Litchfield Historic District
The Litchfield Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. 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 Litchfield Historic District in the town of Litchfield, Connecticut, is approximately one mile wide by two miles long, centered on the principal east-west and north-south streets. Its boundaries are coterminous with those of the village of Litchfield and with those of the borough of Litchfield. A local historic district, The Old and Historic Litchfield District, established by special act of the 1959 Connecticut General Assembly, has the same boundaries. In 1968 the north-south central section of the district received recognition as a National Historic Landmark historic district.
Litchfield is an old Connecticut hill town, elevation 960 feet, settled in 1719 in the northwest quarter of the state between the Shepaug and Naugatuck river valleys. Primarily a residential community, the Litchfield Historic District comprises approximately 475 sites and structures, of which 12 are non-conforming intrusions detracting from the integrity of the district. Twenty-eight structures in the Litchfield Historic District are listed on the State Register of Historic Buildings; of these 17 date from the 18th century. The four main streets, North, South, East, and West Streets, come together at the center Green.
Although the Litchfield Historic District has gracious colonial homes on wide, tree lined streets, for which Litchfield is widely known, it also contains 19th century Greek Revival, Stick style, Italianate, Queen Anne, and turn-of-the-century vernacular structures, and contemporary 20th century houses. This description will discuss the 19th and 20th century buildings as well as the earlier structures to which reference is usually, and erroneously, limited when thinking of Litchfield. The splendid trees which line the streets add to the confusion because they did not exist in colonial times. The planting of trees began in the 19th century. Thus, this description will nullify to some degree the myth of Litchfield as nothing more than a colonial village. This misconception, widely held, was actively encouraged by the town itself in the early 20th century, spurred by the 200th anniversary celebration of its founding.
None of Litchfield's first houses, constructed in 1721, survives. Nor do the original meetinghouse, school, or courthouse. These public buildings stood at the intersection of the main streets from which they were cleared away in 1820-1827, thereby making space for the Green. Thus the Green itself, often thought to be arch-typical of colonial villages, in Litchfield does not date back to colonial times.
On the north side of the Green, east of North Street, are located next door to each other two of the few non-residential buildings that do survive from the 18th century, a shop and a tavern. The shop, a one and one-half story narrow building with its ridge line perpendicular to the street, was built in 1781 by Dr. Reuben Smith and was moved to its present location in 1812 when Luke Lewis purchased the 1782 tavern. The tavern is a five-bay clapboarded house with pitched roof and two chimneys in the end walls. Lewis added the operable bow windows to the ground floor of the shop and a lunette window in its gable, and put a Federal porch on the tavern, which he used as a dwelling.
The other surviving 18th century non-residential structure is the Tapping Reeve law school, built in 1785. A National Historic Landmark, this one-room, plain, pitched roof structure is located on the west side of South Street in the yard of the Tapping Reeve house. The law school has been substantially rebuilt in recent years.
No houses of architectural pretension were built until after 1752 when Litchfield's designation as the county seat brought to the village a number of people of sophistication and affluence. Houses surviving from the years after 1752 and before the Revolutionary War include the Oliver Wolcott, Sr., House, 1753, on South Street, a National Historic Landmark; the Elisha Sheldon House, 1760, on North Street; and the Tapping Reeve House, 1774, on South Street. The Oliver Wolcott, Sr., House has retained its integrity of mass as compared to the others, which have been enlarged by additions. The Wolcott House has five bays, center chimney, and beaded clapboards. The pediment caps over the windows and the gabled portico with fluted columns and fanlight are from the later Georgian period but enhance the appearance of the house. The Reeve House, across the street, has a hip roof and central chimney, with ventilators under the eaves, added later, that are filled with sawn wood patterns.
The Elisha Sheldon House, "Sheldon Tavern, " is perhaps the best known of Litchfield's mansions. It was altered in 1790 by architect William Sprats. Over central pavilion with Palladian window and dentiled pediment it has a high hip roof and one of the town's few captain's walks.
