Noank Historic District
The Noank Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Noank is a village on a small peninsula, vaguely ear-shaped, at the western edge of the entrance to Mystic River Harbor. With water on three sides and the double-tracked railroad corridor cutting it off on the northwest, Noank has an isolated feeling, much like an island. The land is fairly level and high in the center of the peninsula, but drops off sharply as one moves toward the water. The village gives the appearance of being densely settled, and there is hardly any open land. However, the narrow, winding streets and the several small courts or lanes leading to houses built in the middle of blocks accentuate this impression; actually, except on Pearl Street, the houses are spaced fairly well apart.
Although the village is almost entirely residential, there are about a half-dozen businesses clustered around the intersection of Pearl and Main Streets. Two large 19th-century frame buildings, the Fitch Store and Palmer's Store, are still in commercial use. The former, built in 1851, is highly eclectic, with pilasters, hoodmolds, brackets, and a gambrel roof. There are within the Noank Historic District two marinas and a yacht club. The largest of these, the Noank Shipyard, is on the site of the old Palmer Shipyard at the southern end of the peninsula. The buildings are all of recent construction. There are also two gas stations, three or four docks with lobster or fish businesses, one seafood restaurant, and a modern brick firehouse. Industrial buildings include a c.1930 cannery on Bayside Avenue and a small, brick, former velvet mill at the foot of Main Street. The latter was built in 1905, was for many years a state-operated lobster hatchery, and is now part of the University of Connecticut (UConn) marine research facility. Other university buildings include a modern steel boat house, storage sheds, and a 2-1/2-story Greek Revival building formerly Latham's Store, the only remnant of the commercial activity which once flourished around the nearby dock.
The boundary of the Noank Historic District was delineated primarily on an architectural basis. The entire peninsula was included, but nearby Goat Island was not, because the two or three buildings on it were built after the 1938 hurricane washed away all previous settlement. The houses on Elm Street, the main road to Mystic, are similar in style and detail, particularly the Greek Revival and Eastlake, to houses in the village center, and they are generally visible from the rest of the district. Except for Prospect Hill Road, the side streets off Elm are predominantly modern houses that are not related to those in the district.
There are three transportation-related structures in Noank. The railroad depot is a small, board-and-batten building whose overhanging gable roof is supported by large braces; it is said to be the original station built in 1858. As both passenger and freight service have been discontinued, the station has been put to use as an office, and an addition has been built on the Front Street side. At the southern end of the Noank Historic District is the hull of the Alice Pendleton, a 228' wooden schooner with laminated frames built in North Carolina in 1917; vandalism and fires have reduced her to a hulk. At the very tip of Noank, now called Lighthouse Point, is the 1868 Morgan ('s) Point Lighthouse, a 2-1/2-story granite ashlar structure surmounted by a short octagonal tower. It has a dentilated cornice and a slate-shingled roof. Inside, the lightkeeper's room is fitted like a cabin, with fold-out desk and built-in bunk. It is now a residence, and the tower's top stage, the lantern, has been removed.
Noank's chief landmark is the Baptist Church, perched on the highest point of land in the village. The present structure incorporates the 1867 Italianate building, whose twin towers were destroyed in the hurricane. The church now has a single tower and enlarged cruciform plan with three recent, classically-detailed wings. The other churches in Noank are small and all date from 1902 or 1903; the Gothic-detailed, shingled St. Joseph's Catholic Church; the Methodist Church (little changed despite its re-use as apartments), also Gothic and shingled, with some unusual Art Nouveau floral windows; and the cobblestone Episcopal Church, now used as a museum. The latter is one of the few exceptions to the wood-framed norm in Noank building.
It is the domestic architecture of Noank which gives the village its character. Of the approximately 260 houses in the Noank Historic District, about forty-five do not contribute to the district's historical value. Most of the non-contributing buildings are modern homes, but some are old houses whose form, fenestration and exterior materials have been so completely modernized that they are unrecognizable as historic architecture. The modern houses are somewhat grouped together on Sylvan Street and one part of High Street, but only at the very tip of the peninsula do they interrupt the cohesiveness of the mostly 19th-century buildings. Typically, the modern house in Noank is a low building, often with stained board siding.
