South Britain Historic District
The South Britain Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The South Britain Historic District is located in the geographic center of the Town of Southbury on Route 172, which is South Britain Road. The South Britain Historic District extends from the highway bridge over the Pomperaug River and dam northerly more than half a mile to the cemetery. It encompasses dam and mill sites, 18th and 19th century homes, churches, library, town hall, schools, stores, post office, and the cemetery, which together make up the village center of South Britain. In addition to properties fronting on South Britain Road, the district includes adjacent properties on East Flat Hill Road, Hawkins Road, Library Road, and Middle Road.
The South Britain Historic District encompasses approximately 70 acres, divided over 48 parcels, six of which are vacant lots. There are 48 major buildings, two sites, and two structures. Of the 48 major buildings, 11 are considered not to contribute to the historic and architectural significance of the district. The two sites are the cemetery and the location of a former woolen mill. The structures are the bridge and the dam. The 36 major contributing buildings break down in age and styles as follows: 8 eighteenth century; 27 nineteenth century; 1 twentieth century; 7 Colonial Era; 3 Georgian; 2 Federal; 10 Greek Revival; 3 Italianate; 2 Queen Anne; 1 Colonial Revival/Shingle Style; 8 vernacular.
Boundary Justification The section of South Britain Road from the bridge to the cemetery is traditionally considered to be the community center of South Britain. The South Britain Historic District boundary respects the tradition. 497 South Britain Road, below the bridge, and 833 and 842 South Britain Road, above the cemetery, are included because they are historic structures that are visually and physically part of the community center and belong in the district for that reason. South of the boundary are open spaces and non-historic structures, while north of the district boundary are several houses less than 50 years old. To the west the Pomperaug River, lying at the foot of a hill, is the boundary to East Flat Hill Road. Above East Flat Hill Road the western line of 709, 715, 755, 759 South Britain Road parcel is the boundary. This is a large parcel of open land, but much of it in mid-19th century was occupied by the South Britain Water Power Company reservoir, making it an integral part of the South Britain Historic District's history.
On the east, the boundary turns east at Library Road to encompass houses on the west side of Library Road that are part of the district cluster. On the east side of Library Road there are one house less than 50 years old and several vacant lots. Therefore, the east side of Library Road is not included in the district. Further north on the east side of South Britain Road are two large vacant lots, included for visual continuity. Only that portion of 864 South Britain Road, a large parcel, that is needed for continuity is included.
A community was established at South Britain because of the water power. The dam is located just above the southern boundary, near the bridge. Mills were located on both sides of the Pomperaug River. Remnants of a sawmill and shingle mill exist at 523 South Britain Road. More extensive stone foundations and stone walls of a former woolen mill are across the river on the parcel of 497 South Britain Road. The South Britain Water Power Company carried water from the river by trench or canal northerly to its 40-acre reservoir north of East Flat Hill Road. The canal, dry, is clearly visible to the west of 32 East Flat Hill Road. The Water Power Company sold the water privileges for establishment of the mill at 24 Hawkins Road, although the present 19th century building still in use as a factory is not the original.
Families associated with the mills lived in houses along South Britain Road. The oldest house is probably 584-586 South Britain Road. Its gambrel roof and 5-bay west elevation still retain their original appearance, but much about the house has been changed. 524 South Britain Road is an example of a twin-chimney, central-hall house in the Georgian style with Adamesque detail in its portico and cornice. 545-547 South Britain Road, across the street, has similar portico and cornice and is further distinguished by being an early example of a double house, unexpected in this semi-rural location.
The second quarter of the 19th century was the period of greatest mill productivity and therefore greatest domestic construction. Houses in the Greek Revival style, popular at that time, outnumber those in other styles. Two of the Greek Revival houses are constructed of brick: 657 South Britain Road is nicely detailed, with granite dressing, while 24 Hawkins Road, then and now on the same parcel as the factory, has a Neo-Classical Revival porch, probably added. Earlier traditional houses received Greek Revival style alterations during these years. The Congregational Parsonage at 639 South Britain Road is a case in point. It is a central-chimney 18th century house, but its doorway is flanked by pilasters, there is a frieze at its roof line, and its gable ends are treated as pediments.
