Mechanic Street Historic District
The Mechanic Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. 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 Mechanic Street Historic District consists of about 14 blocks on the west bank of the Pawcatuck River about two miles up river from the ocean. Located in the Pawcatuck section of Stonington, Connecticut, it contains a large concentration of houses dating from about 1830 to 1920 and a major nineteenth-century mill complex, occupying about 25 acres of the river bank in the eastern part of the district.
From Mechanic Street, which borders the factory complex, the district slopes up to the west with the rest of the north-south streets running along a level plateau approximately 30-40 feet above the river. They are Lester Avenue and Prospect, Moss, William, and Courtland streets. Palmer Street, the only connector between these streets, runs uphill from the factories to the west. West Broad Street (Route 1), the Boston Post Road, which forms the northern boundary of the district, also runs from east to west. A railroad line runs through the Mechanic Street Historic District from the northeast to the southwest with a grade crossing at Palmer Street. Several small streets complete the district: Wilford Court, Chase Street, and Cedar Street; the last originally ran from Mechanic to Moss streets, but was cut off by the railroad.
Structures in the Mechanic Street Historic District include the granite abutments for an elevated spur line at the south end of the district on Mechanic Street. The railroad bridge has been removed. Modern flood gates have been installed in two locations on Mechanic Street. An earthen dike runs along the riverbank alongside the mill complex as further protection from flooding.
The mill complex contains seven major interconnnected historic industrial buildings constructed between 1855 and 1920 and one small free-standing mansard-roofed building which served as a company office, built about 1875. Several small modern buildings have been added to the complex along with a major addition at the south end (about 1970).
Six of the larger historic mills were constructed of brick on granite foundations. The seventh building is a three-and-one-half story wood-frame building constructed prior to 1880. It has a low double-pitched gable roof. Several of the brick mills utilize quarry-dressed granite for sills, lintels, or string courses; one has a polished granite column at the north corner supporting a recessed entrance. This building also displays corbelled brickwork on its stepped cornice, a feature found on several of the turn-of-the-century brick pier mills. One of the most prominent features of the complex is an extensive one-story building which runs along Mechanic Street for about 500 feet with a saw-tooth monitor for half of its length.
Vernacular housing in the Mechanic Street Historic District includes two basic types: workers' housing (mill-built multiple dwellings) and privately owned and built houses. This latter group includes owner-occupied dwellings, as well as rental property for families or individuals (rooming and boarding houses). Although they were leased to mill employees, they cannot be strictly categorized as workers' housing. Most of the private houses are small vernacular interpretations of the styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The few examples of larger, more stylish houses are found only on West Broad Street. It is clear that West Broad Street was a more fashionable street in the immediate post-bellum period, when houses of the factory managers or owners were built there, while the workers were expected to live below West Broad Street to the south. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, groups of identical smaller houses were built both on West Broad Street and the side streets in the district. Because of the large number of houses in each general category, only brief descriptions of each stylistic group, or type, will follow, tracing the general development chronology of the district.
The first group of houses predates the establishment of industry in the Mechanic Street Historic District; all were built in the Greek Revival period. They are concentrated on Mechanic Street and scattered along West Broad Street, the two oldest streets in the district. Most of the larger houses built in this style are rectangular in plan with a gable-to-street orientation and a pediment. A few have integral side ells, often found in farmhouses of this style or period. The smaller cottages rarely display pediments, but can be typed and dated by their proportions and pitch of the roof.
Interspersed among these houses on Mechanic Street and lower Palmer Street are the first of the mill-built workers' housing, simple gable-roofed, two-to-three-story buildings which are an elongated version of the earlier Greek Revival style houses. A distinctive and almost universal feature of these houses, all built about 1865, is the use of small windows under the eaves at the second story, and exaggerated cornice returns. Several have double entrances with the high frieze and cornice of the Greek Revival style.
