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Belltown Historic District


The Belltown 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.

Description

The Belltown Historic District is located in the center of East Hampton, a town in central Connecticut. It contains an exceptionally large concentration of contributing historic buildings: 147 of the 176 buildings in the Belltown Historic District (84%). Although settlement in this area dates from the early eighteenth century, ninety-four percent of the contributing historic buildings were built after 1800, the period associated with the industrial development of the town as a bell-manufacturing center. Seventy-four percent of this latter group were built in the nineteenth century, which includes the majority of the domestic, industrial, institutional, and commercial architecture in the district. Two historic sites, functioning stone dams, also dating from the nineteenth century, are also located in the Belltown Historic District. One is part of a historic mill complex; the other is associated with a small number of industrial archaeological sites in the southwestern portion of the district.

In form and appearance the Belltown Historic District is typical of many small New England mill towns and it appears today much as it did at the end of the nineteenth century. The central focus of the Belltown Historic District is its nineteenth-century institutional and commercial core, located in a small valley surrounded by hills that crest 100-200 feet above the town center. Principal residential streets include Main Street, the north-south spine of the district, Barton Hill and Crescent streets on the slope of Barton Hill to the west, West High and East High streets, which form the northern border of the district, and Skinner and Watrous streets. Industrial activity is concentrated along Summit Street, a steeply sloping street which extends to the northeast up from the center of town, and Bevin Boulevard and Bevin Court, offshoots of this street to the north. The mill buildings clustered in this area historically utilized the waterpower of Pocotopaug Creek, the outflow from Pocotopaug Lake, which is dammed in several places as it flows in a southwesterly direction through the district, dropping 150 feet from the lake. Other historic mills are located below the center of town on the west bank of this stream.

The surviving historic architecture includes all the principal components of an industrial community. In addition to a large body of domestic architecture (120), the Belltown Historic District also contains a number of representative examples of other types of buildings which still retain their historic function. Fifteen brick-and wood-framed mill buildings are located in four separate mill complexes. Eleven commercial buildings, mostly of wood construction, four wood-framed churches, two schools, and two libraries are also included in the Belltown Historic District. Only one of the library buildings, one church, and one school no longer serve their original purpose.

Although the mill buildings, as well as three of the churches and one school, are relatively large in scale, the remainder of the buildings, both domestic and commercial, are similar in size and style. A major exception is the Belleville Store/Carrier Block in the center at 80 Main Street, a three-story mansard-roofed, wood-framed building. This uniformity is intensified by their similarity of form and materials. The majority of the domestic and commercial buildings present their gable ends to the street. Virtually all of this group are constructed of wood either post-and-beam or balloon-framed and are two-and-one-half stories in height. (The exceptions are 73-75-77 Main Street and 137 Main Street.) Rarely does the setback vary, which gives a pleasing uniformity to the streetscapes. Only along the west side of Main Street, along a steeply sloping area between the commercial area and West High Street, are the houses set back a distance from the street. These hill sites, however, provide an appropriate setting for the late nineteenth-century houses located there.

Modern intrusion in the Belltown Historic District is quite limited, adding to its cohesiveness. Three of the non-contributors are modern public or public service buildings, built in relatively unobtrusive locations. Quite a few of the other post-1935 buildings blend with the district because of their compatible function and form. Some of these are clustered on Barton Hill Street; the rest are scattered along Main Street.

Although a few well-preserved eighteenth century domestic buildings remain in the Belltown Historic District, the majority of historic residential buildings were constructed in the nineteenth century. Generally they are vernacular buildings which exhibit influences of the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne styles. Several "high-style" examples from the late Victorian period are also included in the district, which were built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

An exceptionally large group of well-preserved, vernacular Greek Revival style buildings remain in the Belltown Historic District. Houses were built in this style for fifty years (1840-1880). While no two are exactly alike, all but one of these buildings utilize the gable-to-street temple form. They are distinguished by the variety of window forms in the pediment, ranging from the rectangular to triangular, to finally in the later examples, the paired, narrow windows of the Victorian period. Numerous examples of this style are clustered on upper Main Street and again on Barton Hill.

The Italianate style developed in almost the same time period (after 1850) and utilized the same gable-to-street form. It can only be distinguished from the Greek Revival style by the type of architectural detail and its more vertical appearance. A typical example can be found at 22 West High Street. Only a few of these houses were built in the cube, or cruciform plan, with low-pitched hip roofs. One of the better examples of this latter type is located at 6 Niles Avenue. The oldest school (94 Main Street) in the Belltown Historic District was also built in this style. It is distinguished by brackets, and window and door hoods.

