East Haddam Historic District
The East Haddam Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Located in the town of East Haddam, Connecticut, the East Haddam Historic District encompasses a narrow strip of land extending for approximately 1-1/8 miles along the eastern bank of the Connecticut River. To the south, following the river's course, Long Island Sound is 16 miles distant; while, to the north, Middletown and Hartford are 14 and 32 miles away respectively.
The East Haddam Historic District's shape is determined by the interaction of several geographic and historic factors. First, the river, which defines the district's western boundary, attracted Colonial settlers because it offered an avenue to merchants engaged in local and foreign trade and because it possessed wealth in the form of large numbers of fish, particularly salmon and shad. Second, the East Haddam Historic District is unusually long because it encloses two eighteenth-century settlement areas, one at its northern and one at its southern extreme. Both the northern settlement, the Upper Landing, and its southern neighbor, the Lower Landing (also known as Chapman's and Goodspeed's Landing) developed in semi-independence as distinct' commercial communities with their own stores, wharves, and shipyards, and both were served by ferries which shuttled goods and people back and forth across the river. Eventually, however, as the nineteenth century wore on and more and more houses were built on lots between the two centers, their physical and social separation disappeared, although the concentration of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century buildings around the two "landings" still testify to their former isolation. Finally, the shape of the East Haddam Historic District is influenced by the high bluffs to the east. Particularly at the northern end, the land rises very rapidly from the river, and rock outcroppings are very noticeable. Because of these bluffs, building has been concentrated close to the river; and the slope of the land explains why so many houses have partially exposed basement stories, and why their lots are terraced for lawns and gardens. At the southern end of the East Haddam Historic District, the land rises more gently to the east; and a small stream, Creamery Brook, tumbles through the mill pond behind and, then, through a low, swampy area before reaching the river.
Today, the northern area of the East Haddam Historic District, the Upper Landing, is entirely residential. Although the wharves and shipyard of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have vanished, the former multipurpose nature of this settlement is reflected in several residences that were either built for or once served a commercial function. For example, the Counting House was originally constructed as a warehouse and office for a merchant, the David Annable House was used as a store in the eighteenth century, and the basement of the Timothy Green House housed a bank between 1833 and 1847. Architecturally, the area is dominated by the magnificent, late-Georgian General Epaphroditus Champion House built in 1794; and most of the surrounding houses are either Colonial or Federal in style.
The main thoroughfare from this area to the Lower Landing is East Haddam-Moodus Road, Route 149. Between the two settlements, both sides of this road are lined with nineteenth-century residences. Most of the Victorian architectural styles are represented, including Gothic Revival, Italianate and Second Empire; but the predominant style is Greek Revival. Also, there is an early-twentieth century building of architectural significance, namely the Colonial Revival Rathbun Memorial Library and several non-contributing, unobtrusive modern structures: a post office, a bank, and four residences.
As Route 149 enters the Lower Landing, it is joined by another main highway from the east, Norwich Road, Route 82. From this junction, the combined road proceeds westerly through the settlement to the bridge across the Connecticut River. This portion of the East Haddam Historic District is much more functionally diversified than the areas to the north, containing small-scale commercial and manufacturing concerns besides a number of residences. The Lower Landing is dominated visually by the Goodspeed Opera House, located along the river next to the highway bridge. Rescued from an uncertain future as a state warehouse, this imposing Second Empire structure was restored and reopened as an active theatre in 1963. Its renaissance has spurred other commercial development, and several nineteenth-century buildings nearby now accommodate boutiques, specialty stores and antique shops. Other commercial activities include a small engineering firm, a grocery store, an automobile dealership and a large restaurant, the Gelston House. There are also two factory buildings which are now used for storage and other non-manufacturing purposes, several mill houses, and more than twenty residences. The architectural style of the majority of the more modest houses is Greek Revival; but these structures are overshadowed by the exuberant Italianate of the two Boardman mansions, and the Gelston House, which visually compete with the Second Empire Opera House for the observer's attention.
