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Little Plain Historic District


Homes on Broadway, Little Plain Historic District, Norwich, CT, National Register

Photo: Homes on Broadway, Little Plain Historic District, Norwich, CT. The Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and 1987. Photographed by User:CLK Hatcher (own work), 2011, [cc-by-2.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed January, 2016.

The Little Plain Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 with a Boundary Extension listed in 1987. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from copies of the original nomination documents. [† ‡] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.

Description

The late 18th and 19th century homes of the Little Plain area reflect a shift in fashionable residential building locations from the Bean Hill section and the area around the old Norwichtown Green, both of which abound in fine buildings of the Colonial era, to the area around lower Broadway and Union Street closer to the center of the growing port city of Norwich. The rich variety of post-Revolutionary housing types of this area are living reminders of the prosperity brought to Norwich, first from trade and later from the many manufactories of the region. Aside from the fine general architectural appearance and value of the Little Plain area, there are several individually outstanding examples of Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian houses.

The strength and rich plasticity of the Deacon Jabez Huntington House (181 Broadway) built by Thomas Coit in the full-blown late Georgian style provides interesting contrast with its two more austere and delicate Federal neighbors. This pair, the Hezekiah Perkins House (185 Broadway) and the similar DeWitt-Sigourney House (189 Broadway) are exceptionally fine examples of an unusual house type built in the Federalist manner.

The area contains five handsome Greek Revival houses. Three were built during the height of the style and provide different, though equally fine, solutions to the problem of converting the Greek temple into single-family wood-frame houses. Two of these which stand next to each other at 171 and 167 Broadway were stately mansions in their time though they now (1970) suffer from different degrees of neglect. The other two, similar to each other and built at a later date, display the typical abstract geometricity of the Classical style with the surprisingly happy influence of high Victorian values.

There is also a variety of fine Victorian houses in the area. On the western side of Little Plain Park are two houses of the vaguely Italianate type made popular by New Haven architect Henry Austin. Across the park on the eastern side is a towered villa with more direct Italian origins.

On lower Broadway is a pair of brick mansard-roofed structures, one with a Victorian version of "classical" trim, the other, embellished with pointed arches of the Gothic Revival.

The seemingly rapid development of Huntington Place makes it a particularly interesting street. The majority of the homes were built around 1875, and though each is different, they all have a similar stylistic quality. At the end of the street, a visual climax is provided by two towered Victorian houses which mirror each other.

One other unique late Victorian house (93 Union Street) is composed of an imaginative massing of forms including a thick octagonal tower

The steep gables, the shapes and placement of the fenestration, and the contrasts of textures give it the appearance of haphazard organic growth usually associated with the High Victorian.

The area also includes a few late 19th and early 20th century Shingle style houses which are not outstanding or unique but which are generally fine examples of the type.

The City of Norwich is fortunate that there has been relatively little building replacement, especially in the residential areas. Rather, the areas of new residential construction have tended to shift with the times.

Outstanding Houses of the Little Plain Historic District

DeWitt-Sigourney House — 189 Broadway — Built in the last quarter of the 18th century, this was the home of Captain Jacob DeWitt, a prominent Norwich merchant. General Lafayette called on the DeWitts here during his last visit to Norwich. In 1812 Lydia Huntley (Mrs. L.H. Sigourney, "The Sweet Singer of Hartford") and Nancy Maria Hyde conducted a school here for young girls. The dwelling is listed on the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Hezekiah Perkins House — 185 Broadway — Built around 1740. Altered 1775-1800. Mr. Perkins and Deacon Jabez Huntington in 1811 gave the city the land now known as "Little Plain Park." This building is also listed on the H.A.B.S.

Woodhull House — 167 Broadway; Johnson House — 171 Broadway — Both these Greek Revival Mansions are listed with H.A.B.S.

"These stately mansions, as well as the others in this area, reflect that period (the early 1800's) of Norwich life when commerce and textile industries flourished. The prosperous merchants and ship owners built their homes in this newly developed section of town on Washington and Broadway." American Themos Magazine July, 1959.

Italianate Houses — 126 Union Street and 130 Union Street — Both of these homes date from the 1840's and are built in the Italianate style popularized by Henry Austin noted Connecticut architect of the mid 1800's.

Significance

The rich variety of post-revolutionary housing types in the Little Plains area are living reminders of the prosperity brought to Norwich first from trade and later from manufacturing in the area. The Little Plain Historic District is unusual because within a small area of about thirty acres are documented most of the architectural styles which prosperous Americans preferred for their domestic buildings between 1775 and 1875. It is an area of distinguished homes, unified and harmonious despite its variety, thanks to the open space provided by the triangular Little Plain Park and the narrow green about which the residences of Huntington Place cluster. Although several distinguished houses may be singled out, it is the totality which makes the impression and this is a result of the combination of Victorian, Greek Revival, and Federal style buildings which compose the district.