Two less pretentious houses survive from these years. One is the William Marsh House, 1761, built well back from the main streets on Old South Road on the site of the original home lot of John March, one of the first settlers. The other, built on North Street in 1770 by Reuben Smith, M.D., is noteworthy for still having its Gothic Revival porch that was added in late-19th century. Most such Gothic additions, once numerous, were removed during the town's early-20th century drive to re-establish its "colonial" appearance.
Since Litchfield prospered after the Revolution, the construction of large Federal homes continued. The 1775 gambrel roof house on North Street next door to Elisha Sheldon's was purchased in 1784 by Sheldon's wartime associate, Benjamin Talmadge, who added the two side porches with two-story columns. Dr. Daniel Sheldon built a four-bay, center chimney house on North Street in 1785, similar in plan and interior detail to the Tapping Reeve house built 20 years earlier. Alexander Catlin constructed his large gambrel roof house at the head of North Street in 1792.
Julius Deming in 1793 engaged William Sprats to design his Federal mansion across North Street from Benjamin Talmadge. Its center pavilion at ground floor has recessed entrance porch with Corinthian columns, above which is a Palladian window, and at the top a decorative pediment with fan-shaped window. The design is similar to that provided by Sprats for his 1790 remodelling of the Sheldon house. The Deming House as designed by Sprats had a low hip roof with balustrade that was replaced in the 19th century by the present mansard roof.
Smaller five-bay, gable roof, central chimney houses were built during these years at various locations in the Litchfield Historic District. One example is the Fanny Morse House of 1780 on West Street next door to the firehouse. Double houses also appeared, such as that built by Benjamin Hanks on South Street in 1780. By the end of the 18th century most new development necessarily occurred along the east-west axis and the side streets where more land was available. Width of these lots was smaller, a circumstance that encouraged building houses of greater depth than width. The contemporary Greek Revival practice of putting the gable end toward the street accommodated this change from the Georgian and Federal modes.
Typical of this genre is the Seymour House, 1819, on South Street. Its gable with half-round window forms a pediment toward the street over a three-bay facade. Others of similar design are scattered through the Litchfield Historic District. A more impressive Greek Revival house is that built in 1832 by Alanson Abbe on South Street. Its hip roof projects over a two-story front portico that runs the full width of the house. A colossal order of six Doric columns runs from the granite platform to the roof line.
Two houses built in 1814 at the head of East Street facing the Green are of brick construction, which is rare in residential buildings in Litchfield. They continue the Federal idiom of the prior decades.
As the 19th century progressed, East, West, and Meadow Streets, and Old South Road were increasingly built up with more modest frame houses lived in by mechanics, tradesmen, and service people. Intricate bargeboards, turned porch posts, and scroll saw brackets characterized these houses, although much of such decorative embellishment was later removed. Groups of houses on the north side of East Street (c.1875), the west side of Meadow Street (1850-1875) and the east side of Old South Road (1890's) illustrate this development. Typical profusion of gables, brackets, and decorative ironwork is found in the 1864 Edward Seymour House and 1867 Buel-Cook House on either side of the Abbe Greek Revival house on South Street. Two Italianate villas also appear on South Street, the 1855 Woodruff house, and the 1871 Wiggin house. The Queen Anne style is represented by the 1887 Baldwin house on West Street, the 1892 Beldon house on North Street, and the 1895 Sedgwick house on West Street.
As part of the effort to colonialize the town, almost all of these 19th century houses have been painted white, whereas originally they were the various earth tones of greys, reds, greens, and yellows popular in the 19th century. This extrinsic application of uniform whiteness coupled with the removal of characteristic 19th century architectural trim together have been quite effective in creating a first impression of an 18th century streetscape.
The earliest surviving 19th century non-residential building is the 1812 county jail at the northwest corner of the Green. It is a rectangular three-story red brick building with stone lintels and low pitched roof. In the gable facing North Street is a half-round window, not glazed. The jail continues to be used for its original purpose.
