Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District
The Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. 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 Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District is north of the village center of Mystic; it extends along the spine of Greenmanville Avenue between Pleasant Street on the northernmost edge of the district to the remnants of a tidal marsh near Mystic Seaport's southernmost parking lot. Residential streets running east off of Greenmanville Avenue north and south of the large red brick Rossie Velvet Mill (built 1898; 112 Greenmanville Avenue) are included, as well the mill complex itself and the mill owners' houses (Ernest Rossie House, 72 Greenmanville Avenue and Bruggeman-Rossie-Blanchette House, 3 Bruggeman Place). On the side streets the first lots to be built on were those on the relatively flat land nearest Greenmanville Avenue, but soon others were developed on the hillside. A ridge of high ground parallels Greenmanville Avenue, marking the easternmost limits of the district. The western boundary of the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District is Greenmanville Avenue itself and, in the case of the former blacksmith shop for the mill and an adjacent house, the Mystic River, which flows roughly parallel to Greenmanville Avenue.
The Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District is comprised of 51 properties. The smaller buildings are mainly residential, built between 1850 and 1950, with the bulk being constructed between 1900 and 1950. The increased need for housing, spurred by general population growth in the late 1890s, and the founding and expansion of the Rossie Velvet Mill on Greenmanville Avenue, led to the establishment of new streets east of Greenmanville Avenue. Construction of single and multi-family houses along the new streets extended an existing residential area along Greenmanville Avenue, and the latter became more intensively developed. Most of the earliest houses are vernacular Victorian structures like the Ralph Hughes House at 130 Greenmanville Avenue. The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century residences were mainly built in the Colonial Revival, Shingle, and Bungalow styles. A fine example of the Shingle style in the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District is the Thomas Weir House at 5 Bruggeman Place. A number of large Colonial Revival style houses like those at 132, 136, 140, and 144 Greenmanville Avenue, and 3 Rossie Street grace the district. Slightly smaller single-family houses built between 1900 and 1935, mainly Bungalows, are also represented in the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District. Examples of two different types of smaller houses are the Henry Fain House, 19 Bruggeman Place and the Menge House, 4 Rossie Street (said to have been manufactured by Sears Roebuck). Compact Victorian vernacular and Colonial Revival houses are also part of the streetscape (142 Greenmanville Avenue). The shingled John Spicks House (20 Rossie Street) seems to be inspired by the Craftsman style, and the neighboring John Litterscheitt House at 21 Rossie Street has some Colonial Revival features. Some houses were built or converted for multi-family use. The largest multi-family structure was dubbed "The Block" or "The Square House" (5 Velvet Lane).
The non-residential properties include the Rossie Velvet Mill (112 Greenmanville Avenue), a warehouse (123b Greenmanville Avenue; the former blacksmith shop for the mill), a former auto showroom and repair garage (90 Greenmanville Avenue), and the Social Society Frohsinn (or German Club; 54 Greenmanville Avenue). Vacant lots in the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District have been filled with small frame Capes and Ranches dating from the 1940s through the 1960s, like the Elsie Edelhoff House, built in 1952 (28 Bruggeman Place).
The Rossie Velvet Mill and its immediate neighborhood is a testament to the sustaining power of the textile industry as an engine of economic development from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The housing on the residential streets running east from Greenmanville Avenue was built partly in response to the establishment of the Rossie Mill. The Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District contains not only a well-preserved example of a textile mill, but also typical examples of the kind of residential structures which often sprang up in the vicinity of mill buildings to house the immigrants who usually worked at such mills. A rare survival in the neighborhood is the original Social Society of Frohsinn (German Club) building, constructed only a few years after the mill, and used to this day for its original purpose; some current members are the descendants of the first mill employees.
