River Park Historic District
The River Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. 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 River Park Historic District is located in the town of Milford, a community on Long Island Sound on the southern coast of Connecticut. Encompassing the residential and institutional center of the town, the River Park Historic District generally lies between the Boston Post Road on the north and Milford harbor on the south, with the commercial district to the immediate south on Broad and lower River streets. It contains 192 buildings and sites. Eighty-eight percent (168) of these contribute to the historic character of the district: 160 buildings and eight structures and sites. A major centrally located component of the River Park Historic District is a river park system containing three parks and six structures — four bridges, and two dams. All but one of these structures pre-date 1936, a bridge built in 1952 (King's Bridge, Maple Street). Only 12 (7%) of the contributing buildings were built before 1800; the remainder are divided almost equally between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of the 23 non-contributing buildings, 13 are of recent construction (after 1936) and ten do not contribute to the character of the River Park Historic District because they no longer have historic architectural integrity.
The Wepawaug River winds down through the River Park Historic District, entering Long Island Sound at Milford's harbor, less than a quarter mile below the district. Stone retaining walls along its banks define the course of the river, and two stone dams with waterfalls control its flow. Ten acres along both banks of the river, landscaped with mature trees, create a continuous series of picturesque river parks. This large elongated open space in the center of the district is bordered by North and West River Streets on the east and west side, respectively, generally the boundaries of the local historic district. The River Park Historic District boundaries for the National Register are extended to include the secondary streets that cross the river on a series of four twentieth-century bridges and radiate out from the parks.
Although "beautification" programs in the early twentieth century radically altered the historic appearance of nineteenth-century Milford, the physical layout of the River Park Historic District is virtually unchanged since the early colonial period. When Milford was established in 1639, house lots were concentrated in two separate settlements along the principal watercourses. Rather than the more common single axial pattern, both town plots had two streets, a double axis, with a river running north to south between them. The primary eastern settlement, the larger of the two, is the nucleus of the River Park Historic District. With only minor variations, the location of the present-day roads and bridges date from the early settlement period. River Park, from which the district derives its name, is the largest, occupying most of the ten acres set aside for the city's park system. It has been open space, common ground, since settlement. The river itself, once the source of power for gristmills and nineteenth-century industry, still follows its original course with one exception. At King's Bridge, a small island in the river now forms part of the east bank.
The nineteenth-century appearance of the River Park Historic District was transformed in the early twentieth century. North Street was the commercial/residential center of the town through the nineteenth century. By the late 1800s the locus of commerce had begun to shift to Broad and lower River streets just to the south of the district; some of the small shops and stores adjacent to, or part of, existing houses were abandoned, to be demolished or converted exclusively to residential use. The process was accelerated just prior to World War I by the Village Improvement Association. Largely due to its efforts, the entire district became completely residential for the first time in its history. Shops remaining along the river banks were demolished after the land was bought up by these concerned citizens. The old mills and factories along the river were also torn down as part of the same beautification effort, leaving only the dams and waterfalls as mute reminders of Milford's industrial past. Today only two historic industrial buildings remain and they are located on the outskirts of the district (11 Cherry Street and 108-116 West Main Street). Sub-standard houses on the island in the river, where many of Milford's black families lived in the nineteenth century, were also torn down. To complete the transformation, the river banks were landscaped between 1920 and 1935, creating Milford's extensive river park system. River and Higby parks, the earliest, were projects of the civic group, Jefferson Park, a W.P.A. project during the Depression.
In the absence of a professional archaeological survey, the archaeological potential of the park area is difficult to assess. Sub-surface material may exist but there are no visible surface remains from either the nineteenth-century industrial activity or the residential use of the island in the river. The dam to the immediate north of King's Bridge has created a pond in this location which may post-date the historical occupation of the island. If so, the dam was quite possibly constructed after 1911 as part of the park development program. All or part of the original island is now incorporated in the east bank of the river above the bridge. In any event, all the visible traces of nineteenth-century occupation of the island have been obliterated. Between King's Bridge and Meeting House Bridge residential properties abut the banks of the river, particularly on the east bank. Between these houses and the river may be an area with greater archaeological potential, but again no professional survey has been conducted. Stone retaining walls, of the type constructed on the riverbanks throughout the parks, were built here as well, the only obvious disturbance in this location.
Two institutional buildings are the principal architectural foci of the River Park Historic District. The Milford City Hall, located at the southern terminus, is the fifth town hall on this site. The present building, constructed in the Classical Revival style with a rotunda, dates from 1916. From the rear of the City Hall there is an unobstructed view along the river to an equally imposing building, the 1823 United Church of Christ Congregational Church, built in the Adamesque style. Five other institutional buildings across the street to the west of City Hall include a large educational complex between West River and West Main streets. Three public schools were constructed there between 1908 and the 1970s, on the former site of at least two colonial-period houses (Old Milford High School, Old Central Grammar School, and Milford High School). Currently  all the schools are vacant and in the process of being rehabilitated for use as an office park. The county courthouse and the post office to the south of the school complex were both constructed in the 1930s.
