Colchester Village Historic District
The Colchester Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. 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 Colchester Village Historic District consists of 77 major buildings and their associated outbuildings surrounding Colchester Green and extending north along Broadway and south along South Main Street and Linwood and Norwich Avenues in Colchester, Connecticut. The buildings in the densely built-up Colchester Village Historic District date mainly from the early to middle 19th century; however, some buildings date from the 18th century, late Victorian period, and early 20th century. Most of the early 19th-century houses have some Federal style detail, such as a fanlight in the tympanum or above the doorway, and several have hip roofs and quoins. Greek Revival style features, such as pilaster-and-lintel doorways and corner pilasters, are also evident on many of the Colchester Village Historic District's buildings. Some of the buildings display Victorian period decorative elements such as carved brackets, partly shingled exteriors, and porches with ornate features. Stone foundations, wood-frame construction, and clapboarded exteriors predominate. Throughout the Colchester Village Historic District there are 19th-century barns, carriage houses, and other outbuildings from the period of significance.
In addition to houses, the Colchester Village Historic District includes a number of institutional and commercial buildings. Among them are two Greek Revival style religious structures, the 1842 Congregational Church of Colchester and the 1836 Colchester Borough Baptist Church. Others include the Federal style Bacon Academy, 1803; the Neoclassical style Cragin Memorial Library, 1905; the Colchester Fire Station, c.1934; an 1880-1903 cluster of stores in "Merchant's Row;" and the Fairview Hotel and its vernacular rooming house, built c.1930.
Fifteen noncontributing buildings are located in the Colchester Village Historic District. The noncontributing buildings include a car dealership, a small take-out restaurant, a bank, several post-World War II houses, and some modern stores.
Colchester's Green is divided into two sections by the intersection of Route 85. A large spacious rectangular section of land lies between Hayward Avenue and Main Street and a smaller narrow triangular-shaped section lies north between Broadway and Main Street. Planted with tall shade trees, a large portion of the Green was created in 1850 as a result of a gift to the Town of Colchester from Nathaniel Hayward, who donated an extensive section of land west of his house on 35 Hayward Avenue. A baseball field and bleachers occupy the southeast section of the Green, while a modern gazebo is situated near the center.
In the northern section there is a Civil War statue sculpted by George E. Bissell; the statue was dedicated on September 17, 1875. In the smaller section of the Green sits a modern square-shaped marble Vietnam Memorial, a marble World War II and Korean War memorial, and a large boulder with a plaque set in commemorating World War I. The Green is counted as a contributing site. The two older war memorials are counted as contributing objects, whereas the others are less than 50 years old and are counted as noncontributing. The Inventory of Resources also includes the historic cemetery associated with the Congregational Church of Colchester as a contributing site.
Most of the buildings in the Colchester Village Historic District preserve their original form and much of their original detailing. Overall, alterations mostly consist of changes made during the period of significance, such as the addition of Federal style details to 18th-century houses in the early 19th-century, and Victorian remodeling, such as the addition of carved woodwork and porches. Although some buildings have shifted from residential to professional office or commercial use, alterations have generally been confined to side or rear portions so that the original residential appearance is maintained.
Colchester Village Historic District is significant because it illustrates an important aspect of the physical development of Connecticut towns, the emergence of village centers. Taken together, the historic buildings, sites, and objects in the Colchester Village Historic District document its long-standing and evolving role as the town's political, commercial, educational, and religious center. In the 18th century, Colchester's widely dispersed farm families journeyed to the town center to attend weekly religious services at the Congregational Church and to participate in town meetings. A tavern was also located in the area. In the 19th century, part of the center was developed as a town green, around which clustered the meeting places of social and religious organizations, a growing number of small businesses, and a greater concentration of houses. Public institutions, including a district school and a town hall, were also established in the village center. In addition, the area was the location of Bacon Academy, at first a private academic institution and then Colchester's de facto high school. Despite several episodes of economic downturns, the area continued to evolve as a town center well into the 20th century, as attested to by an elegant public library and several commercial buildings.
