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Woodbridge Green Historic District


The Woodbridge Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Woodbridge Green Historic District encompasses the entire historic town center. Meetinghouse Lane, the principal road in the Woodbridge Green Historic District, runs between Center Road (Route 114), which forms the southern boundary of the district, to Newton Road, the eastern boundary. The Woodbridge Green Historic District consists of six major contributing institutional buildings arranged around the Green, a contributing historic site, and two contributing domestic structures. Two of the four memorials or monuments also contribute to the historical character of the Woodbridge Green Historic District.

In bisecting the Woodbridge Green Historic District geographically, Meetinghouse Lane also defines the limits of the private and public spheres of the complex. Four church-owned properties, which include the Green itself, as well as the church, a parish house, and a parsonage, are all located on one large lot (4.9 acres) north of Meetinghouse Lane. All the public institutional buildings are located to the west and south. Built between 1919 and 1940 and designed in the Colonial Revival style, they include the town hall, a former school (now a community center and police station), a library, and a firehouse.

The Church Green, now defined by a semi-circular driveway on the north side, was part of a three-acre tract deeded to the ecclesiastical society in 1742. A large boulder with a plaque on the west side of the Green marks the location of the original c.1740 meetinghouse. Except for an eight-foot strip along Meetinghouse Lane deeded to the town for angled parking, the size and shape of the Green remains virtually unchanged. While remnants of nineteenth-century tree plantings remain around the perimeter and along the east-west axis, including an elm and several tall firs planted on election day in 1864, and there is a more recent tulip poplar centered at the east end, most of the trees today are mature maples. A paved path winds up through the Green from Meetinghouse Lane to the church.

The 1832 First Congregational Church (3 Meetinghouse Lane; United Church of Christ), the oldest structure in the district, is a temple-fronted building (40' x 60') with a rear wing on the right elevation (40' x 25'). The flushboard facade displays a full pediment over a recessed open porch, with two fluted columns in antis, flanked by broad pilasters. Of the three sets of doors, the two on either side are original; the taller set in the center was added about 1860. The base of the three-stage bell tower is clapboarded; the second and third levels are sheathed with flushboard and detailed with stepped corners and peg-type dentils. The shallow dome is capped by a weather vane. The interior was remodeled in 1860; the aisles made level under new slip pews; the galleries lowered; and the walls frescoed. Acanthus leaves define the unusual Greek capitals of the supporting columns. An 1893 Victorian pulpit was replaced by a Neo-Colonial one in 1925, when the interior was restored.

The Congregational Parish House to the west combines two architectural styles. Pedimented end gables with rectangular windows, as well as the doorway of the original 1952 main block, reflect the Greek Revival influence, while its five-bay, gable-roofed form, clapboard sheathing, and window configuration are clearly Colonial Revival. An extensive rear addition completed in 1960, also Colonial Revival in style, consists of a 62-foot gable-roofed connector with dormers joined to a hipped-roof rear wing, which features a pedimented entrance pavilion and a cupola.

The other church property in the Woodbridge Green Historic District, the Congregational Parsonage on Newton Road, was built in 1927 to replace the earlier one across the street that burned. A conventional Colonial Revival style residence, it has a pedimented portico supported by round columns and elaborated with triglyphs. The associated garage is contemporary with the house.

The 1919 Woodbridge Memorial Town Hall is the first of the municipal buildings in the Woodbridge Green Historic District. A wood-frame structure with a high brick foundation on the side and rear elevations, it is distinguished by a broad pedimented facade porch with a coffered ceiling. The large fanlight over the entranceway utilizes radial wood muntins embellished with open ovals, a design also found in the quarter fans in the gable pediments on either side of the brick chimneys. The pedimented and pilastered main doorway surround is detailed with a dentil course and a divided light transom, a pattern repeated and enlarged in the glazing of the double-leaf doors. Dentil molding also defines the rakes and the cornices of the building. The rear additions in 1949 and 1956 were designed to match the existing building.