By 1850 the present day village of Mystic was a community that had moved away from its agricultural roots towards a market economy based on the sea and industry. The wealthiest and most influential citizens were those associated with ship building, ocean-going commercial ventures, and local industry. Mystic, like so many Connecticut villages during the last half of the nineteenth century and well into the early part of the twentieth century, saw rapid shifts in its population. The local economy, largely dependent on the dwindling revenues from shipbuilding, fishing, and maritime commerce in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, was, like much of the United States, in a period of depression, or even deflation. Civic leaders were desperate to find a means to diversify and expand the economic base. The village had been from the early nineteenth century the site of various textile enterprises. Mid-century a woolen mill (now part of the Mystic Seaport campus) was built on the east bank of the Mystic River. By the late nineteenth century this east bank of the river, formerly dominated by the Joseph Stanton Williams Farms on the east side of what is today Greenmanville Avenue, became an industrial section of the community. In 1897 the Mystic Industrial Company was incorporated to attract other manufacturing concerns. Perhaps inspired by the velvet mills established in 1892 by Charles Wimpfheimer in nearby Stonington Village, the corporation raised $22,000 to bring a "German velvet mill" to the neighborhood. Elias Williams, who had inherited his father's northern farm (also known as "Elm Tree Farm"), donated two acres of land to the stockholders of the Mystic Industrial Company, of which he was a director. The Rossie Velvet Company opened the following year, leased by the proprietors of a Suchteln, Germany, velvet mill, on the shores of the Mystic River. The high tax on imported goods assessed by the McKinley Tariff of 1890 had led these entrepreneurs to seek a manufacturing facility in the United States. The introduction of the a new mechanized loom c.1880 had caused a surplus of experienced German weavers, so it was only natural that some of these artisans were recruited for the new American-based enterprise. The mill was rapidly completed, and by mid-March, 1898, textile production had begun. At the peak of its business the mill was Mystic's largest employer. It had 150 looms and over 200 workers working three shifts by the 1920s, and the number of employees later rose to near 500. One of the highlights of the year was the annual employee picnic, which was an elaborate affair until the Depression, after which it was scaled back somewhat.
Many of the weavers were German immigrants, and although a trolley line was extended along Greenmanville Avenue by 1911, a good number sought housing in the immediate neighborhood. The Social Society of Frohsinn (German Club) founded by these immigrants is also within the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District. Following the construction of the mill Elias Williams sold more land to the Rossies, and after his death his wife, Sarah P. Williams, sold still more. Early views of the mill show Elm Tree Farm's largest barn which was located, along with the farmhouse, on the high ground east of the mill. The Williamses also sold off land for building lots to the north and south of the mill. New streets were laid out, stretching from Greenmanville Avenue to the east; all but Bruggeman Place stopped at the top of the ridge. Bruggeman Place was the longest and extended past the crest of the ridge. The street names, especially Rossie Street, Velvet Lane, and Bruggeman Place (Peter Bruggeman was a stockholder of the Mystic Industrial Company, and a member of the building committee for the 1906 expansion of the mill, as well as its first superintendent) illustrate the close relationship between the mill and the neighborhood. The 1916-1917 Mystic directory shows that more than 50 neighborhood residents were employed at the mill. This was a period when almost every Mystic family, Yankee or immigrant alike, had a relative working there. Helen May Clarke, the offspring of two old local families, gives an account of her stint as an employee in her diary. Her first impression in March, 1925, was that of a "vast place of crashing machinery." In her diary she speaks of the frenzied pace of work, as well as the constant noise, and the terrible heat workers endured on humid summer days despite awnings and fans: "The mill itself is little short of an inferno...the switch-board buzzes like a nest of enraged hornets." The physical plant of the mill expanded five times between 1898 and 1932, despite labor strife and troubles experienced during World War I when the mill had to cut its production due to a shortage of imported materials necessary to the mill's operation. The mill specialized in what was called "transparent velvet," a high-quality crush-resistant cloth that was popular for winter party dresses. Also in demand for women's hats was the mill's line of velvet that resisted water-spotting. The quality of the mill's product was maintained by employing only the most skilled workers and limiting the number of looms worked by each weaver to two. The docking of the German submarine Deutschland in New London in October, 1916, created a huge sensation. It brought the aniline dyes to create the deep, rich colors that made Rossie velvet so popular. These German-manufactured dyes were considered superior to American-made dyes. The captain and crew of the submarine were entertained at a dinner at the German Club during their stay in Connecticut. Once the United States entered the War anti-German backlash took its toll on the Rossie Velvet Mill, and its first and second-generation immigrants of German origin. In March, 1919, 500 shares, all the capital stock of the Rossie Velvet Company, were sold at auction by the Alien Property Custodian. Majority ownership of the mill seems to have been retained by William Oppenhym & Sons of New York, who originally served as the commission merchants for the mill's products, but the Elias Williams family also retained a large interest in the mill. John T. Rossie, who had come from Germany in 1910 to be the firm's chief executive in Mystic, continued to run the mill. Ernest Rossie's house is located within the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District south of the factory; John Rossie lived for a few years in an adjacent house at 3 Bruggeman Place, originally the home of the mill superintendent, Peter Bruggeman.