The Colchester Village Historic District also has ethnic-heritage significance, since many buildings have direct associations with the early 20th-century influx of Jewish immigrants, a episode of migration that greatly transformed the cultural landscape of Colchester and surrounding towns. Sponsored by the Baron de Hirsch Fund and other humanitarian organizations, residents of New York City were given training in agriculture and then sent to eastern Connecticut, where they became dairy and egg farmers. In addition to giving the town's economy a much-needed boost, the new residents affected Colchester by starting light-industrial and commercial businesses, particularly hotels and boardinghouses that catered to Jewish vacationers from the city.
The Colchester Village Historic District has architectural significance because many of its buildings are well-preserved examples that embody the distinctive characteristics of particular architectural periods and styles. The Federal and Greek Revival styles of the early and middle 19th century are particularly well-represented, with numerous finely detailed cornices, fanlights, porticos, and pilasters typical of those styles. Finally, the Colchester Town Green has landscape-architecture significance as an illustration of the mid-19th century movement that created park-like public open spaces to serve as visual and ceremonial centers for New England towns.
Community Development Significance
The area represented by the Colchester Village Historic District served in some ways as Colchester's center even from the earliest years of settlement. Incorporated in 1698, Colchester grew steadily in the 18th century as early settlers and their descendants cleared large tracts of land for farms. Because the first Congregational meetinghouse (no longer extant) and the town burying ground were located there, the area that is now the village center became the focal point of the growing community, a role reinforced by the presence of at least one tavern. In the early 19th century, the center of Colchester benefited from the intersection of several turnpikes, including the Hartford and New London Turnpike (1800), the Hebron and Middle Haddam Turnpike (1802), the Colchester and Norwich Turnpike (1805), and the East Haddam and Colchester Turnpike (1809). The presence of the converging turnpikes and the growing population in the late 18th century and early 19th century facilitated the establishment of a commercial center of stores and small shops, along with increasing numbers of houses clustered nearby. As Colchester's commerce and population grew, cultural and public institutions also gravitated toward the village center. For example, the Wooster Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, founded in 1782, for 15 years was the only Masonic lodge in Connecticut east of the Connecticut River. In the 18th century, the Masons met in the Hayward House, then in various other locations around the Green, including the Hayward carriage house and Wheeler Block, and finally, in the 20th century, in their present headquarters on South Main Street.
The 19th century saw an increase in religious diversity, and as other denominations formed, they held their services near the town center. The Baptists built the Colchester Borough Baptist Church in 1836 and an Episcopal Church (no longer extant) was built on the corner of Norwich and Hayward Avenues in 1867.
The village center also played a notable role in Colchester's educational history. In the early 18th-century children attended classes held in the Congregational meetinghouse. Later a schoolhouse was built at the center, serving as the district school for the central part of Colchester until 1910, when the Wheeler Block was donated to the town for use as a school (it became the town hall in 1936). In 1803 Bacon Academy was established to provide young men with a college preparatory education. Before his death in 1800, Pierpont Bacon, a wealthy Colchester landholder (and slave owner), donated land and other property worth over $35,000 to the First Society of Colchester for the establishment and management of a school. Since Colchester already provided primary education, it was decided to establish a prestigious secondary school to prepare young men for college and professional careers. In 1803 Bacon Academy began its first academic year with students from throughout the state and enjoyed several years of growth and prestige. In 1890 Bacon Academy was restructured by its trustees to become a privately funded high school for Colchester. In 1939 the Town of Colchester began to contribute tax money to pay the school's expenses.
The bylaws of Bacon Academy had one unusual provision: they stated that part of the funds were to pay for the education of African-American children. In compliance with this directive, a former district school (no longer extant) behind the Congregational Church was put into service as a special school for them. An instructor was paid by the town and many African-American pupils throughout the state attended the school, which is thought to have opened in 1804. During the 1830s the school experienced a considerable decline in enrollment, and it closed in 1840. In 1848 Bacon Academy began to accept African-Americans as regular students integrated into the classrooms.
