Brooklyn Green Historic District
The Brooklyn Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 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 Brooklyn Green Historic District encompasses the central and oldest area of settlement in this eastern Connecticut community. The town green is the district's heart, with the magnificent meeting house of 1771 standing in its center. The green is bisected southwest to northeast by Route 6, and across this street to the north of the meeting house, lies the town's other most notable architectural monument, the 1820, Federal-style Town Hall (originally built as the Windham County Court House). From this nexus, marked by a traffic light, five roads radiate: to the southwest, Hartford Road (Route 6); to the north, Pomfret Road (Route 169); to the northeast, Providence Road (Route 6); to the south, Wauregan Road (Route 169); and to the northwest, Wolf Den Road. The densest concentration of buildings lies around the green; and the further away one travels in all directions, the further apart the houses become. The road with the greatest number of houses is Wauregan Road which, further south, about 1/8 of a mile from the stoplight, forms a fork, with another green in the middle, Wauregan Road continuing as Route 205 and the other branch becoming the Canterbury Road (Route 169). Northeast of the town center, about 1/4 mile along the Providence Road, another concentration of historic buildings is found at the intersection of this thoroughfare and Prince Hill Road, Hyde Road, and Brown Road.
The majority of the houses and public buildings within the Brooklyn Green Historic District date from the period between 1750 and 1850. There are two dwellings from the pre-1750 period, a few were built between 1850 and 1920, and there are a small number of modern homes. In essence, however, the Brooklyn Green Historic District represents an architectural "catalogue" of the late Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival styles, with the greatest emphasis on the latter period.
Today, there are few commercial buildings in the Brooklyn Green Historic District: a gas station and garage, an antique shop, and the Regional Building which houses a number of government offices. There are four churches: Catholic, Episcopal, Unitarian, and Federated (Congregational and Baptist); and other institutional buildings include a Post Office, a library, and the Town Hall. There are also, it must be noted, five large dwellings which have been converted into nursing or convalescent homes, a concentration of such establishments unique to this town in comparison with the rest of the region; and the impact and influence of their presence are assessed below.
The boundary of the Brooklyn Green Historic District has been drawn to reflect both its thematic unity and visual integrity. This is a town center that gained its greatest prominence in the period between 1750 and 1850. Its architecture illustrates this historical development. Therefore, the boundary includes buildings reflecting or directly related to the town's growth into a prosperous, mid-nineteenth century commercial center, and excludes other structures not directly related to this theme because of age or purpose. Second, the boundary has been drawn primarily to encompass buildings. It omits vacant land except where absolutely necessary to protect sightlines and create a coherent visual unit. In all, the Brooklyn Green Historic District includes approximately 210 acres.
Geographically, the Brooklyn Green Historic District lies on rising land between 200' and 300' above sea level. The predominantly rural nature of the town is enhanced by the continued cultivation of much of the surrounding open land, either for growing corn or for pasture.
In all, there are 82 major structures in this Brooklyn Green Historic District. Only 11 are wholly non-contributing; and none of these with the exception of the Regional Building, are particularly intrusive.
In general, most of the historic structures are well cared for and are in good repair. The great majority are painted white, and are surrounded by well-kept lawns shaded by large trees, mostly oak and maple. There have, of course, been modifications: wings have been added, chimneys rebuilt, and new garages constructed; but most of these changes have been sympathetically carried out.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule in the various alterations made to five large houses converted into nursing or rest homes. Aluminum siding and asbestos siding have been installed, modern porches have been built across fronts, large modern additions have been attached, and many windows have been replaced. Undoubtedly, some of these changes have been made to satisfy fire codes and to cut maintenance costs; but they have resulted in severe damage to the historical fabric of these structures.
The Brooklyn Green Historic District possesses three areas of significance. First, the physical organization of this district, which reflects its particular historical development, illustrates several broader patterns of growth and change in the communities of eastern Connecticut from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Second, many of the Brooklyn Green Historic District's private residences and institutional buildings are architecturally significant; and, together, they form an impressive collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century vernacular structures. Finally, several of the buildings and monuments within the Brooklyn Green Historic District are associated with the lives of individuals important in state and national history.
The early history and settlement of Brooklyn was confused by arcane land transactions in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most of the land included within the present-day town was purchased in 1686 by Captain John Blackwell, an English Puritan and supporter of the Commonwealth, as a prospective new hone for like-minded Irish and Englishmen chafing under the rule of James II. The following year the General Court of Connecticut confirmed Blackwell's purchase and authorized him to organize a town. The name Blackwell chose and registered was Mortlake, the name of a village in Surrey where Cromwell and his close associates had often gathered.
