Wooster Square Historic District
The Wooster Square Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. 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 Wooster Square Historic District is an attractive and unique residential community located a few minutes walk from the center of New Haven. During the middle of the nineteenth century it was a fashionable residential area which ship captains and wholesale grocers, and successful entrepreneurs found conveniently close to their places of business.
The development of the square occurred primarily between the years 1830 and 1870. Some of the most notable buildings in the area were erected in the 1840's and are the work of the well known New Haven architect Henry Austin.
Some of the notable homes in Wooster Square
Russell Hotchkiss House — 7 Wooster Place. The Hotchkiss families were a large clan and three of them were among the earliest residents of the square. The building was built in 1844 belonging first to Russell Hotchkiss and after that to Edward Stephens who managed, the New Haven Clock Company after it was reorganized by James English. The architectural history of the house is a puzzle. It began as a plain two-story house of the 1840's. After its purchase by Edward Stephens around 1870 changes were made — most probably. The new roof cornice was added and a rear wing. Its most interesting and attractive feature are its lovely iron balconies. It is not certain when these were added.
Mayor Robertson House — 37-39 Wooster Place. The house was built in 1836 for the daughter and son-in-law of Abraham Heaton, one of the group who developed Wooster Square (later Heaton's son-in-law became mayor of New Haven). The house is typical of the Greek Revival work which was done all over New England in the 1830's, and it shows most of the typical characteristics of the style. The porch of the house is very fine with a pair of the best designed Greek Revival columns in New Haven.
Court Street — In the early nineteenth century the area which became Court Street was Mix's Museum and the Columbian Gardens. It was a combination beer house and ice ream parlor, wax museum, and public bath. But after it went out of business the gardens were sold for house sites. These houses were torn down in the 1870's as part of an ambitious project to redevelop the Academy Street side of Wooster Square. This housing project sponsored by the Home Insurance Company had a longer life than the first buildings erected in the area. They were among the first to be rehabilitated in Wooster Square. Court Street is attractive as a place. It is a pleasant walkway leading from the park to the heart of the city.
The Wooster Square Historic District has irregular boundaries. In general it includes Wooster Square Park; all structures facing on Wooster Square from Chapel, Academy, and Greene Streets and Wooster Place; those which face each other on Court Street between Academy and Olive Streets; those which face south on Chapel Street from Olive Street to I-91. Those which face north on Chapel from Olive to Chestnut Street; and a few structures facing south on Wooster Street and north on Columbus Street.
Edward Rowland House — 42 Academy Street. This house with a double bow front was modelled on the Betts House at 607 Chapel Street which may have been designed by Henry Austin. It has the bow front typical of houses in Boston but rare in Connecticut. When it was built an iron railing around the roof and the fence that repeated its pattern along the sidewalk gave the building a very finished look. Rowland, the original owner was a wholesaler who built houses, lived in them, sold them and moved, on to the next.
Matthew Elliot House and Garden — 541 Chapel Street. This Greek Revival house was built around 1835. It was the home of the successful entrepreneur Matthew Elliot who began his career working in the wholesale grocery business and ended it as a director of a railroad. He was involved in civic affairs in New Haven and in real estate and building. After Elliot, the house was owned by Charles Goodyear who along with Eli Whitney was one of the major figures in the industrial development of New Haven. Goodyear lived here only briefly but in 1890, Paul Russo, a prominent Italian immigrant moved in here, one of the first members of the Italian community which transformed Wooster Square into the Italian neighborhood that it presently is.
552-562 Chapel Street. These row houses are good examples of the architecture of the post-civil war period. The Second Empire facade transforms six private buildings into a grandiose public structure. Later additions have altered the impact of the central portion of the building — replacing the heavily textured slates of one of the central Mansard roofs with glass.
Willis Bristol House — 584 Chapel Street. The house is important for the career of its first owner and for its architecture since it is one of the distinguished homes designed by Henry Austin.
The career of Willis Bristol is typical of the way many fortunes were made in the 19th century. It shows us the change that was taking place in American society from hand trades, which were concentrated in family groups where skills were passed on from father to son, to the impersonal factory system of modern times. In the city directory for 1840, Willis Bristol is one among several Bristols who are either shoemakers or shoe merchants. But out of his family trade, he gradually developed a large and profitable company, Bristol and Hall, Boot and Shoe Manufacturers. By 1860 he had become one of the most prominent businessmen of New Haven.
Architecturally, the house is basically an Italianate Villa: the unusual features are the oriental qualities of the decoration and muntins of the windows and the entry porch. The house is one of three in a row of four which were designed by Henry Austin.
Governor English House — 592 Chapel Street. The house and the career of its owner James English are important documents of nineteenth century social history. The house was built in 1845 and designed by Henry Austin.
