Turnpike generated other commercial activity. Travelers had a choice of Shipman's Hotel or the Hotel De Ryer (both no longer extant); stage proprietor William H. Webb lived near the west end of Glastonbury Avenue (house not identified). Several grocers either lived or had stores on the turnpike, including George Morton, who apparently had a store in his house (no longer extant), and Samuel Dimock (2nd), who lived with his wife Rebekah Bulkeley (Gershom's daughter) in a Cape built by his father down the street (597 Old Main Street). Regular postal service began in 1802 with the opening of the turnpike; mail was still delivered by stage coach in 1850, when Henry Whitmore was appointed postmaster. He lived in the Federal house built by his father at 20 Riverview Road and a new post office was erected at Old Main Street and Glastonbury Avenue (outside the district on the present Silas Deane Highway). Although that building has not survived, apparently an earlier post office was moved to the Whitmore property.
Blacksmiths had served the needs of this agrarian society ever since settlement. Their shops could be found along the turnpike and other major roads in the district through much of the nineteenth century. In addition to shoeing horses and oxen, they forged tools, hardware, and household implements, and repaired farm equipment and by the later 1800s, some put their skills to work in industry. Blacksmith Edwin Risley had a shop at possibly 17 Washington Street for at least 20 years (now a residence). George Morton's shop was located near the turnpike across from his house and store. Oliver Tucker, who lived at 24 Glastonbury Avenue and also listed his occupation as carriagesmith, may have owned the nearby blacksmith shop at the intersection with Washington Street. Still in business at the turn of the century, this shop was run by Earnest Kilby, who, in addition to shoeing horses, specialized in forging stone cutter tools, evidently for the newly opened trap rock quarry on the ridge outside the district. Blacksmiths James and Walter Wilcox, along with their brother Homer, a finisher, were employed at Welles and Wilcox, their father's edge tool factory in "Dividend," an early industrial area south of the center, and lived in the family home at 14 Washington Street.
What came to be known as "street-car suburbs" ringed Connecticut's major urban centers in the early twentieth century. Many of the urban dwellers who flocked to neighboring small towns to escape the congestion of the deteriorating industrial cities still commuted to the city for work, shopping, and recreation. In Rocky Hill, although suburbanization was a gradual process, it gained momentum in the 1930s. Linked by new highways and modern transportation with the capitol city, Rocky Hill officially acknowledged its suburban identity by becoming a member of the Greater Hartford Metropolitan Region in 1943.
Early suburban development in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District really began after 1910 when a trolley line passed through the center, linking Rocky Hill with Hartford and other nearby communities. By the 1920s, as mass-produced cars became affordable and main roads were improved by the state, the influence of the automobile on suburban growth is evident. In fact, the center experienced its first building boom after the Silas Deane Highway was laid out in 1930. At least 36 houses were constructed in the next decade. Some were built on individual lots carved out of older residential properties, but the majority of these suburban houses were located in the new subdivisions that swallowed up much of the remaining farmland bordering Old Main Street, a process that continued up though the historic period.
Apparently some of the first new district residents commuted to work in the city: George Chandler, a book publisher who bought the former Standish House at 358 Old Main Street; and Lee Sherwood, an insurance agent, who rented the Henry Robinson House at 13 Riverview Road. Among those who did business in the district were Louis Button, the owner of an insurance and real estate company who lived in a former Riley House (734 Old Main Street), and grocer Elwood Belden, who built his new Colonial Revival at the south end of Church Street around 1900.
Farming remained important in the town as a whole, as evidenced by the founding of the Rocky Hill Grange in 1901 (relocated in a new hall at 15 Glastonbury Avenue about 1925), but there were few active farms in the district. In fact, many of the older farmhouses had changed hands by 1920, including the Esquire Robbins House, which left the family in 1914. The few properties still owned by original families up through the historic period included the James Warner House (447 Old Main Street). Having passed down to William Warner, who continued to farm the land, it was inherited by his son, Carl Warner, and was part of his estate in 1968. William G. Robbins, who left the farm to become a schoolteacher, returned to his ancestral home after his father Roswell died and became a successful dairy farmer (Elijah Robbins House; 401 Old Main Street). William's 60-acre farm, inherited by his son Frank H. Robbins in 1914, was eventually sold off for residential development, but the farmhouse remains in the hands of a seventh-generation descendant of the original builder.
That these latter-day descendants of Esquire John Robbins were selected to lead the town's transition into the modern era was a remarkable demonstration of the enduring resonance of traditional colonial habits of deference. Like many of his forebears, William G. Robbins was a deacon of the Congregational Church and active in town government, serving as town clerk and treasurer, and as a state representative. Frank H. Robbins, who succeeded his father as deacon and treasurer of the church and town clerk (with the office in his home), also served as chairman of the school board.
Rocky Hill's civic leaders faced unprecedented challenges as public and private institutions struggled to keep pace with population growth, which increased five-fold, reaching 5108 by mid-century. Academy Hall, which had served as a public school since 1913, was no longer adequate and the new four-room Center School was built in 1916 (on the site of the present town hall; 699 Old Main Street). Two more rooms were added to the school in 1941. The private library erected in 1899 next to the Belden House (2340 Silas Deane Highway) was taken over by the town in 1926, and by 1928 rooms were added to the building for the first dedicated town offices for the selectmen and a police station.