The East Haddam Historic District contains 103 major structures, all of which are described in detail in the inventory accompanying the list of property owners. 89 of these structures are designated as contributing to the historical and architectural character of this district, and only 14 are labeled as non-contributing. The general condition of all buildings is good, except for the Bigelow House which has suffered a severe fire placing its future in question. There has been a minimum of aluminum siding, and most other changes such as new roofs, new sash and modern garages, have not detrimentally affected the architectural integrity of the contributing structures. One building has been moved. The Nathan Hale School, originally stood at the junction of East Haddam-Moodus Road and Norwich Road. In 1799, it was removed to another site and used as a private residence for one hundred years. It was restored and moved to its present site in 1899. There are two inventoried monuments: the Spencer Memorial and the Nathan Hale Memorial. The boundary of the East Haddam Historic District encompasses approximately 110 acres; and there is one cemetery and one park and twenty-six lots are without structures.
The East Haddam Historic District possesses three areas of significance. First, its public buildings, commercial buildings, private residences and monuments reflect the changing patterns of growth and development between 1750 and 1900 of this historically important Connecticut town center. Second, the district includes a number of architecturally distinctive buildings, as well as many more modest structures which are representative examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century vernacular styles. Finally, the East Haddam Historic District is associated with persons of importance in national, state, and local history.
East Haddam's history, to a large degree, has been defined and molded by the town's relationship to the Connecticut River. When the first settlers arrived here about 1685, their holdings were part of Haddam, a huge town encompassing thousands of acres on both sides of the river. Haddam's main settlement area and the town's meeting house were on the west bank; and, although a ferry was established in 1695, it was a hardship for East Haddam families to attend Sunday services. This situation was alleviated in 1700 when the General Assembly, acting on a petition from several prominent residents, granted permission for the "inhabitants of Haddum that dwell on the east side of the great river to embody themselves in church estate." After construction of a meeting house in 1704, the affairs of East Haddam developed in increasing isolation from that of the mother settlement; and in 1734 the town was incorporated as a separate entity. Thus, from the very beginning, the influence of the "great river" shaped the development of the town's institutional and administrative organization.
East Haddam's first residents were subsistence farmers; and they tended to settle on the plains above the cliffs to the east of the river. Within two generations, however, adventurous and ambitious inhabitants recognized the economic opportunities that the river offered and began to settle at the Upper and Lower Landings where they engaged in various commercial pursuits. These included shipbuilding, fishing, and foreign and domestic trade; and, by 1750, both landings were active business centers containing wharves, warehouses, stores and residences.
Today, no discernible physical evidence of the fishing and shipbuilding industries remains; and all the wharves have disappeared.
As noted above, however, there are a number of buildings dating from this period, particularly at the Upper Landing, which illustrate the East Haddam Historic District's early commercial importance. The most significant is the Counting House. This structure was used as a warehouse and store by Jonathan Trumbull's nephew, Joseph Sluman, who was active as a merchant in East Haddam in the 1750s. Tradition says that Trumbull provided the capital for the commencement of his nephew's career and paid for this building's construction.
By the outbreak of the Revolution, East Haddam, thanks to the commercial growth around the two landings, had become one of the most important towns in the colony with a population of about 3,000. A center of radical political activity, the local Sons of Liberty are said to have raised the tallest liberty pole in the colony, 147 feet, at the Lower Landing. During the war, a number of privateers were constructed in the town's shipyards; and the wharves and warehouses were used to store and transport shipments of provisions to the Continental Army.
With the coming of peace in 1783, East Haddam's commercial growth resumed and continued to 1860. Trade with the West Indies was particularly important before the War of 1812; and the wealthiest merchant engaged in this trade, General Epaphroditus Champion, employed some of his profits to construct a large mansion above the wharves and warehouses of the Upper Landing in 1794. Other large houses built by merchants and sea captains during this period include the George Lord House, the Oliver Green House, and the Timothy Green House at the Upper Landing, and three others at the Lower Landing. Several stores and warehouses also remain, notably the Lord and Barber Store, Goodspeed's Store, and a third one, all clustered by the river at the Upper Landing. This commercial activity also led to the growth of artisan and craft occupations; and there were several blacksmiths, tanners and coopers who lived and worked in the district's precincts. Only one building remains that testifies to the importance of these craftsmen, the workshop of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, James Gladwin, built around 1800.
