Colebrook Center Historic District
The Colebrook Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. 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 Colebrook Center Historic District encompasses the main village of the Town of Colebrook, which is located in northwestern Connecticut. Situated in a small valley surrounded by wooded hills, it consists of an isolated cluster of historic residential, commercial, and institutional buildings and sites dating from 1767 to about 1920. The Colebrook Center Historic District expands upon the present historic district, established pursuant to state enabling legislation, to contain 63 contributing and non-contributing resources. Although some of the contributing barns were built between 1880 and about 1920, all of the other contributing buildings were built by 1880. Only 12 resources (19%) are non-contributing, modern outbuildings and two sites.
Except for the intrusion of paved roads and automobiles, the center has changed very little since the mid-nineteenth century. From the south the Greek Revival style Colebrook Congregational Church dominates the historic townscape, overlooking a small Town Green, a colonnaded general store, and large white houses, many with white picket fences and period outbuildings. Even the Town Hall is located in an early nineteenth-century building, the Colebrook Inn, also the home of the Colebrook Historical Society; the fire department is next door in a former outbuilding.
The majority of the buildings are found on either side of Colebrook Road (State Route 183), which runs through the village generally from south to north. At the southern end of the district, Colebrook Road intersects with Smith Hill Road, entering from the southeast, to form an elongated triangular area, the site of the green and the church. Proceeding northward the highway descends to cross Center Brook Road before continuing uphill to the north. On either side of the bridge over the brook are the sites of several former water-powered industries. The Town Pound was also in this area west of the highway. On the east side of the village, Schoolhouse Road and Center Brook Road join together to complete the district.
There are 23 houses in the Colebrook Center Historic District, a number which includes the Colebrook Inn. All of these are contributing wood-framed buildings set on stone foundations, some with large added wings or original ells. Three were built before 1800, with the majority constructed in the nineteenth-century (84%). Only one house was built in the Colebrook Center Historic District in the twentieth century: a 1978 non-contributing Ranch at 16 Schoolhouse Road.
Two eighteenth-century houses built by the Rockwells, a settler family, illustrate the evolution of style in the Federal period in Colebrook. Both have large main blocks with ridge-to-street gable roofs. The 1796 Samuel and Reuben Rockwell House at 561 Colebrook Road is more Colonial in appearance, with a center chimney and multi-paned transom over the front door. The ell was the original house, the oldest remaining in the Colebrook Center Historic District. It was built in 1767, probably in the Cape style. Martin Rockwell House, at the southern end of the district across from the church, has two end chimneys at the ridge (549 Colebrook Road). Federal style features include a finely detailed doorway with narrow pilasters and a pulvinated frieze and again a five-pane transom over the door. There is a very delicate dentil course under the eaves and shaped lintels over the second-story windows, but the heavy molded lintels of the first-story windows appear more Georgian in style. This house also has an extensive attached wing on the south side, with some of the first-story walls executed in brick, the only known case where this material was used in the district. The last house of this period is the A. Bailey House a small circa 1790 one-story Cape in the northern end of the district set back from the west side of Colebrook Road (593 Colebrook Road).
The culmination of the Federal style in the Colebrook Center Historic District is the Colebrook Store built for Reuben Rockwell in 1812 (559 Colebrook Road; National Register listed 4/46/76). Anticipating the form of the coming Greek Revival style, it presents a flushboarded facade pediment to the street with a keystoned fanlight. A Federal style doorway at the center is approached from an open two-story colonnaded porch. Above the entrance is a loading door at the second story. A small shed-roofed addition on the north elevation houses the Colebrook Post Office.
Two other later buildings display features of the Federal style: the Colebrook Inn and the Phila Jarvis House. Although the 1816 Colebrook Inn retains the plan and form of a center-chimney Colonial house, it is embellished with a few period details: a fanlight in the gable peaks and modillions under the eaves and cornice of the entrance (558 Colebrook Road). The Phila Jarvis House, not built until about 1830, still displays a fanlight in the facade gable peak (474 Smith Hill Road).
