Clinton Village Historic District
The Clinton Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. 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 Clinton Village Historic District is a grouping of approximately 100 major buildings, most of which are 18th or early 19th-century houses, ranged along both sides of East Main Street (U.S. Route 1) east of the Indian River in the town of Clinton, Connecticut. The houses are set close to the street and are quite densely grouped, creating a distinctive streetscape of historic architecture. In addition to East Main Street, which continues as Old Post Road at the eastern end, the Clinton Village Historic District includes a long street, Waterside Lane, that leads from the main concentration of buildings south to the harbor. Only a little less densely built than East Main Street, Waterside Lane is similarly characterized by 18th and early 19th century houses, particularly on the west side. Another grouping of similar houses extends north along Liberty Street.
The Clinton Village Historic District's 18th century houses mostly have five-bay facades, clapboarded exteriors, small-pane sash, and large center chimneys of brick; they are about equally divided between 1-1/2 and 2-1/2-story examples. Some show evidence of being updated in the 19th century with Greek Revival doorways and pilasters, and two were even redone in the Gothic Revival style. A number of these early buildings are known to have accommodated stores or artisan shops at one time.
The Clinton Village Historic District has several c.1800 houses that embody the Federal style with porticos on slender columns and elaborate cornice moldings. Later 19th century houses exhibit the bolder proportions of the Greek Revival and range from houses whose only stylistic references are corner pilasters and a simple pilaster-and-lintel doorway to the Dibbell House, with its full-width two-story portico on freestanding Ionic columns.
Scattered among the predominantly pre-Civil War architecture of the Clinton Village Historic District are a few houses from the Victorian period and early 20th century. The latter, in particular, fill in previously unbuilt-upon land on the east wide of Waterside Lane.
Because this area is part of Clinton's town center, the Clinton Village Historic District also includes buildings that serve civic, educational, and religious institutions. The town's Greek Revival style Congregational meetinghouse occupies a prominent location on a short loop off East Main Street known as Church Street, and not far away is the Gothic Revival style Episcopal Church of the Holy Advent. Also nearby are the Town Hall, Clinton's 1801 Academy, and the Abraham Pierson School, the latter two of which are Colonial Revival style structures erected in the 1930s.
Two distinctive landscapes are included within the boundaries of the Clinton Village Historic District: the Clinton Cemetery, a mostly Victorian-period cemetery that grew up around the town's colonial burying ground, and Liberty Green, a vestige of Clinton's 17th-century common. The cemetery includes several dozen 18th-century markers with soul effigies and other decorative carving. Liberty Green is a park-like triangle between Liberty Street and East Main Street. It was the site chosen for the town's Civil War monument, as well as a small cannon from the War of 1812. There are also numerous other monuments in the Clinton Village Historic District, including two statues to locally prominent people, another cannon at the water's edge said to have once been a prize of John Paul Jones, and a memorial to the early students of Yale College.
The Clinton Village Historic District exhibits a high degree of integrity, both as a whole and in its constituent properties. Recent development has mostly occurred on the interior of the blocks, where it is less visible from the street. Of the Clinton Village Historic District's noncontributing buildings, most are modern garages associated with historic houses; garages that clearly have been made over from small barns or other historic outbuildings have been counted as contributing, as have garages associated with early 20th-century houses if they appear to be from the same period. Major noncontributing buildings are limited to fire and police department complexes from the 1970s, one brick apartment building on Waterside Lane, two motels, and a few modern houses and cottages near the waterfront.
The Clinton Village Historic District is significant because its many historic buildings embody the distinctive characteristics of several styles of architecture, including the vernacular architecture of 18th-century New England, the Federal style, and the Greek Revival style, each of which is represented by numerous well-preserved examples. The Clinton Village Historic District also has significance as an example of a coastal town center, a particular settlement pattern associated with the development of Connecticut towns along Long Island Sound in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Clinton Village Historic District illustrates many of the key features of such town centers: a green with community monuments, the Congregational meetinghouse and other churches, the town hall, educational institutions, the oldest town cemetery, and a dense concentration of houses dating from colonial times to the early 20th century.