Three houses stand out from their neighbors as fully realized and for East Hampton very individualistic examples of their architectural style. Two were built in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One of them is the Philo Bevin House, the only example of the French Empire style in the district (26 Barton Hill Street). Three stories in height, fully bracketed bays and cornices, a dormered slate roof with a cupola, and an exceptional portico with a two-story addition on the north side distinguish this building. It occupies a commanding position at the crest of Barton Hill. The other exceptional house is also on an elevated site overlooking Main Street from the west side (56 Main Street). A much more elaborate Italianate style house, it is two-and-one-half stories in height, with a three-story facade tower. Scrolled bargeboards with pendant drops, and projecting bracketed eaves, distinguish the projecting bays of this elaborately detailed house. A fully detailed carriage house is located to the southwest. The third example of exceptional merit is the early twentieth century Mayo Purple House at 142 Main Street. Colonial Revival style in form with a broad gambrel roof facing the street, it also exhibits Queen Anne style influence with an octagonal tower in the southeast corner. A double-columned veranda extends across the facade and the north elevation.

Significance

The Belltown Historic District, which encompasses the industrial center of East Hampton, Connecticut, is historically significant as the only mill town in the nation known to be exclusively devoted to bell making, a highly specialized industry which prospered for over 100 years. A significant cohesive and distinguishable entity, the Belltown Historic District contains a full range of historic resources which illustrate in their diversity of scale, function, or level of architectural style the social and economic development of the town. Exceptionally well-preserved buildings of all types dating from 1748 to 1935 can be found in the district. Examples of most of the major nineteenth-century architectural styles are represented, including a large group of late Greek Revival style residential buildings. Several outstanding examples of Second Empire, Italianate, and Colonial Revival styles date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the most prosperous period in the town's distinguished industrial history.

Industrial History

The catalyst for early industrial development was an outsider, William Barton. A native of Wintonbury (Bloomfield), Connecticut, Barton had been a munitions maker at the Springfield Armory during the Revolution. He came to East Hampton in 1807, arriving at a crucial period in the town's history. Land shortages created by a century of sustained population growth, combined with the decline of shipbuilding and trade at East Hampton's river port of Middle Haddam, had brought the town's economy to a standstill. Many farmers and their sons had already left town for upstate New York.

Barton, the first of three generations of bell makers in town, only remained in East Hampton for eighteen years, but he had a major impact on the future direction of the town. Not only did he have a specialized knowledge of brass metallurgy, which he shared with others through the apprentice system, but a process for making a specialized product. He is credited with inventing a one-piece, sand-mould casting process for brass bells which remained the basic method used by the industry for the rest of the century.

The early years of the bell industry had little impact on the appearance of the town. Because the early bell-making process was more of a craft than an industry, farmer-mechanics could easily set up shop in an outbuilding on the family farm. Hand tools were used exclusively; even the large bellows used to maintain the charcoal fire were operated by hand or foot treadles. Barton's first shop (no longer standing) was a small foundry near his gambrel-roofed house at 25 Barton Hill Street. His sons, along with several of the Bevin brothers, who later were to become the largest bell manufacturers in town, received their training there. The Bevin brothers were the first to utilize water power to make bells. Their extensive bell factory complex on Bevin Court, which is still in operation, includes a small one-and-one-half-story wood-framed mill building dating from about 1830, their first shop on Pocotopaug Creek. It was moved to its present site when the Bevins' mill pond was enlarged and the factory was relocated to the present dam site.

The scale of production increased dramatically in the decade between 1840 and 1850 when other firms followed the lead of the Bevins and set up small factories on the creek, often utilizing earlier grist or saw mill sites. Production increased fifteen-fold in this period, only limited by access to markets. Bells were still sold by peddlers, which limited the size of the product. Small, cast sleigh and hand bells of brass and iron were manufactured almost exclusively. Several firms also made coffin trimmings, a popular sideline which made use of scrap metal. Access to raw material, however, was not a problem. East Hampton factory owners had worked out a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Portland brownstone quarry companies. Raw material, principally copper, zinc, and iron, was brought up the Connecticut River as ballast on the return voyages of the quarry ships and transported by wagon on the Middle Haddam-Hebron Turnpike. It ran from the Connecticut River landing directly to East Hampton center. Despite the early success of the bell industry, East Hampton, like many rural New England villages, continued to espouse eighteenth century values and traditions well into the nineteenth century. This essential conservatism is most evident in the domestic architecture built in this period. The Greek Revival style remained popular for forty years after it became unfashionable in more urban centers. More importantly, domestic architecture continued to reflect a society apparently largely undifferentiated by class, an eighteenth century phenomenon in central Connecticut. Although several of the owners of the water-powered shops, such as Chauncey Bevin and Stuart Parmelee (Niles and Parmelee Company), were the first to build houses in the Greek Revival style (47 Barton Hill Street and 47 Main Street), similar houses were built by handymen, mechanics, and clerks who worked in the bell factories (38 Barton Hill Street and 42 Main Street). At least one was built in this style by a factory owner as rental property for his employees (41 Main Street).