Until the mid-19th century, Colchester was primarily an agrarian community, with only a few small water powered industrial enterprises, such as grist mills, a paper mill, and a tannery. Colchester's population diminished somewhat with the incorporation of Marlborough and Salem as separate towns in 1803 and 1819, respectively, and by the 1830s agricultural output was declining and the town was in a bit of a slump. That all changed in 1847 when Nathaniel Hayward opened up his Rubber Shoe and Boot Factory. The factory was responsible for a rapid growth in Colchester, not only in terms of population, but also culturally and commercially. Hayward was responsible for establishing the town green in the center of the village in 1850, and he organized a fire department in 1854. Colchester's farms had more of a market to produce for, and a number of commercial buildings were erected in the center, including a group at the north end of the Green (called Merchant's Row) and the Wheeler Block at the south end. The Colchester Savings Bank opened in 1874, and a small office in Merchant's Row began publishing a newspaper called The Colchester Advocate. In the 1870s the New York and Boston Air Line Railroad completed its line through Colchester, with a short spur leading into the village center, furthering the village's commercial viability.
In 1890 Hayward's company was sold to the U.S. Rubber Company and the Colchester factory closed. As a result, Colchester experienced severe economic decline and population loss. As unemployment rose, fewer goods and services were needed, causing both farms and merchants to suffer. Soon, however, Colchester experienced another economic lift in the form of the agricultural resettlement of Jewish families from New York. As a result of the influx of immigrants, Colchester began to thrive again, and the village area resumed its role as a commercial center for the town. New stores appeared, and a part of Merchants Row, which was destroyed by fire in the late 19th century, was rebuilt. Some of the village's houses were remodeled as hotels or boardinghouses catering to Jewish vacationers. Colchester Village also made several cultural and civic advances after the turn of the century. In 1905 the Cragin Memorial Library opened, with the basement serving as an athletic center for a local boys club, and in 1910 the Town of Colchester installed electric street lights to illuminate the center.
The Great Depression, however, brought an end to this episode of growth. The demand for vacation resorts disappeared, and industry, agriculture, and businesses of all sorts experienced stagnation or decline. Not until after World War II, when Colchester began to participate in the suburban residential development of the modern era, did growth resume.
Ethnic Heritage Significance
In the early 20th century, Colchester and other nearby towns experienced a large influx of Jewish immigrants. Sponsored by the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, residents of New York City's crowded neighborhoods were given a brief training program in agricultural techniques, as well as loans to buy farmland, and then resettled in rural eastern Connecticut, which, along with southern New Jersey, was the program's major resettlement area. Arriving at a time when Yankee families were leaving the land, the Jewish farmers undertook dairy and egg production and thereby made the area's farms economically viable for, in many cases, another two or three generations. Along with farming, some of the new settlers continued their urban occupations and used their farms as workshops for the manufacture of clothing, leading eventually to the establishment of industrial-scale enterprises in Colchester.
Partly because of the agricultural resettlement movement, Colchester became a destination for vacationers seeking a temporary respite from life in the city. Numerous hotels and resorts catering to Jewish tourists were opened, and many residents took in boarders; at the height of the trend, summer visitors numbered some 4,000 people. The Fairview Hotel was one such destination in the center of Colchester. Some of the vacationers chose to make Colchester their permanent home, further adding to the town's Jewish community. As a result of the boom in Colchester's population and economy, restaurants and stores again began to flourish, with many of the rejuvenated businesses oriented to the preferences of the Jewish community and owned and operated by Jewish families. In the years 1910-1925 Jewish settlement was at its height, with the group making up an estimated 50% of the town's population. After that peak, some Jewish families sold their farms to Polish, Slovak, and Ukrainian immigrants, many of whom also became successful in the dairy and poultry business.
Many of the buildings in the Colchester Village Historic District embody the distinguishing characteristics of particular periods and styles of architecture. The Colchester Village Historic District's oldest houses exhibit the clapboarded exteriors, gable or gambrel roofs, and center-chimney five-bay form that characterized the domestic architecture of colonial-era Connecticut. The Hayward House, for example, possesses all these defining characteristics of the colonial style.