The Great Depression brought more severe hardship, and in 1937 the mill was closed and its contents were sold at auction. The following year John Rossie, undeterred, purchased a majority share of the company's stock, and weaving operations were back under way by the end of June in the reorganized J. Rossie Velvet Company. Although the new company was reduced in size, it continued to produce high-quality velvet. Initially the cloth was rayon velvet, and later the velvet was made of nylon. In 1955 the company was sold to a new owner, Harry W. Baumgarten; it continued to produce high quality velvet until 1958, when like many other northern mills it succumbed to competition from textile mills in the south where labor costs were much lower. By time the mill closed for good, the workforce had dwindled to 76.
As the mill's output declined, several other companies leased space in the complex. In April 1940, Foxcraft, Inc. began to produce tufted bedspreads there. Another occupant was the Temple Radio Company. Although the main headquarters was located in nearby New London, the firm utilized space in the mill to assemble cases for the line of radios, known as "Templetone;" this firm was an early innovator in the design of television sets, and these television cases were also built at the Rossie Mill, where a number of neighborhood residents were employed.
The neighborhood bordering the upper end of Greenmanville Avenue was not strictly industrial; it was also residential. This area attracted not only German textile workers, but also other new immigrants. Although these immigrants came from a variety of places, one particularly notable group put down roots in Mystic. They were from the valley of Zoldo, high in the Dolmites, now part of Italy. These immigrants began to arrive in America in the 1880s, but by the 1890s their number increased, peaking between 1900 and 1910. Finding work in the Rossie Mill and other businesses in town, the Zoldani purchased or constructed a number of the houses in the district. Among this group were skilled masons and carpenters, and their craftsmanship can still be appreciated in the houses they occupied in the neighborhood. Among those specializing in woodworking were Antonio (Arthur) Panciera, his father, Giovanni-Battista Panciera, and Giovanni Favretti, Vittorio Brustolon, and Libero Pra. Arthur Panciera studied at the Lowell Institute (then part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and not only built, but also designed residences. He was known especially for his work on the restoration of eighteenth-century houses. In the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District there is at least one example of the work of Agostino Lazzaris, one of the masons who worked on William Gilette's Gilette Castle, and the springhouse and bridge in Park Spring (now Alex Caisse Park) in Willimantic, Connecticut; he constructed the foundation of the Giovanni Favretti House (27 Bruggeman Place). Of this group only Giovanni Favretti lived in the district. Other houses owned and occupied by Zoldani within the district include the Henry Fain House (19 Bruggeman Place), the Santin House (5 Rossie Street), and the John Fain House (12 Rossie Street). Prominent Zoldani businessman Sebastiano Santin (1872-1955) opened one of Mystic's first automobile dealerships on the corner of Greenmanville Avenue and Hinckley Street (90 Greenmanville Avenue). The dealership was owned by Santin and his sons Giuseppe (Joseph) and Aldo, and operated on the site from 1920 until 1938, when the business moved to larger quarters on Holmes Street. Like their German counterparts, the Zoldani established a social club that was very active until hard economic times during the Great Depression. World War II caused its closure. The Club Alpino (Alpine Club) hall was built around 1922 on Slaughterhouse Hill a few blocks outside the district boundaries, but before the clubhouse was built several families united to build a bocce court (now demolished) on the property of Henry Fain (19 Bruggeman Place). This court continued to be a Zoldani gathering place even after the construction of the club house.
The neighborhood in the twentieth century was a mixed-use area. The Rossie Velvet Mill was surrounded by single- and multi-family houses, as well as nearby establishments like the delicatessen where Helen Clarke went for hot dogs. The Santin garage was south of the mill. The biggest change in use in the neighborhood came with the establishment in the late 1940s of the Mystic Seaport museum complex, which incorporated historic buildings moved from other parts of town and other places in a village setting on the sites of the former Greenman shipyard and the former woolen mill on the west side of Greenmanville Avenue. Other new buildings were constructed within the complex, most dating between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s. Properties associated with the Rossie family on the east side of Greenmanville Avenue, including the velvet mill and houses occupied by the Rossie brothers, were eventually added to the museum complex, and other single-family houses in the neighborhood were also purchased as the museum expanded. The wetlands south of the mill were partially filled and a parking lot for the museum was constructed on Greenmanville Avenue south of Bruggeman Place on a larger wetland.
