Preston City Historic District
The Preston City Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Preston City Historic District is located about five miles east of Norwich, Connecticut, just south of the intersection of State Routes 164 and 165. It contains a small cluster of historic residential, institutional, and commercial buildings built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and several historic sites. They are located along three principal streets: Old Shetucket, Northwest Corner, and Amos roads and a small section of Route 164.
Prior to the 1930s Old Shetucket and Amos roads were major thoroughfares. They are now bypassed by Routes 165 and 164, respectively, thus preserving the historic core of Old Preston City. Northwest Corner Road was laid out in 1697 as a principal route to Stonington. The road from Norwich to Preston City to the Meetinghouse (the site of the present Baptist Church) was laid out in the 1690s. It became the Shetucket Turnpike in 1829. In 1922 this road was surfaced as State Route 165. Route 164 was established in the 1930s, with its bypass of Amos Road built in 1935.
The Preston City Historic District contains a high concentration of contributing resources (25/30 or 83%). The only two modern intrusions are residences on Northwest Corner Road and Old Shetucket Turnpike. In addition to the historic houses, the Preston City Historic District includes a church, a library, a blacksmith's shop and a store, and several barns. A former tavern and the town poorhouse, both now used as residences, are also contained in the Preston City Historic District. The Old Town Pound on Amos Road, a stone-walled enclosure, also contributes to the historic rural character of the village.
All of the buildings are of wood-frame construction. The houses are generally post-and-beam framed, two-and-one-half story buildings with gable roofs and clapboard siding. The foundations of the buildings are granite rubble or gabbro, an igneous rock common to the Preston area. A few of the later nineteenth-century buildings have brick foundations.
One building dates from the early eighteenth century, the town poorhouse, at the southern boundary, of the district. The north end of the building was built by Ephraim Jones in 1733; the south end was added in 1807 by the town as a workhouse, producing an extended gable-roofed building with two entrances, two chimneys, and an irregular fenestration pattern on the long facade which faces Amos Road. Across the road is the Town Pound, established in the seventeenth century. Its dry-laid stone walls have been maintained by the town.
Several houses were built just prior to the Revolution, including the James Treat House and the Mott and Downer House. The older section of the Treat House was built about 1760 by Sylvester Baldwin, a merchant. In 1800 James Treat added the larger main gable-roofed block with exposed western foundation of brick; it contains the tap room entrance with a full-height Dutch door. The facade is distinguished by unusual, flared window lintels and curved flush boarding around the entrance door, both set flush with the clapboards. A barn with a cupola is located at the northeast of the property. The Mott and Downer House, a five-bay colonial, has a pedimented projecting pavilion at the center of the facade, a side entrance on the east side, and an added lean-to at the rear. The pavilion is a typical feature found in several other houses in the Preston City Historic District and elsewhere in Preston.
The entrance on the eastern side and at the main door have a six-light transom; the main entrance has a Federal style door surround with an extended entablature and narrow pilasters. A large central stone chimney stack with a 14-square-foot base extends to the roof line. Above the roof it is constructed of brick.
A similar pedimented pavilion is found on a more detailed Georgian colonial house built between 1786 and 1800 by Calvin Barstow. The doorway here is grander in style with bolder molding and a narrower entablature. Special interior features include an arched ceiling in the south chamber on the second floor, a room used for the meeting hall of the St. James Masonic Lodge. Masonic emblems are stenciled on the border of the floor of both this chamber and the adjacent anteroom. The property is set off by a simple picket fence of wood on a stone retaining wall.
Other houses built in Preston City around the turn of the century include several unadorned colonial farmhouses such as the one built with a double overhang by Thomas Meech on Northwest Corner Road at the eastern boundary of the district. Dry-laid stone walls add to the historic appearance of the site.
By the 1830s most of the remaining existing buildings in the Preston City Historic District had been constructed, primarily in the Federal and Greek Revival styles. No two of these are alike, although several show similar architectural characteristics such as a Palladian window and hip roof that are found on the 1830 Reverend Augustus Collins House and the 1828 David Baldwin House. A distinctive feature of another transitional Federal/Greek Revival style house, the Mundator T. Richards House built in 1834, is the exceptional design of the fanlight in the gable peak. It is divided into segments rather than the more conventional radial pattern. Heavy modillions are used around the gable pediment and under the eaves, a transitional Greek Revival style doorway is set off-center in the asymmetrical gable facade. A Greek Revival farmhouse of the ridge-to-street form with a pedimented gable at either end is found on Northwest Corner Road. It was built by Aaron B. Gates about 1830. The Baptist Parsonage on Amos Corner Road, also built in this period, displays small attic windows of the type commonly found on the wing of a Greek Revival farmhouse. It is otherwise plainly constructed in no particular style.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century several vernacular houses were constructed in the Preston City Historic District. They are quite typical of the farmhouses built in Connecticut in this period with a gable end facing the road. One is located between Amos Road and the Route 164 bypass; two others are located on either side of Old Shetucket Turnpike.