The broad range of the Greek Revival, the predominate style and form in Colebrook Center, extends from the fully realized Congregational Church (471 Smith Hill Road) and the Calvin Sage House (579 Colebrook Road) to more vernacular farmhouses scattered throughout the district. The church, built in 1842, is believed to be a copy of the Unionville church which has been attributed to Charles Bulfinch. Its pedimented flushboarded facade faces south. The Doric order colonnade shelters an entranceway framed in a simple molded architrave with corner blocks, which surrounds double-leaf panelled doors. The two-stage square tower displays smaller engaged Doric columns on the south face, pilasters on all outside corners, and mutules under the cornice. The simple entablature of the main block is repeated on both sections of the tower, which is capped by a decorative wooden parapet.
Most of the residential examples of the Greek Revival style have a main block of the temple form with a kitchen ell extending from the rear of a side elevation. Characteristically, these houses quite often have full pediments with multi-paned rectangular windows, a glazing pattern often repeated in the transom of the main entrance, as is found in the Calvin Sage House, the most fully detailed domestic example of this style in the Colebrook Center Historic District (579 Colebrook Road). Here the main door is sheltered behind an entranceway of the Doric order in antis with a high entablature. The first story of the south wing is recessed behind a Doric colonnade and its attic windows also repeat the design of the pediment window. Other details include facade pilasters and the molded architrave of the pediment window.
Similar though less detailed examples are found throughout the district. Some nearly identical houses, all built in the 1830s, include the Giles Bass House at 464 Smith Hill Road, the William Carrington House at 17 Schoolhouse Road, and the Gilbert House at 597 Colebrook Road. All feature a large rectangular pediment window. This detail was added to an earlier 1804 house built by William's father, Jesse Carrington, directly across the street (20 Schoolhouse Road). The doorway of the Gilbert House with its sidelights and transom is a standard feature of the vernacular Greek Revival throughout Connecticut. It defines the stylistic period of a Cape built about 1840 for the Whitney family at the corner of Schoolhouse and Colebrook roads (564 Colebrook Road). The large facade dormers of this latter house appear to be a later addition. It is now used as the Congregational parsonage; the former parsonage, no longer extant, was located to the south of the church at the other end of town. The 1843 Pease House directly across the street at 563 Colebrook Road employs the temple form and wide pilasters, but has prominent cornice returns rather than a full pediment; the frieze board, which appears on the side elevations, and the cornice at the base of the pediment may have been removed. Behind this gable-roofed main block is a one-and-one-half story rear wing, possibly an earlier house, which is joined on the south by an extended ell and attached barn.
There is a group of houses along Center Brook Road which were associated with historic water-powered industry and a District School on Schoolhouse Road, all generally built in the mid-nineteenth century. Several houses are identified on the 1859 map of the town by names of individuals who lived elsewhere in the district. Because of this fact and the generally vernacular character and smaller size of these buildings, it is presumed that they functioned as workers' houses. Some, like the Carrington Millhouse, may have been rental property (7 Center Brook Road). The Vernon Brothers House, directly across the brook from a former industrial site, is another vernacular cottage embellished with decorative bargeboards (2 Center Brook Road). The District School is now used as a residence (11 Schoolhouse Road).
The last nineteenth-century house built in the Colebrook Center Historic District was the circa 1860 Elisha Sage House (569 Colebrook Road). It has been extensively remodeled, especially in the early twentieth century, and also has a large rear addition. Colonial Revival features include the Palladian window in the facade gable and a coved-ceiling entrance portico on the south side.
More than a dozen large barns are found in the Colebrook Center Historic District associated with most of the principal houses. The majority have at least one; the William Rockwell House at 467 Smith Hill Road has four. All have gable roofs and vertical siding and some are exceptionally large. Several are the so-called "bank barns" which have a room under the main floor formed by the high stone foundation walls, a type usually built on sloping sites. Local barn builders Orrin and Edward Oles, noted for this type of construction, may have been responsible for several in the district. The three-story Grey Barn in the center of town, which has been dated to 1843, is the oldest known example (562 Colebrook Road). It has a dry-laid rubblestone foundation with two lower levels; stables were located directly below the street-level main floor. One of the largest barns in the Colebrook Center Historic District is associated with the Jesse Carrington House at 20 Schoolhouse Road.
