West Hill Historic District
The West Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. 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 Hill Historic District is a 1920s real estate development containing 25 large architect-designed Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival homes. The 11-acre West Hill Historic District is located in West Hartford, Connecticut, four blocks west of the City of Hartford line on a site formerly occupied by the Cornelius Vanderbilt Estate.
All houses in the West Hill Historic District are compatible in height (about two stories) and mass (10/12 rooms). All face West Hill Drive, set back about 15 feet from the building line on approximately half-acre lots. West Hill Drive is a circular roadway accessed from Farmington Avenue at the south end of the circle. In the subdivision layout lots are sited on both sides of the roadway; consequently, the houses face one another. West Hill Drive is appropriately named because the West Hill Historic District is on a low hill with higher elevations generally on the northwest falling off to the east and southeast.
West Hill is also a local historic district. The boundaries of the local historic district and the National Register West Hill Historic District are the same.
West Hill Historic District's southern boundary, Farmington Avenue, long a prestigious residential street, is now a busy commercial thoroughfare (State Route 4). Hamilton Avenue to the east is a service road for houses facing the next street east (Walbridge Road) which generally are of size and age comparable to those in the district. To the north lies the former Mount Saint Joseph Academy, built as a girls' boarding school and now  undergoing rehabilitation and expansion as an assisted-living center. The western boundary is the rear lot lines of houses facing Vanderbilt Road, which generally are smaller than those in the district. The neighborhood for several blocks in all directions is residential, except for commercial structures on Farmington Avenue and the abutting former Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
The West Hill Historic District's visual identity is established by the rugged brownstone ashlar retaining wall which runs for 421 feet along Farmington and Hamilton Avenues. Curved segments of the wall terminate in piers 22 feet apart which form the two entranceways from Farmington Avenue. Pintles in the 3' x 3' piers indicate that originally there may have been iron gates. The wall is the only feature remaining from the Vanderbilt Estate. Site layouts of parcels on the eastern edge of the district take advantage of the fall off in grade to Hamilton Avenue to locate their garages on that street, behind and below the houses. Utility lines are underground; there are no "telephone poles."
All but two of the 25 houses were built in the early- to mid-1920s. Of the 23, 14 are in the Colonial Revival style (5, 7, 9, 20, 30, 36, 40, 41, 43, 45, 55, 60, 65, and 66 West Hill Drive), nine in the Tudor Revival style (6, 14, 19, 25, 47, 51, 52, 56, and 59 West Hill Drive). Two combine features of both styles (26 and 44 West Hill Drive). Only two of the 23 are frame (5 and 45 West Hill Drive); the others are masonry (brick or stone, or a combination of the two) or stucco. The fact that 20 houses have slate roofs contributes to the sense of unity within the West Hill Historic District.
The Colonial Revival style houses display such features as rectangular ground plans, central doorways with side lights and fanlights, small-pane windows, gable or gambrel roofs, and end chimneys. Federal decorative features such as broken pediments, keystones over the windows, and raised foliate decorations are present but do not proliferate. The brickwork often is laid up in decorative bonds such as English and Flemish, with liberal use of black brick for variety and visual interest. Moreover, the mortar is recessed from of the face of the brick in many cases, creating a three-dimensional effect.
The Tudor Revival style houses employ stylistic components such as stucco and half-timbered walls and gable ends, irregular ground plans, broad and steep gable roofs, and steel leaded casement windows. Moreover, the proportions and surfaces evoke an identifiable medieval sense reminiscent of English Cotswold architecture, particularly in the group along the east side of the circle.
West Hill Historic District is significant historically because it is an excellent example of a planned real estate development of the early 1920s that proceeded under specific design restrictions to achieve outstanding success as a well-crafted and prestigious neighborhood. The West Hill Historic District has maintained its highly regarded appearance and standing for three-quarters of a century. The social and economic context which made possible the development of the district marked the final phase of prosperity associated with Hartford's great period of industrial ingenuity and growth.
West Hill Historic District is significant architecturally as a cohesive group of buildings of compatible scale unified according to a controlled plan. The houses were designed well by architects selected from the best-known practitioners active in the Hartford area at the time. Their work displays skill and careful attention both to overall effect and to details derived from the Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival styles popular in the period. The houses are in a fine state of preservation, having been maintained unusually well for three-quarters of a century. The district, free of intrusions, continues to exhibit the setting of spaces between houses, arrangement of buildings and voids, prevalence of trees and walks, and general exterior features without change from time of construction.