The Baptist Church, a focal point of the Preston City Historic District, was erected in 1812. In 1832 it was turned to its present orientation to have the gable end face the road (Route 164) and the three-stage steeple and bell tower with a pyramidal roof were added. Elongated outbuildings to the rear (west) of the building may be part of the original horse or carriage sheds which were built in 1867. Similar sheds to the north of the church were demolished in 1984.
In addition to the blacksmith's shop built by Morrison Robbins in 1871, now operated as a demonstration museum, only one other historic building was constructed in the district in the late nineteenth century, the Preston Library, with its small tower on the south and hipped-roof facade porch. This shingle-sided building more resembles a residence of the period of the Queen Anne/Colonial Revival style and presents quite a contrast to the other buildings in the district.
In front of the library is a Civil War monument and Mott Memorial, which marks the site of General Samuel Mott's house, Preston City's Revolutionary War hero; the memorial is one of two in the Preston City Historic District. The other is a Revolutionary War memorial at the intersection of Old Shetucket Road and Route 165. The latter is composed of a stone column (said to have been a roller used to compact the snow on the roads in the colonial period) set on old millstone for a base. Another site of interest is the watering trough for horses built by a private citizen in 1918 at the side of the road and donated to the town. Adjacent to the horse trough is the only historic commercial building still standing in the district, the Bennett Store, which operated as a general store for about 40 years. The present structure was built in 1922 on the foundations of the 1795 James Treat Store, which was destroyed by fire. The store has recently been converted to residential use.
Downer-Doane Memorial Park at the southwest corner of the Shetucket Turnpike and Route 164 completes the Preston City Historic District. Named for the owner/builder of the house and store that were destroyed when the bypass of Route 164 was constructed, the park is maintained by the Preston Historical Society.
An exceptionally well-preserved, cohesive entity, the Preston City Historic District contains a very high concentration of historic contributing buildings and sites dating from the late seventeenth to the twentieth centuries which are distinguished by an excellent state of preservation and superior craftsmanship. Of particular significance is the small collection of houses built by prosperous farmers and merchant traders, which are influenced by the Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles. Established as the center of a rural township in the seventeenth century, Preston City remains the focus of an agricultural community which has been rural for its entire history. The buildings contained within the Preston City Historic District include an exceptional range of type and style, all associated with the historical development of the area, including residential, institutional, and commercial buildings dating from about 1730 to 1922.
Soon after the settlement of Norwich in 1659, Norwich proprietors began to clear and cultivate the land east of the Norwich bounds, Preston, which then included the town of Griswold, formally became a township in 1686 when almost 30 families living in the area petitioned the General Court. Two of the earliest remaining historic resources from this period are the Town Pound, a stone wall enclosure which has been maintained on Amos Road at the southern boundary of the district, and the earlier section of the Poor Farm built in 1733 by Ephraim Jones across the road.
For its first 200 years Preston was an important town in the market region which supplied the port of Norwich on the Thames River. Farm products and cattle grown in Preston were carried to market by wagon along the course of the Shetucket Turnpike (now Route 165) to Norwich for consumption in the town. By 1750 Preston's farm goods were transshipped to East Coast ports. Dairy products, livestock, pork, potatoes, and lumber were traded for sugar, cotton, rum, and molasses from the West Indies through the riverport.
The economy of the Norwich riverport flourished between the Revolutionary War and about 1830. The resultant prosperity was reflected in the architecture of Preston City. Most of the houses built in the Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles in this period were owned by prosperous farmers and merchants, including James Treat, Mundator Richards, and James Baldwin. Both Treat and Richards maintained a store in the district; Treat's advertisements contained references to West and East Indian goods along with European imports. The site of his store is now occupied by the Bennett Store, built in 1922 after the original building burned.
As in many of New England's smaller communities which had an agricultural base, Preston's population declined in the early nineteenth century, then stabilized between 1850 and 1900. While the farming economy continued to prosper, it never returned to the level achieved in the earlier part of the century. New houses were constructed in the district, however, mostly gable-roofed farmhouses of the vernacular type, commonly found in Connecticut in this period.
The Federal and State Land Bank Associations and the Farm Credit Bureau were an important part of Preston's continuing farming economy in the twentieth century. The Grange evolved into the Farmer's Institute, a successful buying cooperative. Poultry raised primarily for eggs, dairy cattle, and lumbering were the principal products. Clifford Bennett's store, a general store supplying farming families with food as well as small farming equipment, is the only historic resource remaining from this period. It also served as Preston's Post Office prior to the rural free delivery system.