Thus the Little Plain Historic District is important historically and aesthetically because it documents 19th century taste in domestic architecture, because it is an interesting and pleasing aesthetic whole which is focused on a small park, and because it serves as a reminder of the social and economic history of the town recalling the prosperity of a growing merchant class in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Boundary Increase in 1986

The Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase is a continuation of the original Little Plain Historic District to the south along Union Street and Broadway in Norwich, Connecticut. Union Street and Broadway intersect at Little Plain Park, within the original district, and at Union Square, south of the district, forming a lens-shaped block. To the south, the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase is bounded by the Downtown Norwich Historic District, visually indicated by the massive French Second Empire City Hall on Union Square. To the west of Union Street, the steep, rocky slopes of Jail Hill rise abruptly. To the east is a valley dominated by a large industrial complex. To the north is the original Little Plain Historic District, which extends partway down Union Street and Broadway towards Union Square. Like the original Little Plain Historic District, the extension is primarily residential in character, although some former residences on Broadway have been converted to offices. Thirty nine of the 47 buildings extant are of frame construction, seven are of brick (of which two are noncontributing structures) and one is of stone. The Greek Revival style predominates, with 31 of the 45 contributing structures. Other styles represented include the Federal, with three examples, the Italianate and the Queen Anne, with two examples each, a single Gothic Revival building, a transitional house between Greek Revival and Italianate, and five early 19th century Folk houses. Houses are closely spaced, with the gable ends usually facing the street. Similar scale, the presence of a large number of Greek Revival buildings, and the dense pattern of development form a compact streetscape. A variety of boundary markers, including hedges, retaining walls, picket fences and cast-iron fences, indicate property lines.

The early 19th century Folk houses of the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase are simple in design and of small scale. The Charles F. Harris House at 122 Broadway, ca.1831, has only the open-bed pediment, a lozenge-shaped attic window, and a first floor bay window as distinguishing features. In contrast, the Greek Revival houses in the extension have a greater variety and number of decorative features. Most have the gable end facing the street, corner pilasters, a door surround with pilasters supporting an entablature, and a semi-circular attic window. The Nathan S. Gilbert House at 131 Broadway, built about 1844, is an elaborate example. Plain, wide corner pilasters with capitals support an entablature, above which is a full pediment in the gable end. The semi-circular attic window is split in two, reflecting the internal division of attic space. The molding between architrave and frieze has a continuous row of guttae underneath. Modillions embellish the cornice. The one-story entrance porch has a gable roof with full pediment supported by Roman Doric columns. This, the Ionic columns flanking the door, and the curved lay window with its balustrade, were added in 1895 by local architect James A. Hiscox. 44 Union Street, built ca.1833, is similar in general, but features narrower, rusticated corner pilasters and flanking the door, pilasters with raised panels. 69 Union Street, ca.1843, has panelled pilasters at the corners and tongue-and-groove siding on the south side, with panels under the first floor windows on that side.

The house at 152 Broadway, ca.1844, has the gable ends to the side, panelled corner pilasters, and a one-story porch across the front supported by simplified Corinthian columns. Plain pilasters flank the first floor windows and doorway. At 61 Union Street, ca.1844, the panelled corner pilasters support a projecting entablature above which is an open-bed pediment. Rectangular attic windows pierce both pediment and entablature. First and second floor windows have shouldered surrounds.

The Joshua W. Shepard House at 47 Union Street, ca.1831, has a typical Greek Revival configuration with elaborate detail. The door surround has plaster capitals on the pilasters and a plaster molding between the architrave and the frieze, enriched with Greek Revival motifs. The cornice features egg-and-dart bed molding. Mutule blocks with guttae survive only on the north side of the house. Nearby, 43 Union Street has entrance pilasters with H-shaped molding applied to the panels. Similar moldings are found on the corner pilasters at 3 Crossway Street, which is within the original historic district, and in the door panels of 69 Union Street, within the boundary increase. The frame Greek Revival houses at 125, 127 and 129 Broadway are the simplest in design. These have narrow corner pilasters without capitals and full pediments in the gable ends, which face the street.

