Middlebury Center Historic District
The Middlebury Center 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 © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Middlebury Center Historic District is located on a plateau 700 feet above sea level, about 3-1/2 miles southwest of Waterbury in western Connecticut. The focus of Middlebury Center is the 2/3-acre green around which the community's churches, schools, library and town hall have been built since late in the 18th century. The Middlebury Center Historic District embraces these structures together with houses on North Street and Whittemore Road that constitute the residential neighborhood historically associated with the green. Surprisingly, the principal structures that now stand facing the green date from the 20th century. Most important among these are the buildings of Westover School. The Middlebury Center Historic District comprises approximately 103 acres and 50 principal structures. Westover School contributes approximately 20 of these structures.
There is one open piece of land, the green.
Selection of the site for the initial edifice of the Congregational Church in 1794 established the identity of Middlebury Center. The church faced west at what is now the western end of the green. The roads now known as Whittemore Road (Route 188), North Street, South Street and Library Road converged at this point, making it a convenient location. Because the roads crisscrossed one another, the green as a grassy plot did not exist at that time. The roads were re-routed around its perimeter and the green assumed its present size and shape in 1870.
Churches, schools and the town hall were built around the green. When the initial edifice of the Congregational Church was found to be inadequate, in 1840, the replacement structure was built on the north side of the green. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1935, at which time the present replica of the 1840 Greek Revival style building was erected. The long carriage sheds, important to the institution during the 19th century, were not continued.
The Methodists also selected the Greek Revival style in 1832 for their church on the south side of the green. In recent years, the 1832 building has been used as the library for Westover School. St. John of the Cross Catholic Church was built in 1907 in a Colonial Revival Renaissance Revival design, diagonally sited to face the corner of South Street and Whittemore Road just southwest of the green.
The first school building on the green was the Union Academy, a plain, 2-story, frame structure built in 1811 in front of the Methodist Church. In 1859 it became the public school and served this purpose until the end of the century, when the Library Road school was built to replace it. The Union Academy building then was moved away to become part of what is now a Westover School residential structure (The Nest). The nearby, shingled, Georgian Revival 1898 building on Library Road was built as a 2-room public school, later served as a town hall annex and as the town library, and now is occupied by the Middlebury Historical Society. Shepardson School was built of brick in the Georgian Revival style in 1931-32 east of the green.
The first town hall building, a 2-1/2-story, frame, Georgian Revival structure with pyramidal roof, built in 1896 and remodelled in 1916, was destroyed in the same 1935 fire that consumed the Congregational Church. Its replacement, on the same site, is a building with such features as two columns in antis and recessed pediment that echo the adjoining Greek Revival church, but the Town Hall is executed in brick instead of wood and has elliptical and round-headed windows and other elaborate details that suggest the Federal style.
Over the years other changes occurred. The Greek Revival structure on the north side of the green that had been a tavern was acquired in 1835 by the Congregational Church, which outbid the Methodist Church, as its parsonage, a function it continues to fulfill today. Other houses were built nearby, principally along North Street, leading down to what is now the main road, Route 64, that bypasses Middlebury Center. The Greek Revival and Colonial Revival styles predominate amongst these frame houses adding stylistic sensitivity to their regular spacing and sympathetic massing and scale.
While the Catholic Church was built in 1902-1907 on the southwest corner of Whittemore Road and South Street, great events were taking place across South Street on the southeast corner of the intersection. The store and blacksmith shop located there, which had been integral parts of the Middlebury Center community around the green, were moved away and Westover School was built, in 1906-1909, to the design of Theodate Pope Riddle. Its principal building is a hollow square ,in-ground plan, 270 feet long in the front elevation facing the north toward the green. Its style is a restrained, straightforward version of Colonial Revival executed in a cream colored stucco. Notable embellishments are the school crest and motto in high relief in the pediment over the central entrance, the large cupola in the roof and the Gothic Revival chapel in a section of the building that projects to the left. The interior layout of the building generally follows the scheme of a central hall flanked by rooms on either side with a notable exception in the fine 2-story space for functions and receptions called Red Hall. The room is furnished today as it was in 1909 with Colonial Revival furniture. The architect's original plans of the building are framed and hanging on the wall.