After the Civil War, East Haddam's importance as a port and commercial center began to decline. The river which had been the main artery of communication and trade was superseded by the Connecticut Valley Railroad which was constructed in 1871. This railroad, however, was built on the west bank of the river; and, with only ferry service providing access to the station at Tylerville, East Haddam was somewhat isolated from the kind of large-scale industrial development that was transforming such west bank towns as Chester and Middletown.
This is not to suggest that East Haddam's decline as a port and its relative isolation led to the town's overall decay; but rather these changes ushered in a general period of transformation as new endeavours and families replaced the merchants of earlier generations as the town's leading citizens. First, several small industrial concerns established themselves within the district's boundaries and flourished. The most important of these was the Boardman britannia and silver plating factories whose owners built two large Victorian mansions at the Lower Landing (the Luther Boardman House and the Norman Boardman House. Their factories no longer exist; but the industrial buildings of two later enterprises remain that reflect the type and scale of these firms. Also, one family of merchants, the Goodspeeds, continued to thrive by concentrating on the needs of the surrounding farmers and general retail supply. However, in spite of this prosperity, East Haddam remained a small town rather than becoming a small city; and slowly its attractiveness as a pleasant spot for vacationers and daytrippers from places like Hartford began to replace its former character as a commercial center. The shipyards at the Lower Landing, for example, ceased to function after 1877, and by this date the wharves on which goods from Europe and the West Indies were unloaded had disappeared through decay. Now, the river, plied by steamboats, brought people to the town interested in relaxation and a good meal. In short, thanks again to the influence of the river, East Haddam was slowly becoming a residential center and a tourist center. Two large buildings, former hotels, once called the Steamboat Hotel and the Gelston House illustrate these changes.
Thus, by 1900, the original settlement areas of East Haddam included in the East Haddam Historic District's boundaries had been transformed from bustling commercial centers of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries into a quiet place of small industries, a few stores, two or three hotels, and many residences. The relationship between the Connecticut River and the town remained strong; but except for offering recreation to tourists, the river was no longer recognized as an avenue for the town's progress. Instead, as the new century began, many East Haddam residents, like the town's original settlers, saw the river as a barrier to further growth and development, and looked forward to the day when a bridge would be built (1913) and their relative isolation ended.
The interesting mixture of residential, commercial and industrial buildings within the bounds of the East Haddam Historic District is architecturally diverse. There are several outstanding individual structures, as well as representative examples of modest homes constructed in most building styles popular between 1750 and 1900.
Pre-Revolutionary Colonial structures include: the Tinker House, the Counting House, the David Annable House; the Reuben Cone House, the Nathan Hale School, and the Bigelow House. Of these buildings, the most important is the Counting House; for large commercial structures dating from this period are extremely rare.
With the coming of peace in 1783 and the reestablishment of commercial and industrial prosperity, new buildings in new styles were constructed. The most important was the General Epaphroditus Champion House, a late-Georgian mansion built in 1794. One of the finest examples of its type in New England, this residence was designed and built by William Sprats, a Scots master carpenter who had been a Revolutionary War prisoner. Declining to return to his native country after the war, Sprats married and settled down near Litchfield where he came to the notice of several prominent men, including Julius Deming, the town's wealthiest merchant. For Deming, Sprats designed and built "The Lindens" in 1793; and in 1795, Deming's patronage enabled him to win the commission to build the new Litchfield Courthouse. Epaphroditus Champion was Julius Deming's brother-in-law; and this connection undoubtedly explains why Sprats was chosen to build the General's new house.