With the success of the Glorious Revolution and the restoration of a measure of religious liberty in England, however, the impetus for settlement was lost and "Mortlake" remained uninhabited until the area was purchased by Jonathan Belcher, Governor of Massachusetts, in 1713. Slowly, land was sold, settlers arrived, and farms were laid out. By 1735, a meetinghouse was completed on the Green, near the site of the present Unitarian Church; and the first minister, Rev. Ephraim Avery, was settled. In 1752, the area known as Mortlake became a separate ecclesiastical society within the town of Pomfret and was renamed Brooklyn.
Until the Revolution, the town prospered as an agricultural community. The land was not particularly suited to grain crops; but it provided excellent pasture, enabling the area to emerge as a dairying and stock-raising center. Most of the population was scattered on widely separated farms; and, according to Ellen Larned, there were only seven houses in the town center as late as 1780. There were, however, at least three taverns, for the Green was at the crossroads of the main road between Hartford and Providence and a smaller thoroughfare from Canterbury and towns further south to Pomfret, Woodstock and towns in Massachusetts. One of these taverns, the General Wolfe, was owned by Israel Putnam and was the center for meetings of the "Sons of Liberty" as war with England approached.
After the Revolution, the town rapidly developed as its economy diversified. Under the leadership of new men and the sons of the original settlers, grist and saw mills were built or expanded on the banks of Blackwell Brook to the west of the Green (outside the district); and, in town, a cooperage, hat manufacture, and distillery were established along with several stores. None of these early commercial structures remain, except, perhaps, one where, according to oral tradition, hats were once produced. As the town grew in importance, the lack of legal status for its inhabitants to regulate their own affairs became increasingly irksome. This problem was finally remedied by the legislature in 1786 when parts of Canterbury and Pomfret were incorporated into the new town of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn's development as a center of trade and small scale manufacturing made it the logical choice for those proposing to move the county court to a new, more convenient location (Windham, the county seat since 1726, was situated at the county's western edge). By offering a large sum of money towards the construction of a new courthouse, the town's champions were successful; and in 1819 Brooklyn became the seat of Windham County. This change ushered in a great period of building and expansion. New stores were opened (such as Trash & Treasures) and business flourished. New manufacturers producing spoons, spectacles, pens, and watch cases were established, along with a small silk mill (the buildings housing these firms have all disappeared). A number of lawyers bought property and settled in the town to be near the court house. In 1822, several leading citizens secured a charter and opened the Windham County Bank in a handsome brick structure (now the Brooklyn Public Library) on the east side of the Green. In 1826, many of these same men organized the Windham County Mutual Fire Insurance Company. Thus, by the mid-1830's, Brooklyn was a prosperous center of agriculture, industry, commerce and local government.
This prosperity and importance, however, began to decline after 1850. Brooklyn's experience was similar to Windham, Thompson and several other regional centers of trade in eastern Connecticut. After mid-century, these towns all lost influence to new settlements established near fast-moving streams where textile factories were built. To serve these growing communities, stores, schools, banks, livery stables, and many other enterprises were founded, a movement that was reenforced by the construction of railroads which linked these new industries with far flung markets. The specific reason for Brooklyn's decline was the development of Danielson (and its adjunct, East Brooklyn) where the large Quinebaug Mills were located on the banks of the Quinebaug River, and through which the main line of the Norwich and Worcester Railroad was constructed (in Windham's case, it was the rise of Willimantic which stifled prosperity, while Thompson's decline can be traced to the growth of Putnam and North Grosvenor Dale).
The development of Danielson undermined Brooklyn's regional preeminence gradually. The railroad brought cheaper goods manufactured elsewhere, slowly forcing Brooklyn's small industries out of business. Larger stores in Danielson serving a larger population undermined the profitability of their Brooklyn neighbors, forcing several to close. And, finally, many of the town's important institutions were also lost, including newspapers, two banks, the insurance company, and, eventually, the courts. At the same tine, agriculture had also fallen on hard times. Again, it was the railroads bringing cheaper grain and meat from the Middle West which undermined local prosperity. Thus, by 1900, Brooklyn had become a rural backwater, a picturesque New England "village" with little of the hustle and energy of a once prosperous town.
