Birmingham Green Historic District
The Birmingham Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination documentation. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2000, The Gombach Group.
The Birmingham Green Historic District in Derby, Connecticut, lies just north of the central business district. The Birmingham Green Historic District consists of the Green and the buildings surrounding it on the east, north, and west sides. The Green is defined on the east by Minerva Street, on the north by Fifth Street, and on the west by Elizabeth Street. Minerva and Elizabeth Streets run uphill to the north from downtown. The block between them forms a knoll at the Green, with grade falling off to east and west in the backyards of the properties on these streets. Their basements are at grade.
The Green is a rectangular open space with shade trees, crisscross diagonal walks, a Civil War Monument, and other structures. Buildings surrounding the Green are dominated by three churches, Episcopal, Congregational, and Methodist, and their three parsonages/rectory, and the Sterling Opera House. Four private homes on Minerva Street north of the Episcopal Church complete the roster of 19th century buildings, while the district's two 20th century commercial buildings face each other across Fifth Street at the corner of Elizabeth Street. The south side of the Green is delineated by a large 20th century retail building, not included in the Birmingham Green Historic District, which replaced historic structures along this block of Fourth Street.
Each of the buildings around the Green is sited close to the street and occupies a large part of its parcel. While there are spaces between the buildings, the spaces are narrower than the buildings. The overall setting is distinctly urban, an effect which is heightened by contrast to the Green's open space.
The Birmingham Green Historic District is significant historically because it is a good example of successful 19th century private urban planning which created a new neighborhood and religious, cultural, and civic center in an established town. The buildings and spaces around the central public square planned by the developers continue to exhibit the integrity initially contemplated. The Birmingham Green Historic District is significant architecturally because it is made up of characteristic examples of 19th century architectural styles, now in a good state of preservation.
Derby was settled in 1651, named in 1675, and incorporated as a town in 1775. It extended some 10 miles up both sides of the Naugatuck River from its junction with the Housatonic River. Oxford was the first spin-off from this large area, in 1798. Naugatuck and Beacon Falls were formed in part from Oxford. In 19th century political and tax-related developments, Seymour and Ansonia were also divided from Derby, making Derby the smallest town in Connecticut, 55 square miles. The town became a city as well in 1893.
One of the events in this continuum of activity was the 19th century development of the area in Derby called Birmingham by Sheldon Smith and Anson G. Phelps. Sheldon Smith (1791-1867), a Derby resident, owned land at the point where the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers come together, then called Smithville. He enlisted the cooperation of Anson G. Phelps (1781-1853), a Connecticut native who lived in New York City, to develop his holdings. Phelps already was interested in the area because he owned copper processing plants in the Naugatuck Valley which became a unit in the Phelps, Dodge Company. The area was in need of economic development because Derby had not recovered from the loss of the West Indies trade, which had brought prosperity to Derby, Hartford, and other river and coastal sea-trading centers in Connecticut until coming to an end in the years just before the War of 1812. Smith and Phelps' plan was to rescue Derby from the depression by encouraging participation in the industrial revolution, a pattern that was followed elsewhere in Connecticut as well.
The two men embarked on the development of a new community within Derby on the Smith land, which they called Birmingham. While the initiative for the development was private, not a municipally conceived plan, local government did cooperate by laying out streets. As noted by Orcutt, "At request of Anson G. Phelps of New York City and Sheldon Smith of Derby selectmen laid out a highway through their land at a place called the Point (Smithville) in April 1836." In June 1836 another road, now Second Street, two blocks south of the Birmingham Green Historic District, followed. The southern portion of the area was set aside for factories and metal-processing facilities, many of which still stand. Two blocks to the north of Second Street, the surveyors laid out a Public Square, so designated on an 1846 map. Minerva Street on the east side of the Green and several square blocks north of the Green became a fashionable residential area.
Original designation of what is known today as the Green as a Public Square on the mid-19th century map is informative as to the intent of the plan for Birmingham Green. The intent was to have an urban public space, as found in cities such as Boston and New York and in England. The buildings ranged around the open space and focused on it were spaced with urban density. The developers sought a 19th century city ambience, not the rural atmosphere of a colonial green.
Phelps and Smith endeavored, with success, to make the Public Square the center of the town's religious and civic institutions, at the expense of the existing center located on the east side of the Naugatuck River, sometimes called Derby Landing, now known as East Derby. First to come to Birmingham was the Methodist Church at the top of the green with its 1837 wooden building, which was replaced by the present edifice in 1895. Next was the Episcopal Church, 1843, on the east side of the Green, while the Congregationalists soon followed in 1845 on the west side. Since each church had an adjoining parsonage or rectory, religious property took up more than half the street frontage facing the Green.
By 1847 a post-and-rail fence was in place around the Green, but there were no paths and no trees. The terrain was rough; the soil was poor. In 1857, footpaths of dirt, in the present pattern, had taken their place. The need for trees was recognized and discussions were held on whether it was possible to plant trees. Would they grow? The decision was made to try maples, which exist today.
Then, in 1877, the highest point in the Green was chosen as the location for the all-important Civil War Monument, and in 1889 the seat of government came to the Green in the city hall part of the Sterling Opera House building, while its auditorium became the venue for concerts and other public events, in culmination of the developers' aim to make the Green the city's civic, cultural, and religious center.
During the 20th century, the physical features of the Birmingham Green Historic District have maintained their integrity. The Green is well cared for and the important buildings are standing. The general level of activity, however, has declined. The Opera House is vacant, the Methodist Church is under used, and the Congregational Church is open only for Sunday service, while residences on Minerva Street are well-maintained and the Green is regularly patronized. The Birmingham Green Historic District continues as a demonstration of the success of private mid-19th century urban planning.