The architectural integrity of the historic buildings is in general neither better nor worse than in other areas of Connecticut. Artificial siding is quite common, but in all but a few cases, important features such as pilasters and brackets have been retained. At least two houses have had asbestos siding removed and the clapboards beneath repaired. Some houses from the 19th century listed as "plain" in the inventory herein may have once been Gothic- or Eastlake-detailed buildings, but since have had their decorative elements removed.
There were few houses in Noank before 1840; of the dozen or so that remain, most are plain, 1-1/2 stories high, and have a five-bay main facade and a gable roof. The central doorway typically has a transom and a simple molded frame. The Peletiah Fitch House is the oldest of these, but the house at 12 Bayside Avenue is the best preserved. One of these plain houses has a leaded transom and another, fluted pilasters flanking the entrance, suggesting a Federal influence. On the east side of Elm Street are three houses that have four-bay facades (three windows and an offset doorway), but otherwise are as plain as the more familiar design.
Almost a third of the approximately 200 historic houses are Greek Revival dwellings and nearly all were built in the period 1840-1860. There are three basic forms. The first is a small 1-1/2-story house with four-bay main facade and pilasters at the corners and around the entrance. Most pilasters are plain but some have an entasis, others are panelled, and one has a Greek fret applied to its pilasters (29 and 51 Pearl Street). Other variations on this form include a full entablature across the front, and one with a hipped roof (72 Main Street). The second type is a 1-1/2-story house with its gable end to the street and three bays across the front; usually there is a partial cornice return, pilasters at the corners, and a pilaster-and-lintel door frame. A good example, with apparently original porch and front stairway, is the Captain William Rathbun House. Embellishments on this type include a crossetted door frame, a dentilated cornice, one with the front facade flush-boarded, and one with a fret banding along the cornice. Finally, there is a 2-1/2-story type, again with the gable end facing the street, three bays wide, a full cornice return, pilastered corners and corresponding doorway. Flush boarding in the gable is common. Several varieties of attic windows are found — one with tracery, a few fanlights, some Palladian windows, and derived therefrom, a three-part grouping of rectangular lights. The more elaborate of this type have dentil courses (or scalloping) along the cornice and entrance porticoes with fluted columns and cresting on their flat roofs. The most formal of these is the Moses Latham House which has a leaded fan, flush-boarded facade, and pilasters with an applied anthemion design and egg-and-dart carving in the capitals.
Another group of houses derive their inspiration from Gothic architecture. The James Latham House is an excellent example of a Gothic cottage, with board-and-batten siding, steep gable roof with a dormer over the entrance, Gothic hoodmolds, narrow windows, and wavy bargeboard. More common, however, are the 1-1/2- and 2-1/2-story houses which are Gothic primarily by virtue of their intricate bargeboard, including wave, vine, and floral patterns. Perhaps most outstanding is the bargeboard on the house at the edge of the shipyard: it is rope-turned and forms a knot in the peak; moreover, it terminates in serpents' heads.
Closely related to the Gothic-inspired are the Stick style houses. Typically, these are rather plain, 2-1/2-story houses with the gable end of one wing facing the street, shaped exposed rafter ends, and always, bracing in the gable, sometimes with a fan-like ornament or a sunburst attached. A few have paired windows and board-and-batten upper stories as well. The most developed Stick style house is the Deacon Robert Palmer House (1884). A gable-roofed building 2-1/2 stories tall, with a steep hipped-roof tower, it has narrow windows, exposed rafters, bracing (and a touch of leafy bargeboard) in the gables, and a pagoda-like second-story balcony. Adding interest is the veranda with rail and frieze formed of panels with geometric cut-outs, and on the side, a jig-sawn screen with scenes from Aesop's fables.