Between the City Hall and the church, historic residences along the principal streets face the river park area from the east and west. Although several predate 1800, most of these houses were built in the early nineteenth century. Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century houses are generally found on the side streets that extend out from the park to the east and west. Several of the shorter streets, such as Plymouth Court, which were laid out with small lots for development in the twentieth-century, contain clusters of similar houses which resemble the pre-cut houses sold in this period and exhibit influences of the Arts and Crafts style in their overhanging eaves and exposed rafter ends (9, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18, 21, 24, 25 and 28 Plymouth Court).
The range and level of style of the domestic architecture in the River Park Historic District is limited. Most of the surviving houses are quite modest, vernacular versions of a few contemporary architectural styles particularly those built after 1850. Consistent with this architectural simplicity, common construction materials were used more for their utilitarian than their esthetic value. Rather than brick or stone, all of the houses were built of wood. Full brick construction did not occur until the twentieth century and even then it was reserved for schools and other public buildings. Carved or turned wooden detailing is the exception, rather than the rule. Until about 1860, rubble foundations of broken granite were favored. Although this type of foundation was common before 1800, the absence of dressed and coursed stone foundations for even the larger, more formal houses of the nineteenth century is unusual. After the Civil War until about the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, brick underpinning was common, giving way to rusticated cinder block, and finally to concrete by the end of the historic period.
Few houses survive from the colonial period in the River Park Historic District; most of them have been altered to some degree. The Thomas Buckingham House (61 North Street), reputed to be the oldest house in Milford (about 1650), was remodelled by the mid-eighteenth century. Despite the weathered appearance of the clapboards on the facade, this house today appears more typical of many of the three-bay, center-chimney colonials built in Connecticut until after the Revolution. Part of another house (Reverend Sherman House, 36-38 West Main Street) is also dated by tradition from the seventeenth century, but historic alterations have totally obscured its original form. The least altered of the earlier houses is the Nehemiah Bristol House (124 North Street) built about 1700.
The one-and-one-half story gambrel at 100 Buick Avenue and the Abijah Carrington House at 88 West Main Street, with its five-bay facade, are probably more representative of the types of colonial houses once common in Milford. The exterior of both houses has been totally restored with new clapboards and windows, and the center chimney of the latter has been rebuilt. Several examples of the one-and-one-half-story Cape style located at 30, 51 and 90 Governor's Avenue possibly date from as late as the early nineteenth century. Two of them were originally built as shops. An early interesting example of this form at 24 North Street is the 1725 Samuel Durand House. Its shed-dormered roof flares out over a facade porch which now displays scalloped wood trim.
Few houses in the River Park Historic District today can be identified as Federal in style, although several date from that period. At least two of these Federal-period houses have undergone a series of historic alterations: the 1780 David Miles House at 33 North Street (corner of Plymouth Place) and the 1790 Thomas Sanford House at 111-113 North Street. Many of the original Federal details have been retained on the interior of the former house, including Federal dado panelling, fireplace surrounds, and sweeping central hall, but its present exterior appearance resembles the Late Greek Revival style. The Sanford House was built with a half-gambrel roof with dormers in 1790 and doubled in size in 1850; the porch was added across the long facade about 1880. Another case in point is the William Strong House at 1 Plymouth Place built by Captain Peck, a local carpenter/builder, in the 1820s. Federal style features survive, such as the doorway fanlight (now at the second story), but the eaves now display Gothic scroll work.
Peck was also the builder of the 1823 Congregational Church on the corner of West Main Street and West River Street. Neo-classic in the Adamesque manner with its fanlights and slim, fluted Ionic columns, its form foreshadows the Greek Revival style favored for churches and houses for at least the next three decades. The plans for the church may have been borrowed from David Hoadley, who designed a similar church in Orange (formerly North Milford) and Cheshire about the same time.
The Greek Revival was a major stylistic influence in the nineteenth century until about the Civil War. At least 20 houses survive that were built in this style. They are characterized generally by the gable-to-street temple form with cornice returns or a full pediment. A notable group of cube-form buildings were built in this style as well, with a one-story colonnade in the Ionic order across the facade, a feature of at least one of the temple-form houses as well (18 North Street, William Bush House). Scattered throughout the River Park Historic District, they are so similar in form, size, and detail that they may have been constructed by the same architect/builder. (For example, 67 Prospect Street, David Baldwin House and 130 West River Street, Dennis Beach House). Two nearly identical houses at 13-15 and 17-19 Cherry Street are unusual examples of Late Greek Revival style row houses. These cube-form, clapboarded buildings retain their two-decker porches.