Although many suburban towns decentralized public and private services after World War II, Rocky Hill modernized the historic religious and civic institutions in the center. Instead of moving their congregations to the outskirts, as did many churches in this period, both district churches elected to enlarge their facilities (623 and 805 Old Main Street). Local government offices were housed in the first town hall built in 1954 (699 Old Main Street). Modern brick buildings for other purposes followed in the 1960s, beginning with the replacement of the two-bay, wood-framed firehouse of the 1920s by a modern brick structure and the construction of the new Cora Belden Library. As the population tripled by the end of the century, town fathers reaffirmed their commitment to the historic center by building a brand new town hall for the new millennium.
Rocky Hill Center Historic District encompasses a notable collection of historic domestic and institutional buildings, a significant and cohesive architectural entity that collectively represents the 250 years of development. Hemmed in by the eponymous "rocky hill" and the river, the initial dispersed linear pattern of settlement common to outlying parishes quickly gave way to a more conventional clustering around a centralized institutional locus. A close reading of this historic townscape reveals an unbroken architectural continuum, initially delineated by the spatial distribution of a substantial and significant colonial presence and overlaid by the conservative sensibilities of a nineteenth-century town and its eventual transition to a suburban center.
Most of the domestic architecture in the Rocky Hill Center Historic District is stylistically conservative and often vernacular in character. Even though there are architecturally distinctive buildings in every period of development, overall, only modest stylistic embellishment of simple forms marked the passage of time. Even though Academy Hall was built of brick, it replicates the colonial form produced by post-and-beam framing and even suggests the trim board of an overhang in its belt course (785 Old Main Street). Post-medieval framing systems persisted up through the antebellum period, easily accommodating the vernacular villa form introduced at mid-century. Although balloon framing of the vernacular farmhouses of the later nineteenth century allowing some freedom in massing, except for their open porches, there is little evidence of the decorative architectural millwork mass-produced in this period. Completing the cycle is the reassertion of style in the Colonial Revival period which, while paying homage to the simpler colonial forms, was distinctly more urban and modern in character.
The remarkable Esquire Robbins House of 1767 represents the height of eighteenth-century style in the district (262 Old Main Street). Utilizing the massing, materials, and Palladianesque embellishment favored by urban merchants in this period, this sophisticated Georgian mansion was almost an anachronism in this semi-rural setting. Unlike his contemporaries who traditionally chose to hide their wealth behind starkly simple facades, the Robbins House was an overt display of wealth and status. Indeed, the contrast with the simplicity of neighboring Colonials heightens the significance of this building.
As a group, these more conventional two-story Colonials make a major architectural contribution to the district. An exceptional number have survived and most are well preserved. As was typical of the Connecticut Plain style, there was little variation in scale or form for more than a century, primarily due to the persistence of post-and-beam framing systems. Even the singular example of the domestic Federal style in the district, the Lewis Whitmore House, relies primarily on the architectural elaboration of this older colonial form (20 Riverview Road). Even though plain window and door casings were the norm for these houses, flared lintels provided a modest enhancement for the double-leaf doors of the Robbins-Arnold House of 1754 (542 Old Main Street).
The newer doorways of the early 1800s often combined up-to-date fashion with colonial elements, most notably demonstrated by the Captain Stephen Riley House, in which the original transom composed of tombstone lights forms part of the frieze of a Federal surround (666 Old Main Street). In a similar fashion, the transom is retained under the portico that embellishes the Captain Roger Riley House (734 Old Main Street). In some of the later Greek Revival doorways, such as the one added to the Elijah Robbins House, the typical multi-paned rectangular overlight is omitted and only sidelights illuminate the front hall (401 Old Main Street).
The gambrel-roofed cottages in Rocky Hill Center comprise another significant, generally well-preserved group. The similarities between the gambrel-roof framing systems and the methods employed in hull construction has led some to suggest that ship carpenters were responsible for the prevalence of this form in the Connecticut River Valley. Since the builders remain anonymous, further study is required, but there is no question that this distinctive Connecticut colonial type, which is found in number of ports up and down the river, was constructed in the district for more than a hundred years, again with little variation in form or scale.
Atlas of Hartford City and County, Hartford: Baker & Tilden, 1869.
Adams, Sherman W. and Henry R. Stiles. The History of Ancient Wethersfield, comprising the present towns of Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, and Newington, and Glastonbury prior to its incorporation in 1693, from date of earliest settlement until the present time. 2 vols. New York: Grafton Press, 1904.
Cooke, June. Personal communications, 2004 (selected historic house research).
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Federal Census, MS. 1850-1870; 1900-1930.
Fox, Frances Wells & Jared Butler Standish et al. Wethersfield and her Daughters, from 1634 to 1934. Hartford: The Case Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1934.
(An) Historic District for Rocky Hill, Connecticut: Report of the Historic District Study Committee, January 1, 1973."
Kelly, J. Frederick. Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut. New York: Dover Publications, 1952.
Looking Back at Rocky Hill, Connecticut, Incorporated 1843. Rocky Hill: The Sesquicentennial Book Committee for the Rocky Hill Historical Society, 1992.
Likely Tales: Stepney Parish, 1776. Rocky Hill: The Bicentennial Committee, 1976.
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________. Cora Belden Library, History Files.
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† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Preservation Associates, L.L.C., Rocky Hill Center Historic District, nomination document, 2006, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.