New Preston Hill Historic District
The New Preston Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. 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 New Preston Hill Historic District is located at a country crossroads in the northwestern corner of the Town of Washington, Connecticut. This intersection of east-west and north-south highways became the site of a church and Common in the mid 18th century. The present stone church edifice, built in 1824, and stone schoolhouse and tavern, all at the western end of the Common, were the most prominent buildings in the residential cluster around the Common that forms the New Preston Hill Historic District during the 19th century and continue to be so today.
New Preston Hill has an elevation of about 950 feet. It is approached up hill from the east and west, on New Preston Hill Road, and from the south on Findley Road. Gunn Hill Road to the north runs flat along the plateau. The east-west highway, once a toll road called the New Preston Turnpike on the route from the Hudson River to Hartford, has always been the more heavily traveled route and is now a paved highway. Findley and Gunn Hill roads, running north-south, continue to be unpaved dirt roads, reflecting the historic rural character of the New Preston Hill Historic District.
The New Preston Hill Historic District boundary encompasses ten properties. Five of them face the Common. Four are located on New Preston Hill Road west of the Common and one is on Gunn Hill Road north of the Common. This cluster of ten properties is readily identifiable because spaces to the north and east are open fields, Findley Road to the south is sharply down hill with houses at the foot of the hill of a more recent era, and the area to the west is occupied by woodlands and modern houses. There are 210 acres in the New Preston Hill Historic District.
On one parcel, in addition to the main house, there is a small, second house. On another parcel, in addition to the Colonial house, there is a 20th-century house. On another one, in addition to the main house there are a second house, cottage/studio, and two large barns, making a total of 16 principal structures in the New Preston Hill Historic District.
The dominant structure in the New Preston Hill Historic District is the stone church at the western end of the Common. The church, the adjoining school, and the tavern across the street, also both of stone, form the basic community structures for the crossroads hamlet. Other structures, which are residential in use and frame in construction, include buildings in the colonial, Federal and Italianate architectural styles and vernacular buildings.
Despite the heterogeneity of its component structures, the New Preston Hill Historic District, which has developed over two centuries, enjoys a cohesive sense of place from the rural setting, spaciousness and slow pace of development. Mostly 19th century in character, it has 18th century components and 20th century buildings of similar scale and mass that in the aggregate constitute a historic, rural, Connecticut village.
The buildings of the New Preston Hill Historic District are good examples of several 19th-century rural architectural styles. The church is an excellent example, in stone, of a Federal style meetinghouse. The crossroads community that makes up the New Preston Hill Historic District is a significant cluster of buildings surviving from 18th- and early 19th-century settlement and development. The district's sense of time and place is intact because later developments have bypassed this rural, hilltop location.
The New Preston Hill Congregational Church is a testimonial to the skill of early 19th-century Connecticut country builders. While little is known about Theodore Cadwell of Windsor and Leman Ackley of New Preston, who received the contracts for the building, the edifice they constructed bespeaks the high degree to which they excelled in their trade. The design of the church follows the tradition of London churches built early in the 18th century according to Act of Parliament which provided that the churches have steeples as "ornaments to the Town...to shew at a distance what regard there is in it to Religious worship..." The steeple of the New Preston Hill Church, visible from a distance at the end of the common as one approaches from the east, amply fulfills the dictum.
With regard to the New Preston Hill Church's building material, J. Frederick Kelly, the leading scholar on Connecticut meetinghouses, states that it is "one of the few stone meetinghouses in Connecticut." The church is also distinctive because the pulpit is located next to the vestibule wall and the pews face the front doors, an arrangement categorized by Kelly as the fourth type of early Connecticut meetinghouse. According to Kelly, this is the only remaining example of its type.
In addition to a church, other needed facilities at a country crossroads were a tavern and school which, at New Preston Hill, were built of the same stone as the church. The tavern reflects the same pre-Greek Revival architectural characteristics as the church, sharing the pitched roof and gable-end-to-street features and complementary detailing. The school can be seen to have similar roof configuration, but whatever architectural features its front elevation may have are obscured by the added, enclosed porch.