Among the many enterprises of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was a steamship line which ran from New York City up the Connecticut River to Hartford. The "end of the line" attribute may have influenced the Commodore's decision to choose Hartford as a location suitable for his son Cornelius J. Vanderbilt (1830-1882), who was a profligate epileptic. In any event, the Commodore bought West Hill in 1857 as a place for his son to reside, but after Cornelius J. Vanderbilt's wife died he lost interest in the property, and it was sold, by the Commodore, in 1872, only to have Cornelius J, buy it back in 1879. Thereupon, Cornelius J. built the Vanderbilt Mansion, employing architect/builder John C. Mead (1840-1889) for the purpose. Cornelius J. Vanderbilt committed suicide in New York City in 1882 without ever living in the new mansion.
The house stood vacant for six years until purchased by Ira Dimock in 1888. Dimock was a silk manufacturer whose business later became known as the Corticelli Silk Company. The Dimock family lived in the mansion until both Dimock and his wife died in 1917. Their son, Stanley K. Dimock, demolished the mansion in 1918 for the real estate development that got under way in 1919.
Ira Dimock was outraged at what he regarded as an intrusion in the neighborhood when Mount Saint Joseph Academy was built in 1905, He planted a row of poplar trees along the north edge of his property and stipulated in his will that the land on which they stood could never be sold. It was in furtherance of this plan of his father's that Stanley K. Dimock in 1925 created the funded trust which controls the two-foot-wide barrier strip between the West Hill Historic District and the Mount Saint Joseph Academy property. The instrument creating the trust describes its purpose with the language "in order to prevent the union and connection through the same ownership of the property on the north side of West Hill and any lots composing the West Hill Tract...." (WHLR 64/651).
Stanley K. Dimock's associate in the real estate development was Horace R. Grant, a business colleague of his father's who took active charge of proceedings. It may be Grant who caused restrictions to be written into the deeds as lots were sold off with provisions requiring that: 1. The brownstone wall be retained. 2. The buyer construct a one-family house costing not less than $10,000. 3. The front of the house face West Hill Drive with a 15-foot setback. 4. The house be designed by an architect approved by the seller.
The parcels were sold and the houses were built. The plan contemplated by Dimock and Grant was carried out. The West Hill Historic District remains substantially unaltered at the present time.
Several of the original owners held prominent places in Hartford's industrial history. D. Hayes Murphy was the founder of the Wiremold Company which introduced a new system of electrical wiring. Frank E. Wolcott was a principal in the Silex Company; Silex became a household word through the success of its innovative coffee maker. Horace R. Grant was president of the Allen Manufacturing Company, known for its patented fastener system and the accompanying, and famous, Allen wrench. Edward Lorenz, an engineer, participated in the invention and perfection of glass-bottling machines at Hartford Empire Company (later Emhart Manufacturing Company).
The common thread running through all these careers was industrial ingenuity, invention, and technological progress. Since the invention of the revolving pistol chamber by Samuel Colt, such innovation had driven the great period of industrial development that prevailed in Hartford from the Civil War to the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. Industrial progress provided economic support for a society which embraced development of a well-designed neighborhood and the professional design skills essential for its creation. West Hill is a symbol of the success of that society from the closing years of the era. After World War II, Hartford's leadership position in technological improvements leveled off and entered into the period of decline which continues to the present. In this sense West Hill marked the end of an era.
West Hill Historic District exhibits unusual sensitivity in the relationship of each house to its neighbors and to the subdivision as a whole. Compatible spacing and materials and the harmonious architecture of Revival styles create a sense of unity within which each component is nonetheless important. Shade trees and other plant materials enhance the visual consonance created by the carefully planned building program.
The developer specified those architects who could be retained by owners to design West Hill homes. The list was short and included the city's outstanding practitioners of the 1920s. The developer's master plan combined with the architects' individual skills made West Hill Historic District a showcase of the work of Hartford's most talented and successful architects of the era. Each designer expressed his individual interpretation of the currently fashionable revival styles within a cohesive framework. With the properties always having been carefully maintained, the West Hill Historic District is well-preserved and continues to be free of intrusions.