The 19th century architectural styles in the Birmingham Green Historic District include the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Romanesque Revival, all surrounding the oldest resource, which is the Green itself, ca.1836. The Green was planned as a simple rectangular Public Square without features that could be called landscape architecture. To a degree the square was a formal space in that it was regular in size and shape, marked only by rising grade from south to north. Its landscape architecture has been articulated by walks, trees, other plantings, and monuments. The Green continues to be a regular space of straight lines and modest features dependent for its significance largely on the important fact that it is there.
The oldest building still standing in the Birmingham Green Historic District is the Episcopal Church, 1843, which is an example of the contemporary influence of the Church of England and the Ecclesiological movement in support of the belief that the Gothic Revival is the only appropriate style for a Christian house of worship. In New England the boxy rectangle with square projecting tower of the Congregational meetinghouse was modified to meet the new standard by using pointed-arch doors and windows, characteristic Gothic motifs such as trefoils, and medieval features such as battlements, all imposed on the New England model. A similar approach was taken elsewhere, for example, at Trinity Church, New Haven; Christ Church, Hartford; and Union Church, Riverton in Barkhamsted. The interior, however, was unrelated to the meetinghouse, being finished in dark wood, even to the ceiling, with many of the available surfaces used for Gothic and, in the church's view, therefore religious symbols.
The Congregational Church followed two years later in 1845, toward the end of the period of the traditional New England Greek Revival style. Its simple, strong proportions and well-designed classical features are characteristic of its building type, while its Colonial Revival/Federal Revival early-20th century added Adamesque trim makes it a good example, as well, of the Colonial Revival movement.
The Greek Revival style was followed by the Italianate style in mid-19th century as demonstrated by the residence at 135 Minerva Street, which was moved to its present location ca.1885. The house is a boxy three-bay building with hipped roof in the Italianate mode, but with a frieze and frieze windows as often found in the Greek Revival style. The Episcopal rectory, 1853, is another Italianate-style frame residence and is a dramatic demonstration of adapting a building to the sloping terrain.
The Birmingham Green Historic District's example of the Second Empire style is the Methodist minister's residence of the 1850s, which has lost some of its character-defining features to synthetic siding but which continues to exhibit the typical Mansard roof and dormers.
As the century drew closer to its end, more imaginative and irregular designs, asymmetrical but balanced, came into vogue under the sobriquets of Gothic Revival and Queen Anne. The Gothic Revival cottage identified by its trio of tall front gables at 139 Minerva Street, 1875, reflects an awareness in Birmingham of the widely accepted work of Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), arbiter of good taste who espoused what he thought of as rural villas, from which this design is derived. The Queen Anne style served to carry on and embellish the principles of asymmetry, elaborate decorative features, and open floor plans, as seen in the district in the Congregational Parsonage, 1866, and in 127 Minerva Street, 1890. An ultimate expression of the Queen Anne style carrying diversity and elaboration to the extreme, yet in a unified, contained, and consistent design, is seen at 149 Minerva Street, 1886.
The Sterling Opera House, 1889, did not follow customary architectural style parameters, but rather is an eclectic statement drawn from the Italian Renaissance. It has the square mass, low pitched roof, corner tower with pyramidal roof, and arcaded range of side windows of north Italy, to which many Palladian decorative features such as the pedimented entry, Venetian window, swags, and elliptical windows with four keystones have been introduced. It is the only 19th century building in the Birmingham Green Historic District to employ stucco as one of its building materials.
The Methodist Church, 1895, brought the century to a resounding close with the largest and perhaps most elaborate building in the Birmingham Green Historic District. Its large round arches, tall square tower, and heavy detailing in brick and brownstone place it in the Romanesque Revival mode. The extensive stained glass throughout the building and tall round-arched panels of the sanctuary are consistent with the style. The church building articulates the up-to-date doctrine of contemporary evangelical Protestantism in both its overall architectural style and use of interior spaces. The architectural style is Romanesque Revival, a late-19th century mode popularized by H.H. Richardson (1838-1886), and therefore welcomed by Methodists in contrast to the medieval precedent so important in Gothic Revival-style designs of Roman Catholic and Protestant Episcopal edifices. On the interior, the sanctuary and Sunday School are balanced in the amount of space they command with the Sunday School having its own large auditorium, an arrangement that was originated in the First Methodist Church of Akron, Ohio (1866-1870) and known as the Akron Plan. The sanctuary, instead of resembling a rectangular nave, is treated as a theater with pitched floor for seating in pews of segmental rows and rounded balconies above, all facing a segmental altar. Essential to the plan was the movable wall separating the two spaces, enabling them to be thrown together for the large crowds drawn by the invariably charismatic minister.
The architect of the district's United Methodist Church, George Washington Kramer (1847-1938), was America's leading practitioner in designing Methodist churches in conformance with the contemporary preference for Romanesque Revival style and Akron Plan. Born in Akron, Ohio, Kramer practiced there before moving to New York City in 1894 where he was joined by his son George Kramer in 1912. He is said to have designed more than 2,000 buildings, of which Methodist churches were by far the largest single category. In Connecticut, there are 28 Kramer-designed churches in such cities as Bridgeport, Bristol, Waterbury, New Haven, Winsted, and Hartford.
The United Methodist Church is one of the many good examples of 19th century architectural styles in the Birmingham Green Historic District which assert the success of the development of the center of Birmingham in architectural terms. The Birmingham Green Historic District is significant architecturally because of the continued presence and integrity of this related group of buildings.
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† Daniel F. Ransom, Consultant, and John F. A. Herzan, Connecticut Historic Trust, Birmingham Green Historic District, Derby CT, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.