Many of the buildings in the Clinton Village Historic District embody the distinguishing characteristics of particular periods and styles of architecture. The Clinton Village Historic District's oldest houses exhibit the clapboarded exteriors, gable roofs, and five-bay center-chimney form that characterized the domestic architecture of colonial-era Connecticut. In addition to numerous examples of this general type, the Clinton Village Historic District also illustrates a range of variations. For example, the c.1780 Stanton House, 63 East Main Street, shows the transition to a two-chimney center-hall plan that occurred at the end of the 18th century. The Arsenal, 65 Waterside Lane, traditionally dated as 1675, has a slightly asymmetrical three-bay facade with the center entry opening into a larger main room on the right; this arrangement is less common than the balanced plan found in the district's other colonial-era houses, but it was used throughout Connecticut and elsewhere in New England in the period, particularly for small houses.
The Clinton Village Historic District's houses also illustrate the essential characteristics of the Federal style, both through houses built in the period and in the porticos that were added to many older houses. The Richard Buel House, 17 Waterside Lane, is typical: its sunburst-glazed elliptical entry transom is an example of the geometric designs favored in the period, while the small scale of the entry cornice's mutules, the multiplicity of thin moldings, and the slender flanking pilasters epitomize the style's elegant proportions.
The more boldly proportioned Classicism introduced in the Greek Revival period is reflected in the Clinton Village Historic District's many houses with wide corner pilasters, pilaster-and-lintel entries, and an entablature encircling the building. The house at 15 Liberty Street is especially notable, since it retains some features of the earlier Federal style (the gable fanlight and the "Palladian" window over the entry) but incorporates them completely into the newer fashion. Although of the traditional five-bay form, the house makes clear reference to the Classical ruins that were the inspiration for the Greek Revival movement. Its fluted Doric columns and entablature form a distinctly temple-like frame for its deeply recessed entry. The Ionic order also seems to have made a particularly strong impression on Clintonites, since it is found not only on this house's front window but also on the belfry on the 1837 Congregational Church and the portico of the Dibbell House. The latter represents the full flowering of the Greek Revival in that it not only incorporates elements of Classical architecture, but fully seeks to recreate the appearance of an ancient Greek building with its more shallow pitched roof, gable-end-to-the-street orientation, and full portico on freestanding columns. Taken together, the Clinton Village Historic District's buildings thus illustrate the full range of the Greek Revival movement.
The Italianate style is represented in the several vernacular houses that include the characteristic round-arched window in their gables, as well as by the remodeling of the Academy, 61 Main Street, which included paired round-arched gable windows and a bracketed cupola. These features were thought to recall the rural architecture of Italy and introduced elements that remained in Victorian architecture for many years after the style had peaked. Similarly, the Gothic Revival, with its stick bracing, bargeboard, and steeply pitched roofs, found in two remodeled 18th-century houses and two houses of the period, continued to influence Victorian architecture through the 1890s. The house at 11 Waterside Lane illustrates this point particularly well, combining a Gothic pendant, ornamental peak panel, and porch with an Italianate-inspired bracketed bay window and round-arched gable windows.
Finally, Clinton's 1930 Town Hall represents an outstanding example of the early 20th century's Colonial Revival style of architecture. As was typical of the style, particularly as employed for public buildings, it draws on the colonial period's most elaborate buildings for its details. By including features such as the cupola and portico with arched openings, along with its red-brick materials, it recalls such 18th-century icons as the Virginia Capitol at Williamsburg, Boston's Faneuil Hall, and the Old State House in Hartford. Such references were seen as fitting expressions of the community's patriotism, its sense of history, and the serious public purpose underlying such a municipal building.
Community Development Significance
The European settlement of Clinton began in the 1660s when Bryan Rossiter of Guilford surveyed the land and laid out houselots and pastures along the road between New Haven and Old Saybrook, reserving some of the area embraced by this district as common land for a burying ground and meetinghouse site. By 1667 several families had moved in, enough to form a church society, and that year the town, then named Killingworth, was formally established by the General Assembly. As in most coastal Connecticut towns, the settlers were primarily interested in agriculture, rather than maritime pursuits, so the initial settlement occurred some distance from the water. However, the harbor, formed by the confluence of the Indian River with Long Island Sound, did offer some advantages, so it is not surprising that the road laid out toward the water (now Waterside Lane) became built up with houses.