The last major group are the Eastlake houses. These generally are 2-1/2-story houses, gable end to the street, with a peak ornament and a veranda on two sides. These porches have turned posts and balusters and a row of spindles as a frieze. The most common peak ornament is a semi-circle of scalloping and small spindles above one or two rows of larger spindles. A common device is the cut-away corner with a spindled brace holding up a projecting story. The Eastlake houses, like many of the others, frequently have wood-shingled upper stories.
Other Victorian styles are rare. There are two Second Empire houses, a half-dozen or so Italianate houses with bracketed cornices and round-headed windows, and as many Queen Anne houses. Two of the latter are quite plain except for a tower at one corner, and only 18 Potter Court has the massing of the Queen Anne ideal. The house at 20 Pearl Street is a Greek Revival house transformed into a Queen Anne with a tower, shingles, a veranda and an elaborate fan in the gable.
Twentieth-century houses include two Colonial Revival mansions, two or three rather plain Colonial Revival houses, and several of a type herein called shingled Bungalows. The Spicer House (1901) on Spicer Avenue is a large building having a huge fanlight over the door, a gambrel roof, and a portico formed by large columns supporting a gambrel-roofed dormer. Even more elaborate is the Robert Palmer, Jr. House which has a hipped roof with a balustrade, a two-story Ionic portico, and Palladian windows with stained glass. The shingled Bungalows are all 1-1/2 stories high, shingled, with a gable roof, and usually a dormer, with the slope continuous over a front porch. The Noank Historic District also contains several very plain houses built around 1900. These are 2 or 2-1/2 stories high, with gable ends facing the street, and usually have a simple porch and some shingling in the gable. They are too plain to meaningfully classify according to style. Those in the area of Spring Street are said to have been occupied by shipyard workers.
The architectural integrity of the Noank Historic District is enhanced by the number of houses which have retained their early decorative fences. There are three or four wooden fences with square pickets and stout posts, a rail fence with curved braces between the rails, three or four with intricately jig-sawn flat pickets and at least a half-dozen iron fences. One of these has cast-iron pickets with stylized bud finials. Others have wrought-iron pickets and cast finials and elaborate gate crests or wrought intersecting arcs with cast bosses and finials. The fence at the Palmer House is a woven wire mesh with cast fleur-de-lis finials; it appears to be as old as the house (1884).
The Noank Historic District is of architectural significance because of the number and concentration of interesting houses, particularly the vernacular Greek Revival and Gothic- and Eastlake-detailed dwellings, which line its narrow streets. The preservation of these buildings' decorative features — pilasters, bargeboards, peak ornaments, porches and fences — gives a visual and thematic coherence to this collection of primarily 19th-century domestic architecture. And of course, since the boundaries encompass nearly the entire area known as Noank, the district includes many structures of local historical significance, buildings associated with notable residents, or related to shipbuilding, fishing, commerce or other aspects of Noank's maritime past.
If there is a common theme to Noank's architecture, it is the application of imaginative ornamental woodwork to simple house forms, thereby creating a picturesque, somewhat frivolous effect. Even some of the Greek Revival houses are enriched with decoration unusual in simple dwellings: the cottage with the Greek fret motif in the pilasters (51 Pearl Street), or the pilasters at 59 Main Street, with an anthemion design and carved capitals, or those houses in which a band of small scalloping or fret has substituted for the usual dentil course (e.g., 7 Chesbro Avenue, 12 Spring Street). In these examples and in the many plainer Greek Revival houses, the style consists primarily of detail — pilasters, some flush boarding, an entrance portico, perhaps — appended to conventional forms. This is most obvious in the case of the many small, gable-roofed houses with the four-bay main facade: not only is there no temple effect, as in those houses with their gable end turned toward the street, but there is a decided lack of symmetry and balance caused by the offset door, made especially odd in the house with the shallow hipped roof. Nevertheless, many of these dwellings show a careful attention to detail, especially pilasters, some of which show an entasis, and others having molded capitals or bases or pedestals formed from the foundation stones.