The Federal and Greek Revival styles are represented by churches at the intersection of East Flat Hill Road. The Congregational Church has the three front doors, 2-story fluted pilasters and Gibbsian tower associated in Connecticut with the work of David Hoadley, and is patterned after his design. The Methodist Church across the street is an austere example of the Greek Revival style, now dilapidated.
The Italianate style of the Civil War era found expression in the 1873 Town Hall at 624 South Britain Road, now altered, and in the houses at 709 and 842 South Britain Road. 709 and 842 South Britain Road are different, the first having arched windows and gabled roof, the second having tall paired rectangular windows and flat roof, but both are good examples of their types.
715 South Britain Road is a Colonial Era house with five bays, central chimney, central entrance, clapboards and small-pane windows. From its exterior appearance, now dilapidated, and from reports of its interior condition, it appears that this house has the greatest integrity of any 18th century house in the South Britain Historic District.
Two other styles, the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival, are represented in reverse time sequence. The Queen Anne, the older style, is seen in the newer building, the store of 1907 at 667 South Britain Road, while the Colonial Revival, with the Rustic feature of high cobblestone foundations, is found in the South Britain Library of 1900, with influence of Shingle style, at 576 South Britain Road.
Families important in the history of South Britain are buried in the cemetery, which dates from early in the 19th century. The names Bradley, Mitchell, Canfield, and others, are found carved on stone of schist, marble, brownstone, and granite. One monument is Brittania metal, made by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport. The burying ground occupies a pleasant site, above the highway.
Most of the non-contributing buildings clearly belong in that category because they are less than 50 years old or have been severely and insensitively altered. 23-25 Middle Road is an example of the latter, being an old blacksmith shop and hall but altered beyond recognition. Two or three buildings, however, are marginal, especially 593-595 South Britain Road. This building may be a Greek Revival store, but with present portico, siding, and external stairway has been classified as non-contributing.
Buildings for all community functions are included in the South Britain Historic District: factory, houses, schools, churches, town hall, and stores. Generally of frame construction, they portray the architectural styles in vogue during the years of South Britain's development from the time of settlement to the time of the Civil War.
The 18th and 19th century structures of the South Britain Historic District are good examples of the architectural styles in vogue during the district's period of development. The comprehensive variety of building types gives an unusually complete sense of the district's historic integrity. The history of the water power-dependent community can be clearly read from its architecture.
The South Britain Historic District was settled early in the 18th century. Gristmill, sawmill, and fulling mill to serve the surrounding agricultural community were in existence near the dam prior to the Revolutionary War. Simeon Mitchell became a mill owner in 1798 and his son-in-law, Burton Canfield, built a 3-story mill for making carpet yarns for the weavers in New Haven, which operated until 1845. This enterprise was located at or near 523 South Britain Road, later becoming the site of the shingle mill shown on an 1868 map.
Other early industry included a tannery, shoe shops, and comb shops. The Curtiss Woolen Mill employed 50 people, while Benjamin Curtiss manufactured German silver into thimbles, spoons, spectacle frames and closures for overalls. The Hawkins shop also processed metal.
The Curtiss Woolen Mill was located across the river on the 497 South Britain Road parcel. It was succeeded by the Bradley satinet factory, which operated profitably during the Civil War, then burned down. In 1866 Bradley, Hoyt & Co. built the mill that still stands, much enlarged, at 24 Hawkins Road.
The South Britain Water Power Company went forward with its ambitious scheme to develop capacity of 300 horsepower, starting in 1853. By that time the increasing advantages of steam power and the increasing dependency of industry on railroads, which did not come to the district, boded ill for the success of the Water Power Company. Its facilities never were used. The period of development and growth for the South Britain Historic District had come to an end.
