Tolland Green Historic District
The Tolland Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. 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 Tolland Green Historic District consists of over 50 houses and other buildings concentrated around a long strip of open land known as Tolland Green and along the side roads leading from it: Tolland Stage Road, Cider Mill Road, and Old Post Road. Although the Tolland Green Historic District's buildings are a mixture of residential, religious, and public properties, the greatest number are houses dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The houses are generally of wooden post-and-beam construction, 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 stories high, and range in style from the plain vernacular of the colonial period to the Federal and Greek Revival styles of the early 19th century. Victorian architecture is also represented, both in houses of the period and in remodelings of earlier buildings. The exteriors of most buildings are covered with clapboards, with Victorian-period structures having additional exterior variegation in the form of wood shingles; a number of houses have recently been sided. Only a few buildings are constructed of brick or stone.
The Tolland Green Historic District's oldest houses, dating from the middle to late 18th century, exhibit the typical features of colonial Connecticut's domestic architecture: broad-side-to-the-road orientation, clapboarded exterior, small-pane divided sash, and plain detail. Early 19th-century buildings in the Tolland Green Historic District have their gable end facing the street and Federal and Greek Revival details such as pilasters, fanlights, and full cornice returns. The Tolland Inn and 714 Tolland Stage Road reveal an Italianate influence with their wide overhanging eaves and decorative porch columns and brackets. The Gothic Revival is represented in the district in an outstandingly well-preserved example of the Swiss Chalet mode, 704 Tolland Stage Road, notable for its richly embellished second-floor porch supported on large braces; a later Gothic influence can be seen in the simple Stick style bracing of the Old Town Hall. The Tolland Green Historic District's several buildings from the Late Victorian period have steeply pitched gable roofs, decorative porch detail, shingles, and other ornamental millwork.
A number of the residential properties include former agricultural outbuildings that are considered as contributing resources. About a dozen old barns can be found behind the houses along Tolland Green and Tolland Stage Road.
In addition to the houses, the Tolland Green Historic District includes several institutional buildings. There are three current or former church buildings: the Greek Revival style United Congregational Church, built c.1838; the eclectic 1880 Methodist Church, since 1959 the meeting place of the Tolland Grange; and St. Matthew's Catholic Church, a noncontributing building erected in 1966. Public buildings include the Federal style 1822 Tolland County Courthouse, now the library of a genealogical society; the Tolland County House and County Jail, 1856-1893; the 1879 Old Town Hall at the southeastern end of the Green; and the brick Romanesque-style building, built in 1908, that was formerly the Ratcliffe Hicks Memorial School and now houses the Tolland Public Library and town hall offices.
There are three current or former commercial-use buildings within the Tolland Green Historic District: a Federal style building, currently a crafts store but with a long history of accommodating various other enterprises, including a drygoods store and shoe shop; the Tolland Inn (c.1850), an Italianate detailed building in business as an inn at least since the turn of the century, when it was known as the Steele House; and the former Tolland County Bank, whose Greek Revival period origins are now obscured by the modernization that took place in 1962. The house at 55 Tolland Green was also at one time used as a store and served many years as Tolland's post office. Two buildings are now in use as museums: the Tolland Historical Society Jail House Museum in the former county building and the Hicks-Stearns Family Museum in a Victorianized colonial-period house.
The Green itself consists of two sections set end-to-end running in a north-south direction, with roads along either side. For the most part, it is devoid of fencing, curbs, and walks. Plantings are limited to a few shade trees along the central axis of the Green, so that aside from better-paved roads, its appearance today is not markedly different from that of the 1830s (see Barber view, below). The spirit of the Green is continued on the west side of Route 195, where many of the buildings have broad front lawns between them and a sidewalk. At the south end of the Green is the town's flagpole, set upon a granite war monument. The Green is counted as a contributing resource within the historic district; the flagpole and monument are considered noncontributing because of their relatively recent construction (1968).
The boundary of the Tolland Green Historic District generally follows property lines, cutting across them only to exclude excessive open land or modern construction. The Tolland Green Historic District approximates the boundary of the Tolland Green local historic district but includes three more properties.