Small Victorian cottages and simple vernacular gable-to-street or cross-gable form houses were built in the district between 1860 and 1900 in great numbers. Earlier examples can be found on Governor's Avenue or North Street. By the end of the century houses like the group of three on West River Street were constructed. The Queen Anne influence is evident in some of the notable exceptions, but the River Park Historic District has none of the massive, rambling Victorian piles commonly found in Connecticut's towns and cities in the late nineteenth century. Only one fully detailed mansion has survived, the Italianate style Mary Hepburn Smith House at 144 West River Street. Several more modest examples of this style can be found on Maple Street and Governor's Avenue (such as 7 Maple Street, A.B. Ruby House and 15 Maple Street). A Stick style house at 28 Cherry Street that has retained all the detailing on the house and its period carriage house, is more modest in scale. The Second Empire style also had some impact in the River Park Historic District. Several houses display mansard roofs, including one hybrid, the Daniel Buckingham, Jr., House (125 North Street), built as a Greek Revival about 1840, with a mansard roof added about 1870.
Many of the twentieth-century houses in the River Park Historic District are generally Colonial Revival in style, some with Dutch-Colonial influence in the flare of the gambrel roof. Typical examples include 47, 58, 64 and 102 Cherry Street. The other house styles that are also quite prevalent are the Queen Anne/Colonial Revival, sometimes called the Free Classic style, or the Bungalow.
The River Park Historic District comprises the residential and institutional center of Milford. It is a significant and distinguishable entity which illustrates the development of the town from settlement to the present (1650-1936). Good representative vernacular examples of most of the major domestic styles are contained within the River Park Historic District, including a notable group of well-preserved Greek Revival style houses. The major focal component of the River Park Historic District is its river park system, a significant demonstration of early twentieth-century community planning. This historic landscape adds significance to the district's collection of domestic architecture and provides a unique setting for its distinguished institutional buildings.
Forty-two of the 60 planters of Milford settled in the area encompassed by the district about 1640. Most were dissenters from the New Haven Colony. They came to Milford not simply to establish a new town but to form a new colony. The group was led by the Reverend Peter Prudden, one of the ministers with the Davenport and Eaton Company, founders of New Haven.
Although the Milford planters had separated from the New Haven Colony over the issue of church membership as the condition for the franchise, the new colony was modelled on the old. Seven "pillars" of the church were elected to be responsible for town and church government; five judges were appointed to regulate civil matters. Within a few years, Milford had reassessed its position and realigned with the New Haven Colony, but the uneasy alliance dissolved for good in 1644 when Milford became part of the Connecticut Colony. Property ownership then became the basis for civil rights. Only one of the original planters' houses exists today, the Thomas Buckingham House at 61 North Street (ca.1650). Buckingham was one of the first seven pillars.
Milford grew slowly during the colonial period with little more than 1,600 people living there by 1755. With a natural harbor and access to the ocean, a small shipping industry had developed by 1700. Fishing and oystering supplemented the standard colonial diet, the latter to become a major industry by the middle of the eighteenth century. Six houses remain in the River Park Historic District which date from the first half of the eighteenth century. The earliest unaltered example is the five-bay, center-chimney house built about 1700 at the corner of Bridge and North Streets (124 North Street, Nehemiah Bristol House).
The nineteenth century was the beginning of a new era for Milford. It was marked by the building of the Jefferson Bridge across the Wepawaug River in 1802 at the site of the present bridge, an auspicious beginning for a prolonged period of prosperity. Although oystering and fishing continued to be major occupations along with shipping from the harbor, new sources of wealth were developed. Within a few years industries such as carriage manufacturing played an important role. The famous Beach Carriage Factory, founded by two brothers, received national recognition when President James K. Polk ordered one of its carriages. Several members of the Beach family built their houses in the district between about 1830 and 1860 (117 North Street, James Beach House; 125 North Street, Daniel Buckingham, Jr./Hammond Beach House; 133 North Street, Harvey Beach House; 130 West River Street, Dennis Beach House; 198 West River Street, Samuel Beach House). Hammond Beach, one of the founders of the carriage business, owned and may have lived at 125 North Street. He was responsible for the addition of the mansard roof to this Greek Revival style building. Dennis Beach built across the river at 130 West River Street, a fine example of the Greek Revival style with an exceptional Ionic colonnade and side portico. Shipbuilders and merchants still played an important role in the town in this period, as evidenced by some of the fine houses built by men like David Baldwin, whose Greek Revival style house at 67 Prospect Street is quite similar in design.
The present church of the United Church of Christ Congregational was built in this period, replacing the second building on the site dating from 1723. On the other side of the river, the Second Congregational Society of Milford built a Greek Revival style building designed by Sidney Mason Stone of New Haven. It was demolished in 1951 and replaced by the Plymouth Educational Building (18 West Main Street). Ironically enough, when the Second Society broke away in 1741 from the original Milford church the dissident group was led by the great-grandson of Peter Prudden, Job Prudden, in the first "Great Awakening."