Cortlandt F. Luce (1876-1956) was the first architect chosen by the developers to design houses for West Hill. The son of an architect Luce purchased the practice of Edward T. Hapgood (1866-1915) upon Hapgood's death. Hapgood had conducted a distinguished and highly successful practice in which the specialty was Colonial Revival homes in the fashionable West End of the city for Hartford's leaders. Luce continued the same emphasis and therefore was a logical choice for the prestigious new neighborhood. Seven of Luce's 14 West Hill houses were in the Colonial Revival style using the standard materials of red brick and white trim but with more textured brickwork than was customary. Hapgood had also done a few imaginative Queen Anne/Tudor Revival designs, notably the Charles E. Shepherd House, 695 Prospect Avenue (1900, now Kingswood-Oxford School) for which Luce did the north wing in 1917. Luce built upon this background for his six imaginative Tudor Revival/Cotswold houses in West Hill. In one house, Luce combined the two styles successfully (44 West Hill Drive). Luce expressed more ingenuity and imagination in his Tudor Revival than Colonial Revival designs in West Hill. It is readily understandable that their charm was attractive to the society leadership from which came his clients. Luce suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1927, after which his practice declined.
The second architect cleared by the developers for West Hill commissions, in 1922, was Milton E. Hayman (1889-1969), an M.I.T. graduate who worked for Edward T. Hapgood and, intermittently, for Cortlandt F. Luce. His choice, therefore, was simply an extension of established policy. Two of his three houses in West Hill were in the Colonial Revival style, the third Tudor Revival, in continuation of the pattern set by Luce. Two institutional buildings in the Colonial Revival style, both still standing, for which Hayman is well known are the First Unitarian Congregational Church, 215 Pearl Street, Hartford (1924, later Congregation Ados Israel), and the West Hartford Trust Company building, 4 North Main Street, West Hartford (date unknown, later Connecticut Bank & Trust Company/Fleet Bank).
Hartford's largest architectural practice in prominent and expensive buildings in the 1920s was that carried on by H. Hilliard Smith (1871-1948), who was educated at M.I.T. and abroad, and Roy D. Bassette (1881-1965), a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture where he studied with Paul D. Cret (1876-1945), who previously taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While Smith & Bassette designed a variety of types of buildings in a variety of styles, they are best remembered for their Colonial Revival/Georgian Revival homes in the West End, succeeding to the pre-eminence in this specialty formerly held by Edward T. Hapgood. It is not surprising to find Smith & Bassette represented in West Hill with two houses, but it is surprising that they employed the Tudor Revival style. West Hill has examples in the Tudor Revival, out of the mainstream of their work; either they succumbed to the charming precedent set by Luce or were requested by their clients to do so. One of the two commissions (26 West Hill Drive) actually mixes the two styles, with great success.
Other architects who worked in West Hill included Russell F. Barker (1873-1961), who started out as a draughtsman for Hartford's leading 19th-century architect, George Keller (1842-1935). Barker had a long, successful, and varied practice, but is best remembered for his Art Deco West Hartford schools.
William T. Marchant (1880-1948) also learned to design Colonial Revival houses for the West End while working for Edward T. Hapgood. His Wood Memorial Library, South Windsor (1926), is in the mode. The complete records of Marchant's practice, including drawings, are held in the garage of the present owners of his former residence.
Walter P. Crabtree (1873-1962) started his practice in New Britain, Connecticut, where the Masonic Temple (now Temple B'Nai Israel), a large brick building with limestone colonnade in the Beaux-Arts mode, was built to his design in 1927-1929. He conducted a Hartford office for almost half a century. Sherwood F. Jeter, Jr. (1903-1991), senior partner in the firm of Jeter & Cook, drew plans for many buildings, emphasizing commercial and institutional functions rather than residential. Finally, three of the West Hill owners, Burton W. Bartlett, J.G. Peterson, and Burton C. Newton, according to tradition supervised the design and construction of their own homes.
The architects who executed commissions in West Hill in the 1920s were the leading practitioners in Hartford. Such concentration of examples of the work of a number of talented designers is unusual, as is the fact that their diverse talents are contained within an overall sense of unity established by the developers' guidelines.
Foster, Sherrill. Historic and Architectural Resource Survey of West Hartford, Statewide Historic Resource Inventory. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Commission, 1983.
Miller Charles L. Vanderbilt's West Hill which is West Hartford's First Sub-Division. 1987.
David F. Ransom. "Biographical Dictionary of Hartford Architects." The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 54 (Winter/Spring 1989) 1-2.
Report of the West Hartford Historic District Study Committee, July 1977.
Report of the West Hartford Historic District Study Committee, March 1988.
West Hartford Land Records, volume 64, page 651, March 19, 1925.
† David F. Ransom, consultant and John F. A. Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, West Hill Historic District, West Hartford, CT, nomination document, 1996, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.