Adjacent to the jail on North Street is the 1815 Phoenix Bank, also still used for its original purpose. Its four two-story columns support an elaborate entablature and pediment. Triglyphs, cornice and raking cornices, and an elliptical window contribute to the ornamentation. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who played a part in bringing the bank to Litchfield, used similar Adamesque ornament two years later when he added a second floor ballroom in 1817 to the 1799 Wadsworth House on South Street.
At the northeast corner of the Green is the Congregational Church. The widely distributed pictures of its Ionic portico and tall spire make the church the best known symbol of Litchfield. The third structure occupied by the congregation, it was constructed in 1829 and rebuilt 100 years later. The four-stage Gibbsian tower and spire dominate the Green; on the interior the domed ceiling and low gallery on three sides are equally elegant.
On the west side of South Street, adjoining the Green, is a three-story wooden commercial block, the Beckwith Block. Now housing the Post Office on the ground floor, and offices upstairs. Its front facade is faced with smooth, matched boarding. Pilasters at the corners of the building and at the corners of a shallow central pavilion are one story high. Above them a colossal order of pilasters rises two stories to a modillioned cornice and to a small pediment over the pavilion that has a semi-elliptical window. The State Register of Historic Buildings records a date of 1840 for the Beckwith Block that is consistent with its appearance but in fact it was constructed toward the end of the century.
The Methodist Church of 1885 on the corner of West and Meadow Streets is an example of the board-and-batten carpenter Gothic style. The Beckwith Block and the Methodist Church are on either side of the West Street commercial section, but far enough away to have avoided destruction in the 1886 fire in which the frame commercial buildings at that location burned to the ground. Two- and three-story brick commercial blocks then were constructed as replacements. These have stone trim, fancy brickwork at the cornices, and one has granite lintels over the store fronts. The store fronts have been "colonialized" by the introduction of windows, with small panes, painted white. In the center of this block is the present granite Court House, designed by Robert W. Hill in 1889 to replace earlier buildings lost by fire. Originally built in the style of northern Italy with round arched entranceway and windows, and tower with pyramidal roof, it, too, has been "colonialized." The quoins at the corners of the building and the corners of the tower, and the arches over the entrance and over the windows in the tower, have been painted white. The pyramidal roof has been replaced with a bell-shaped dome, formerly gilded, with an eagle finial. The turrets of the clock tower have been replaced by Colonial Revival pilasters and Adamesque trim. The Court House remains a striking building and handsomely terminates the vista from North Street.
Across West Street from the Court House is the firehouse of 1891, now used for commercial purposes. Constructed of brick two and one-half stories high, its chief interest lies in its massive granite trim. The recessed entranceway has a heavy granite frame with a segmental arch. Above it a large tripartite window has a Gibbs surround executed in quarry faced granite, and a heavy granite lintel. In the gable is a round window surrounded by a ring of granite.
Diagonally across the Green, where South Street begins, is the Litchfield Historical Society's museum. Designed in the Renaissance Revival style, its 1893 date makes it an early example, for a country town, of the Beaux Arts influence then spreading across the nation. The wings of this ell-shaped brick building are connected by a quarter round Ionic portico executed in stone. In the facade facing South Street is a Palladian window glazed with stained glass by Tiffany.
With the advent of the 20th century the Colonial Revival, fashionable throughout the Northeast, struck Litchfield with great force. Typical are the 1895 Underwood house on the site of Miss Pierce's School on North Street, and around the corner on Prospect Street the Quincy house of 1914. Both have similar white clapboards, Georgian entranceway, and classic-inspired detail applied to a balloon frame.
The same approach continued into post-World War II construction as seen in the houses built along Sheldon Lane which have pitched roofs, center chimneys, white clapboards and black shutters. Sheldon Lane is contiguous to the North Street/Prospect Street area. The three streets, close to one another, have white frame houses built at different times, some smaller and less elaborate in detail, but all in the same tradition of Georgian, Federal, and then Colonial Revival architecture.
Several noted 20th century architects have designed homes in Litchfield. For example, Marcel Breuer did a house in 1956 at the corner of Old South Road and Gallows Lane on a sloping site with a magnificent view of the Litchfield hills. Built of fieldstone and teak, from the entrance level it appears to be one story high under a flat roof, but its second floor is below the first, taking advantage of the sloping ground to present a many-windowed southwest facade toward the setting sun. This is one of three Breuer houses in Litchfield.