Center School, erected nine years later, faces the Green from the south (4 Meetinghouse Lane). The original Georgian Revival school, constructed of brick on a concrete foundation and water table, features matching projecting pavilions at either end of its 131-foot facade, and displays a large cupola with a gilded domical roof in the center of the gabled roof. Matching end pavilions feature triple brick pilasters under cornice returns, circular gable windows with keyblocks, and recessed panels with corner blocks. The main entrance in the center of the facade is recessed within a projecting pedimented pavilion and features a clock in the pediment. Separate entrances for boys and girls on the end elevations feature large round-arched transoms. Like all the town-owned buildings, the school has been enlarged; the extensive rear additions with flat roofs date from 1949 and 1956. To the right in front of the school is a flagpole with modern war memorial erected by the Veteran of Foreign Wars about 1975.

The 1940 Clark Memorial Library to the east faces Newton Road (10 Newton Road). Simply detailed in the Colonial Revival manner, the original brick main block (44' x 27') features a parapeted slate roof with integral end chimneys, capped with cast stone and connected by a wooden balustrade along the ridge. Among its other features are a brick water table, brick quoining, and contrasting cast-stone lintels over the door and the multipaned sash windows. The original wood-paneled interior now serves as a reading room for a much larger building.[1] In addition to an intersecting rear wing in 1969, the library was extensively remodeled and enlarged between 1999 and 2001. During the latter remodeling, the building was reoriented with the main entrance to the west. It is located in a post-modern pavilion at the intersection of two new additions, one of which is a substantial wing set at an angle (60' x 103). Woodbridge citizens who served in World War II are honored by a memorial located southeast of the library. It consists of a bronze plaque surmounted by an eagle set into the face of a large granite boulder.

The Woodbridge Fire Station was erected at the intersection of Newton and Center roads in 1930 (4 Newton Road). Utilizing a gambrel roof form, it features a Palladian window in the flush-boarded facade gable, and a full entablature with triglyphs and mutules. Two large truck bays with overhead doors complete the facade. The standing seam metal roof features pedimented dormers and an octagonal cupola with a pyramidal roof. Additions to building include a flat-roofed wing on the left elevation and a gambrel wing at the northeast rear corner. A recent memorial to the Woodbridge Volunteer Fire Association is located in the triangle southeast of the firehouse. The flagpole there honors Ernest E. Trowbridge for his 25 years of service to the organization.

Significance

The Woodbridge Green Historic District is a well-preserved and cohesive illustration of the influence of the Colonial Revival movement on early twentieth-century town planning. In its 30-year evolution around the colonial parish Green, the new town center came to encompass all the core institutions of a modern suburban community. In addition to the classic expression of Greek Revival ecclesiastical architecture, the Woodbridge Green Historic District contains a fine collection of institutional Colonial Revival architecture that is distinguished by its exceptional variety and level of style. Two of these buildings were designed by Dwight E. Smith, a New Haven architect noted for his development of this style.

Historical Background

Known as Amity in the eighteenth century, Woodbridge became a town in 1784. It was laid out to New Haven and Milford proprietors in the early 1700s, who petitioned for their own church society in the late 1730s. Following the usual memorial petitions to the General Assembly citing the inconvenience of travelling long distances to their respective town churches, the Amity church society was founded in November 1738 and a committee of the Assembly visited Amity to site the meetinghouse. As transcribed from the New Haven Colony records, the selected site was located on a lot belonging to Lieutenant Ebenezer Beecher, who donated two acres to the society. The committee's report also noted the presence of highways to the north and south and a "small piece of Common Land lying Joyning to said Beechers lott which with the Sd two acres will make a convenient Green for Sd Meeting House."[2] Beecher, the clerk of the new society, informed the Assembly that work had begun on the meetinghouse in October 1739. It was a rectangular structure (55' x 44') of the old style, with the entrance on the long side opposite the pulpit. Although the Reverend Benjamin Woodbridge, for whom the town was named, was settled as the first minister and served until his death in 1785, more than 20 years would elapse before the society could afford a bell tower for the meetinghouse. The shortage of funds was partly due to the defection of the parishioners in the northern part of the society, who began agitating for parish privileges as early as 1755. After securing permission to hold their own services in the winter, the new parish of Bethany was established in 1762.