The architecture of Brooklyn's buildings reflects the economic "ups and downs" of the town. There are few eighteenth-century homes in their original form; and those that do remain were the modest residences of farmers with little "high-style" Georgian embellishment. The best preserved are a small 1-1/2-story structure built around 1720, a gambrel-roof dwelling dating from 1744; and the Daniel Tyler Jr. House, a 2-1/2-story, center-chimney dwelling built around 1750. Later, but before the Revolution, a few central-hall type houses were built. This first stage of building was culminated by the construction of the magnificent meeting house in 1771, (Unitarian Church), an elegantly severe structure with restrained Georgian details.
After the Revolution, Brooklyn's architecture entered a second stage of development lasting from 1785 until about 1850. This period was dominated at first by the construction of large but plain 2-1/2-story, central-hall type houses. Later, houses were embellished by Federal style ornament, an architectural fashion that was given great impetus by the erection of the new court house.
As we have noted, the designation of Brooklyn as the county seat led to the town's greatest period of prosperity. This period coincided with a change in architectural fashion, the emergence of the Greek Revival style; and this transformation is particularly well illustrated in the building and rebuilding of many Brooklyn homes after 1830. One dwelling perfectly illustrates the transition from the Federal to the Greek Revival style. This is the Edwin C. Newbury House, which has a fully returned cornice and its ridge perpendicular to the road, Greek Revival characteristics, but retains its Federal style pilasters and fanlight transom. This mixture of elements suggests that the house was built in the late 1820s.
Many new houses were built in the Greek Revival style. A few older houses were rebuilt in the new style. The best examples are where the pilasters and door frames are so intricately worked with small thin wooden strips to represent panelling on the exterior surfaces that one is tempted to designate them "carpenter Greek Revival."
After 1850, it is interesting to note that building trends reflected the reality of Brooklyn's economic decline. The later Victorian styles are very poorly represented. There are only four Italianate structures; one is a rebuilding of an eighteenth-century dwelling. The only Second Empire structure is also a rebuilding of an earlier house; and the old Trinity rectory is the single representative of the Queen Anne style. Finally, there are two large, late-nineteenth century dwellings; but they have too few decorative features to attribute to them a distinctive style.
In sum, the picture that emerges from a study of Brooklyn's architecture is one that reflects the town's establishment, growth, and decline. The majority of its public buildings and private residences were constructed in the century of the town's greatest prosperity, between 1750 and 1850, with building in the Federal and Greek Revival styles predominating. By 1900, new construction had virtually ceased, mirroring the economic stagnation of the community. Not until the arrival of the automobile, destroying Brooklyn's relative isolation forever, did the building of houses and commercial structures begin again.
The Brooklyn Green Historic District's final area of significance is its connection with people important in national and state history. By far the most famous is Israel Putnam. Born in 1718 in Salem (later Danvers), Massachusetts, Putnam emigrated to Brooklyn in 1759 with his young wife and child and began to farm, with characteristic vigor, land which he had purchased there. Within a few years, a substantial if plain house had been built and the farm was in good and profitable order. Putnam's extraordinary courage and daring were first manifested to his neighbors in the famous episode of the wolf hunt in the winter of 1742-43, which ended with Putnam crawling into the wolf's lair and killing the beast with his musket.
From 1755 until 1765, Putnam served with great skill and valor with the Connecticut companies aiding the British in the wars against the French and their Indian allies. Rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Putnam returned to Brooklyn after his final campaign as one of the most respected and best known soldiers in the Colonies. He was not home long when his first wife died; but a year-and-a-half later he was fortunate to win the favor of a wealthy widow who lived on Brooklyn Green, Mrs. Deborah Lothrop Avery Gardiner. Married twice before, first to Rev. Ephraim Avery, Brooklyn's first minister, and second to John Gardiner, the owner of that island off Long Island that still bears his name, Mrs. Gardiner was a woman accustomed to society and providing entertainment. Unfortunately, her new husband's large circle of military and political acquaintances who were constant callers at the Putnam farm taxed even her redoubtable abilities and put a considerable strain on the family's resources. Thus, to accommodate their guests and relieve their financial problems, Mr. and Mrs. Putnam decided to move from the farm (which was located north of the town) and to open up a tavern on Brooklyn Green in the house which had been left to Mrs. Putnam by her first husband.
Putnam named the establishment "The General Wolfe," and it was here that he entertained like-minded, radicals in the eventful days leading up to the Revolution. A plaque marks the location of the tavern, and informs the reader that Putnam was plowing a field near here when be heard the news about the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. He immediately stopped work and set in motion plans already prepared to march a number of companies of Connecticut militia towards Boston.