The Tolland Green Historic District is significant for its landscape qualities as a relatively original-appearing village green; for its historical associations with institutions and people important in the development of the area as a town center; and for the architectural qualities of its buildings, many of which represent well-preserved examples of particular periods and styles of architecture. The Green was the location of three of Tolland's earliest churches, as well as the place where town meetings were held and many social organizations staged their functions. In addition to being a religious, political, and social focus for the surrounding areas of Tolland, the Green for many years was the seat of government for all of Tolland County, an historical role still in evidence today in the former courthouse, county house, and jail. Along with a former school and town hall, historic churches, numerous well-preserved residences from the 18th and 19th centuries, old barns, former inns and stores, and the Green itself, these buildings give the Tolland Green Historic District a distinctive sense of time and place.
Tolland Green is a notable example of a small village common that has remained relatively unaffected either by beautification efforts or by highway widening programs, both of which have tended to obscure the original character of village greens in the state's town centers. Although State Route 195 runs along the western edge, it is not so wide as to detract from the overall scale of the village center, especially given the broad lawns and sidewalk in front of the westside buildings.
Greens were not originally thought of primarily as open space; instead, they were parcels of common land, usually close to the community's Congregational meetinghouse, that were reserved for whatever public purposes might be needed. Many towns built their meetinghouses and schoolhouses directly in the middle of the central common land, and most had wide highways either running though the middle of the commons or along each side. Both Tolland's first meetinghouse and the first county courthouse were built on the Green itself. When not in use for militia training days, commons were sometimes used as community pastures for animal grazing. As the Barber view shows, Tolland Green in the 1830s was just such a minimally articulated open space; there was no curb, walkway, fence, or other device separating the Green from the roadways along the sides, and there were only a few shade trees as plantings. Not surprisingly, considering Tolland's function as the county seat, the whole affair looks fairly well trampled upon. Reflecting terminology of the early 19th century, the area bounded by the district was most commonly known as "Tolland Street."
In the second half of the 19th century, many communities undertook to make their commons or greens more park-like by installing fences, water fountains, walks, monuments, and more formal plantings. Tolland had an active village improvement association in the 1870s and 1880s, but it appears that the Green was left pretty much as it always had been, with the group confining its efforts to removal of some underlying stone that caused the grass to brown off in summer and laying the walkway along the westside roadway in the vicinity of the Congregational Church.
The area that became Tolland Green was not intended to be the original focus of the community when people from Windsor first contemplated settlement of this land in 1713. However, the initial choice of a site for a meetinghouse and house lots proved to be inconvenient (it ended up in the extreme southerly portion of the town once the boundary with Coventry was settled). Therefore, families that made up the new town, incorporated in 1715, chose a site not far from the present Congregational Church to erect their house of worship and located the first home lots in long strips running back from the parcel of common land, bordered by two highways, on which the church stood. That first church stood on the southern end of the Green until 1754 and, along with the common on which Tolland's militia company gathered for training days, became a central place for the social, religious, and political activities of the entire town. A new meetinghouse was built in 1754; in 1838, it was replaced by the present structure. In addition to serving as a place to hold religious services for the established Congregational religion, in which a large majority of the residents were participants, the meetinghouse served a secular function as the location of town meetings and elections. It was one of the places where legal notices were required to be posted, on the assumption that most if not all of the town's residents would have some occasion to come to the area of the Green.
Throughout the 18th century, Tolland was much like other towns in the Connecticut countryside: a community made up primarily of farmers practicing near-subsistence, generalized agriculture, a system that, taken as a whole, provided for the vast proportion of their needs. Today, the large number of barns that remain behind the historic houses on the Green continue to recall the village's origins as a community of farmers.
Tolland did have the fortune to be located on roads that became important highways, and this circumstance undoubtedly brought some outside business for the town's taverners, innkeepers, store-owners, and artisans. One of the interior roads between Hartford and Boston was improved as the Hartford and Tolland Turnpike, chartered in 1801, and in the years that followed, the other roads that converged on Tolland Green were also incorporated into the turnpike system: present-day Route 74 as the Tolland County Turnpike (1809) and Route 195 as the Tolland and Mansfield Turnpike (1828). The Stafford Turnpike (1803) and the Center Turnpike (1824) branched off a short distance east of the Green.