The Preston City Historic District conveys a distinct sense of time and place with its focus on the early nineteenth century. Although the original layout of the area has been somewhat altered by the construction of the Routes 164 and 165 bypasses, the Preston City Historic District remains a rural crossroads. Its resources have been protected. There is very little modern intrusion and limited commercial development. The houses and the associated institutional buildings in the Preston City Historic District are well-preserved. The simplest farmhouse to the more elaborate residences of the merchants display exceptional external integrity. This combination of circumstances has allowed Preston City to remain as an important representative example of early nineteenth-century rural Connecticut history.
Although unity and cohesion are achieved by a similarity of materials, form, and some instances of shared architectural characteristics, the Preston City Historic District is distinguished by a rich variety, with many examples of one type, style, or function. An analysis, of the Preston City Historic District's architectural significance, therefore, must deal with the historic resources on an almost individual basis.
The Ephraim Jones House is a rare survivor from the early eighteenth century in exceptionally good condition. So well-preserved, or restored, is this building and its 1807 addition, that without some knowledge of its history, it would be difficult to identify which end of the house was built in 1733, an effect enhanced by the similarity of fenestration and the almost identical, later Federal style doorways.
Equally well-preserved are the houses built by Mott and Downer and James Treat. Both these pre-Revolutionary houses display all their original exterior features. Artificial siding recently removed from the Mott and Downer House has revealed its apparently original clapboards, a rehabilitation which allows the simple lines of the building to emerge. The mere suggestion of a central pavilion is enhanced by the vertical corner boards (on both the house and the pavilion) revealed in the process. Although the pavilion is a relatively common architectural feature in Preston, and more elaborated elsewhere in the district, this example may be the earliest in the area. It is a distinctive feature rarely found in combination with the added lean-to, which gives this house its salt-box form. The Treat House is another example of two distinct builds (1760, 1800). In this case, the later addition overwhelms and almost hides the original house. The largest of the Preston City Historic District's residences, it has a visually prominent position as well. The significance of this house is enhanced by the unusual shape of the flush-board trim on the facade, features displaying a certain naivete, certainly the work of a local carpenter. A more traditional example of local craftsmanship is found at the east end of the district in the three-bay, Thomas Meech House. The facade overhang, a particularly late use (1795), is unique to the district.
Immediately across the road from the Treat House is a more sophisticated interpretation of the Mott and Downer House. Built by a merchant, Calvin Barstow, about 1800, it is a fully-realized example of Georgian/Federal style architecture in an exceptional state of preservation, both inside and out. Again, it is the only house of its type and style in the Preston City Historic District, and clearly the most architecturally distinguished.
The David Baldwin House, also built by a merchant of some means, is the best example of the Federal style in the district. A fine example of the period, enhanced by its setting above the road, it has none of the unusual vernacular features that characterize Preston City's architecture. With its Palladian windows and columned portico it resembles many houses built in Connecticut at this time. Another house of conventional style, again one-of-a-kind, is the well-preserved Greek Revival style Aaron B. Gates House. It does, however, contribute to the exceptional range of style found in the district.
Of all the commercial and institutional buildings at the heart of the Preston City Historic District, the Baptist Church occupies the most prominent position. It is visible from almost everywhere in Preston City. The simplicity of form and detail of the 1812 main block make a marked contrast with its elaborated bell tower, clearly identifying the tower as a later addition (1832), mute testimony to the district's continued prosperity at this time. The much later library (1895) and twentieth-century store (1922) across the street to the east, and the blacksmith shop, directly west of the church, complete this grouping. Although the library might be mistaken for a residence, the rest of these buildings are functionally explicit, architectural examples of each type. Even though the store, the last building to be constructed in the district, has been converted to a residence, the conversion has been accomplished without compromising its straightforward function and form.
Of the two commemorative memorials in the Preston City Historic District, only one makes a significant contribution to the district, the Civil War Monument and Mott Memorial built in 1898. Both the Revolutionary War Memorial and the Downer-Doane Park nearby are of recent vintage (1967) and do not meet National Register criteria for the quality of design or symbolic value.
Atlas of New London County, Connecticut, comp. F.W. Beers, A.D. Ellis and G.G. Soule.
Preston Aerial Survey, Map 13. Tax Assessors Office, Preston, Connecticut.
Hall, Marion W. Preston; Early Homes and Families. Norwich; Franklin Press, 1983.
Historic American Buildings Survey Inventory, 1967.
Preston in Review. Preston Historical Society, ed. Marion W. Hall, Norwich: Franklin Press, 1971.
Preston Land Records.
Preston Tax Assessors Records.
† Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associatesand John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Preston City Historic District, Preston, Connecticut, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.