By the Civil War the bell industry was well established and a stratified society was in place. Twenty-three men were listed in the 1860 census as bell manufacturers; they owned one-third of the taxable wealth of the town. Farming still remained the principal occupation, but half of the work force in town were employed in the bell factories, both men and women. Many of the laborers were Irish immigrants. They began arriving in East Hampton around 1860 and were later to become a significant presence in the town. St. Patrick's Church (47 West High Street) was their second and permanent church home. A servant class, all women, emerged in this period employed by the bell manufacturers in their homes, and also at Buell's Hotel.

Predictably enough, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, industrial competition was intense. With an overcrowded field, trade secrets were no longer shared with competitors, but jealously guarded (the first patents were taken out at this time); smaller under-capitalized firms went out of business. The companies that emerged as leaders included the Bevin Brothers, Veazey and White, and East Hampton Bell. These long-established firms made cast bells of various types. The Gong Bell Company, a relative newcomer to the field, the first to specialize in belled toys, was another major firm. The factory built by Veazey and White on Summit Street in 1860 is the earliest brick mill remaining in town. Hiram Veazey's career pattern was quite typical. The son of a farmer, he learned the bell trade in one of the early water-powered shops in the 1830s before going into business for himself. His partner, Alfred White, was the first to successfully cast larger brass bells used in churches and schools.

The older established firms had a clear advantage because they controlled the best dam sites on Pocotopaug Creek. Their willingness to take risks, however, and experiment with new technologies and improved production or marketing methods, was a major factor in their success. Chauncey Bevin, for example, brought a Scottish immigrant, John Hodge, to East Hampton to set a new process for smelting brass. The Hodge pit furnace revolutionized the industry because it was an efficient producer of fine-grade brass from lower-grade metals. The process not only increased the Bevin company's production but it was a vital factor in the continued growth of industry as a whole as other companies soon adopted the process. Casting was only the first step in the process. Finishing and polishing of the raw castings, done completely by hand in the early years, eventually was partially mechanized. Jason Barton, a grandson of William, invented a process for tumbling small bells in barrels to remove the burrs from the castings. Water turbines were introduced in Belltown mills at this time. (Only one company ever converted from water to steam power, and not until the twentieth century.) "Runners," outside salesmen, took orders for a wide range of bells of all types, including chimes and sleigh bells, cow bells, and belled, wheeled toys, which were shipped to the retailers by rail after 1873.

Norman N. Hill is credited with developing mass-production techniques that revolutionized the industry. Hill, who began as a finisher and salesman for the Barton Company, was the second member of his family to be involved in the bell industry; his father was a wood turner who made handles for hand bells. N. N. Hill perfected a process for stamping bells from sheet metal, increasing his production dramatically. Two men could make 25,000 bells a day by stamping, as opposed to 500 with the earlier casting process. Cast bells continued to be made on a limited basis until 1979 at the Bevin Brothers Company using their nineteenth century pit furnaces, but stamped bells were the major product in the twentieth century. Hill's first factory, a wood-framed building, burned to the ground below the dam near Skinner Street, but further upstream he built a large brick factory, believed to be the largest in the world devoted exclusively to bell production. Standing ruins of several bell factories (possibly including Hill's first building), and the remains of their water turbine system, exist in the area below the dam.

The competitive spirit among the leaders of the bell industry in the late nineteenth century is evident in the houses they built in this period. Philo Bevin, the youngest brother, now president of the family firm, was one of the first to break away from the traditional pattern of architectural conservatism. His lavish Second Empire style house on Barton Hill, the first in town to have central heating, confirmed his status as the wealthiest bell manufacturer. Horatio Abbe, a founder of the Gong Bell Company, was one of his major competitors. Soon after becoming president of the firm he radically altered his Greek Revival style house, built just six years earlier, in a self-conscious attempt to be more up-to-date.

These stylish houses were exceptional. Most people, including the working class, still lived in solid, middle-class housing. There seemed to be little need for workers' housing per se. Although Crescent Street was laid out and developed about 1900, the smaller Victorian cottages built there were owned by skilled workmen such as engravers or pattern makers. Most of the unskilled laborers and their families rented existing older houses remodeled by the bell companies for boarding houses or multiple-family use.

Architectural Significance

The mill buildings that define the town are still the dominant architectural element. They are generally well-preserved, distinctive examples of late nineteenth-century brick mills. The best preserved is one of the earliest, the Veazey and White foundry (10-12 Summit Street). Although some of the later buildings have stair towers, and a limited amount of corbelling, this utilitarian building could have served as a model for most of the remaining industrial architecture. It retains all of its essential features: the low gable roof with exposed rafter ends, and segmental-arched windows separated by plain brick pilasters.