The Oliver Wolcott, Jr., House, with a large glass-walled addition constructed in 1966 to the design of Elliot Noyes, now serves as the village library. Here the Federal and modern together are surprisingly compatible and well serve the library purpose. A Department of Housing and Urban Development housing project for the elderly at the eastern end of East Street is composed of well designed, attractive, functional one-story units.
Clusters of post-World War II houses are located at the south end of South Street and on Sheldon Lane and Woodruff Court. They are built in compatible scale and materials to the older houses, and follow the Colonial Revival mode.
Several open spaces are included in the Litchfield Historic District — a school grounds; the community's first cemetery, Oliver Wolcott is buried here; a property formerly owned by the White Memorial Foundation, a private family organization devoted to preservation of wildlife and open land. Alain C. White, author of the 1920 history of Litchfield, was a member of this family. Although the property is now individually owned as part of the grounds to a residence, it continues to be protected by deed covenants pursuant to the objectives of the White Foundation.
American history for 250 years is reflected by the buildings which comprise the Litchfield Historic District. The architectural excellence of the village is matched by the interest of the events that are associated with the buildings. The Litchfield Historic District provides an exceptional opportunity to study buildings of architectural merit that tell the history of a Connecticut village.
The National Historic Sites survey of 1967 on which was based the National Historic Landmark designation of part of the village of Litchfield as an historic district describes its importance as, "Litchfield is a good example of a late 18th century New England town." While this is true, in part, for the north-south axis incorporated in the Landmark historic district, it is only a partial and minimal statement of the significance of Litchfield. The purpose of this nomination is to complete the statement of significance by setting forth an account of Litchfield buildings and the events that shaped them in a frame of reference larger in both time and space. As contrasted with the 1967 survey, the significance here expands from the narrow north-south central axis to the full village, and from the late 18th century (only) to the full span of Litchfield's history from 1715 to the present.
On March 2, 1715, representatives of Hartford and Windsor bought 44,800 acres from the Indians by formal deed for a consideration of fifteen pounds. Two years later the land was resold to the new town's proprietors for one penny three farthings per acre. The way in which the town center was immediately laid out was of permanent importance. The general plan was that of "the great cross axis of a linear ridge top site." That cross axis exists today as East and West Streets and North and South Streets. The streets were unusually wide, so wide that in the center was a common grazing area. On either side of the common were narrow roadways and beyond the two roadways were the building lines. In the early 19th century, trees were planted along both sides of the roadways. These tree-lined roadways are today sidewalks and the modern streets run through the commons.
In 1719 Litchfield's location was remote. The nearest neighbors were 15 miles away in Woodbury. To the west and north expanses of wilderness separated the town from the Hudson River and from Canada. The settlers suffered the ravages of the Inter-Colonial Wars, and those who left under the pressure forfeited their property rights.
In 1751 occurred an event of lasting importance in the history of Litchfield. In that year a new county was established and in a vigorous competition with Goshen, Litchfield was named as county seat. This victory was the foundation upon which Litchfield built its success legally, socially, and commercially for the next century and a quarter. The Supreme Court of Errors, the Superior Court, and the County Court all met in Litchfield until 1873. Designation as county seat meant that Litchfield grew. From a population of 1,366 in 1756 it almost doubled in eighteen years to 2,544 in 1774.
One of the men drawn to the new county seat was Oliver Wolcott, Sr. (1726-1797). He was soon appointed probate judge and was elected to represent Connecticut in the Continental Congress, where he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His handsome Georgian house on South Street reflects the prominent position he held in the town, state, and nation. Other men of his caliber were also attracted to the county seat and additional fine houses were built on North and South Streets. This architectural excellence resulted from the fact that Litchfield had been named the county seat.