Like most of the satellite villages that ringed New Haven, nineteenth-century Woodbridge was primarily an agricultural community with a dispersed population. Politically conservative by nature, like all the rural towns in New Haven County, it had voted against ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. And, in a period when other Protestant sects made up fully one third of the ecclesiastical societies in the state, Woodbridge was staunchly Congregational, and remained so for much of its history. The only serious challenge to Congregational hegemony occurred in 1822, when, in a schism so acrimonious that the records were expunged, 44 members broke away to found Union Church.[3] Although Bethany and Amity parishes had joined forces to become the Town of Woodbridge in 1784, Bethany seceded in 1832 and became a separate town. When the old townhouse to the north of the present center that had served the whole community was abandoned, the nascent crossroads village there faded away; and no other institutional or commercial center ever emerged in this period.

Perhaps spurred on by the fact that Bethany already had a new church under construction in 1832, First Church raised the funds to build the present Greek Revival edifice that same year. Amos Hine, a builder of more then 20 churches in the region, was in charge of construction. His brother, Edward, who dug the cellar and laid up the foundation for $325, salvaged the materials from the old meetinghouse as part of his fee, except for the old glass. It was reused in the windows for the basement, where town meetings now were held.

Agriculture remained a way of life well into the twentieth century. Woodbridge farmers and cattle dealers found a ready market in New Haven, as the city grew rapidly after the Civil War, reaching more than 100,000 residents by 1900. Hired hands, many of them Irish immigrants, replaced sons on many Woodbridge farms. By the end of the century dairy products, as well as ice and hay, were shipped by wagon to the city. In the early 1900s, Italians and other immigrants raised fruits and vegetables for urban consumption mainly on the "Flats" in the southern part of town. By then Woodbridge was even supplying the city with water. The New Haven Water Company began to accumulate land here and in neighboring towns in the 1880s, and by 1910, as much as 1750 acres in Woodbridge were part of this vast urban watershed.

Reversing the urban trend of the post-Civil War era, people began to move out of congested cities as early as 1900. The first streetcar suburbs sprang up around major cities. Places like Hamden, closer to the New Haven city limits and served by the trolleys, were among the first to develop. Because of the Woodbridge hills, however, trolley tracks running north out of New Haven stopped at the town line. Although a few seasonal visitors summered here, there was no real residential growth until the automobile came in common use. In 1910, when the population stood at 873, the Woodbridge Civic Association was formed, one of many similar organizations that grew out of City Beautiful Movement of the Columbian Exposition of 1893.[4] To attract permanent residents, the association published Woodbridge Hills in 1911, which promoted the joys and benefits of country living, said to be just a few minutes from New Haven by automobile. Included were testimonials from several physicians which claimed that Woodbridge's healthier climate had contributed to extraordinary longevity of the townspeople. Within a decade many newcomers built permanent homes in the community. Most of them commuted to work in New Haven, including those associated with Yale University who lived in an upscale development of architect-designed homes on Fairgrounds Road, so named because it was on the former site of the annual agricultural fair. While the population continued to grow, rising to 2,622 by 1940, Woodbridge remained a Yankee stronghold in this period. Old families dominated the political structure until full-scale suburbanization took hold after World War II.