The largest building in the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District, covering 147,000 square feet, is the Rossie Velvet Mill. The contract for the construction of the first section was let in late 1897; it was designed by New York architect Robert D. Kohn, and built by the Meriden firm of H. Wales Lines & Co. Kohn (1870-1953) is best known as the architect of the R.H. Macy Department Store, Montefiore and Mt. Sinai Hospitals, the New York Ethical Society Meeting House, and Temple Emanu-El in New York City, but he was also the designer of industrial buildings such as the H.R. Black Garment Factory in Cleveland, Ohio. Kohn received his training at Columbia University and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. By 1895 he had established his own practice in Manhattan, and was already identified with a movement to improve the nation's housing stock. He was prominent in professional organizations, serving as the president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1913 (he was named a Fellow of the AIA in 1921), and the National Fire Protection Association (1913-14), and he was one of the leading figures of the Regional Planning Association of America. As the long-time president of the Ethical Culture Society, he was deeply involved in the Progressive Movement. His later career saw him named by President Roosevelt as the Director of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (1933-34), and he was vice-president and a member of the board of design for the New York World's Fair of 1939.
The cost for the earliest part of the mill was estimated at $24,000, and the main block was comprised of six sections with a sawtooth roof, and it was illuminated by 9,000 square feet of glass. The contract called for the main block, boiler, and engine house to be completed by February 1, 1898. An addition was made in 1902, and in 1905 the Mystic Industrial Company voted to increase their capital from $90,000 to $175,000 in order to double the mill's size. This work was completed in 1906. Three other expansions were made in 1913, 1928, and 1932. Two large steam generators powered the mill machinery; these were fueled by soft coal brought up the Mystic River to a point opposite the mill near the former site of Mystic Seaport's New York Yacht Club Station. An overhead crane lifted the shipments onto an electric truck that ran through a tunnel under Greenmanville Avenue. Initially the water for the mill, a large quantity of which was required for the dying operation, was supplied by a water tower (no longer extant) on the hill behind the mill. A later tank was located adjacent to the mill. The mill is currently used for storage and exhibition space by Mystic Seaport. Although the mill has undergone some alterations due to its changing use, it is still largely intact.
The period between the 1897 establishment of the mill and 1950 saw the construction of the bulk of the residences in the neighborhood. The housing stock includes the relatively small and simple late Victorian vernacular house whose most distinguishing feature is the millwork on the front porch (for example, 130 and 142 Greenmanville Avenue). The Colonial Revival is the best represented of all the different styles of residential architecture. Fine examples of large and small frame houses built between 1900 and 1925 abound in the neighborhood. One house, at 4 Rossie Street, according to neighborhood tradition, was manufactured by Sears and Roebuck. This type of house, ordered by mail, and assembled on the spot by local labor, was an early twentieth century innovation, and such houses can be found in many contemporary neighborhoods. Although for the most part the designers and builders of these houses are not known, they are typical of the kind of residences that were popular throughout the nation during the period. The preservation of numerous documented examples of houses and structures built by or for immigrant craftsman, most notably those of Zoldan or German origin, is an usual feature of this neighborhood which stands in contrast to other areas of Mystic built and occupied by longtime Connecticut natives.
Few buildings constructed after 1950 have been added to the neighborhood, with the exception of some infill housing. The single major change to the neighborhood was the establishment of a museum complex on the east bank of the Mystic River, and the creation of parking lots on the east side of Greenmanville Avenue to serve the museum complex.
Even with the insertion of a major museum complex within the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District, the scale has been little changed. The character of the neighborhood has been preserved, even though the mill no longer serves its original purpose and the activity of visitors has replaced the shift changes of mill hands. The mill building's historic exterior features are essentially intact.
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† Kate M. Ohno, Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District, Stonington, New London County, CT, nomination document, 2006, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.