Other mill-built housing in the Mechanic Street Historic District includes duplexes dating from the 1890s on Prospect Street and Wilford Court. The Prospect Street examples are quite plain. The Wilford Court duplexes are distinguished by their Italianate style door hoods. The last of the mill houses were built in the twentieth century. There are three dissimilar versions of the double decker at the end of Wilford Court (22, 24 and 26 Wilford Court) and one Perfect Six at 63-65-67 Mechanic Street (Lorraine Mill Tenement). This latter house is the only one of its type in Stonington.
The majority of the privately owned houses date from the late nineteenth century. Ranging in size from small cottages to large two-and-one-half-story houses, they are wood-framed, cross-gabled versions of the Carpenter Gothic or Queen Anne styles. A front porch connecting the main block to the side ell is a universal feature, often displaying the only decorative details of these otherwise plain houses. Patterned shingles can often be found in the gable peaks. A distinctive group of cottages of the Queen Anne style was built on Prospect Street in 1897 (7, 9, and 11 Prospect Street; 13 Prospect Street, Frederick LaFontaine House; 15 Prospect Street, Gabriel LaFontaine House). Another well-preserved group can be found on Moss Street (42, 44 and 46 Moss Street). The largest versions of this type were multiple dwellings for at least two families, classified as tenements or "flats" when they were built. Examples of these are found at 13 Lester Avenue (Burleigh Thomas Tenement), 41 and 43 Moss Street (The Roberts House) and at 114 West Broad Street, 115 West Broad Street (Herbert L. Hoxie Tenement) and 117 West Broad Street (George Greenman House) as well. An unusually large single-family example is located at 140 West Broad Street.
Moss Street contains the largest group of Carpenter Gothic cottages. Most of these still display scroll-sawn decorative trim in the gables or as column brackets. One exceptional example is located at 6 Moss Street. This style overflowed onto West Broad Street, with two fine examples at the northwest corner of this intersection (128 and 130 West Broad Street).
Several mansard-style houses are scattered around the Mechanic Street Historic District; the larger three-story versions were boarding houses such as the restored Rosie O'Neil's Boarding House at 23 Prospect Street. A smaller two-story example at 22 Moss Street (Ray Green House) is unique to the district. It is characterized by unusual incised carving on the friezes, pediments, and dormers, all highlighted by a contrasting paint scheme.
William Street and Courtland Street were the last to be developed in the Mechanic Street Historic District. There the Queen Anne influence still predominates but is heavily influenced by the Colonial Revival (6 William Street, Ambrose G. Kenyon House; 7 William Street, Isaac Sherman House). Another popular style there was the gambrel form of the Colonial Revival (34 and 36 William Street). A few Bungalows and American Foursquares are also found on these streets. Isaac Sherman, a local builder, had an office in one of the Foursquares at 8 Courtland Street; his house was a Queen Anne/Colonial Revival on William Street, a building which combines most of the individual features found on the smaller gambrels along these side streets.
The Mechanic Street Historic District is significant as an exceptionally cohesive, well-preserved industrial/residential neighborhood composed of small-scale factories and workers' housing, dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Due to the limited amount of modern intrusion, the historic, geographic, and economic interrelationship between the mills and the housing has been preserved, providing a tangible record of the Mechanic Street Historic District's nineteenth-century industrial and social history.
Pawcatuck Bridge was the early name for the settlement that grew up on both sides of the Pawcatuck River in the early nineteenth century — today Westerly, Rhode Island, and the Pawcatuck section of Stonington, Connecticut. These two communities shared a common history as a river port through the first half of the nineteenth century. With ready access to the sea, shipbuilding and trade flourished, followed by later industrial development.
Although Pawcatuck Bridge never became as large a port as two others in Stonington (Mystic Bridge, now Mystic, and Stonington Port in the borough), its location at the juncture of the old Boston Post and Norwich roads provided access to the interior and farm products were shipped from the port. It was also the site of several shipyards on the west bank of the river (in the district). Shipbuilders included Sheffield and Sons, Maxson & Sons, and Pendleton & Hall. The latter two turned to housebuilding when the shipping era was ending, and constructed many of the houses in the Mechanic Street Historic District.