128 Broadway, a brick Greek Revival house ca.1842, has a shallow-pitched gable roof with stepped parapets at the sides. A wooden entablature has an architrave with three facia, a plain frieze, and dentils below the eaves. Attic windows pierce both the architrave and frieze. 120 Broadway, ca.1844, built of brick by James S. Hoyt, has brackets in the cornice with tongue-and-groove panelling between the brackets which match their curvature. This is transitional in style between the Greek Revival style and the Italianate style. The brick Italianate house at 121 Broadway, ca.1844, is similar to frame dwellings in the same style, with round-arched attic window and brackets under the eaves. The frame Italianate house at 156 Broadway, ca.1857, has the gable end to the street, an open-bed pediment, and brackets under the eaves. A one-story porch which wraps around the north side of the house has supporting open-work posts. Window surrounds are shouldered, and the attic has a Palladian window.

The only Gothic Revival building in the area of the boundary increase is the Unitarian Universalist Church at 148 Broadway. Constructed of random granite ashlar in 1910, the church has a large stained glass window in the gable end, which faces the street. This features Gothic tracery in a very shallow pointed arch. Battered stone buttresses support the walls.

Boundary Increase Significance

The Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase illustrates the theme of residential development related to the commercial and industrial growth which created downtown Norwich in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Business activity, population, and political power shifted from Norwichtown in this period. The Little Plain Historic District and the area of the boundary increase reflect the prosperity of the time and the demand for housing. The Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase contains buildings of architectural merit constructed by local builders, relating well to the architecture within the original historic district. A notable local builder/architect, Joshua W. Shepard, both worked and lived within the extension. Shepard was responsible for at least eight of the 31 Greek Revival houses extant within the Boundary Increase. The Greek Revival homes of the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase, while similar in general outline, differ in detail. This results in a general uniformity of appearance which is enlivened by variations in detail. High quality design and workmanship characterize the buildings in the district. Other styles represented in the district relate well in scale and design to the Greek Revival buildings. Good examples of the Italianate, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne styles are also present.

Residential Development

The original center of settlement of Norwich in 1659 was inland around the Norwichtown Green. The area now occupied by downtown Norwich was used as pasturage for sheep. Mercantile activity began in 1684 with the construction of a wharf at the site of the downtown. Coastal and West Indian trade flourished in the 18th century, and the area developed as the seaport of Chelsea or Chelsea Landing. At the Falls on the Yantic River, significant industrial development began in the 1760s. Capital from maritime ventures and other sources was reinvested in industry. In 1784, the Chelsea section was incorporated by the state legislature as the City of Norwich. The growth of the city soon necessitated the opening of Main Street in 1790. The newly incorporated city became a center for banking, for retail and wholesale trade, and for transportation. Steamboat service to New London, New Haven and New York began in 1816. The Norwich & Worcester Railroad, connecting the two cities, was begun in 1835. Manufacturing also began along "Swallowall brook" in the valley to the east of the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase.[1]

The increasing population of the city of Norwich was anxious to wrest the seat of government in Norwich from Norwichtown, the original center, about two miles to the north. In 1828, they succeeded, in moving the town-house to the city. This coup was further confirmed when the county courthouse was also moved to the city in 1833, occupying the second floor of the town-house. Downtown Norwich has remained the seat of local government ever since.[2]

Scattered residential development had taken place along Union Street and Broadway in the last quarter of the 18th century. With the growth of the downtown in the early 19th century, development took place rapidly along Union and Broadway, conveniently located within a short walking distance from the commercial quarter. Development on Union and Broadway was concentrated in the hands of relatively few individuals. Furniture manufacturer Henry Allen developed property on the east side of Broadway north of Willow Street, where his factory was located, in the mid-1840s. Allen occupied the brick Italianate house at 121 Broadway, while his partner, Nathan S. Gilbert, lived in the development at 131 Broadway. In the 1830s, the firm of Shepard, Rogers and Lathrop constructed at least eight houses within the area of the boundary increase. All three partners lived on Union Street. Other developers included mason George Hebard and carpenter James S. Hoyt, who worked both individually and together on properties.

The area was primarily occupied by people employed in the downtown, either as self-employed merchants or as employees of downtown businesses. The pattern of ownership was complex, reflecting the mobility of an urban area. In many instances, houses were first occupied by renters and later sold to owner/occupants, sometimes the same individuals who had previously rented. In other cases, owner-occupied homes were later rented out.

Architecture

The houses of the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase relate to the Federal, Greek Revival and late 19th century residential styles found in the original Little Plain Historic District. The predominate style is the Greek Revival. Thirty one of the 45 contributing structures within the extension were built in the Greek Revival style. Most of these buildings are simple in design, with the gable end facing the street, a full pediment in the gable end, semi-circular or rectangular attic windows, corner pilasters, entablature, and a door surround consisting of pilasters and entablature. The proportions of the houses, the integration of design elements, and the architectural details indicate a high quality of design. Executed of native materials by local craftsmen, the homes also display high standards of workmanship.