Woodbridge began to assert its new identity as a modern suburban community shortly after World War I. Among the first of the suburbs to adopt zoning regulations, it also was one of the few communities to anticipate the need for a centralized government. Town planners, recognizing that suburban growth would require dedicated space for town officials, erected the new town hall in 1919. Although a number of communities built new town halls in this period, few went on to create a wholly new town center. Education was consolidated in Center School and five of the six district schools were abandoned. The volunteer fire department, which had operated out of one of the schoolhouses, had a permanent home in the center by 1930. The library, once housed in the town hall and then in the school, had its own building by 1940. Like many libraries in the nineteenth century, it was donated by a prominent citizen, in this case, by Dwight Noyes Clark in memory of his parents. Even the far-sighted planners in Woodbridge could not have predicted the four-fold growth in the second half of the century, but on the eve of World War II, the new suburban civic center was essentially complete.

Woodbridge was one of many Connecticut communities that participated in the Colonial Revival movement and looked to the past for architectural inspiration. One of the major cultural themes of the early twentieth century, the movement was a complex, multi-faceted response to the forces of modernization and cultural diversity that threatened the status quo. While its main thrust was the resurrection of American colonial architecture homes, as well as institutional buildings, post offices, town halls, libraries, courthouses and even settlement houses, were designed in the Colonial Revival style to recapture the glory of the Republic this nativist movement also embraced Americanization programs for immigrants in the public schools, produced a host of elite organizations based on colonial ancestry, such as the Colonial Dames and the Daughters and Sons of the Revolution, and promoted historic preservation. Colonial buildings associated with prominent historical figures were restored as house museums to educate the public. Whole towns, such as Litchfield and Williamsburg were restored to their supposed colonial appearance; smaller communities had at least one new public building that proudly recalled its colonial past. In Woodbridge, the potent symbolism of recreating the colonial triad of church, state, and school, albeit for a very different community, surely was not lost on the town's Yankee leaders. Indeed, with the Congregational Church and its Green as the focus, the new center celebrated the mythic Puritan tradition of a "city on a hill."

One of most fully developed collections of town-based institutional Colonial Revival in Connecticut, the Woodbridge Green Historic District exhibits an exceptional stylistic range. Fully integrated with the well-preserved, nineteenth century Greek Revival church and its ancient green through skillful design, orientation, and siting, the collection has a timeless quality that belies its early twentieth-century origins. Whether classically formal in composition or domestic in form or function, each of the well-preserved buildings in the center contribute to the overall collective significance of the district. This significance remains largely undiminished by major renovations in the modern period. Over time, although several different approaches were employed, new additions respected the original form and intent of these historic buildings.

To adapt colonial architecture to institutional design, architects and builders drew upon classical referents, using axially balanced facades, as well as Greco-Roman orders and detailing, to produce suitably imposing public buildings. Center School and the Town Hall clearly fall into this category. Perhaps responding to the cult of domesticity that accompanied the Colonial Revival, some buildings relied on purely residential precedents, as was the case with the library and the firehouse. The Woodbridge Memorial Town Hall of 1919 strikes a compromise that was imminently suitable for this still rural community. While rejecting the monumental, the design clearly announces its institutional function by the colonnade and the detailed pedimented doorway, but leaving the sheltered porch, extended low pediment, and exterior brick to convey a certain residential quality. By utilizing the same materials, features, and forms, the addition that steps down to the rear is hardly distinguishable from the original building. Center School instantly proclaims its educational function. A classic expression of its type and style, it is formally designed with balanced facade with projecting pavilions. Although similar to many brick schools of the period, it is distinguished by the level of style and the detailing of its three entrances. As intended, the large rear additions with their flat roofs play a minor role.

In scale and form, the original main block of the library resembles a colonial house, even though its parapeted gabled roof and brick construction are derived from southern colonies. The domestic influence is carried out in the paneling and fireplace of the main room, an idealized version of a colonial parlor. Remarkably, the recent major renovation major renovation of the library has had little impact on its integrity. Literally thousands of square feet make up the rear addition. In less skillful hands, an addition of this scale would have overwhelmed the historic building. Here however, its several components are sited to maintain a low profile, leaving the original structure as the dominant element when viewed from Newton Road. This extraordinarily sympathetic addition (1999-2001) was designed by Gallaher, Bair, and Best of Windsor (now Bair Joslyn).