Once established as the town center by the siting of the meetinghouse, the Green continued as the natural location for numerous other town institutions. The Methodists built their first chapel in 1793 at the north end, replacing it in 1880 with the building that now serves as the Grange. A Baptist church (no longer extant) joined the others on the Green in 1832. When the town decided to build its own building for town meetings in 1879, now known as the Old Town Hall, the Green was chosen for its location, and in 1908 when a prominent citizen, Ratcliffe Hicks, left money to build a consolidated elementary school, the structure went up on the Green. Tolland citizens formed a Public Library Association in 1893 and by 1899 had secured a collection of books and rooms in the courthouse for use as a library. When the local Patrons of Husbandry started the Tolland Grange in 1886, they met first in the Town Hall, then in the Congregational Church, then for many years in the Methodist Church, which they purchased in 1959. Other groups known to have met in various buildings on the Green include Tolland's Masonic lodges, Knights Templar, and Odd Fellows.
In 1785 the General Assembly created Tolland County from towns that formerly were parts of Hartford and Windham counties, and Tolland was chosen to be the seat for the new entity. Today counties exist in Connecticut only as geographic designations, but from the 18th through the early 20th centuries, the county was an important mid-level agency of government. The county's chief purpose was to provide civil and criminal justice. Although town selectmen were authorized to apprehend and punish people for misdemeanors, major crimes and civil actions required formal court proceedings, of which the county courts were the first level. Sessions of the state courts on the two next higher levels were also held at the county seats, the justices traveling an annual circuit. In addition to their judicial duties, the judges of the county courts (and later county commissioners) also performed important regulatory functions, licensing markets and taverns, overseeing the sealing of weights and measures, and ensuring that towns were fulfilling their duties, particularly as regards road maintenance. The judges, lawyers, and other officials associated with the county were among Tolland's most distinguished residents. They included Elisha Stearns (1776-1850), clerk of the county and superior courts from 1814 to 1835 and after 1838, judge of the Tolland County Court; Calvin Willey (1776-1858), a lawyer who served as postmaster of Tolland from 1812 to 1820, six times as Tolland's representative to the General Assembly and twice as a state senator, and one term in the U.S. Senate; Loren P. Waldo (1802-1881), state's attorney for Tolland County from 1837 to 1849 and later a State Supreme Court justice and U.S. congressman; and Ratcliffe Hicks (1843-1908), a lawyer trained in the office of Judge Waldo who, although he spent most of his life elsewhere, was, along with his daughter Elizabeth Hicks, one of Tolland's chief philanthropists.
Designation of Tolland as the county seat brought several buildings and a great deal of activity to the Green. In addition to the courthouse itself, where judges held sessions and county records were stored, a jail was required for confining prisoners awaiting trial or serving sentences for crimes less serious than those that would result in imprisonment by the state. The first jail was built in 1785, followed by a replacement in 1805, and the present structure in 1856. Tolland had several inns to accommodate those on county business, one of which survives in use as an inn to this day. Also, the house that was connected to the jail (last rebuilt in 1893) originally served as a hotel for those on court business; though owned by the state, it was operated under contract by a private innkeeper. The first bank in the county began business on the Green in 1826, and a savings bank was added in 1841; both were housed in the small building next to the church at 51 Tolland Green. At one time there was a small insurance company on the Green as well. Hosting the courts helped Tolland expand as a market center, and several of the buildings in the district recall the numerous stores that once clustered around the Green: the building at 46 Tolland Green, for example, was a shoe shop in the 1850s, A.W. Munger's store in the 1860s, J.P. Root's store around 1900, and, in the early 20th century, a Red and White grocery operated by the Clough family. The house at 55 Tolland Green, north of the courthouse, served as Reuban Alien's drygoods store in the 1850s, A. Root's store in the 1860s, and for many years in the 20th-century, as Tolland's Post Office.
In the late 19th century, Connecticut's rural county seats were almost all relocated to larger cities and towns that had rail connections and better accommodations for visitors. Tolland saw the seat transferred to Rockville in 1888. Although the jail remained in use and some court sessions continued to be held in Tolland for many years, Tolland Green ceased to be a place of much importance to the outside world. Except for the remodeling of houses in the Victorian fashion by a few families that had made their money in Tolland's heyday, little building occurred, and by the early 1900s most of the residences on the Green were seasonal homes for people who lived elsewhere. Not until the World War II-era suburban expansion of Hartford, followed by the extension of the Wilbur Cross Highway, would Tolland begin again to grow.