The Federal style, with its emphasis on small-scale detail, geometric designs such as interlaced arches and the ellipse, and classically inspired decorative motifs, is epitomized by the district's many houses with quoins, fanlight transoms, and elliptical or semi-elliptical gable windows. These houses also illustrate the variety in form and floor plan that came in with the Federal period: hip roofs, gable-end-to-the-road orientation (usually with a full cornice return), and end or corner chimneys, combined with a center or side hall plan. The Isham House, with its elegant balustrade, Corinthian portico, and finally detailed cornice, is but one of several Colchester center houses illustrating the Federal style.
The Greek Revival style is embodied in the Colchester Village Historic District's many structures with Classical columns, wide corner pilasters, rectilinear shapes, and heavily proportioned moldings that characterized the style. For example, the Colchester Congregational Church (1842) exemplifies the use of Classical Greek precedents with its fluted columns, pediment, denticulated frieze, and pilaster-and-lintel doorway treatment. The range of Classical ornament used by Greek Revival builders is well-illustrated in the district, with not only large houses with free-standing columns and full porticos, but also the more common houses that relied on less-expensive corner pilasters and a return of the cornice moldings across their gables to create the "Greek-temple" appearance.
The Italianate style is represented in the several vernacular houses that include the characteristic round-arched window in their gables, as well as by the carriage house at 43 Hayward Avenue and the granary at 53 Hayward Avenue. The latter two are particularly richly detailed specimens of the style, exhibiting such key characteristics as a low pitched roof, wide overhanging eaves with decorative brackets, and elaborate molded surrounds on their circular and round-arched windows.
Also Italianate in stylistic inspiration are the Colchester Village Historic District's several turn-of-the-century commercial buildings. However, these have additional architectural significance because they exhibit the distinctive characteristics of the period's commercial architecture, including prominent cornice treatments, repetitious facade elements, and siting of the building directly on the sidewalk and so as to nearly completely fill the lot. Although primarily a city phenomenon, where such buildings often reached four or more stories, Colchester village's more modest two-story blocks show that even small towns could support a few examples of the period's distinctive commercial architecture.
Although there was relatively little building activity in Colchester Center in the Victorian period, the range of well-preserved examples of historical architecture in the district does include a few specimens of such Victorian types as the Second Empire style, with its characteristic Mansard roof, and the Stick style, with its characteristic cross-bracing, brackets, and other elaborate woodwork. The Queen Anne style is epitomized by the house at 187 South Main Street, which exhibits many defining features of the style, such as irregularity of massing, created by the overhanging side gable; textural variety, produced by the combination of clapboards, shingles, and diagonal boarding; and a dense combination of ornamental woodwork, especially on the porch.
Finally, Colchester's 1905 Cragin Memorial Library represents an outstanding example of the early 20th century's Neo-Classical Revival. Although a small building, the library achieves that movement's goal of a substantial, even monumental, appearance through the use of large-scale elements such as bold cornice modillions, wide arched windows, and massive columns. The use of specialty brick and the extent of architectural detail, both exterior and interior, further reinforce the sense of serious purpose, as was appropriate for the building's function as the town's public library.
Colchester Green is an example of the small park-like squares created in New England town centers in the 19th century. Although it does not descend from the town's colonial common, as most greens do, it underwent a similar process of enclosure, landscaping, and development. In 1850 Nathaniel Hayward, Colchester's leading industrialist, donated several acres of his land to the town for use as a public park. When combined with the open land owned by Bacon Academy, Hayward's donation created a substantial open space, one which was then outlined by re-routing the highways that intersected in the center to form its perimeter. The Green, planted with lawn and shade trees, then served as a focus for subsequent residential and commercial development. Additionally, it took on ceremonial importance as the location of publicly sponsored events and as the site of the town's monuments to those who served and died in the country's wars.
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† Bruce Clouette & Maura Cronin, Historic Resource Consultants and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Colchester Village Historic District, New London County, CT, nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.