Bethlehem Green Historic District
The Bethlehem Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Bethlehem, Connecticut green is a triangular park located in the center of town at the intersection of the principal highways. North Main Street divides at the green, one arm going to the west and one arm to the east of the green in its long north-south direction of 350 feet. The top of the green, 150 feet wide, is along West Road, across the street from the imposing, 3-1/2-story, clapboard house built by the Rev. Joseph Bellamy c.1760.
The Rev. Joseph Bellamy began preaching in Bethlehem in 1738, four years after the area, known as the North Purchase of the Town of Woodbury, was settled. The location of Bellamy's church during the years 1767-1790 at the highway intersection is now marked by a granite obelisk at the north end of the green. The intersection has been the center of the community for the ensuing two centuries. The historic community center surrounding the green, with its town government buildings, churches, and 18th- and 19th-century houses, is the subject of the district. The Bethlehem Green Historic District encompasses approximately 70 acres with 36 principal structures, 7 of which are considered not to contribute to the historic character of the district.
Church and State
The first meetinghouse was the center of both the political and religious activity of the community. When a larger structure was needed in 1790 the location was moved across the street to the southeast to the site of the present church, built in 1836. Its Doric tetrastyle, low, square tower, and chaste interior illustrate in original form the desired church architecture of the era. The parsonage, which is also a white, clapboard structure, is on the same plot of land as the church.
The Connecticut constitution of 1818 disestablished the Congregational church and separated the functions of church and state. In Bethlehem this change found expression in the construction in 1839 of a Townhouse for government offices and meetings on the west side of South Main Street, across from the church. Like the church, the Townhouse was built in the Greek Revival style then popular, but without a portico. Its recessed, central entranceway is flanked by pilasters supporting a plain entablature, and its roof gable forms a flush-boarding pediment with central, rectangular window.
The site of the Townhouse was already the site of the District School (1932), and later was used for Memorial Hall (1913) and in the last decade and a half for a group of new structures that includes the Town Office Building, Public Library, Fire House, garage, and storage building. These new buildings continue the traditional civic functions around the green, strengthen and reinforce the district as the center of community activity, but are considered not to contribute to the historic character of the Bethlehem Green Historic District primarily because they are less than 50 years old. The office building, library and fire station are built of red brick with white trim in a modern "colonial" idiom; the garage and warehouse are plain.
Chronologically, in the development of buildings around the Green, Christ Episcopal Church (1828-1832) preceded the Townhouse. Located on the west side of the green, between the Townhouse and the District School, Christ Episcopal Church is a small, brick Gothic structure that remains today essentially the same as when it was built except that in 1870 the ceiling was dropped, the side windows were shortened, and the present chancel was built.
Memorial Hall, located on the same lot, is mid-way in time of construction, 1913, between the Townhouse, District School and Episcopal Church, on the one hand, and the five new town buildings on the other hand. Now painted white, it was built in a rustic style with porch of large boulders, shingle siding, and roof overhang supported by heavy brackets. Now burned and replaced.
In the immediate vicinity of the highway intersection there are six 18th-century houses. The four-bay Bellamy House is the largest, and with its Palladian pavilion and classic revival trim, the most elaborate. The other five are five-bay, central entrance structures, all but one having 2-1/2 stories and central chimney.
In addition to the church and town buildings in the Greek Revival style, six houses in the Bethlehem Green Historic District are good examples of this style. The three Greek Revival style houses near the corner of East Street and North Main Street all have uneven spacing of the bays as a common feature. The central bay is off center in one direction or the other and the doorway is in the bay that is separated from the central bay by the greater amount of space. Four of the Greek Revival style houses have a distinctive decorative motif in common, a rectangular pediment window with panelled surround.
Three other houses have suggestions of the Greek Revival style, all on South Main Street. One house has end gables that form pediments. The parsonage, has a fanlight in its tympanum, and another has eaves returns that suggest pediments.
The final architectural style present in district houses is the Italianate. The store has a suggestion of Queen Anne in its fish scale shingles. Other houses in the Bethlehem Green Historic District are indeterminate or vernacular in style, but all are more than 50 years old. The town buildings, modern architecture, not 50 years old, are non-contributing.
The buildings around the central crossroads, near the green, in Bethlehem retain the size, spacing, and general atmosphere today that they have had over the centuries. Now there are a few more structures than heretofore, several of them quite new, but the ambience remains the same and the functions of church and state continue to be performed in the buildings around the green, as they always have been.
The central crossroads, near the green, in Bethlehem, Connecticut, has long been the site of the community center. Changes have occurred over the years, reflecting especially the early 19th-century popularity of the Greek Revival style of architecture, but the church and town buildings, and 18th- and 19th-century houses in the Bethlehem Green Historic District continue today the function, scale, setting, and ambience that was established two centuries ago.
Schools and Taverns
While the early meeting house that served both religious and town government functions has not survived, several five-bay, central-entrance, clapboard houses from the 18th century continue standing. In addition to being residences, four of these houses also were schools or taverns. The most famous school was the country's first theological school, conducted by the Rev. Joseph Bellamy. His students used the full third floor of his large house facing the green as a dormitory. The Ionic tetrastyle pavilion of this house bears a strong resemblance to similar features of the Litchfield meeting house (demolished) and two houses (standing) in Litchfield known to have been designed by William Spratts, the British soldier who settled in nearby Litchfield after the Revolutionary War to practice architecture.
