Little Haddam Historic District
The Little Haddam Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. 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 Little Haddam Historic District is a small group of 18th and early-19th century buildings surrounding a rural crossroads in the town of East Haddam, Connecticut. In addition to houses, the Little Haddam Historic District includes the 1794 meetinghouse of the First Church of East Haddam, an elaborate early Federal style building by noted architect-builder Lavius Fillmore; a small associated cemetery with numerous markers from the 18th century and later (counted as a contributing site); and two small vernacular structures that served as the East Haddam Town Hall (1857) and the social hall of the local Grange (1905). Although Little Haddam lacks a village green, the broad right-of-way for Town Street, which runs in a north-south direction, provides a spacious lawn area in front of the buildings, especially for the meetinghouse, which is sited on a slight knoll.
The Little Haddam Historic District's houses include four from the 18th century, all of which have symmetrical three- or five-bay facades, large center chimneys of brick or stone, clapboarded exteriors, and small-pane divided sash. Three other houses are from the early 19th century and reflect the Federal and Greek Revival styles with such details as corner pilasters, flush-boarded gables, and full returns of Classically inspired cornices. These early-19th century houses all are oriented with their gable ends facing the road.
Although most of the Little Haddam Historic District's houses retain their historic appearance substantially intact, with only minor additions and alterations, the house at 479 Town Street appears to have been updated several times in accordance with the latest architectural fashion: Greek Revival, Gothic, and Second Empire elements embellish its colonial-era core.
The Little Haddam Historic District has historical significance because the area it embraces served as a religious, political, and social focus for the town of East Haddam for many years. Little Haddam is the site of the first of the town's Congregational meetinghouses, along with one of the town's earliest burying grounds. The meetinghouse formed the nucleus around which a small cluster of buildings coalesced, with a district school, stores, the shops of artisans, doctors' offices, and taverns. Because the village was located on a relatively busy road, early enterprises could expect the patronage of both travelers and the farmers who gathered there for weekly religious services. The current meetinghouse and its predecessors also served secular purposes, accommodating town meetings until 1796. The town meetings returned to Little Haddam beginning in 1857, in a town hall built expressly for that purpose. Social activities for which Little Haddam provided a venue included militia companies, which in the 18th and early 19th centuries held their training musters in a broad expanse of land surrounding Town Street, and later the Grange, which held an annual fair in Little Haddam and met in the town hall prior to building its own social hall in 1905.
The Little Haddam Historic District also has significance because of the artistic and architectural qualities of its components. Grave markers are now recognized as a major medium of artistic expression in early New England culture; Little Haddam's First Church Cemetery is rich in late 18th-century stones, with more than a dozen by Silas Brainerd, one of the period's master carvers. The meetinghouse of the First Church of Christ is an early and well-preserved example of a building form that came to epitomize the early 19th-century New England village: the white-painted, Classically detailed church with a portico and spire. The meetinghouse was the work of Lavius Fillmore, an influential architect-builder of the period. Finally, several of the houses in the Little Haddam Historic District represent well-preserved examples of particular styles of architecture, including the vernacular style of the Colonial period, the Federal style, and the Greek Revival style.
Historical Role of Little Haddam
The area that became the town of East Haddam was originally part of Haddam, most of which now lies west of the Connecticut River. European settlement began in the 1670s, and by 1704 the families on the east side were numerous enough to establish their own Congregational parish. The first meetinghouse was located about a half mile southwest of the present structure. From the earliest days of English settlement, a "Great Highway" traversed the route of present-day Town Street, with side roads added as settlement demanded. The Great Highway was originally defined as 40 rods (660 feet) wide, providing not only a roadway but a broad swath of common land. When a larger meetinghouse was needed in the 1730s, it was built within the bounds of the highway, south of the current site, as was a schoolhouse for the children of nearby farms.