The architect of the firehouse was Dwight E. Smith, one of a group of New Haven architects designing houses in Woodbridge. Given that townspeople were familiar with the local work of Douglas William Orr, Perry Duncan, noted for his design of Merritt Parkway bridges, and New York-based architect James Gamble Rogers, who designed many campus buildings at Yale, to be selected for this project was quite a honor. Little is known about Smith's career.[5] Architectural historian Elizabeth Mills Brown has identified one of his buildings in New Haven, a 1928 replica of the Deming House in Litchfield, a typical example of the historicism of the period. According to the 1994 architectural survey of Woodbridge, his local residential commissions included a reproduction Dutch Colonial, another Colonial Revival, and two exceptional brick Tudor Revivals.

With this professional background, it is not too surprising that Smith based his firehouse design on a domestic model, the gambrel-roofed Colonial complete with roof dormers. Perhaps conscious of the importance of the site as the gateway to the center, the architect dared to impose a level of style rarely found on this type of building, elaborating the facade with a dominant Palladian window, and integrating this classical feature by the related moldings and triglyphs. Despite this embellishment, the firehouse still conveys its public purpose in the purely utilitarian doors on the fire truck bays. Here again, despite the several later additions, the distinctive gambrel form of the original building is evident. Smith also employed a colonial house form for the Congregational Parish Hall. Freestanding, instead of attached to the church as originally planned, the broad horizontal form and massing of the hall balances and complements the vertical upward thrust of the church, making for a well-integrated architectural composition. While nominally Greek Revival in style, in revivalist terms and in the mind-set of the members, the church was perceived as "colonial," as indeed was most American architecture built before 1840. Having "restored" the church interior in 1925 in a Neo-Colonial manner, the membership obviously was pleased with Smith's plans to combine a gabled colonial form with Neo-Grec features, the pedimented gable ends and especially the main doorway, both of which nicely relate to the design of church. The large addition to the rear, designed by Edward F. Hammel of Clinton, Connecticut, and New York City, carries out the domestic theme in a more conventional Colonial Revival style.

References

Alexrod, Alan, ed. The Colonial Revival in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (for the Winterthur Museum), 1985.

Brown, Elizabeth Mills. New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Cunningham, Jan. Historic Woodbridge: An Historical and Architectural Survey. Connecticut Historical Commission and the Woodbridge Historic District Study Committee, 1994-95.

Whitlock, Reverdy. The Parish of Amity: A History of the First Church of Christ Woodbridge 1738-1901. Woodbridge, Connecticut, 1982.

________. The Parish of Amity II: A History of the First Church of Christ Woodbridge 1905-1997. Woodbridge, Connecticut: Amity and Woodbridge Historical Society, 2001.

Endnotes

  1. Woodbridge, the first minister of Amity Parish, who served from 1742 to 1785.
  2. For this quote and the following, see the transcription of the records of 1738 and 1739, Connecticut State Library (typescript), 1970. These records are the basis for the church's claim to ownership of the Green. More commonly, greens evolved from public land set aside by the proprietors, which, by custom and law, remained town property.
  3. Although this presumably Methodist group took their share of the church rate to build another meetinghouse nearby, Union Church did not survive much past 1850.
  4. The New Haven Civic Improvement Association had organized just three years earlier.
  5. Dwight E. Smith does not appear in any published biographical sources, in on-line data bases, such as the Avery Index, or in the obituary files at the New Haven Colony Historical Society. The latter omission suggests that he may have left the New Haven area before his death.

† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Preservation Associates, Woodbridge Green Historic District, nomination document, 2003, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Woodbridge Green Historic District Map

Street Names
Meetinghouse Lane • Newton Road

**Information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. You should independently verify any information you use for decision making.
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