North Branford Center Historic District
The North Branford Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
North Branford Center Historic District, located at the original four corners of the Town of North Branford, Connecticut, incorporates character-defining land and buildings of the center from days of earliest settlement in the 17th century through the year of the town's incorporation, 1831, and on into the 20th century. The Green, Congregational Church, burying ground, school, town hall, library, tavern, and store are on Foxon Road/State Road 80, the main highway which runs southwest/northeast, while houses dating from the 18th century are located on side roads to the north. Most of the 18th-century houses are on North Street, which lies between the hills of the valley of the Branford River.
The buildings in the North Branford Center Historic District are of modest size, the church being the largest. Its sanctuary is 40' x 51'. All other buildings are domestic in scale, including the store, town hall, and library. Colonial and Colonial Revival are the dominant architectural styles, with the Greek Revival, Federal, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Stick, and Queen Anne styles recognized through use of details more than by fully articulated examples. All buildings are frame, with the exception of the library, which is brick.
The triangular Green was where Revolutionary War volunteers gathered in 1777 and is the site of five monuments memorializing conflicts from the Civil War to Vietnam. The North Branford Center Green is small compared with others in comparable Connecticut towns, but, not having been reduced in size over the centuries, today still occupies approximately its original bounds. The adjoining Congregational Church building, constructed in 1908, is the third edifice on the site. It is a mixture of Romanesque Revival round arches and square tower with Colonial Revival classically inspired trim. Its chapel is older, dating from 1887 in a Gothic Revival/Stick style mode.
The burying ground and school/town hall, across Foxon Road from the church, are the only resources located south of the highway. Burials originally were made in the churchyard, but over time more space was needed. The school, which is next door to the burying ground, dates from the Civil War era, becoming the town hall when school consolidation occurred after World War I. Its space now in large part is used as a senior center.
The Clark Store is also a mid-19th-century building, with early 20th-century shop windows. Its second-floor hall was the scene of community activities such as meetings, dramatic productions, and dances. Several additions have changed the primary function at present to housing.
The Atwater Memorial Library, the only masonry building, is an example of Colonial Revival/Georgian Revival architecture popular at the time of World War II. Its red brick and white trim, gabled wooden portico, flat window arches with keystones, quoined corners, and central cupola are all in line with good practice at the time.
The North Branford Center Historic District has six two-story 18th-century Colonial houses and a single one-story example. The two-story five-bay buildings include 1 Library Place, the Hezikiah Reynolds House, which has gambrel roof and 6-over-2 windows; 11 North Street, the Dennis Hart House, with Italianate porch and 1-over-1 windows; 19 North Street, the Nathan Harrison House, sited on 10 acres, one of the largest parcels in the district; 29 North Street, which at one time was the Congregational Parsonage and still has a kitchen fireplace in the ell; 40 North Street, the Timothy Russell House, an original saltbox; and 45 North Street, the Samuel Eells House, now covered with weathered wooden shingles.
All have gable roofs with the exception of 1 Library Place, which has a gambrel roof, as does 28 Church Street, the Jacob Page House, which is the North Branford Center Historic District's only one-story 18th-century house. The Page House also is different because it has three bays instead of five.
Houses in the North Branford Center Historic District reflecting 19th-century architectural styles are both less numerous and more varied in design. While the 18th-century houses are all in the Colonial style, by contrast the 19th-century examples have only one house in each style. 1640 Foxon Road, the General Philo Harrison House, clearly articulates the Federal style. 37 North Street, the Elizur Foote House, is transitional between the Federal and Greek Revival styles, with the distinctive three-bay temple front toward the street; 60 North Street, the Seth Russell House, built later in the century, is Italianate; while 52 North Street, the Charles F. Holabird House, is quite different from the others with its Queen Anne/Stick-style asymmetrical massing and classical details.
When the Bungalow became a popular American architectural style in the 20th century, examples built in the district included houses at 20 Church Street and 43 North Street. There is also one Cape-style house at 25 Church Street.