Putnam's service in the Revolution has often been criticized. Already an older man, he was certainly no military genius; but he did manage to hold the Colonial army together until Washington's arrival at Cambridge in July, 1775. Afterwards, he rendered valuable service in the campaigns around New York in 1776, 1777 and 1778. Worn out, he suffered a stroke in December, 1779, and retired to Brooklyn. He recovered well enough to visit his old comrades in the fall of 1780; but he returned to his tavern in Brooklyn to live out the rest of life quietly, surrounded, by his family. He died in 1790 and was buried in the old village cemetery. In 1888, however, his remains were removed and buried below the large equestrian statue erected by the State of Connecticut to his memory.
Another important Brooklyn resident was Daniel Tyler Jr. (1699 or 1700-1800). A man of considerable talents, Tyler was, like his friend and associate Israel Putnam, a first-generation leader of his community. A carpenter and a farmer Tyler was the builder of the meeting house constructed in 1771. Nine years later, at the age of eighty, he is said to have walked the ridge pole to inspect his handiwork. By the time of his death, he had amassed a considerable fortune, including over 1,000 acres of land, which he left to his numerous children. His house still stands on Wauregan Road.
Several later Tylers were men of prominence. One grandson, Daniel Tyler (1799-1882), was born in Brooklyn and attended West Point. He served as a Brigadier General in the Civil War. Afterwards, he established large cotton factories and iron works in Alabama, promoted railroads, and founded the town of Anniston.
Daniel Putnam Tyler (1798-1875) was a great grandson of Daniel Tyler Jr. He became a prominent lawyer in Brooklyn and built the small law office now preserved by the Brooklyn Historical Society. Reportedly a brilliant orator, he was well known throughout the state as a stump speaker. Tyler served as clerk of the Superior and County Courts of Windham for fifteen years. Later, he was appointed judge of the County Court; and, finally, was named Secretary of State of Connecticut. His political career was crowned by his nomination to be a Collector of Internal Revenue in Arkansas by President Lincoln in 1865, a post which he held during the early years of Reconstruction.
Brooklyn was also the home of two men who were important in the early years of the Abolitionist Movement. The first was Samuel May (1797-1872). A Harvard graduate (1817), May was a disciple of Dr. William Ellery Channing and became a Unitarian minister because of Channing's influence. The Brooklyn Congregational Church in the years 1818 and 1819 had been wracked by a great controversy between the Unitarianism of a young assistant minister and the orthodoxy of the old incumbent. The result was schism, the Congregationalists withdrawing to build a new church, leaving the Unitarians in possession of the beautiful old meetinghouse. This was the unhappy setting that young May entered in 1822 when he accepted a call to come to Brooklyn and begin a ministry to Connecticut's only Unitarian congregation.
May soon showed himself to be an ardent reformer. A foe of liquor, he organized a local temperance society; a foe of war, he organized the Windham County Peace Society (1826); and a foe of ignorance, he organized a state convention of educational reformers that met in Brooklyn in 1827. Most importantly, May was a foe of slavery. One of the first members of the National Anti-Slavery Society, May gave aid and comfort to Prudence Crandall in her struggle against bigotry and threats in nearby Canterbury over her desire to establish a school for Black girls. When Miss Crandall was arrested in 1833 and brought to Brooklyn to be incarcerated after refusing to post bond, it was May and the Bensons who were there to assist her and, the next day, to secure her release. Later, during her trial, May again was one of her most prominent supporters. He left Brooklyn in 1836, but continued his work as a minister and reformer in several other New England towns until his death in 1872. While living with her brother in Brooklyn, Abigail May met and married Amos Bronson Alcott, the educational reformer from Cheshire. Their daughter, Louisa May Alcott, was the author of Little Women.
The second prominent abolitionist was George Benson, a wealthy Quaker merchant from Providence who moved to Brooklyn in 1825 to live in retirement. Benson bought a house near the town center and named it "Friendship Valley." A friend and supporter of many of May's reform activities, Benson and his family were strongly opposed to slavery from their days in Providence; and they had a wide acquaintance with many prominent abolitionists including Arthur Tappan, the philanthropic New York merchant, and William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery Boston publisher of the Liberator. Garrison, indeed, became a close family friend during the uproar over Prudence Crandall's school, and married Helen Benson, George Benson's daughter in the parlor of Friendship Valley in 1834. Another daughter, Mary, voluntarily shared Miss Crandall's jail cell in Brooklyn the night of her arrest. Benson died in 1841, and his family sold Friendship Valley and followed their various careers elsewhere.
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† Hal Keiner, consultant, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Brooklyn Green Historic District, Brooklyn, CT, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.