During the Revolution, Litchfield's remote location was an asset, both because it was many miles from the seacoast where towns were subject to British raids and because it was on the great, safe inland routes from New York to Boston and from New Haven to Albany. These considerations made Litchfield a good site for a supply depot, in which capacity it functioned throughout the war. Among other activities, iron from northwestern Connecticut mines was forged into articles of war at Litchfield. General Washington paid a well documented visit to the town, stopping at Sheldon Tavern.
In the post-Revolution years Litchfield's citizens further developed the entrepreneurial talent and commercial expertise of the war years and entered into a remarkable period of prosperity, known as the Golden Age, that lasted until the War of 1812. Trade expanded to the four corners of the world. Benjamin Talmadge, Julius Deming (1755-1838), and Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (1760-1833) formed the Litchfield China Trading Company to operate the ship Trident. Profits from the China trade helped build their Federal houses in Litchfield.
Deming's is one of the few houses in Litchfield for which the architect is known. He was William Sprats, a former British prisoner of war who had remained in this country after the Revolution. Sprats came to Litchfield on the recommendation of John Cowles of Farmington and went on to East Haddam to build a house for Deming's brother-in-law, Epapuroditus Champion. The Deming and Champion houses are among the most distinguished Federal houses in Connecticut. While in Litchfield, Sprats remodelled Sheldon Tavern in 1790 and in 1795 designed the Court House, which later burned.
One of the lawyers who came to Litchfield was Tapping Reeve (1744-1823). He established in 1784 the nation's first law school. Young men aspiring to the law came to Litchfield from all over the country to pursue their studies there until the school closed in 1833. Seventeen graduates of the school became United States Senators; one of them was John C. Calhoun. Another famous student was Reeve's brother-in-law, Aaron Burr.
Industrial activity which had grown during the Revolution continued in the years that followed. The 1810 census recorded the most important industry as fabricating iron which was processed in four forges, one slit mill, and one nail factory. In addition, there were 49 other industrial establishments, including 18 saw mills, six fulling mills, and five tanneries in the town at large. In the village itself were cabinet makers and other artisans, and a papier-mache factory. The village's position at the intersection of important stage coach routes insured steady commercial activity.
The Golden Age in Litchfield brought progressive achievements in other fields as well as law and commerce, including the first school for higher education of girls (Miss Pierce's Female Academy, dating from 1792), the first Temperance Association (1789), the first stirrings toward establishment of foreign missions (1811), and the first legal argument, by Tapping Reeve, in favor of independent property rights for married women (1813).
The War of 1812 ended this prosperous period. The Embargo Act closed down the sea trade, and the town entered into a period of reduced activity lasting until the Civil War. During these years, railroads were built in the river valleys on either side of Litchfield, drawing industry down from the hill towns such as Litchfield to the valley towns with a new, vital transportation. The industrial revolution brought great changes to the valley towns, but not to Litchfield.
Political events during these years, however, were important to Litchfield. In 1814 Thomas Jefferson's new political party was trying to establish a foothold in the state. The party found an ally in the Episcopalians, who were fighting for a measure of recognition from the Congregationalists, still the established church. The issue was joined, as it happened, in connection with a bill in the legislature to grant a charter to the Phoenix Bank. The Federalists of Litchfield, led by Oliver Wolcott, Jr., chose to support the bill in association with the Jeffersonians and Episcopalians, and the bill was passed. Soon after came a measure of acceptance for the Episcopalians, the Toleration Act.
Pursuant to prior understanding, in return for Litchfield's support in securing the bank's charter, the Phoenix Bank promptly opened a branch in Litchfield. Thus, the 1815 Adamesque bank building owes its origin to Oliver Wolcott's political alliance. Wolcott continued active in politics and in 1817 was elected governor of Connecticut at the head of the Toleration Party ticket. The following year, he was re-elected governor at the head of the "Constitution and Reform" ticket, along with majorities in both houses for the same ticket.
The political trend of which this activity was a part culminated in 1818 at the constitutional convention chaired by Oliver Wolcott, Jr., at which the Congregational Church was disestablished. The Rev. Lyman Beecher, then pastor of the Litchfield Church, remarked that, "It was as dark a day as I ever saw." His famous children, Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, all born in Litchfield, went on to belie his word.