South Britain as an entity had its beginnings in 1761 when four months of "winter preaching" was granted on the grounds that travel to the Southbury church was a hardship. When this permission expired in 1765, it was followed by a successful petition to the General Assembly for a separate South Britain parish or ecclesiastical society. Its first meeting was held in 1766 in the home of Moses Downs, 662 South Britain Road, which later was to become the Methodist parsonage.
As South Britain developed in the 18th century, it came to rival Southbury center in importance. The location of the annual Town Meeting alternated between the two. At the end of the Civil War, South Britain had the strength and influence to have the new Southbury Town Hall of 1873 constructed at 624 South Britain Road, just at the time the district's period of industrial decline set in. The seat of Southbury town government continued at this location in South Britain until 1964.
Architecture - Criterion C
The South Britain Historic District is composed of good examples of American architectural styles from the time of settlement to after the Civil War. While the individual buildings have been altered over time, most of them retain their essential stylistic characteristics and, equally important, continue in their original relationship to one another. There are few intrusions. The relative integrity of the South Britain Historic District as a whole is a chief factor in its significance.
The earliest traditional style, based on the central chimney, is well represented by 584-586 South Britain Road and 17 Library Road, both altered but both still clearly exhibiting their early origins. The next style, called Georgian and based on the twin-chimney and central-hall plan, is found at 524 and 545-547 South Britain Road. Their classical revival details such as triangular porch pediments and dentil courses under the eaves marked the beginning of elaboration on what had been plain structures. The elaboration was carried forward in the Federal style at 583 South Britain Road with its characteristic leaded side lights and fanlight. The Congregational Church is an example not only of a fully developed Federal style design, but also of later alterations in a different style, a not unusual development in the history of South Britain buildings. At the church, alterations were made in the Renaissance Revival mode fashionable later in the 19th century, specifically by the replacement of fanlights with curvilinear and triangular pediments over the three front doors.
The style most used in South Britain was the Greek Revival style because its period of popularity, the second quarter of the 19th century, coincided with South Britain's most active period of development. The two brick houses at 657 South Britain Road and 24 Hawkins Road are somewhat unusual for the Greek Revival style because they use that material, and they are the only two masonry structures in the district. Several older houses were fitted with the Greek Revival details of pilasters flanking the doorway and gable ends made to work as pediments.
The Methodist Church at 636 South Britain Road is unusual because it has not been altered and because it is a fine example of the Greek Revival style. The front elevation of the church is disciplined, restrained, chaste in its simplicity and classic proportions.
The two Italianate houses at 709 and 842 South Britain Road were built in the same final years of development that brought construction of the Town Hall. These are significant because they are the last structures of the continuous period of development in the South Britain Historic District from the time of settlement to the time of declining industrial strength.
Two buildings date from after the period of development. Both have good integrity. The Library at 576 South Britain Road appears to be unchanged. Its cobblestone foundations, shingled siding, windows, and hipped roof with broad overhang all appear to be original in a combination of the Rustic and Colonial Revival styles. At the 667 South Britain Road commercial building the store fronts may not be original, but its distinctive 2-story porch and idiosyncratic roof line clearly identify it with the Queen Anne style.
Collectively, the 36 major contributing buildings of the South Britain Historic District give a clear record of the development of the community. Individually they are good examples of the pertinent architectural styles, working together to record and demonstrate through architecture the 18th and 19th century development of South Britain.
No explanation has come to hand of why the name South Britain was chosen.
Clark, Howard. Saga of Pomperaug Plantation. Southbury: Southbury Tercentennial, 1973.
Homes of Old Woodbury. Woodbury: Old Woodbury Historical Society, 1959
Kelly, J. Frederick. Early Connecticut Meeting Houses. vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.
Rockey, J.L., ed. History of New Haven County. New York: W.E. Preston Co., 1892.
Sharpe, W.C. South Britain Sketches and Records. Seymour, Connecticut Record Print, 1898.
South Britain Historic District Study Committee Report. Southbury, 1971.
Woodbury and the Colonial Homes. Woodbury: Woman's Club, n.d.
† David F. Ransom, Consultant and John F. A. Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, South Britain Historic District, Southbury, CT, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.