In 1734 East Haddam became a separate town. As was common throughout New England, annual and special town meetings were held in the Congregational meetinghouse, further solidifying the importance of Little Haddam, then known as "Up-town," as a focal point for the community. The settlement pattern in East Haddam at that time, as throughout Connecticut, consisted of scattered family farms along the broad upland ridges. The area around the meetinghouse and school, however, slowly became more densely built, and by 1760 there were ten dwellings in Little Haddam, four of which remain and are included in the Little Haddam Historic District. At least three of the village's 18th-century houses accommodated taverns, a business that could profit from whatever travellers came along the Great Highway, as well as serving local families who came to Little Haddam for all-day Sabbath observances. The house at 496 Town Street, for example, housed the tavern of Joseph Emmons from 1771 to 1797. Early village residents also included a physician, Dr. Thomas Mosely, who occupied the house at 79 Orchard Road from 1760 to 1811.
The first of several tanneries in Little Haddam started in 1767 near the intersection of Town Street and East Haddam Road. Although nothing remains visible today of this early industry, the Little Haddam Historic District does include two houses of the Palmer family, which prospered from the tanning industry in the 19th century. Other enterprises known to have existed at one time or another include a blacksmith shop, a joiner's shop, a general store, and a small hat-making shop.
Although it was by then reduced to its present width of 66 feet, the Great Highway was still sufficiently spacious to allow local militia units to drill there during the Revolution. Too much encroachment had occurred, however, to allow Little Haddam later to define part of the highway as a village green, as happened in numerous other town centers.
If Little Haddam today seems small for having been East Haddam's original town center, that can be explained by the appearance of other villages within the town that competed with it in one or more ways. Millington, for example, duplicated many of the functions of Little Haddam when it became the location of the town's second Congregational society around 1740; the village that grew up around Millington Green was very similar to Little Haddam, with a meetinghouse, a district school, and a few houses, taverns, and stores. In 1796, perhaps reflecting some rivalry, the town built a new building for town meetings at Mount Parnassus, halfway between Little Haddam and Millington. By the last part of the 18th century, most of East Haddam's commercial activity and much of its population growth was occurring at the two landings on the Connecticut River, and shortly after 1800, early industrial enterprises made Moodus into a distinct village.
Despite lacking a dynamic for growth, Little Haddam continued serving a central role in the town throughout the 19th century. Lending some economic sustenance were the East Haddam and Colchester Turnpike, which was chartered in 1809 and ran along Orchard and East Haddam Roads, and the tannery business, which continued until 1866. Public meetings returned to the village in 1857, when a new town hall was built. Starting in 1887, the Grange brought the town's farming families together in Little Haddam for social occasions, meeting first in the town hall and later in its own building. Little Haddam even had its own post office in 1894, though it was discontinued only 13 years later.
Today the buildings within the Little Haddam Historic District continue to recall the village's role in the town's history. The village's origins in the early 18th century are made obvious by the several well-preserved colonial houses associated with the Spencer, Emmons, and other early families. Little Haddam's importance as a center for religious activity is underscored by the meetinghouse and the Reverend Isaac Parsons House, which served as the Congregational parsonage until 1964. The meetinghouse also recalls the political life of the village, as does the 1857 town hall. Finally, the social activities that occurred in the village are memorialized by the Grange Hall.
Many of the buildings in the Little Haddam Historic District embody the distinguishing characteristics of particular periods and styles of architecture. For example, four of the Little Haddam Historic District's oldest houses exhibit the clapboarded exteriors, gable roofs, small-pane divided sash, and three-bay or five-bay center chimney form that characterized the domestic architecture of colonial-era Connecticut.
The Little Haddam Historic District also offers an exceptionally finely detailed and well-preserved example of the Federal style of architecture, the Reverend Isaac Parsons House at 482 Town Street, built in 1817. The house illustrates the delicate interpretation of Classical motifs that was at the heart of the style, a principle that is evident in such features as its slender corner pilasters and its small-scale cornice ornamentation, which is repeated in the front-entry portico. The semi-ellitpical fanlight over the doorway recalls a favored shape of the period, the ellipse. The transom is also notable for its leaded glass, which first came into wide use in the early 19th century.
