Central Village Historic District
The Central Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Central Village is a distinct settlement located within the Town of Plainfield, Connecticut, along the banks of the Moosup River. Two state roads, Route 12 and Route 14, converge at this location, and the Providence and Worcester Railroad bisects the village in a north-south direction. The core of the village, where School Street, Water Street, Main Street, and Putnam Road converge, is a small 19th-century commercial area with four store buildings and the Central Hotel, a tavern and hotel built c.1845 alongside the railroad tracks. Radiating from the center are a series of predominantly residential streets. The houses of Central Village are closely spaced, 1 to 2-1/2 stories high, and most are wood-framed, although there are two brick houses as well. The houses are predominantly 19th-century in origin and fall into two stylistic categories. The first group are elaborate, large houses of particular architectural styles; they are clustered along Main Street, with a secondary grouping on School Street. The second major group of houses in the Central Village Historic District are plainly detailed, vernacular dwellings that are mostly located on the streets leading to the outskirts of the village.
There is a broad range of styles among the larger houses in the Central Village Historic District, though most styles are represented by only a few examples. In addition to Greek Revival style dwellings from the 1830s and 1840s, there are well-preserved Gothic Revival style "cottages," mansard-roofed Second Empire style houses, and irregularly massed Queen Anne style residences. The most numerous of all the 19th-century styles is the Italianate, which includes the elaborately detailed c.1855 villa at 40 Main Street; an 1821 dwelling to which were added cornice brackets, round-arched windows, and an entry hood on large scrolls; and a c.1880 house with similar details and a bay window and open veranda. The Italianate influence is also evident in the bracketed cornices found on the district's 19th- century commercial buildings.
Among the plainer houses which make up the majority in the Central Village Historic District, architectural ornament is generally limited to porch detail, such as turned posts, jigsawn brackets, spindled friezes, and applied lattices and sawtooth boards. There are two distinct subclasses of vernacular dwellings: a row of multi-family houses formerly associated with a textile mill on Moosup Road, and a cluster of simple 1-1/2-story houses erected as a rental housing venture by a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur.
The Central Village Historic District includes among its contributing buildings four 18th-century houses, of which the Kennedy House on Black Hill Road is in the best state of preservation. In addition, there are two Colonial Revival houses and a number of well-preserved Bungalow and Foursquare houses from the 1920s.
The boundaries were drawn so as to include the concentration of old buildings in the center of Central Village, as well as along the radiating streets so far as old houses, and not modern construction, predominated. Property lines were used for the boundary except in cases where large amounts of back acreage made it inappropriate. Within these boundaries, which excluded some commercial development on the east side of Putnam Road and the athletic field on the south side of School Street, the relatively few noncontributing buildings include the interconnected high school additions (counted as one noncontributing building), a small number of houses built within the last 50 years, a truck garage, a shopping plaza, and a storage complex.
Although vinyl siding and aluminum siding are common on houses in the Central Village Historic District, most sided houses retain their characteristic form, fenestration, and some historic material, such as historic sash or entry treatment; an example is the sided house at 2-6 East Main Street. In a few cases, however, modernization and additions were so extensive that the house was classified as noncontributing.
Most of the Central Village Historic District is residential, but the village includes other kinds of buildings as well. Among the institutional structures are the Central Village Congregational Church, built in 1845; the old town hall, built in 1872; a former brick schoolhouse, dating from 1843; and the 1924 Plainfield High School.
The Central Village Historic District's largest industrial building is the 1901 Plainfield Woolen Company Mill, previously listed on the National Register and now rehabilitated into residential condominiums; the mill complex includes a headrace, waste-gates, and remnant of a small pond. On Morton Lane is a c.1930 former bottling plant, consisting of a 2-1/2-story shingled building and a long garage. At one time there were other factories in Central Village. The former Bragg woolen mill on Water Street burned and what remained after the fire was incorporated into a modern industrial and storage complex. The woodworking factory which operated from 1866 to the 1960s on Torrey Lane is today marked only by stone foundations, races, and a half-buried turbine. Although the theme of this nomination is not archeological, the factory site is counted as a contributing resource. Another set of stone remains along the Moosup River may be artifacts of other industrial activity. Two buildings which are now used as houses were formerly a printing shop and a jewelry store.
Many of the houses in the Central Village Historic District have small barns or carriage houses at the rear; these have been counted as contributing buildings, as have garages that are contemporary with early 20th-century houses. In a few cases, historic barns remain without an associated house.
The six structures in the Central Village Historic District include four early 20th-century bridges (contributing) and two that lie outside the district's period of significance, which is c.1750 to c.1930.
Central Village Historic District is historically significant because its buildings recall the village's role as a small-scale industrial, commercial, and institutional center. These three threads together form the fabric of Central Village's heritage, which is made full by the continued existence of the village's historic buildings. Central Village's mill-town heritage, for example, is sustained by the large textile mill at the center of town, the tracts of mill housing associated with that mill and other enterprises, and several large, elaborate houses once occupied by mill owners. Its former commercial importance is attested to by the cluster of stores and the c.1845 hotel at its center, as well as by the large Victorian houses which were the residences of prominent local businessmen and their families. Finally, the Central Village Historic District contains two buildings associated with important town-wide institutions, the original Plainfield Town Hall, built in 1872, and Plainfield High School, built in 1924. As its name suggests, Central Village is the most centrally located of the several villages within the Town of Plainfield, and as a result of its location (and the influence of its manufacturers and other prominent residents), it was chosen as the site of these community facilities.