The banks of Center Brook near the highway contain the standing ruins of several buildings. These sections of low stone walls were probably the foundations of the Sage Tannery and the Sage Blacksmith Shop. The tannery was located in the same area as the short-lived circa 1790 Rockwell Forge and may have occupied the same building, but only one foundation wall is visible.
A superior example of an isolated rural village in the Litchfield hills which flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Colebrook Center Historic District is distinguished for the exceptional integrity of its setting and the state of preservation of its resources. It is architecturally significant for the excellent design and craftsmanship of its classical architecture of the Federal and Greek Revival styles, a period authenticity which is reinforced by the group of less formal vernacular houses in the eastern part of the district.
Colebrook was still a wilderness when the Connecticut Colony was threatened by the Dominion of New England in 1686 but the colony's response set in motion a chain of events which lead to its establishment. Fearing the loss its charter and jurisdiction over its unsettled land, the colonial government deeded all of the unsettled northwestern part of the colony (later Litchfield County) to Hartford and Windsor. The crisis was soon over and the colony resumed its charter in 1689, but dispute arose over the Hartford and Windsor claims. It was not until 1726 that a compromise was finally reached by the General Assembly, whereby the two towns retained ownership of the eastern half and the rest reverted to the colony. Colebrook, one of four towns allotted to Windsor, had some of the less desirable land and with Barkhamsted was the last to be surveyed and laid out. Twenty-nine proprietors, including several from Windsor and East Windsor, began to settle there in 1765. In 1779 Colebrook and Barkhamsted were the last of the colonial towns to be incorporated in the state, but it was not until 1795 that Colebrook was represented in the General Assembly.
About 50 families were living in several scattered settlements in Colebrook in the post-Revolutionary period. Although Colebrook Center had the obvious advantage of its central location, it became the institutional center of the town largely because of the influence of the Rockwell family from Windsor. The rear ell of one of the houses in Colebrook Center was built in 1767 and belonged to Samuel Rockwell, who served as one of the early selectmen (561 Colebrook Road). He and his descendants remained prominent citizens through the nineteenth century. In 1789 they exchanged their ownership rights in the timbered ridge land for part of the public right of way which lay in the flats in Colebrook Center and built a dam and forge on Center Brook. The flooding of the meadows there caused an epidemic of malaria and the project was abandoned in 1790, although Rockwells had interest in other forges in town and in the neighboring Town of Winsted. The family also built an aqueduct and a store, along with several other houses in the center district.
The disputatious nature of Connecticut's frontier towns is well known but the controversy in Colebrook regarding the establishment of the meetinghouse exceeded the norm. The population had increased five-fold in the last decade of the eighteenth century, a factor which contributed to the lack of communal spirit which had characterized earlier settlements. Newcomers arrived from all over the state because of acute land shortages; outside of the core group of settlers, most people were strangers to one another. Between 1786, when the ecclesiastical society was finally formed, and 1795, the location of the meeting house was greatly disputed by factions from both Colebrook Center and North Colebrook. After being put to a vote, a site near the Martin Rockwell House in the center was chosen and the meetinghouse was constructed, possibly on the site of the present church. However, by a vote in 1793, it was decided to move the building to the north of the brook. Tradition holds that 150 pair of oxen were used but the attempt failed because of the steepness of the hill. Finally in 1795 the meetinghouse was moved to the nearest possible location that was considered suitable (site unknown). Jonathan Edwards (1745-1801), the son of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1785), the famous early-eighteenth century New England theologian, and the grandson of Timothy Edwards of East Windsor, was hired as the first minister; he remained in Colebrook until 1799 when he became the second president of Union College in Schenectady, New York.