The political structure of Litchfield was changed in 1818 when the boundaries of a smaller village, as separate from the town, were established by the Connecticut General Assembly. Then in 1885 the borough was chartered and the present form of local government was established. The village, borough, local historic district, and this National Register Litchfield Historic District all have the same boundaries.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Litchfield became a summer resort town. Its high altitude and nearby mineral springs were thought to be healthful and, most important, in 1872 it became possible to reach Litchfield by railroad. In that year, after having been passed by for decades, Litchfield, via the Shepaug Valley Railroad which connected with the Housatonic Railroad at Hawleyville, Connecticut, became a part of the nationwide railroad grid. It was 102 miles to New York City.
Summer people needed hotels. Three, now demolished, were built in the Litchfield Historic District. Hotels needed workers; Irish immigrants then flooding the country, were able to reach Litchfield on the railroad. Later followed by immigrants from Italy, they came as tradesmen, mechanics, and domestics. Modest houses were built for them on the side streets, a particularly fine row being on the south side of East Street. Their descendents have continued in town, often active as businessmen and elected officials.
In addition to maintaining and renovating the old houses, summer people built new homes which, with the turn of the century, were likely to be in the Colonial Revival style. Prospect Street has several examples.
With the 20th century determination to "colonialize" everything came restoration of the third Congregational Church, now famous as a symbol of Litchfield. Originally built in 1829 on the model of David Hoadley's churches in Cheshire and Plainville, it was probably designed by Levi Newell of Southington. But in 1873, being out of fashion, it was moved from its site to become an armory and dance hall. In its place was built the fourth Congregational Church, a typical Victorian masonry structure of round-headed windows and arches, attached square tower, and triangular dormers. In the 1930's the action was reversed. The fourth church was demolished and the third church was put back in position. Refurbished with a new interior that faithfully reproduces the original, it has assumed an air of permanence that belies its checkered career.
Improved highways in the 20th century have made it practical for people to live in Litchfield and work in the valley towns, thereby adding to Litchfield's viability. The houses originally built for summer use are now lived in the year round.
During the past 100 years, the success of Litchfield in surviving as a village of unusual grace, charm, and historic character has been due to all the factors already mentioned and to a further factor which, although intangible, is equally important — the sense of civic responsibility with which the old families so amply endowed the community. The example set by the Talmadge, Deming, Wolcott, and Seymour families is still felt. Thus, a Deming descendent in mid-19th century was active in the village improvement society and provided funds for the new firehouse after the fire of 1886. One Talmadge descendent gave the Historical Society museum in 1893; another was its curator in 1920. While newer generations have made their principal residences elsewhere, they have maintained the family homes, and their constructive interest in Litchfield has been taken up by the town in general. The old standards of civic responsibility continue very much in vogue.
The architectural excellence and historic interest of Litchfield have developed in a sequence of understandable steps. Specific economic and political events have a relationship with specific Litchfield buildings that can be clearly observed. The people who made the steps have left their presence in the village. The past is present today and the ambience and historic character of Litchfield are built upon and reflect Litchfield Historic District's history and development over a period of two and one-half centuries.
Alice T. Bulkeley, Historic Litchfield, 1721-1907, Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1907.
Connecticut, American Guide Series, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1938.
Collier's Encyclopedia, New York: Crowell-Collier Publishing Co., 1962.
Jan Cunningham, Appendix on Historic Resources to "Assessment of the Impact on Cultural Resources of the Borough of Litchfield's Sewer System, Litchfield, CT," 1977.
Payne Kenyon Kilbourne, Sketches and Chronicles of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut, Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Co., 1859.
"Old Houses in Litchfield, Conn.," notes for a walking tour, July 9, 1966, The Litchfield Aid, Connecticut Junior Republic.
Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism, New York: Praeger, 1969.
Alain C. White, The History of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut, 1720-1920, Litchfield: Enquirer Print, 1920.
George C. Woodruff, History of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut, Litchfield: Charles Adams, 1845.
† David F. Ransom, architectural historian, Litchfield Historic District, Litchfield, CT, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.