Union Green Historic District
The Union Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the origial nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Union Green Historic District consists of about a dozen buildings, mostly mid-19th century in origin, clustered around a small town green in the center of Union, Connecticut. The Green itself is a small unfenced grassy area at the north end of the triangle formed by Kinney Hollow Road, Town Hall Road, and Buckley Highway (Route 190). Located on the Green are a Civil War monument in the form of a cannon, the town's Connecticut Historical Commission town history marker (noncontributing), and the 1847 former town hall, a plain one-story clapboarded building. The balance of the triangle is a wooded area known as the Town Grove: densely grown up with white pine, oak, birch, maple, and hemlock trees, the Grove includes a 1908 granite monolith commemorating the site of Union's first meeting house, a fieldstone planter and flagstaff (noncontributing), and the town's picnic pavilion (noncontributing).
The Union Green Historic District also includes the Congregational church, an 1841 meetinghouse located on a knoll overlooking the Green; a former one-room district school built in 1846; and the Classical Revival style, brick Union Library built 1910-1912. Houses include an 18th-century 2-1/2-story center-chimney house; a flat-roofed Italian Villa style house; an eclectic Victorian dwelling; and two vernacular mid-19th century houses. The land in back of most of the houses is open pasture, and there are several board-sided barns and stone walls from the period of significance. Although the buildings are spaced quite far apart, most are visible from the Green, which forms the visual focal point of the area, since most of the roads rise in elevation moving away from the Green. The houses north of the Green on Buckley Highway are less visible because of a screen of evergreen plantings which separates them from the road.
The noncontributing buildings within the Union Green Historic District include, in addition to the 1984 picnic pavilion, two houses of relatively recent construction, and the parish house behind the church.
The boundary of the Union Green Historic District was chosen so as to include the Green, Grove, and important adjacent historic buildings. On the south, there are no further buildings except for the 1950 Union School opposite the Town Grove; the school was not included. At the southwest and northeast ends, the Union Green Historic District excludes houses of modern construction. The northern boundary was drawn so as to include only the old part of the town cemetery, a burying ground with dozens of 18th century and early 19th century markers. A narrow drive separates this part of the cemetery from a newer part, predominantly 20th century in character, while another 19th century burying ground further north was not included because it is discontiguous and not visible from the center of the district. In general, the boundary follows rear property lines but cuts across lots where excessive back acreage would be included. As drawn the boundary includes the associated farm buildings and sufficient back acreage behind several of the houses to maintain the essential agricultural setting of the area.
Union Green is a significant resource because the Green and the buildings and sites surrounding it recall the location's historic role as the town's political, religious, educational, and social center. From the construction of the first Congregational meetinghouse in 1741 up to the present, the crossroads formed by Buckley Highway and Kinney Hollow, Town Hall, and Cemetery roads has been the location of virtually all the important institutions of Union's community life: the church of the town's predominant religious body, the oldest burying ground, the Town Hall, and the Public Library. Moreover, the Green and associated town grove have themselves been important as places for public monuments and town-wide recreational and commemorative events. Finally, some of the buildings have architectural significance as locally notable examples of particular styles or types of construction, and the cemetery contains numerous significant examples of the 18th century stone carver's art.
Historical Importance of Union Center
Because of its remoteness from Connecticut's population centers and its uninviting, hilly terrain, Union was one of the last areas to be settled east of the Connecticut River. Even before the town's formal incorporation in 1734, however, the proprietors of the "Union Lands" took an important step when they set apart 200 acres in the center of Union for a meetinghouse, cemetery, parade ground, and other public purposes. This tract was the forerunner of Union Green, and although now reduced in size and partly privately owned, it continues today as the site of many important Union institutions.
The first of these was the Congregational society, whose meetinghouse was for a hundred years located at what now is part of the town grove. As the town's publicly supported religion, Congregationalism permeated everyday life in Union. Even after disestablishment in 1818, the Congregational church continued as Union's predominant religious organization well into the twentieth century. In 1841, when a new meetinghouse was built, it was located on the knoll overlooking the town common land, just across the highway from the location of the first structure.
Like many Connecticut towns, Union in the 1840s decided to build a separate building to accommodate town meetings, which previously had been held in the Congregational meetinghouse. The common land in the center was the logical choice for the site. Similarly, it made sense to locate the schoolhouse for Union's Center District at the Green. Together, the new meetinghouse, Town Hall, and schoolhouse established in the 1840s the basic appearance of the Green, which is still in evidence today.