The two other structures in the New Preston Hill Historic District from the pre-Greek Revival era share the design success of the church and tavern and establish this era as the most notable in the district's architectural development. Two frame houses have gable ends toward the street in the Federal mode with careful classical detailing. Together, these four structures give the New Preston Hill Historic District its architectural distinction. The two earlier Colonial houses are conventional and have been either altered or allowed to deteriorate. The two 18th-century structures appear to have been vernacular at the time they were built and, in any event, have been altered and added onto over time so as to make it difficult to determine their original architectural features. The Italianate house and the horse barn of similar style are contributing structures of later date.
History of Development
The New Preston section of the Town of Washington was settled before 1750. A leader among the settlers had the name Coggswell, and members of the Coggswell family lived in the district to mid-19th century. In 1752 local citizens' petition to form an ecclesiastical society was granted. In 1753 a tax was voted, and in 1754 the first church was built, on the highway. This was the New Preston Congregational Church, a name that the church was to lose 100 years later.
A second church building was constructed in 1766 on the site of the present edifice, at the crossroads. The cluster of buildings at the crossroads was the center of a larger farming community that prospered into the first quarter of the 19th century, generating sufficient confidence among the parishioners for them to undertake the ambitious project of building the stone church in 1824. This event marked the height of development as thereafter New Preston Hill was bypassed by the events of the 19th century. Industry developed at New Preston Center, a mile eastward along New Preston Hill Road, where waterpower was available. The marble quarries at Marble Dale, source of the grey marble used as trim for the church, became more active. None of this industrial development depended upon or enhanced the importance of the community on New Preston Hill.
Many members of the church congregation responded to these changing circumstances by advocating the construction of a new church at New Preston. The argument over whether to move raged for several years until, in 1853, a majority of the church membership but a minority of the society membership voted to move. A new church was built that year in New Preston and, by decision of the Consociation, it became known as the New Preston Congregational Church. The group at the country crossroads retained the stone meetinghouse, the communion service and the name New Preston Ecclesiastical Society.
The church members who abandoned the country crossroads location in mid-19th century properly evaluated the course of the future. The absence of further development on the hill was the reason that the crossroads cluster of structures would endure without intrusions and eminently qualify as a historic district.
The 1854 map and 1873 atlas show names of residents in the district that include old families, such as Newton, Coggswell, Ferris and Patterson. In examination of the Washington Land Records, present ownership can be traced back to these names. Starting about 1900 ownership began to pass out of the old families to people from large cities such as Bridgeport, New Haven and New York, who wished to maintain a second home in the country. The record is especially clear in this respect in regard to the two largest and most prepossessing homes. As the 20th century progressed, other smaller properties also became second homes for city people.
During the years of the 20th century the New Preston Hill Congregational Church continued to function with a full-time minister who resided in the parsonage. But this state of affairs came to an end with the retirement of the Rev. Evan Evans in 1936. Thereafter, the church has been used for summer services only, and these services have been arranged by the New Preston Congregational Church. The Hill Church, as it is known, underwent a major program of renovations in 1961.
In the buildings, streetscape and rural atmosphere of the New Preston Hill Historic District may be seen the pattern of 18th-century settlement, 19th-century development and 20th-century adjustment to reduced activity and adaptive use. The total experience gives significant insight into the architecture and history of a rural community in Western Connecticut. Free of major visual intrusions, surrounded by open fields and woodlands and even retaining dirt roads, the hill top community has the ambience of an earlier age.
Boardman, Charles A., "A Sermon Delivered at the Dedication of the New Congregational Meeting-House in New-Preston, Connecticut, January 19, 1825."
Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of Connecticut, Hartford, Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1967.
1873 County Atlas of Litchfield, Connecticut, New York: F.W. Beers & Co., 1874.
Fagan, L., Map of Town of Washington, 1854.
Gibbs, James, as a Church Designer, exhibition catalog, Derby: Chapterhouse Press, 1972.
History of Litchfield County, Connecticut, Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1881.
Kelly, J. Frederick, Early Connecticut Meeting-Houses, New York: Columbia University Press, 1948, v.2.
Orcutt, Samuel, History of the Towns of New Milford and Bridgewater, Connecticut, 1703-1882, Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1882.
Washington Historic District Study Committee Report, 1975.
Washington Land Records, volume 24, page 187, 31/436, 45/310, 52/266.
Tinkham, The Rev. Allen F., Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, letter to author, January 30, 1985.
† David Ransom, consultant and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, New Preston Hill Historic District, Washington, CT, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.