The interior court of the building is cloistered on three sides, using 3-centered arches. This arcade motif was used in 1984 to tie together the main building with a brick student activities center built in 1962. The student activities building was painted the same cream color as the main structure and the new arcade, adding to the sense of unity. The 1984 building program included construction of a new 72 x 155-foot library and science center, in contemporary architecture, in back of the new arcade, between the arcade and South Street.
There are several structures on the Westover School campus that predate the school, including the Methodist Church and Union Academy buildings already mentioned, Faculty House, a 1900 frame residence, and Hamilton House, an 18th-century Colonial house. Other buildings have been constructed by the school from time to time. Riddle drew plans for Virginia House in 1916, while the headmaster's residence (1964) is a mid-20th-century structure.
There remains to mention only the two properties at the western edge of the Middlebury Center Historic District on the south side of Whittemore Road. The Eli Bronson House, 1321 Whittemore Road, is a large, Colonial Revival, gambrel-roofed, frame residence designed by the local architect/builder, Arthur S. Judd. It is well set back from the road, has extensive grounds, and is altogether a more prepossessing property than other homes in the district, such as those along North Street. Next door, 1365 Whittemore Road, is Judd's shop, a long rectangular frame structure that includes an apartment where he lived before his marriage.
The buildings of the Middlebury Center Historic District are good examples of 19th- and 20th-century styles in domestic, ecclesiastical, civic and school architecture, existing in their original setting and totally free of intrusions. The buildings as artifacts of the changes that have occurred in the district in the 19th and 20th centuries delineate the community development or lack thereof over the past two centuries.
The Colonial house on the grounds of Westover School, the oldest in the Middlebury Center Historic District, has been little altered on the exterior. It displays its original appearance of 2-1/2-stories with clapboard siding, gable roof covered with wooden shingles, central chimney, central doorway and five bays of windows, 12-over-12 on the first floor and 8-over-8 on the second. It has all the typical features that are found in a house of its era.
The late Georgian and Greek Revival houses along North Street, while not remarkable, also are good examples of their types, showing the simple massing and classical details of the styles. The Greek Revival Methodist Church of 1832, on the other hand, is of above average interest. Its granite ashlar foundations, plain pilasters, paneled doors and semi-elliptical louver are evidence of clear understanding of the style and of good craftsmanship, as is the graceful interior stairway that rises from basement to gallery against the front wall. The continued, unimpaired existence of all these features together with maintenance of the basic integrity of the 2-story interior space make the building a strong contributor to the significance of the Middlebury Center Historic District.
The architecture of the Congregational Church, although built in 1935, is to be considered in the context of 1840, the year of construction of the building that it replicates. More sophisticated than the neighboring Methodist Church across the green, the Congregational Church has two Greek Doric columns in antis, a deeply recessed pediment and 2-stage steeple with crowning parapet, as well as an interior with coved ceiling and delicate Doric columns to support the galleries. The church is a fully developed example, in replica, of the Greek Revival style.
The absence of any non-residential buildings in the Middlebury Center Historic District constructed between 1840, when the Congregational Church was built, and 1898 when the Library Road School was built, is striking. St. John of the Cross (1902-1907) was the first building of the 20th century, a product of its times reflecting the Colonial Revival in its pavilion frontispiece and the Renaissance Revival in its two square towers with open belfries, its round-headed windows and the cross pattern glazing of the transom and tympanum over the double front door. It also is a product of its time in the use of rubble masonry as construction material. This rustic treatment was popular soon after the turn of the century over a wide area and, in addition to the church, is found in the district in foundations and front porches of Colonial Revival houses along North Street and of the 1898 school.
The 1906-1909 construction of Westover School was the largest construction project in the history of the Middlebury Center Historic District. In step with the times in the sense that it is basically Colonial Revival, the design is forward-looking because of its clean lines and use of relatively little detail. It has classical details such as its central pediment, small paned windows and cupola, but is without the delicacy of the Congregational Church embellishments and without the medieval antecedent of the heavy balustrades and cross pattern glazing of St. John of the Cross. When embellishment is used at Westover School it is accentuated, such as the high relief motif in the tympanum and the arbitrary use of Gothic Revival for the chapel. The gabled root covered with slate is a prominent feature that effectively pulls together the composition as a whole. The hollow square plan with interior cloisters and wide opening leading to the playing fields beyond works well, providing easy circulation, a sense of community and prepossessing effect.