In the North Branford Center Historic District the buildings and spaces are a visual record of the history of a typical town center as it developed in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In North Branford these resources are in place with unusual concentration and integrity, generally well-preserved and free from intrusions. Buildings and land with town-center functions, such as church, Green, tavern, store, library, burying ground, school, and town hall, as well as houses, remain in place in their original relationship to one another, augmented by houses which are good examples of Colonial and later architecture. The collection of 18th-century Colonial houses, the largest segment of the North Branford Center Historic District's resources, is outstanding, and is augmented by examples of the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne styles of the 19th century. The history of a representative small Connecticut community is readily apparent from these resources.
The area that is now North Branford was part of the New Haven Colony settled under the leadership of Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport in 1638. By 1653 the eastern section of the colony was known as Branford. The Connecticut General Court authorized an ecclesiastical society separate from New Haven in 1687, an action which, as was so often the case in Connecticut, started Branford on its way to becoming a separate town.
Settlers in the northern part of Branford soon expressed dissatisfaction at the onerous journey required to comply with mandatory attendance at weekly church services, a common complaint in remote regions of colonial Connecticut communities. Again following the usual Connecticut pattern, in 1717 they petitioned the General Court for a second ecclesiastical society, a request which was granted in 1722. The resulting Second Ecclesiastical Society completed its first meetinghouse on the site of the present church edifice in 1731.
Since the minister was the leader of the community in both religious and temporal matters, the early history of North Branford is intimately tied to the careers of the first ministers. The first three ministers are interred in the North Branford Cemetery in the district. They were Jonathan Merrick, who served 1727-1769; Samuel Eells, 1769-1808; and Charles Atwater, 1808-1825.
Upon assuming the pastorate, the Reverend Samuel Eells bought nine acres of land and built his house at 45 North Street in 1769, where it continues to stand, on the original nine acres.
The economy of the district necessarily was self sufficient and agrarian. Settlers were farmers, concentrating on the cultivation of crops such as wheat, rye, and corn. Many also followed a second commercial activity by having shops on their properties for trades such as shoemaker, printer, button maker, or blacksmith. These trade shops were essential to the community's society, and provided an additional building type now no longer in evidence.
Residents of the northern part of North Branford repeated the complaint about the long distance traveled from home to church, leading to establishment of the Third Society, known as the village of Northford, but both Second and Third Societies together were incorporated as the Town of North Branford in 1831. Thus the geography of the town was based on bounds established by religious function long after disestablishment of the Congregational Church by the Connecticut constitution of 1818.
The church continued to hold its prominent position in the town center. The first edifice was replaced in 1830 in the Greek Revival style with a building constructed by Volney Pierce, and again in 1908, after a fire, with the present sanctuary. The 19th century brought other new buildings, including the store and school, as well as houses in 19th-century revival architectural styles. Construction in the 19th century, however, decreased from the 18th-century pace, a trend that was accelerated by arrival of the railroad in 1871. Introduction of new fast transportation put North Branford in communication as never before with wider commercial opportunities. Availability of competitive goods transported by rail put an end to North Branford hand trades and shops. All aspects of district society no longer were tied to the land; the industrial revolution had ushered in a new era even in this small country town center.
Census figures reflected the change. Population declined from 1,025 in 1880 to 825 in 1900 as young people took advantage of the new transportation and communication facilities to broaden their horizons. Conditions at this low level of activity remained stable to 1940, when population was 1,438, before exploding to 10,778 in 1970 in response to post-World War II expansion, mostly as a residential area. The North Branford Center Historic District has less physical evidence of the mid-20th-century development explosion than most of the town.
Buildings in the North Branford Center Historic District are good examples, well preserved, of Connecticut village architecture in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The largest single segment of the resource, and most significant, is the group of seven frame 18th-century houses which remain standing on their original sites and in their original relationship and spacing with respect to one another.
The oldest example in this category is at 40 North Street, the Timothy Russell House, 1764. Appropriately enough, it is a Saltbox, the archetypical Colonial design. Windows at the second floor in its five bays are smaller and with thicker muntins than those at the first, indicating that they may be older. The doorway has a surround that is complete but restrained in its classical components. The central chimney is brownstone, one of three in the district. The material of the new roof, wooden shingles, is indicative of the general level of preservation apparent in the premises. Side lawns are extensive, with stone terraces, a brook (Branford River), and two ponds to the rear. The site today is large, as it was historically, and probably is more carefully landscaped now than in the past.