Picturesque detail became the norm in the Gothic-inspired houses. Although there are two or three houses with the form of a Gothic cottage (indeed, one is nearly a pattern book example), most rely on decorative bargeboard or narrow paired windows for their effect. There is a variety of vinelike, wave-form and floral designs. Just as the Greek Revival persisted in Noank even past 1860, so the use of decorative bargeboard continued rather late, at least through the 1870's. Moreover, there was an easy transition to what would now be classified as Stick style: braces in the gables, carved rafter ends, straight brackets at the eaves, supporting porch roofs, etc. At the same time, many of these Stick style houses retained features, such as board-and-batten siding in the upper stories, or narrow or pointed windows, which are directly derived from Gothic cottage patterns. The possibilities of jig-sawn ornament were perhaps most full realized in the porch screen of the Deacon Robert Palmer House, which depicts scenes from Aesop's fables.
Another large group of Noank houses relies upon Eastlake detailing for their decorative effect porches with turned balusters and frieze of spindles, rake-boards and window caps incised with geometric ornament, and fantastic peak decorations with scalloping and spindles are found throughout the district. Again, this is a style based entirely upon details, not form. Were it not for their ornament, the Eastlake houses would resemble the plain, 2-1/2-story, gable-roofed houses put up on Spring Street around 1900. The Queen Anne style, so popular in the period in other towns, is represented in Noank by only a few examples. Complexity of plan, irregular massing and large size are integral to the Queen Anne style, and these qualities are the opposite of those which typify Noank dwellings.
Common in the Eastlake and earlier styles, including some of the Greek Revival houses, is the practice of creating texture by varying the wall covering material. Even the very plain houses often have fishscale shingling in the gable. Some houses have two or three different kinds of wood shingles arranged in bands, and clapboards as well. The effect, today threatened by the use of maintenance-free siding, is to create interest and variety, thereby complementing the overall decorative appearance.
Many of Noank's houses show an interesting eclecticism in part due to the survival of archaic elements. The Palladian window, for example, thrived in Noank. It is found in several Greek Revival houses (86 Front Street, e.g.), a few houses with Gothic bargeboard (19 Chester Street), a Queen Anne revision of a Greek Revival house, and an early 20th-century Colonial Revival mansion. Other sources of eclecticism may be the overall tardiness of the village's architecture, in which incongruous styles were being used at the same time, or the general interest in decoration, regardless of its origin. Thus, bracketed Italianate buildings with pilasters or dentilated pediments over the windows (Fitch's Store, Main Street; 7 Latham Lane) or another Italianate house with a hint of Gothic bargeboard (7 Palmer Court) are understandable as products of their time.
The many wooden and cast iron fences in Noank add to the picturesque ambience of the village. There are a few fences of plain pickets, common in the Greek Revival period, but most are more ornamental. The rail fence at 12 Chesbro Avenue, a Greek Revival house of 1853, has a design formed by curved braces between the rails. The several fences with intricately-sawn pickets recall both the Gothic bargeboards and the jig-sawn porch railings found in the district. Finally, the decorative possibilities afforded by cast-iron are exploited in the finials, bosses and gate crests of the several iron fences, some of which are found in front of otherwise undistinguished houses.
In short, Noank offers in a relatively small area an opportunity to see a wide and imaginative variety of architectural ornament. The decorative pilasters, bargeboard, peak ornaments, porches and fences, the eclectic borrowing of details, and the concentration of old houses along the narrow and winding streets constitute a valuable resource for architectural history. A comparable group of buildings can be found in no other area of Connecticut, yet nearby Mystic and Stonington contain houses much like those of Noank (as well as earlier and more formal houses). One is tempted to label these dwellings as "Maritime picturesque," yet one can draw only the most tenuous connections between the architecture and its historical context, such as hypothesizing an influence from the large numbers of woodworkers and carpenters from Noank's shipyards.