Because Union never developed much trade, commercial agriculture, or industry (with one notable exception), little residential development occurred at the Green. Most Union residents continued to live on scattered family farms. The oldest house on the Green is that built by Ezra Horton, the Congregational minister from 1759 to 1783. Another older home was owned by E. Lindsey, a doctor.
The chief impetus for development at the Green came from Merrick Marcy (c.1812-1869). Marcy was a general merchant and contractor; he built the town hall and center school in the 1840s. In the years preceding the Civil War, Marcy organized a shoemaking business which, at its height, employed 150 people. Instead of factory production, Marcy's business involved putting out the work to individual shoemakers, with Marcy providing materials and marketing the finished product. In addition to his own house at the top of the hill, Marcy built a store, stable, some tenements, and a brick commercial structure (the "Marcy Block") along the south side of Buckley Highway. His son, Merrick A. Marcy, continued the business, eventually using convict labor at the State Prison before abandoning shoemaking. He was Union's State Representative for several years. Although the Marcy Block burned in 1881, the two Marcy homes and a former tenement remain to mark this episode in Union's history.
Unlike many Connecticut town commons, Union Green was never turned into a landscaped park. In the early 20th century, however, monuments to Civil War soldiers, erected by the G.A.R. 1901-1902, and to the first meetinghouse, erected by the town in 1908, added a commemorative function to the other public activities at the Green. When the town decided to build a public library, it too was sited near the Green, where it opened in 1912. The Green and the wooded part of the town common, now known as the Grove, were extensively used for public celebrations such as Old Home Week.
Today the Green retains its character as the center of a small rural town. Many of the properties include the back fields and barns which indicate their origins in an agricultural community, and there are few structures to disrupt the historical character of the area, which closely reflects its mid-19th century appearance.
Architectural and Artistic Significance
The sparse population of Union throughout its history has resulted in a relatively small number of notable old buildings in the town. Those buildings around the Green which have exceptional architectural qualities therefore often represent the town's best examples of their type. The house at 980 Buckley Highway is significant because it embodies the distinguishing characteristics of the Italian Villa style of architecture popular around the middle of the 19th century: low-pitched or flat roof, round-arched window shapes, decorative brackets, and blocky massing with verandas. The Merrick A. Marcy House at 993 Buckley Highway is a good example of the stylistic eclecticism, elaborate detailing, and mixed exterior textures (clapboards and wood shingles) typical of the Victorian period. The Public Library is an outstanding demonstration of the pervasiveness of the Classical Revival, which spread formal, monumental architecture throughout early 20th-century America. Although a very small building, the library's pillars, pediments, and elaborate stonework epitomize the style.
The Town Hall and Center School embody the vernacular construction common for public buildings in rural antebellum Connecticut. Schools and town houses were typically plain, rectangular-plan clapboarded structures bereft of even the simple Greek Revival detailing found on houses of the period. Both buildings are good examples of the type, with the town hall an especially well-preserved specimen. Even the meetinghouse, updated twice and covered with modern siding material, is predominantly a vernacular institutional structure of this type.
Gravestones are today recognized as a major medium of artistic expression for 18th-century New Englanders. The carvings of death's-heads, angels, funerary symbols, and border designs in Union cemetery are typical examples of the genre. The cemetery is especially notable for the large number of Manning "batwing" stones, including the earliest (1760) signed stone by Josiah Manning, and for the high-relief angel on the marker of Rev. Ebenezer Wayman (1756), which has been called "one of the most beautiful examples of the mature work of [Obadiah Wheeler,]...the finest craftsman of the early inland rural carvers of eastern Connecticut."
Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties. Hartford: Baker & Tilden, 1869.
Cole, J.R. History of Tolland County. New York: W. W. Preston, 1888.
Eaton, William C., and H.C. Osborn. Map of Tolland County Connecticut. Philadelphia: Woodford & Bartlett, 1857.
Lawson, Harvey M., comp. The History of Union, Connecticut, Founded on Material Gathered by Reverend Charles Hammond. New Haven: Price, Lee & Adkins Co., 1893.
Slater, James A. The Colonial Burying Grounds of Eastern Connecticut. Hamden, Conn.: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1987.
Upson, Jeannine M., ed., Union Lands: A People's History. Union: Union Historical Society, 1984.
† Bruce Clouette and Matthew Roth, consultants, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.