The railroad was established in Milford in 1848, opening the town up to a larger transportation network and fostering industrial growth and residential development. The line passed through town along the shore. A wooden trestle bridge which serves the railroad today is located just to the south of the district, along the southern property line of 24 Prospect Street, marking the boundary between the residential and commercial districts that exist today. By the end of the century an electric trolley line was operating in Milford, bringing to the town summer visitors who built seasonal cottages along the shore. Modest housing for the middle and working classes proliferated throughout the district. It was interspersed between existing earlier houses on North and West River streets. The remaining land on West Main, Maple, and Cherry streets and Governor's Avenue was divided up into individual building lots for the construction of vernacular examples of Queen Anne and Italianate styles.
The urbanization of Milford was completed in the twentieth century but it had a limited impact on the district. Population growth was phenomenal, peaking during both World Wars. Evidence of the growth after World War I is clear in the proliferation of Colonial Revival style houses on the periphery of the district in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly on the west end of Governor's Avenue and Cherry Street. Winthrop Court was laid out for development in this period, where a group of 16 small houses utilizing only three or four house plans were constructed (19-54 Winthrop Court).
In the 1940s war-related industry and new industries in the postwar period attracted newcomers to town. Seasonal cottages were converted to permanent residences to relieve the housing shortage, a repetition of a similar occurrence during and after World War I. Although tract housing was built in the outlying areas in the 1950s and 1960s, few modern houses were built in the district, primarily due to the lack of available building lots. The demolition of historic houses to make way for new residences has begun on West River Street, however, and may be the beginning of a trend.
Evaluation of Architectural Significance
The river parks, which are the dominant visual element in the River Park Historic District, are a unique resource. The historic open space of seventeenth century Milford has been preserved and overlaid with the historic and esthetic sensibility of the twentieth century, creating a remarkable demonstration of community planning. While the impulse to beautify home towns in this period was a common phenomenon, it was generally confined to the colonializing of existing homes by private property owners. In Milford it became a full-scale community effort. The initial impetus clearly came from the private sector but the project was supported and fostered by the town. Municipal participation is evident. The bridges and retaining walls along the river are all publicly funded projects as are two of the parks. The parks today are all owned and maintained by the City of Milford.
The beautification of the Wepawaug River with these landscaped parks has created an open vista of exceptional design. Not only does it bring into sharper focus the two principal institutional buildings the classic white church and the impressive town hall but it reinforces the ideological importance of these institutions throughout most of Milford's history. These buildings are exceptional and architecturally significant in their own right outstanding examples of the Adamesque and Classical Revival styles because of their level of style and craftsmanship. Both are well-preserved throughout and enhanced by the open landscaped setting.
The architects who designed the City Hall were Everetts Tracy (?-1922) and Edgerton Swartwout (1871-1943). The plans, drawn by Tracy, the principal of this Bridgeport, Connecticut firm, were discussed and reproduced in architectural journals of the period.
By contrast, the domestic architecture, while making a substantial contribution to the historic character of the River Park Historic District, does play a relatively subordinate role. The historic streetscapes that surround the parks are characterized by a similarity of form and scale, an impression reinforced by the almost exclusive use of white paint. The straightforward construction of the houses, utilizing the most ordinary of building materials and limited architectural detail, adds to the effect. A major exception is the group of Greek Revival houses with colonnaded porches. They command attention because of their distinctive cube forms and exceptional craftsmanship.
It is evident from the surviving residential architecture that Milford had a relatively limited economic base throughout most of its history. Modest vernacular housing for the middle class was constructed throughout the district even in the colonial period. Mansions of the Georgian style, such as are found in other coastal cities, are missing from the historic streetscape, as well as the later mansions of the Victorian period, although some of these types may have been built and not survived. What does remain is a well integrated and exceptionally well-preserved collection of historic resources. Examples influenced by most of the major architectural styles can be found in the district, including Gothic Revival, Italianate, Stick, and Queen Anne. Each house is distinguished by some degree of architectural detail and makes an important contribution to the collective architectural significance of the River Park Historic District. The primary importance of these cultural resources, therefore, lies in their historical significance. To quote from the report of the Historic District Study Committee, "[they] reflect the continuing change and development of the whole history of the town since its founding."
Ford, George Hare. Historical Sketches of the Town of Milford. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor Co., 1914.
Historic Maps of Milford, 1835, 1855, 1868.
Milford Connecticut; 325th Anniversary. Milford, Connecticut, 1984.
"Report of the Historic District Study Committee." Milford, Connecticut, 1975.
† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, River Park Historic District, Milford, CT, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.