45 North Street, the Revered Samuel Eells House, is symbolic of the commitment to the parish made by the new minister in 1769. It is sited well back and above the street on the slope of the hill which forms the eastern side of the Branford River valley. Its heavy two-leaf Dutch door is unique in the district. The front elevation has five bays, as do all the houses in this 18th-century group, save one (28 Church Street). The chimney, now brick above the ridge but reported to be brownstone below, serves seven fireplaces in the large house.
The Second Ecclesiastical Society long owned 29 North Street, 1772, as a parsonage, buying the property from the Reverend Charles Atwater, who followed the Reverend Eells. It served as the parsonage, 1838-1952. The house has distinctive detailing in its narrow plain window surrounds with flat projecting caps and its four-pane vertical sidelights.
Both the Dennis Hart House, 11 North Street, and the Jacob Page House, 28 Church Street, date from 1785. Features of 11 North Street were substantially altered in the mid-19th century, witness the Italianate front portico and 1-over-1 replacement windows. There is a large two-story addition to the rear. 28 Church Street is different from other 18th-century houses in the district in several important respects: It is smaller, is one story high, has only three bays, and is capped by a gambrel roof.
The Hezekiah Reynolds House, 1 Library Place, 1786, is the only one of the group located adjacent to the main highway, Foxon Road. The location no doubt contributed to use of the property for a variety of civic and commercial purposes. The front elevation has a distinctive door, hinged in the middle as well as on the hung edge, and a gambrel roof with pronounced Dutch flare to the front eaves. An ell clearly in the Greek Revival style probably is the most accurate articulation of the style in the district. The last in the 18th-century group, 19 North Street, the Nathan Harrison House, 1796, is distinctive for several reasons: It is large and has a brownstone chimney, 12-over-1 replacement windows, and a six-tombstone-light transom in which the lights are arranged in two groups of three. All four elevations have double overhang. For this house the location of a former outbuilding, a barn on the site, is known. In all probability most houses in the district had one or more outbuildings which were important to the visual character, and to the function, of the rural town center and which have been lost.
The rate of construction fell off in the 19th century to only six known projects. In non-residential buildings, the store, 1700 Foxon Road, 1851, and the school, 1675 Foxon Road, 1870, are both plain rectangular buildings with Victorian-era embellishments, while four domestic buildings reflect the development of architectural styles which occurred as the 19th century progressed. The domestic buildings include 1640 Foxon Road, the General Philo Harrison House, 1820, in the Federal style, a tavern but also a residence, with its carriage house at 4 Church Street; 60 North Street, the Seth Russell House, unusual in the North Branford Center Historic District because it is 1-3/4 stories high and a tentative statement of the Italianate; 37 North Street, the Elizur Foote House, 1854, a late example of transitional Federal/Greek Revival architecture; and 52 North Street, the Charles F. Holabird House, 1879, which is unusual in the district because of its extreme height and Queen Anne-style treatment.
Construction declined again in the 20th century to five buildings, which are 20 Church Street, 1920, and 43 North Street, 1924, two Bungalows; 41 North Street, 1935, a small vernacular house; 25 Church Street, 1939, the district's only Cape-style house, and 1720 Foxon Road, the Atwater Memorial Library, 1943, Colonial Revival. All five are reasonably successful examples of their types, the library being the most ambitious and the one building in the district for whose design a professional architectural firm has been identified.
The North Branford Center Historic District's initial period of growth is well reflected by its outstanding group of 18th-century houses. The smaller 19th-century roster of civic and commercial buildings, which is representative of the era, carries the district through a level period of limited growth. In the 20th century, the more ambitious Colonial Revival library is a symbol of the arrival of the post-World War II population explosion and intensive development which occurred in the Town of North Branford as a whole, but which brought few changes to the district.
Gregan, Janet S. Historical and Architectural Resource Survey of North Branford. Statewide Historic Resource Inventory. Connecticut Historical Commission, 1980.
North Branford Assessor's records.
Ransom, David F. "Soldiers' Monument, North Branford CT." Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 59 (1994) 1-4, pp.113-115.
Van Dusen, Albert E. Connecticut. New York: Random House, 1961, pp. 55-56, 73-74.
† David F. Ransom, consultant and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, North Branford Center Historic District, North Branford, CT, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.