The Tolland Green Historic District has architectural significance because its buildings include many well-preserved examples of particular styles and periods of architecture. The domestic architecture of rural colonial New England, simple in form and plainly detailed, is represented in the Tolland Green Historic District by numerous houses embodying the genre's typical features: clapboarded (or wood-shingled) exteriors, symmetrical facades with center entries, small-pane divided sash, and large central chimneys of stone or brick. Examples that embody many or all of the characteristics of the type include the gambrel-roofed Obediah Waldo House, 34 Tolland Green, and the house at 89 Tolland Green.
The essence of the Federal style is recalled in the Tolland Green Historic District in the form of the slender corner pilasters, fanlights, Palladian window, and cornice enrichment on the courthouse, the former store at 46 Tolland Green, the house at 85 Tolland Green, and other early 19th-century buildings. These buildings illustrate the use of delicately scaled Classical details that was at the heart of the style. The heavier and more academically "correct" proportions of the Greek Revival are also epitomized by buildings in the Tolland Green Historic District, most notably the Tolland Bank, 51 Tolland Green, which, although lacking its original columns, retains its cornice decorated with large triglyphs, and the Congregational Church, which has wide pilasters and a deep frieze, both typically Greek Revival in their proportions.
The intricate brackets, round-arched window forms, and highly detailed porches introduced by the Italianate architecture of the middle 19th-century are also well-represented in the Tolland Green Historic District, as are the stick braces of the Stick style. The house at 704 Tolland Stage Road, erected c.1858 as the residence of Charles Underwood (1824-1908), a local leather-belt manufacturer and president of both the Tolland County Bank and the Tolland Savings Bank, is one of the state's best preserved and most richly detailed examples of "Carpenter Gothic." Its matched-board exterior and jig-sawn braces, balcony balusters, valences, and front-peak panel epitomize the picturesque woodwork that defined that style (though the actual source for the ornament is more the Italian Renaissance than any Gothic precedent).
The Tolland Green Historic District well illustrates the architecture of the late Victorian period, both in buildings from the period, such as the house at 25 Tolland Green (1873; and the 1893 County House, and in remodelings, such as that carried out by Miss Elizabeth Hicks on her family's 1795 homestead. More than style per se, Victorian architecture relied on complexity in the roof line and overall form, variegated materials, and intricate detailing to create the desired effect. All of these qualities, made possible by the availability of factory-produced millwork, are embodied by the district's Victorian buildings. Porches, towers, and large dormers create asymmetry and complexity of form/clapboards, fancy shingles, and Stick style bands articulating the "structure" give variety to the buildings' exteriors; and the application of turned, sawn, and routed decorative woodwork leaves few surfaces unadorned. Where a designer has been identified for these buildings, it has proved to be James Clough, a local builder.
Cole, J. R. History of Tolland, Connecticut. New York: W.W. Preston and Co., 1888.
Crofut, Florence S. M. Guide to the History and the Historical Sites of Connecticut. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937.
Hicks, Elizabeth, and Helen L. Needham. The Tolland Public Library. Tolland: Tolland Library Association, 1976.
McArdle, Alma deC., and Deirdre Bartlett McArdle. Carpenter Gothic: Nineteenth-Century Ornamental Houses of New England. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1978.
Pease, John C., and John M. Niles. A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Hartford: W. S. Marsh, 1819.
Report of the Tolland Historic District Committee. Tolland: Tolland Historic Commission, 1979.
Tolland General Committee. June 27-July 3, 1965, 250th Anniversary Celebration, Tolland, Connecticut: 1715-1965. Tolland: Tolland General Committee, 1965.
U.S. Works Progress Administration. Census of Old Buildings in Connecticut. Manuscript. Connecticut State Library, c.1935.
Weigold, Harold. Tolland: History of an Old Connecticut Post Road Town. Chester: Pequot Press, 1971.
Maps and Views:
Barber, John W. Connecticut Historical Collections. New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1838.
Eaton, W.C., and H.C. Osborn. Map of Tolland County, Connecticut, from Actual Survey. Philadelphia: Woodford and Bartlett, 1857.
Gray, O.W. Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties. Hartford: C.G. Keeney, 1869.
† Bruce Clouette and Hoang Tinh, consultants, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Tolland Green Historic District, Tolland, Tolland County, CT, nomination document, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.