Joshua W. Shepard, in partnership with Dixwell Lathrop and Caleb B. Rogers, developed at least eight homes in the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase area in the early 1830s. All are in the Greek Revival style. Shepard was a builder/architect of ability, using pattern books for inspiration. The inventory of Shepard's estate in 1849 indicates that he possessed eight pattern books, including two by Lafever and the American Builder's Companion.[3] Besides the extant houses in the boundary increase, he also designed the Otis Library of 1849, located on Union Square. Shepard and his partners were responsible for 41, 43, 45, 47, 49 and 51 Union Street, and 134 and 138 Broadway. These houses are small in scale, but display good proportion and design. The row of houses the firm built on Union Street make an important contribution to the streetscape. Shepard's own house at 47 Union Street is well-proportioned and contains details of excellent design and workmanship. These include the entrance, with plaster moldings on pilasters and entablature, and the egg-and-dart bed molding of the cornice. 43 Union Street, home of partner Caleb B. Rogers, has H-shaped molding in the panelling of the entrance pilasters.

Other homes in the Little Plain Historic District are of distinction. The Nathan S. Gilbert House of ca.1844 has a Greek Revival design of merit which as been enhanced by alteration made in 1895 by architect James A. Hiscox. The house at 152 Broadway, also built about 1844, has a porch with modified Corinthian columns of excellent design across the front. The use of plain pilasters flanking the first floor windows and door unifies the facade, creating a rhythmical effect. James S. Hoyt was the subcontractor for the carpentry work. His other work also displays merit. Hoyt's occasional associate, mason George Hebard, was responsible for the James A. Hovey House, built of brick at 128 Broadway about 1842. The design is simple but effective, and the wooden entablature is appropriate in the context of the building.

It is probable that houses in both the original Little Plain Historic District and the district extension were built by the same individuals. Similar details are found in both areas. For example, the H-shaped molding found on the entry pilasters at 43 Union Street and on the door panels of 69 Union Street, both within the boundary increase, is repeated on the corner pilasters of 3 Crossway, which is within the original district. The use of large dentils in the cornice is another feature found in both areas.

The other architectural styles found in the Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase are represented by good examples. The Italianate house at 156 Broadway, built about 1857, has excellent proportions and finely crafted details such as the porch supports an brackets, door surround, window surrounds, and Palladian attic window. 64-6 Union Street has a Queen Anne porch and other details, such as bargeboards and shingles, displaying good design and workmanship. The only Gothic Revival building, the Unitarian Universalist Church of 1910, relates well in scale and configuration to the surrounding residences. Here the random-coursed granite ashlar with its light mortar joints, the battered buttresses, and the large stained glass windows with Gothic tracery lend the building considerable aesthetic quality.

Endnotes

  1. Caulkins, Frances Manwaring, History of Norwich, Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1874, pages 302-308; 606-610; 533; 531-532.
  2. Ibid, pages 570-572.
  3. Rogers, C.B., and Dunham, John, "Appraisal of the Estate of Joshua W. Shepard," July 30, 1849, Estate of Joshua W. Shepard, Norwich Probate District, Town of Norwich 1849, #9782. Original and microfilm at Connecticut State Library, Hartford, CT.

References

"Proposed Little Plain Historic District, Norwich, Connecticut," published by the Historic District Commission, November, 1969.

Historic American Buildings Survey: CONN-249, CONN-257, CONN 258, and CONN 262

M.K. O'Keefe and C.S. Doroshevich, Norwich Historic Homes and Families Stonington, Conn.: The Pequot Press, 1967.

Caulkins, Frances Manwaring, History of Norwich. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1874.

Luyster, Constance, "Little Plain Historic District," National Register Nomination form, August 25, 1970. On file at Connecticut Historical Commission, Hartford, CT.

Plummer, Dale S. and Plummer, John M., Warren Hill Historic and Architectural Survey. January 1985, manuscript on file at Connecticut Historical Commission, Hartford, CT.

Rogers, C.B., and Dunham, John, appraisers, "Appraisal of the Estate of Joshua W. Shepard," July 30, 1849, in Estate of Joshua W. Shepard, Norwich Probate District, Town of Norwich 1849. Original probate records on file at Connecticut State Library, Hartford, CT, document #9782.

† Constance Luyster, Connecticut Historical Commission, Little Plain Historic District, Norwich Connecticut, nomination document, 1970, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

‡ Dale S. Plummer, consultant, Norwich Heritage Trust and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Little Plain Historic District Boundary Increase, Norwich Connecticut, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Little Plain Historic District Map

Street Names
Broadway • Crossway Street • Huntington Place • Otis Street • Union Street

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