For Champion, Sprats spared little effort. The house cost $10,000, a huge sum at that time, and was built on terraces constructed of granite hauled from across the river. A large, 2-1/2-story frame structure, Sprats embellished the house with quoins, a carefully-worked balustrade around the edges of the hip roof, pedimented porticos over both the south and east entrances, and elaborate window surrounds. The interior is equally noteworthy, with a number of rooms having finely-detailed panelling, cornices, and fireplace mantels and surrounds.
There are a number of representative Federal-style buildings which date from the period between 1800 and 1825. These include the George Lord House, which has a finely-worked, leaded fanlight over the front door; the Oliver Green House, the Lord and Barber Store, and the Epaphroditus Dickinson House.
The greatest number of structures in the East Haddam Historic District are built in the Greek Revival style, c.1830-1855. These include many residences: the Thomas Boardman House, the Gladwin House, the Boardman House, the Timothy Green House, the O. Osborne House, the James Gladwin House, the Solomon Belden House, and others. Also, there are two Greek Revival commercial buildings and a former schoolhouse, the Landing School, and a mausoleum in the Riverside Cemetery. Although none of these structures is particularly outstanding, together they possess an impressive collection of decorative features. For example, the door frames of the Timothy Green House and the O. Osborne House are finely ornamented; while the James Gladwin House has such rich details such as panelled pilasters with Ionic capitals, a multi-paned elliptical window in the attic gable, and a very elaborate door frame with fluted Ionic columns resting on the doorhood framing a second-story window.
Three Victorian styles are represented by a number of important buildings. First, Gothic Revival details are found on three frame residences including St. Stephen's Rectory, one is a particularly noteworthy example of a modest, board-and-batten Gothic Cottage, having elaborate, crested bargeboards and a porch with posts in the form of clustered columns. This same kind of embellishment, it should be noted, was added to a small Greek Revival house, probably thirty years or so after its construction.
Second, the Italianate (and related Italian Villa style) is evident in two large commercial buildings, two mansions, and several modest residences. The commercial buildings are former hotels built to serve the patrons of the steamboats in the 1850s. The first, the Champion House, was originally built in 1782 as a large private residence by a wealthy merchant. Enlarged in 1830, the structure was completely renovated for use as a hotel in 1858, when it was transformed into an Italian Villa with the addition of large cornice brackets, a central cupola, and wide porches. The second commercial structure is the Gelston Hotel, today a restaurant. Constructed about 1852, this large building also exhibits many characteristics of the Italian Villa style, including a prominent cupola, cornice brackets under the wide eaves of a flattened hip roof, and arched windows. The two mansions were built by Luther Boardman and his son, Norman Boardman. The former, constructed about 1860, is a pure example of the Italian Villa style; while the latter, built ten or fifteen years later, is considerably more eclectic, having a Second Empire tower with cast-iron cresting, and a porch across the front and one side supported by Gothic Revival clustered columns and braces. Finally, there are several smaller residences with Italianate details including the Reynold's Place, which has particularly fine ornamentation around windows and doors and its porches.
The third well-represented Victorian style of architecture is the Second Empire. Its most obvious monument within the East Haddam Historic District is the Goodspeed Opera House, built by William H. Goodspeed in 1876 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The Opera House possesses all of the foremost characteristics of the Second Empire style, such as the mansard roof and the projecting central bay with a tower above the main roofline. There are also two Second Empire residences within the district: the Watrous House and the Matthew Plumstead House.
Finally, the twentieth century is represented by one structure of particular architectural merit. This is the Rathbun Memorial Library, a distinguished Colonial Revival building designed by Orr and Del Grella and built in 1934.
The East Haddam Historic District's final area of significance is its association with a number of individuals important in national, state and local history. Undoubtedly the most famous person connected with the district is Nathan Hale, the patriot, whose exploits as a Revolutionary War spy are so well known that they do not need retelling here. As a young, unknown graduate of Yale, Hale taught school at the Lower Landing during the winter of 1773-74; and the small schoolhouse where he laboured is now preserved to his memory.