The more boldly proportioned Classicism introduced in the Greek Revival period is reflected in the house that Francis Palmer built in Little Haddam around 1855. Its wide corner pilasters, full cornice return, and pilaster-and-lintel entrance treatment are typical Greek Revival features that were common throughout the Connecticut countryside in the middle of the 19th century. Palmer's position as the owner of a thriving tannery may be reflected in the freestanding columns that flank the house's front door, a better-than-ordinary detail that furthers the house's connections to the architecture of ancient Greece.
Of all the Little Haddam Historic District's buildings, however, the one that is the most architecturally outstanding is the Congregational meetinghouse. It represents an early (1794) expression of a type that dominated New England church architecture for several decades thereafter. Unlike the plainly detailed meetinghouses of the colonial period, which had the entrance on the broad side and only occasionally a steeple (usually a subsequent addition), the new form had end entrances, an integral steeple, and rich architectural detailing. Quoins, modillions, and Classical cornices all gave the meetinghouse an air of elegance that was appropriate for the community's most important building, the center of spiritual and (for at least a few years) political life.
The man responsible for the building's design and construction was Lavius Fillmore, born in 1767 in Norwich, Connecticut. Fillmore also designed and built the meetinghouse in Norwichtown, which greatly resembles the East Haddam church in form and details, particularly the combination of round-arched and rectangular openings, as well as Middletown's First Congregational Church (now greatly altered into a commercial building). Fillmore is credited with popularizing the articulation of the central bays as a distinct entity, a feature which was introduced by Charles Bulfinch's 1792 Taunton meetinghouse and which became nearly universal for early 19th-century New England meetinghouses. In addition to completing these early and influential late 18th-century churches, Fillmore produced several more in his adopted state of Vermont in subsequent years.
Gravestone carving in the 18th and early 19th centuries represented one of that culture's major mediums for artistic expression. The genre was rich in spiritual iconography, derived from the colonists' centuries-old European Christian heritage. In addition to symbols of death (bones, hourglass, coffins), life (roses), and resurrection (crowns, sun), early gravestone carvings made use of obscure references to philosophy, such as the serpent-bird, a metaphor for the perfect Christian who combined rationality with tender emotions. Some motifs were layered with multiple meanings: the grapevine, for example, symbolized both the mystical body of Christ ("I am the vine; you are the branches") and the vineyard of earthly labors from which the deceased was set free. The most common design was the use of a winged soul effigy for the upper part of the stone, either with a death's head or with a more human or cherubic face. Within the overall type, there was ample room for the individual expression of the carvers, each of whom developed certain favored combinations of elements and, in most cases, an approach to the winged soul effigy that served as a signature.
With almost 40 examples, Little Haddam's burying ground is particularly well-endowed with this characteristic New England art form. Among the notable carvers represented there are John Isham (1757-1834) and Silas Brainerd (1767-1854). Brainerd was a resident of East Haddam, where he worked as a stonecutter, mason, and carver of grave markers; he also is known to have built at least one stone-arch bridge. His sons Silas, Jr., and Erastus Brainerd operated one of the large brownstone quarries in Portland, Connecticut. One authority on the form has judged the senior Brainerd to be "an artist of the first caliber." (Slater, 158). Silas Brainerd is best known for his characteristic soul effigy, in which he carved a head in profile, perhaps intending portraiture or at least some resemblance to the particular deceased person. Little Haddam's burying ground has 14 Brainerd stones, of which eight are "spectacular and haunting profiles."
Field, Rev. David D. A History of the Towns of Haddam and East Haddam. Middletown: Clark & Lyman, 1819.
Kelly, J. Frederick. Early Connecticut Meetinghouses. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.
Little Haddam Historic District Report. Little Haddam Historic District Study Committee, 1976.
Niles, Hosford B. The Old Chimney Stacks of East Haddam. Middlesex County. Connecticut. New York: Lowe & Co., 1887.
Parker, Francis H. Contributions to the History of East Haddam, Connecticut. 1925.
Rathbun Free Memorial Library files.
Sinnott, Edmund W. Meetinghouse and Church in Early New England. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Slater, James A. The Colonial Burying Grounds of Eastern Connecticut and the Men Who Made Them. Hamden: Archon Books, 1987.