Most of the houses of the Greek Revival style on Mechanic Street were associated with the maritime period. Presumably the street was named at this time for the "mechanics" employed by the shipyards who lived in this waterfront neighborhood. Horace Hall owned a small house of this style at 42 Mechanic Street used as the company office for many years. Sheffield had a boarding house in a small Greek Revival cottage at 111 West Broad Street, the only such type identified as workers' housing for shipyard workers.
In 1837 the railroad from Providence to Stonington was completed. (It passes through the Mechanic Street Historic District with a grade crossing at Palmer Street.) This wood-fired steam railroad was a major factor in the development of Pawcatuck as a separate industrial community, not simply as an improved method of transportation. Much of the early industrial labor force was already in place, as both Blacks and Irish immigrants came to the town with the building of the railroad. Mystic continued to prosper as a whaling and shipbuilding port, and Stonington Port became the transfer terminus for the steamboat to New York City. The Westerly granite quarries became the chief industry for that town starting in 1840, and Pawcatuck rapidly developed its own industrial base. One of the earliest was a woolen mill established upriver from the district by Oresemus Stillman, an area that became known as Stillmanville.
The first company established in the Mechanic Street Historic District was a foundry built in 1851, the first and last industry to utilize the river for water power. It was followed in 1855 by Cottrell & Babcock, a steam-powered factory specializing in the manufacture of machinery of all kinds, textile, wood turning, and printing. The company turned exclusively to the manufacture of printing presses by 1860. Production of machinery is a labor-intensive process, employing skilled workers. Their first year in business, it took 50 men to produce 20 machines. By 1860, the work force had doubled and 50 machines were made. Following the Civil War, the company prospered to such an extent that the labor force tripled. Cottrell bought out his partner and the firm became know as Cottrell & Sons, continuing business in this location until well into the twentieth century (Harris Graphics, Inc., a modern printing press manufacturer, occupies some of the firm's buildings).
Another company was established in the Mechanic Street Historic District about this time, Campbell and Babcock, a woolen textile mill (probably the same Babcock formerly in business with Cottrell). Their first buildings adjoin the Cottrell factories on the south. By 1888 it became the Crefeld Mills. This company was bought out in 1897 by the Lorraine Mills, which remained in business until 1934.
Several types of housing were needed for the work force of these two major employers, a work force that had grown to "hundreds of men, single and foreign born" by 1880. Mill-built housing was augmented by tenements and boarding houses built by individuals, but many of the skilled workers at Cottrell owned their own houses, especially after 1900. Since most of the workers' housing in the Mechanic Street Historic District was provided by the textile mills under each successive owner, it is presumed that the textile firms were the largest employer. Mill-built housing included tenements and duplexes, beginning with those built for Campbell and Babcock near the mill at the junction of Palmer and Mechanic streets. Pendleton and Hall, later Dickson & Hall, were the builders of these similar houses. Both Crefeld and Lorraine Mills built tenements and duplexes, in addition to purchasing existing houses and tenements to rent to workers. Such was the demand for housing that as the textile mill expanded, existing houses were even moved across Mechanic Street rather than destroyed. Lorraine Mills became the largest property owner in the district. By the time the company folded in 1934, it owned 85 houses in the district, estimated as 30% of the housing stock. They were all sold in one day at auction, often to the current tenants.
The Mechanic Street Historic District expanded with the growth of the mills and factories, first onto Lester Avenue and Moss Street, and then to William and Courtland. Babcock and Wilcox were the contractors for many of these houses (for example, 26 Lester Avenue), along with Maxson and Sons. Isaac Sherman specialized in the American Foursquares at 7, 8, 9 and 11 Courtland Street. Lester Avenue and Moss Street combined single- and multi-family dwellings. Here the rental properties were simply larger houses of the same type built for individual families, generally in the Queen Anne style. William and Courtland streets were limited to single family houses — all built in the early twentieth century.