Another noteworthy individual was General Epaphroditus Champion. Born in 1756, Epaphroditus was the son of Henry Champion of Westchester, a wealthy farmer and merchant. When the Revolution broke out, Henry Champion was named as a commissioner to the Commissary General, Joseph Trumbull, and worked as a commissary officer throughout the war. Epaphroditus entered the Continental Army in 1776 and worked with his father to supply Washington's troops with cattle, flour and other provisions, often accompanying droves of beef and trains of supplies from Connecticut to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
After the war, young Champion moved to East Haddam and became a successful merchant, trading with Europe and the West Indies. He owned wharves at East Haddam and New London and stores at East Haddam, and he employed a number of ships to carry his goods. The profits from his enterprises allowed him to construct the mansion at the Upper Landing in 1794 which is described above. He was elected to several terms in the Connecticut General Assembly; and from 1807 until 1816, he served in the United States House of Representatives where he supported the Federalist Party. After five terms in Washington, he retired to East Haddam, dying there in 1834.
William H. Goodspeed was a man of local prominence. Born in 1814, he was the son of Joseph Goodspeed (1787-1847), a prosperous East Haddam merchant. After his father's sudden death, William and his brother George E. Goodspeed (1813-1863) took over the family business, which was located at the Lower Landing, and worked diligently to increase its sales and profits. These efforts were soon rewarded; and, in consequence, the brothers began to expand their activities. First, they turned their attention to shipbuilding, establishing a yard in the area of the present-day parking lot for the opera house. Here, a number of sloops and steam-powered vessels were built between 1846 and 1866, including the U.S.S. Kanawha, a steam gunboat, one of several ordered by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles after the outbreak of the Civil War to help enforce the Union blockade of Southern ports. The warship was delivered in the remarkable period of only ninety days and saw service in Southern waters throughout the conflict. Second, William and George Goodspeed were instrumental in founding the Bank of New England in 1854 (reorganized as the National Bank of New England in 1865). George Goodspeed served as the bank's first president and was succeeded after his death by William. Finally, the brothers promoted steamboat travel on the Connecticut River, and both held important positions in the Hartford and New York Steamboat Company.
After his brother's death, William continued to manage the family businesses. In 1876, he moved the old store at the Lower Landing and built the imposing Opera House which housed his retail business on its lower floors with the theatre above. To this theatre Goodspeed brought Broadway shows and other entertainments; and people from miles away travelled by steamer, ferry and carriage to enjoy an evening's amusement. The success of this enterprise was short-lived; for, after Goodspeed's death in 1882, no one else was able to carry on the opera house in the same lavish manner that he had been able to afford. Slowly, the building sank into disuse until in 1959 when it was rescued by the Goodspeed Opera House Foundation and restored.
Luther Boardman was another individual of local importance. He was born in 1812 and was apprenticed at the age of 16 at Meriden to learn the trade of making britannia holloware. An apt pupil, he moved to Chester after his apprenticeship and established his own britannia factory. In 1842, he removed his business to East Haddam where he successfully engaged not only in britannia production, but also in the manufacture of nickel, silver, and silver-plated goods. Boardman was a pioneer in producing britannia and plated ware of a quality which matched or surpassed imported goods, thereby insuring their acceptance among American consumers.
As his business prospered, Boardman became involved in other enterprises. He was a vice president of the Connecticut Valley Railroad, a director of the National Bank of New England, and president of the Hartford and Long Island Steamboat Company. He was a member of the Connecticut General Assembly (1864-65), and remained active in state and local affairs until his death in 1887.
Finally, mention should be made of Wilbur J. Squire. He was a local inventor who perfected a machine for knitting gill nets, the manufacture of which he began in a building on Creamery Road in 1872. In 1883 the business was moved to a new building, but it did not prosper and was discontinued in 1888. Squire's contribution, however, to the development of machinery for producing fish nets should not be overlooked.
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† Hal Keiner, consultant, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, East Haddam Historic District, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.