Noank was not extensively settled until the middle of the 19th century. Although farm lots were laid out as early as 1713, there were only 13 houses there in 1825, and it was not until 1841 that a meetinghouse (Baptist) was built. Poor soil, Pequot fishing privileges, and more convenient locations in Mystic or Groton have all been cited as contributing to the rather late development of-the peninsular The village grew quickly thereafter, however, with its economy resting on two bases, fishing and shipbuilding. The fishing fleet of Noank once numbered over 60 vessels, and as many were owned in shares, the number of residents involved in fishing was large. Ship building began in earnest in 1851 when the Palmer Shipyard was started on the site of the present Noank Shipyard. The Palmer yard grew to be quite extensive and built vessels of all sizes. Another yard at the end of Latham Lane built smaller craft. The railroad was important for bringing in material for the yards, as well as for carrying Noank's seafood to market. Around 1900 Noank began to receive summer residents from New York City and other urban areas, though to this day vacationers are much less evident than in nearby villages. Partly due to the 1938 hurricane, there are few visible physical remains of the summer visits by business and literary figures. Theodore Dreiser was one who found inspiration there, describing Noank as "a little played-out fishing town" (Twelve Men, 1919). Publisher George Putnam also frequented the place, and was married to Amelia Earhart in the house at 43 Church Street.
The shipyards have been replaced by modern marinas, yet much remains in Noank as reminders of life in the last century. The wreck of the Alice Pendleton, the railroad depot, the four church buildings, the stores (including Palmer's, a company store for shipyard workers) which had meeting or theatrical halls on the upper floors, all are preserved and serve to suggest something of the patterns of life in this small fishing and shipbuilding village. The lighthouse on the point is significant both as another reminder of the importance of the sea and as an example of the standardization of lighthouse design after mid-19th century. The most significant change to the village's appearance is that the commercial center around what is now the town dock, at the foot of Main Street, has largely disappeared. Formerly, there were several businesses there, including a barber shop, plumbing shop, chandlery, post office, and confectionery; now only the Greek Revival Latham's Store (presently used for storage by the University) still stands.
The houses themselves embody Noank's history: only a few date from before 1840 or after 1910, accurately reflecting the growth of the village in the second half of the last century. A few of the houses have iconographical references to the sea, such as the ropeknot bargeboard or those houses with wave-like bargeboard or crestings, like that on the portico of 26 Main Street. The small size of most of the houses, particularly the Greek Revival dwellings with the four-bay facade, may in part be accounted for by the fact that many residents spent much of their time at sea; consequently, they had less time or fewer resources for their home ashore.
The houses' relative size and ornamentation also serve as a guide to the standing of their occupants within the social strata of the village. The Deacon Robert Palmer House and the home of his son are large, elaborate, even ostentatious residences, fitting for the owners of Noank's largest enterprise, the Palmer Shipyard. The Spicer family, whose wealth was based on shipping and provisions, also built two large houses, one in 1840 at 8 Front Street and another in 1901 across from what is now Spicer Park. Other large houses are associated with Noank's merchants and more prosperous captains, while the very plain houses on Spring Street are said to have been occupied by shipyard workers.
Most of Noank's residents of the past are unknown outside of the area or the ports they visited. An exception was Hubbard Chester, whose house was at 25 Main Street: Captain Chester played a key role in the 1872-73 Polaris arctic rescue mission, and his boat is now at the Smithsonian Institute. Captain Chester also patented a folding anchor for naval use. Many other stories about sea voyages, various enterprises, local eccentricities, and everyday Noank life have been recorded. This lore is enriched by the existence of so many houses and other historic buildings which recreate the material setting for local history.
Burrows, Mary E. "Picturesque Noank," Historic Groton, Moosup: Charles T. Burgess, 1909.
Noank from the Papers of Claude M. Chester. Stonington: Pequot Press, 1970.
Noank Historical Society, files on historic houses, Noank, CT.
The James Latham House and the Peter Davis House are discussed in
McArdle, Alma deC. and Deidre B. Carpenter Gothic: 19th-Century Ornamental Houses of New England. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1978.
† Bruce Clouette, consultant, Connecticut Historical Commission, Noak Historic District, Groton, CT, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.