Quite a few of this latter group were owned by machinists at the Cottrell factory. Nine houses have been identified as belonging to these skilled workers; four on Lester Avenue built between 1903 and 1913, the others built on Courtland Street until 1926. The foreman machinist, John T. Johnson, lived at 27 Courtland Street in a small Bungalow, one of the last styles to be constructed. Some of these men owned boarding houses elsewhere in the district. For example, Herbert Hoxie, living at 25 Moss Street, owned a tenement on lower West Broad Street.
The increased prosperity of the district in the early twentieth century, reflected in the improved housing stock, was accompanied by the formation of a citizen improvement group. At their urging, trees were planted on the streets in the district and one of the last district schools in Stonington was built to serve the neighborhood on West Broad Street. The construction of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center on Chase Street demonstrates the community's continued interest in the Mechanic Street Historic District.
The Mechanic Street Historic District displays an unusual degree of cohesion and remains a viable entity. All the components of this exceptionally large district remain in place, an operating industrial complex, and block after block of associated vernacular housing. With few exceptions, most of the Mechanic Street Historic District's resources appear today as they did at the time they were built. Very little modern construction has taken place; the few newer houses are located on the fringes of the district, particularly on William Street or Courtland Street. Most of these are compatible in scale and function and do not detract from the historic appearance of these streetscapes.
More importantly, the lack of modern intrusion elsewhere in the district leaves the historic chronology of the district intact. Even to the casual passerby, the subtle changes in the Mechanic Street Historic District's domestic architecture are obvious as one moves west from Mechanic Street. The age of this street is apparent. Although it is also the area where the houses have suffered the most from neglect or ill-advised additions or siding, a number of them have been rehabilitated and most still convey their Greek Revival-style inspiration. Between Moss and Mechanic streets a variety of houses was constructed. Interspersed among the three types of readily identifiable workers' housing are modest houses from the later nineteenth century.
It is on Moss Street that the total transition to the late nineteenth century is accomplished. The longest street in the Mechanic Street Historic District, it contains some 60 historic houses. The vast majority of them are derivations of the Queen Anne style, with the larger houses on the west side and the smaller ones on the east. Exceptionally well preserved, with most houses still displaying the original architectural details, the streetscape has great integrity and demonstrates the almost infinite variation made possible by machine-produced millwork, most obvious in the fine collection of Carpenter Gothics with "gingerbread" trim.
On the later streets in the Mechanic Street Historic District the predominant style of the twentieth century, the Colonial Revival, exerts a strong influence. Often combined with the Queen Anne on William Street, it achieves its final unmistakeable form in the Colonial Revival gambrel-roofed cottages and Bungalows on both William and Courtland streets.
Atlas of New London County, Connecticut. New York: F.W. Beers, 1868.
Atas of Washington County, Rhode Island. New York: F.W. Beers, 1868.
Bevan, John. Map of the Village of Westerly. Jersey City, 1849.
Harwood, Pliny Leroy. History of Eastern Connecticut. New Haven: Pioneer Publishing Co., 1932.
Hinckley, Elias B. Pawcatuck in Olden Times. Westerly, 1926.
Insurance Maps of Westerly (including Pawcatuck, Connecticut). New York: Sanborn Map Co., May 1907.
Map of the Village of Westerly, Rhode Island. Surveyed by John Bevan. 1849, 1851.
Reid, J.A. & R.A. Reid. The Westerly Directory. Westerly, Rhode Island, 1881, 1884.
Sampson, Murdock & Co. The Westerly Directory. Westerly, Rhode Island, 1885, 1888.
United State Federal Census, 1880.
Vollmer Associates, Inc. "Design Study Report, Elimination of the Palmer Street Crossing, Stonington, Project No. 59-109" (Prepared for the Department of Transportation, State of Connecticut, 1979.
Westerly Public Library, Local History Collection.
†Jan Cunningham, consultant, Cunningham Associated, Ltd., and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Mechanic Street Historic District, Stonington, Connecticut, nomination document, 1987, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.