The early-nineteenth-century economy of Colebrook centered on the raising of cattle and the production of leather. Although a few crops were raised, such as corn, oats, and hay, principally for animal feed, it became known as a cattle town. In 1829 it was recorded that 3,000 sheep and 1,500 cows and young cattle were raised. The dense woodlands supplied lumber for building, and probably charcoal, along with the raw material for barkmills, a necessary component in the tanning process. There were several tanneries in town, including the Sage (formerly Rockwell) Tannery on Colebrook Road in the district.
With a general store for local trade and the Colebrook Inn for travelers on the old road to New Haven (Route 183), Colebrook Center grew and prospered until about 1860. The wealth of the community is demonstrated by the architectural sophistication of the Congregational Church (471 Smith Hill Road) and the number of fine houses also built in the district in this period. In the absence of a separate town hall, the church was used for civic as well as religious purposes, and continues to so serve today. In 1830 there were six school districts in the community, as opposed to two in 1782, and the Center School was erected in the district soon after. The townwide population peaked that year at about 160 families (1,333 individuals), more than the number who live there today. Like many towns in the Litchfield hills, Colebrook has become a mecca for seasonal residents, many from out-of state: some have restored houses in the district.
The Colebrook Center Historic District appears today as an idealized early-nineteenth century Connecticut hill town. Rarely does a district convey such a sense of time and place or have such a limited degree of modern intrusion. Revealed to its fullest extant in winter and enhanced by snow cover, the picturesque townscape proclaims its period associations.
Although many houses have large additions, they are set to the rear and do not compete with the simple gable-roofed form of the main block, which is echoed by the unusual number of well-maintained barns in the district. Together with the picket fences and stone walls which define the property bounds, these period outbuildings contribute to the historic character of the setting.
The sophistication of some of the architecture, however, belies the isolated rural setting of the town. Instead of the modest examples that might be expected, several buildings demonstrate the finely crafted and stylish detailing found in more urban centers. Of exceptional note are the Federal style Rockwell Store and the Greek Revival Colebrook Congregational Church. Each is an outstanding example of its respective style and sets high standards for the evaluation of the rest of the district's architecture. The pediment and colonnaded facade of the Colebrook Store is a surprising use of formal architectural detail on a rural commercial building of this period. It was designed and built by Captain William Swift, a master carpenter/builder who also designed several other fine buildings in the area. The significance of this building is equaled only by that of the nearby church. From its slightly elevated position, set off from its surroundings by three roads and the small area of the green, it provides an architectural focus for the district. Whether or not its design is derived from Charles Bulfinch, the Colebrook Church is perfectly proportioned and epitomizes the essential geometry and restraint of the Doric order. A large addition to the rear complements rather than detracts from the main building.
While domestic examples of the Greek Revival style abound in the Colebrook Center Historic District and contribute to its cohesiveness, none approach the level of the style displayed in the Calvin Sage House (579 Colebrook Road). Although it clearly retains the massing of Greek Revival style farmhouses in the district, it displays an elegance of applied detail normally found only in architect-designed town houses of the period. Of particular note is the in antis design of the main entrance. The Sage House is also distinguished by the use of Doric columns supporting the porch across the ell.
Colebrook Historical Society. "A Short Summary of Colebrook's History." Colebrook, 1979.
Daniels, Bruce C. The Connecticut Town: Growth and Development, 1635-1790. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979.
DeLarm, Alan. Colebrook Stories. Colebrook: Colebrook Historical Society, 1979.
DeLarm, Elaine. Clark's Map of Litchfield County, 1859. Revised Edition, 1962.
Lewis, J.W., ed. History of Litchfield County, Connecticut. Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1881.
Lure of the Litchfield Hills. Vol. 1, #2, p.21: Vol. XXX, #2, p.35.
Manchester, Irving E. The Colebrook History. Colebrook: Sesquicentennial Committee, 1935.
† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates, Ltd., and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Colebrook Center Historic District, Colebrook, Connecticut, nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.