The small, late nineteenth-century, wood-framed commercial buildings which are clustered in the town center are also quite functional. Generally well preserved, their gable-to-street facades have retained their brackets or decorative shingles. One recently restored example is exceptionally notable for its dormered mansard roof (80 Main Street). A small masonry commercial block (two buildings) and the present brick library (originally a store) do provide some contrast. Although compatible in scale, they are architecturally modest buildings (70 and 81 Main Street).

A wider range of styles can be found in the institutional architecture of the district. The most distinguished of the churches is a wood-framed building constructed in the Gothic Revival style (47 West High Street). Judging by its relatively high degree of architectural sophistication, this church may have been architect-designed. Well preserved and fully elaborated, it utilizes most of the features more commonly found in masonry churches of this style: lancet-arched windows, pseudo-buttresses, and an elaborate, pinnacled spire. A much smaller church at 111 Main Street in the south end of the district is by contrast a rather simple building, a small shingled, country-builder's version of the Stick style. It is distinguished by diamond-shaped windows and a unique open, one-stage bell tower. The original district school built in 1866 is another well-preserved institutional building of the Italianate style. Distinguished by an unusual degree of decorative detail, pilastered and bracketed entrance-ways, as well as scrolled brackets under the eaves, it has served the town for over 100 years, first as a school, and then sixty years as the town hall.

The craftsmanship of the district's residential architecture is exceptional. These generally simplified vernacular versions of standard eighteenth-and nineteenth-century styles utilize simple forms and straightforward post-and-beam construction.

Although most of the domestic architecture dates from the nineteenth century, several well-preserved houses remain from the colonial period. One of the best examples at 53 Barton Hill Street is the exceptionally well-preserved 1748 saltbox built by William Bevin, an early settler of East Hampton and the progenitor of this distinguished family. His four great grandsons, all born in this house, established the Bevin Brothers Bell Company.

The country builders of the early to mid-nineteenth century began to demonstrate some understanding of classical form and proportion. These qualities are most evident in the large number of well-preserved vernacular Greek Revival style houses in the Belltown Historic District. Very little applied detail is employed, but an understanding of the classical mode is clearly stated in the fully pedimented temple forms with plain-board entablatures. Two of the more notable examples are 48 Barton Hill Street and 47 Main Street. A greater degree of sophistication is present in the Italianate style house built for Hiram Veazey at 22 West High Street. This well-preserved example demonstrates how easily carpenter-builders could make the transition to this style by applying detailing to the same gable-fronted form.

More stylish expressions of popular taste were built after the Civil War. Exceptional, locally distinguished examples of several Victorian styles demonstrate a level of craftsmanship not previously displayed in the district. Two of the better examples are the Second Empire style Philo Bevin House (1872) at 26 Barton Hill Street and the Italianate style Sears-Hill House (1876) at 56 Main Street. While certainly not designed in the most up-to-date style, these buildings, nevertheless, are the most architecturally significant houses in East Hampton. The Bevin House is particularly distinguished for its wealth of hand-carved detail and excellent state of preservation.

Endnotes

  1. This nomination is based primarily on the original research for the architectural survey of East Hampton completed in 1980. The research files are located at the Greater Middletown Preservation Trust. The survey forms and the publication based on the survey are deposited with the archives of the Connecticut Historical Commission at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, Connecticut.
  2. The nineteenth-century pit-furnace process was videotaped as part of the Brass Workers' History Project before the Bevins modernized their plant. Matthew Roth, Connecticut: An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, 1981, p. 145.

References

Chatham/East Hampton Land Records

Chatham/East Hampton Vital Records

Chatham Probate Records, Middletown, CT

Middletown Land Records

Middletown Probate Records

Middletown Vital Records

Potter, Lucy G. and Ritchie, William A., ed. Janice Cunningham. The History and Architecture of East Hampton. Middletown, CT: The Greater Middletown Preservation Trust, 1980. (Original research on file with the GMPT.)

Price, Carl F. Yankee Township. Hartford: 1936.

Maps

1859 Walling Map

1874 Beers Atlas

Jan Cunningham, Greater Middletown Preservation Trust, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Belltown Historic District, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Belltown Historic District Map

Street Names
Barton Hill Street • Bevin Boulevard • Bevin Court • Crescent Street • High Street East • High Street West • Main Street • Niles Avenue • Oak Knoll Road • Route 196 • Skinner Street • Summit Street • Watrous Street

**Information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. You should independently verify any information you use for decision making.
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