As the 18th century progressed, the area represented by the district assumed the character of a village and took on the role of a central place for the whole town. The Congregational meetinghouse served the entire community until the late 18th century, when a second society was established in the north part of the town; this north part became its own town in 1838, keeping the name Killingworth, at which time the older portion was renamed Clinton in honor of Dewitt Clinton, the popular governor of New York and Erie Canal proponent. The Congregational meetinghouse was an important community symbol, since the majority of inhabitants were at least nominally adherents of that religion, and it reinforced the role of the village as a central place because it drew people in for weekly religious services. The meetinghouse also accommodated secular purposes, particularly town meetings and elections, furthering the role of this area as the focal point of the community. In addition to Clinton's earliest burying ground, the area also provided common land, today represented by the vestige at Liberty Green, for militia drills; finally, the Green was the site of one of Clinton's earliest schoolhouses.
The prosperity of colonial Clinton, and the resulting density of residential development, was aided by its location along one of Connecticut's busiest roads, the shoreline route now known as Route 1, and by the increase in commerce that occurred toward the end of the period. In addition to farmers, the village's inhabitants now included merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. The Eli Kelsey House at 96-98 East Main Street housed a tavern (and Masonic lodge) in the 1790s, and some of the other buildings in the Clinton Village Historic District are known to have accommodated small stores or artisan shops, such as the store attached to the Stanton House at 63 East Main Street. Many of the larger houses are associated with sea captains such as Elisha White (103 East Main Street) and merchants such as Adam Stanton (63 East Main Street).
In the 19th century, the village's role as a central place continued. Other religious groups built their houses of worship nearby, and a large academy was erected to prepare local scholars for college. Later, a private school founded by New York merchant and Clinton native Charles Morgan was established at what today is the site of the Abraham Pierson public school. Beginning in 1846, when a group of citizens banded together to plant shade trees, Liberty Green came to assume its present park-like appearance and function. In addition to providing a peaceful public open space, it served a symbolic function, not only recalling the town's patriotic past, but also providing the site for memorials to the town's soldiers. The Green continues today as an important public space for Clinton, serving as a parade destination and site of small festivals and other events.
Development also occurred on the west bank of the Indian River, outside the boundaries of this district, where there was another road leading down to the waterfront and where the town's railroad depot was situated. In the Victorian period and early 20th century, the west side underwent more commercial development than the older part on the east side, including a large seaside hotel. However, it in no way eclipsed the east side as the town center, as evidenced by the erection of the Town Hall on the east side in 1930 and a large modern brick public school (named after Abraham Pierson, one of the founders of Yale) there in 1932.
Today Clinton Village continues to embody historical associations and much of the period's physical appearance from the days of its development as a town center. The dense concentration of 18th and early 19th-century houses, the presence of important civic, religious, and educational buildings, the numerous monuments, and the village green combine to recall the important role played by this area in the history of the town.
Clinton Historic District Study Committee. Report, Liberty Green Historic District, 1981.
Clinton: Its Old Houses and Legends. Clinton: The Ladies' Society of the First Church of Christ, 1951.
County Atlas of Middlesex, Connecticut. New York: F.W. Beers & Co., 1874.
Crofut, Florence S. Marcy. Guide to the History and Historic Sites of Connecticut. New Haven, 1937.
Elliott, Rev. Robert H. Our Town. Clinton, 1928.
Historic house files. Henry Carter Hull Library, Clinton, Connecticut.
Pierce, Henry. Colonial Killingworth; A History of Clinton and Killingworth. Clinton: Clinton Historical Society, 1976.
View of Clinton. Connecticut. Boston: O.H. Bailey, 1881.
Whittemore, Henry, ed. History of Middlesex County, Connecticut. New York: J.B. Beers & Co., 1884.