Additions to the original Westover School buildings from time to time have included Virginia House, designed by the original architect in 1916, the headmaster's contemporary residence (1964) and the rather awkward student activities building (1962). The design work done in connection with the 1984 Library and Science Building introduced a frankly modern building into the complex while at the same time, through use of the long arcade and traditional color, brought a sense of unity to the campus that it had long been lacking.
The two town school buildings fall into the same general stylistic category of Colonial Revival but are quite different from one another and from Westover. While Westover reflects in its design and materials the forward-looking orientation and individuality of its architect, the two town schools are more conventional. The 1898 building on Library Road, with its shingled siding and eyebrow dormers, suggests a little of the Shingle style in its otherwise correct usage of Georgian-derived features.
The red-brick-and-white-trim Shepardson School is a perfectly acceptable but routine example of its type from the 1930s.
Considering that the district has existed as an entity for as long as two centuries, the number of architectural styles represented is smaller than might be expected. The romantic revival styles of the second half of the 19th century are not represented, for the reason that little or no building was done during these years. The buildings that do exist are good examples of their types, some better than good. The most sensitive and successful designs are those of St. John of the Cross Church, Westover School and the 1935 reproduction of the 1840 Congregational Church. The Middlebury Center Historic District as a whole, however, is different from most as an architectural experience because it exists wholly without intrusions, a perfect record of its own historical development.
Regrettably, it is not possible to include the name of the architect of St. John of the Cross Church here because his identity is unknown. He achieved the felicitous combination of the Renaissance Revival and Baroque styles with the rubble stone building material despite the circumstance that construction was spaced over five years, using volunteer labor and stone donated by parishioners from their fields.
Known architects who worked in the district, arranged in the sequence of their work there, were the following:
Theodate Pope, later Theodate Pope Riddle (1868-1946). One of the nation's first prominent women architects, Riddle assisted McKim, Mead and White in the design of her father's home, Hill-Stead, in Farmington (1901). Her contribution was of sufficient importance to be acknowledged in the firm's bill for the design of the house. It resembles Mount Vernon with gabled dormers in the roof over a long 2-story porch. Other principal works by Pope include the restoration of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in New York City for which she was awarded the commission in 1919, Avon Old Farms School of the 1920s, based on the architecture of the Cotswolds, and the Chamberlain House, 1910, in Middlebury.
Arthur S. Judd (1879-1952) was a local builder/architect. He served in that dual capacity for the Eli Bronson House (1911) and as a principal in the contracting firm of Judd & Bronson for construction of the Shepardson School (1931). Additional work by Judd in the Middlebury Center Historic District includes the Library Road school, remodelling of several houses and construction of shops and alterations to buildings at Westover School. On the one hand, Judd was not a registered architect (although he could have been grandfathered at the time the requirement for registration was initiated), so did not sign his drawings. He considered himself to be primarily a builder. On the other hand, he was a designer in his own right and did not use pattern books. In addition to his activities as an architect/builder, he operated a lumber and coal yard at his shop, and he was active in local and state politics. His obituary appeared on page 1 of the Waterbury Republican.
S. Wesley Haynes and Harold E. Mason were partners in a Hartford firm listed in the city directory for 1931, the year of the Shepardson School, as architects and engineers. Mason had been associated with the Frank Irving Cooper Corporation in the winning design for Weaver High: School in Hartford (1921) and was employed for many years in the city's building inspection department.
In view of the excellence of the Congregational Church replica of 1935, it is not surprising to learn that its architect, Elbert G. Richmond, AIA (1886-1965), as a young man worked in the New Haven office of J. Frederick Kelly, Connecticut's first and most famous restoration architect. Richmond's training included a session at the summer school for American architects at Fontainebleau, where he won a first prize. After a period in Miami Beach, he came to Waterbury where he practiced for 40 years. His commissions included rehabilitation of the railroad station and design of the Grace Baptist Church, the Watertown Golf Club and the Watertown and Western Hills Golf Club. The Middlebury Center Historic District's Congregational Church and Town Hall clearly reflect his fine training and skills.
Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects are a practicing New York firm who have designed buildings at Princeton University, State University of New York at purchase and Dartmouth University.
The first settlers arrived in what is now the Town of Middlebury in the early 1700s, displacing Algonquin Indians. Early mills and the earliest surviving houses were built north of the district where streams provided waterpower. By the late 1700s there was sufficient population to justify petition to the General Assembly for establishment of a separate Middlebury ecclesiastical society, and such action was taken by the legislature December 29, 1790. The first church edifice was completed four years later, on the green in the district. Other buildings normally found in a village center followed, including store, tavern, school, blacksmith shop and other churches. The town was incorporated in 1807.
By nature of its geography, Middlebury was fated never to be anything but a country town. Far more important sources of waterpower than were found in Middlebury were located on the Naugatuck River, eastward at Waterbury. As the industrial importance of water power diminished, the railroad was built up the Naugatuck River valley bringing growth and development to cities on its right-of-way, but not to Middlebury. The active construction and expansion programs that occurred in many of Connecticut's towns during the second half of the 19th century simply did not occur in Middlebury. This fact is brought home by the absence in the Middlebury Center Historic District of any examples of the romantic revival architectural styles.
While these conditions were negative in many ways, they were, on the other hand, quite positive in terms of evaluating a potential location for a new boarding school for young women. Consequently, it is not difficult to understand why Mary R. Hillard and Theodate Pope were drawn to the site when they decided to launch a new school. The two women had been friends since Pope had been a student of Hillard's at Miss Porter's School in Farmington. Subsequently, Hillard had been headmistress of an Episcopal girls school in Waterbury. Middlebury, only several miles from Waterbury, was an understandable choice of location for the new enterprise in the light of these circumstances. Costs of construction of the school were largely defrayed by Pope's father, Alfred Pope, and John L. Whittemore. Hillard served as headmistress of Westover School for its first 23 years.
The fact that the history of the Middlebury Center Historic District has been free of major events, other than the construction of Westover School, for two hundred years, helps to define its significance. It has pursued a calm course of gentle development without major change of direction in one way or another. Consequently, the residential structures on North Street, the handsome Eli Bronson House, and the town, church and school buildings surrounding the green are an accurate record of the 200-year adjustment of the country village to changing times.
The founding of Westover School was an example of the trend toward education of women by women that gained momentum in the early 20th century. In that era, education was not seen as being in conflict with the "real" world of business, and therefore was open to increasing numbers of women students. Schools and colleges for women only enabled women to establish a separate sphere in education, one where women were in control and women could be employed. Miss Hillard's initiative in founding a school within this reference was in step with the times. She was fortunate in having Theodate Pope, a strong feminist, as an architectural and financial ally. Together they forged a new secondary school for young women that was administered by women for several decades in a movement that saw similar schools established across the country.
Bronson, Delia S., Notebooks. At Middlebury Public Library.
Commemorative Photo Album, Middlebury's 175th Anniversary, Middlebury, Middlebury Historical Society, 1982.
Cunningham, Phyllis Fenn, My Aunt and Godmother, Miss Mary Robbins Hillard, Founder and First Principal of Westover School, nd. At Westover School.
Duryee, L.M., "Early Middlebury — Some Historical Notes typescript, 1973. At Middlebury Public Library.
Fanning, Rev. John G., letter to author, September 20, 1984.
Judd, Arthur S., obituary, Waterbury American, February 23, 1952, p.1.
Judd, Henry A., Hon. AIA, Chief Historical Architect, National Park Service, ret., letter to author, nd (October 1984).
The Middlebury Congregational Church, (1796-1940), nd. At Middlebury Public Library.
Paine, Judith, Theodate Pope Riddle, Her Life and Work, New York: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. 1979.
Pond, Marjorie Mason, interview, c.1970.
Richmond, Elbert J., obituary, Waterbury American, March 4, 1965, 4:8.
Rockey, J.L., ed., History of New Haven County, Connecticut, New York: W.W. Preston & Co., 1892, chapter 27, pp. 757-773.
Westover School: 1909-1984, Middlebury, Westover School, 1984.
Woloch, Nancy, Women and the American Expedience, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
† David F. Ransom, consultant and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Middlebury Center Historic District, Middlebury, CT, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.