Bellamy's successor as minister was the Rev. Azel Backus, who served during the years from 1791-1812. Rev. Backus conducted a school in his home to prepare young men for college until he himself left to become president of Hamilton College in New York State. The Backus House was moved to its present site at an undetermined date from its earlier location in front of the Bellamy House, where in the mid-19th century it served as the Methodist parsonage.
Church's Tavern is the most elaborate of the five-bay, central chimney, central doorway, 2-1/2-story houses. The cornice molding of the doorway breaks out over the pilasters, and the first-floor windows have molded caps and projecting sills. This tavern was mentioned in a letter written by Aaron Burr when he was a student at Dr. Bellamy's theological school. Bird's Tavern, across the green, is a larger house and once had a second-floor ballroom with 12-foot-high arched ceiling. According to local tradition, this tavern had a "drive in" arrangement whereby a traveller could be served without dismounting from his horse. The Greek Revival house on North Main Street is also thought locally once to have been a tavern.
Local Economy and Ambience
Over the years farming has been the principal occupation in Bethlehem. There were farm buildings into mid-20th century associated with Bird's Tavern and as late as the 1960s on land purchased by the town for the building program on the west side of South Main Street. The 1812 census showed 2,710 sheep, 1,100 swine, 284 horses, and 1,361 horned cattle in Bethlehem. In one year at about that time, Bethlehem marketed 250 barrels of pork, 480 barrels of beef, 7,000 pounds of butter, and 30,000 pounds of cheese.
Industry in Bethlehem was limited to mills required to satisfy local needs. The 1812 census recorded the presence of a grist mill, saw mills, fulling mills, flax mill, wagon manufactory, and two tanneries, all for the purpose of providing local services. Thompson's brick yards produced the brick for the Episcopal Church, and Bird's Woolen Mill continued later into the 19th century. The continued absence of industrial development has been instrumental in maintaining the ambience of the Bethlehem Green Historic District.
The number of metal roofs in the Bethlehem Green Historic District, six, is remarkable. Two houses have standing seam roofs, the Greek Revival on East Street and the 18th-century house on Munger Lane. On the first the seams are perpendicular to the roof ridge, and on the second parallel. The other four metal roofs, made up of flat squares, are found on the Congregational Church, the Episcopal Church, Memorial Hall, and on the wing to Bird Tavern. The ages of these roofs have not been determined, but presumably the metal roof is a replacement on the pre-Revolutionary War house. They may be original on the two churches, Memorial Hall, and the Greek Revival house. Such roofs were installed in Bethlehem in the 20th century. The metal interior walls and ceiling of Memorial Hall, together with its metal roof, make it a tour de force of the idiom.
The identity is known of only one 19th-century architect who did work in the district. He is Robert W. Hill (1828-1909) of Waterbury, Connecticut. Hill was in charge of remodelling the Episcopal Church in 1869-1871. The ceiling was lowered, the windows in the side walls were shortened, and the central aisle was eliminated in favor of two aisles. Hill's work on the ceiling and windows is easily visible today, but the arrangement of two aisles between the pews has been reversed to the original scheme of a central aisle. In nearby Litchfield, Hill designed the Court House and the Fire House.
The continuity of function of many of the buildings in the Bethlehem Green Historic District has persisted for two centuries — homes, churches, government buildings, library, and store have long occupied one position or another around Bethlehem green. The 1874 atlas shows many of the present buildings in place and designates as a hotel the house made from two structures. The atlas shows that the store next door, still a store, was also the post office. Even though the functions may have ceased, as with the taverns and schools, the buildings remain.
The panorama of architectural styles that developed over two and one-half centuries is well represented by the 36 buildings of the Bethlehem Green Historic District. There are pre-Revolutionary War central chimney houses at the top of South Main Street with twin-chimney Georgian structures nearby and the Palladian elegance of the Bellamy House overlooking the green. The Greek Revival style is represented by the Congregational Church, Townhouse, library, and several residences. The Gothic Revival found early expression in Christ Episcopal Church. The Queen Anne and Italianate styles are to be found on the east side of South Main Street.
Turning to the 20th century, a rustic design is seen in Memorial Hall, the 1939 Town Office building is part of the Colonial Revival movement, and the newly-constructed Town Office Building and Library may be characterized as being in the Neo-Colonial Revival style. Only modern, contemporary architecture is missing. After accepting a variety of buildings in the architectural styles of the 19th and 20th centuries as they occurred, the town has elected in the 1960s and 1970s with its public buildings to opt for a Neo-Colonial feeling rather than to continue absorbing into its fabric contemporary styles as they developed.
The ambience and functions of the buildings surrounding the central crossroads in Bethlehem, near the green, continue today in the tradition built up over the two centuries since the area first was settled.
Joseph Bellamy House, nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, 1979.
Bethlehem, A Primer of Local History, Bethlehem: Old Bethlehem Historical Society, 1976, no pagination.
County Atlas of Litchfield, Connecticut, New York: F.W. Beers, 1874.
H.F. Randolph Mason, Homes of Old Woodbury, Connecticut, Waterbury, Connecticut: Hemingway Press, 1959.
Report of the Bethlehem Historic District Study Committee, 1975.
† David F. Ransom, consultant and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Bethlehem Green Historic District, Bethlehem, CT, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.