James English started as a carpenter and soon became a master builder and contractor, building a number of important buildings in the city including the new State House. From this he moved into the lumber business and formed a partnership with Harmanus Welch, who later was Mayor of New Haven and whose house, also by Henry Austin, still stands on Warren Street. After amassing a sizable profit, he and Welch retired from the lumber business and bought up the bankrupt clock factory that had been started by the visionary Chauncey Jerome.
English and Welch reorganized the business and renamed it the New Haven Clock Company, English became President and soon made it the biggest clock manufactory in the world. By the time of the Civil War, the plant was exporting clocks to Europe, China, and Japan.
James English was a public-spirited citizen and was widely respected. He was elected to Congress on the Democratic ticket during the Civil War, and soon after he was elected Governor of Connecticut. He said that he was the first governor who had ever walked on a state house floor that he had laid himself.
This house is one of the rare cases in New Haven where both the architect's plan and the house itself still exist. Henry Austin's own drawings for the English House are now in the Rare Book Library at Yale. Originally the house was a typical Austin villa of modest size, almost identical with the Lewis House (613 Chapel Street) and with the James Dwight Dana House at 24 Hillhouse Avenue. It was painted a light buff and the woodwork was a slightly darker shade of the same color. Basically it was just a simple square house and what made it distinguished was the trim — the exotic leafy columns of the porch and the scalloped border that ran along the top of the wall under the roof, fortunately when English raised the roof he kept all this.
The house is important both for its association with Henry Austin, New Haven's leading architect, and with Governor English, one of its most distinguished, citizens.
Critical to the setting of the pleasant houses in Wooster Square is the rectangular park at its center which is bounded by Chapel, Academy, Greene Streets and Wooster Place. It is a large park crisscrossed by paths, well-planted by trees, and ornamented, only with a tall statue of Christopher Columbus in the center of the Chapel Street side.
Wooster Square received its name from Major-General David Wooster who maintained a warehouse on Wooster Street prior to the revolution, and who lost his life in 1777 in Fairfield while leading his troops against the British. Until 1825 when it was purchased by the city and Wooster Place built, the square was a field used for ploughing contests. By the 1840's it was a fashionable residential area which attracted many of the prominent citizens of the town.
Before the turn of the century, the growth of industry around the square made it an increasingly less attractive neighborhood for the socially prominent and home ownership began to come into the hands of the Italian-American families, many of whom were able to make a living by using their homes as stores. Adaptation to commercial uses and the low incomes of the new owners downgraded the neighborhood so that by the 1930's urban renewal plans called for total clearance and later plans for the new Interstate 91 would have routed the highway through the park.
None of these things happened, however, due to a fortunate concatenation of circumstances in the 1950's which permitted the beginnings of neighborhood renewal. The Wooster Square Project emerged in 1950-60 as a major focus of the New Haven urban rehabilitation program at a moment when external events combined to spark a community-wide conviction that the neighborhood was worth saving. Some of the events which contributed to this conviction were projects by architectural students at Yale who created models for a restored Wooster Square, the intangible but real drive which Italian-Americans have for home ownership, the relatively high earnings during World War II which had permitted savings, and the public endorsement of the architectural potential of the neighborhood by the New Haven Preservation Trust. All these provided vital impetus in a period when low interest rehabilitation loans and grants were still not available to help the homeowners.
From the point of view of public participation in the project one of its most important aspects was the construction of the Conti Community School — a first of its kind when it was completed in 1965; another was the rehabilitation of Court Street tenements which were the worst housing in the area. This involved investment of public funds and their resale to private owners. These demonstrations of support, excellent community relations, and the advice of a young architect from Yale, gave form to the desire of individuals to use their own savings to upgrade the status of the community. In the process of the celebration and encouragement of the area, the New Haven Preservation Trust published two volumes dealing with the history of Wooster Square and its architecture. These were circulated to residents and to city officials. The appointment of an Historic District Study Committee followed, and when other legal requirements had been met a mail ballot revealed that the historic district had the support of a great majority of neighborhood residents.
The Wooster Square Area project was an effort of national importance. Though possibly atypical because of the raw materials — valuable architecture, the mores of the Italian-American community, the vitality of mayor Lee's urban renewal administration — it nonetheless demonstrated to the nation's city planners a new potential for the rehabilitation of deteriorated neighborhoods. Wooster Square has historical significance in its embodiment of the architectural trends and fashions of the nineteenth century and its social history as well. The social importance of the self-made men of the period is demonstrated by the architectural individuality of the buildings they inhabited.
New Haven Design. Prepared by Mary Hommann, published by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency, 1965.
The Historic Houses of Wooster Square. Written by Elizabeth Mills Brown and published by the New Haven Preservation Trust.
† Constance Luyster, Connecticut Historical Commission, Wooster Square Historic District, New Haven, Ct, nomination document, 1970, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.