The Central Village Historic District also has architectural significance. The houses clustered on Main Street and others scattered throughout the village are among the largest and most elaborate examples of Victorian architecture in Plainfield, embodying the characteristic form and details of several distinct architectural styles. One house in the district, the Fenner-Matthewson mansion at 40 East Main Street, ranks among the most outstanding and best-preserved examples of the Italian Villa mode in the state. Many of the plainer houses also have architectural interest as well-preserved specimens of vernacular building practices, and even those which have been altered retain some features which help establish the villagers historical origins in the 19th century.
The waterpower of the Moosup River was a major factor in the development of Central Village. Prior to the early 19th century, the area was but a nameless locality within the Town of Plainfield, sharing in the agrarian economy which characterized 18th-century eastern Connecticut. The few 18th-century houses in Central Village were originally homes of farming families, although, significantly, at least one family, the Kennedys, were also involved in the small-scale industries, such as grist milling and fulling, that were vital to the agricultural economy. In 1814 a group of landowners formed the Central Manufacturing Company, which built a cotton-spinning mill on the site of the present brick mill on Main Street. In 1827 a major interest in the mill was purchased by Arnold Fenner of Rhode Island, who proceeded to add another factory and worker houses to the complex. In 1845, at which time the first mill was rebuilt in brick, the Central Manufacturing Company was the village's largest employer, lending its name to the settlement, then called "Centreville."
At the western end of the village, the Kennedy mills were also turned to textile manufacturing starting about 1835, with cotton, flannel, wicking, and twine all produced at one time or another. The Kennedy mills also built houses for workers, but rather than the standard tenements associated with the larger mills of the area, they built a series of small single-family houses on their tract at the western end of School Street. This part of the village was known as Kennedy City.
The second factor in the development of Central Village was the completion of the Norwich and Worcester Railroad (now the Providence and Worcester) in 1839. The railroad, which passed midway between the two tiny clusters at the manufacturing sites, established a center for the village and gave it a commercial function to supplement its industrial base. Within a few years of the railroad's completion, the village's central square boasted a hotel and tavern, a dry goods store, a jewelry store, an apothecary, a stove shop, and a combined paint store and grocery, all of which remain today.
For the remainder of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Central Village's fortunes followed the ups and downs of the textile industry, but in general prosperity prevailed. A Congregational Church was established in 1845 through the generosity of Arnold Fenner and other leading citizens, and in 1871, when the Town of Plainfield decided to build a town hall rather than continue meeting in the Plainfield Congregational meetinghouse, Central Village was chosen, both because of its location and because of the influence of prominent Central Village residents such as Fenner and lawyer J.J. Penrose. Economic development continued as well. In 1866 a factory was started by George and Henry Torrey to make carriages, wagons, ox yokes, and other products, and new stores and other businesses were continually added to Central Villagers attractions. Between 1890 and 1903, Plainfield merchant Walter Palmer built a series of 14 single-family houses on Putnam Road and Palmer Court to rent to the village's growing number of working-class families.
In the 20th century, the village was rescued from oblivion when the Plainfield Woolen Company bought the by-then moribund cotton mills and built a large new woolen mill, along with several multifamily mill tenements. A second woolen mill followed in 1907. By this time the village's population included a sizeable number of French-Canadian families, and at least one of their number joined the village's entrepreneurs; Urgele LaFrance started a beverage company in 1900 whose bottling and distribution plant still survives on Morton Lane. When the town built a large modern high school building in 1924, it again chose Central Village as the best location.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Central Village entered a period of decline. One by one the village's mills and factories went out of business, with fires and floods taking a toll on their buildings. The town hall was relocated to the village of Plainfield in 1942. The Torrey Brothers woodworking factory lasted through the 1960s, by which time it was making sticks for the National Hockey League under the ownership of the Greenes, a local African-American family. By the 1970s only the Plainfield Woolen Company mill remained of all the village's historic industries, and it too soon closed, to be rehabilitated into residential units. Although most of the old stores are at least partly occupied by businesses, Central Village has become a largely residential area, with most of its inhabitants working elsewhere.
Today the buildings of Central Village reflect the entire breadth of its historical development, from the 18th-century houses of the area's first families, such as the Kennedy House on Black Hill Road, to the 19th-century stores and tavern at the center, to the large early 20th-century mill and mill housing at the intersection of Main Street and Norwich Road. Many of the houses are associated with people who played a prominent part in the villages's history, such as leading lawyer J.J. Penrose; mill owners Arnold Fenner, Allen Harris, and Henry Cutler; and merchants E.H. Lillibridge and Frank H. Tillinghast. Together with the church, old town hall, and high school, these buildings testify to the long-standing existence of Central Village as an important center for the surrounding locale.
The buildings in Central Village embody the distinctive characteristics of several types and periods of architecture. Several of the early 19th-century houses illustrate the transition from Federal-period architecture, with its emphasis on slender proportions and geometric shapes such as the ellipse, to the bolder, more rectilinear forms of the Greek Revival style; most of these houses have the characteristic street-facing gable orientation, suggestive of the temple form, that was popular in the 1830s and 1840s. Other houses are significant as representative examples of the Gothic Revival, characterized by steeply pitched gables, pointed-arched forms, and "medieval" details such as polygonal columns and dripmolds over the windows and entries.
The Fenner-Matthewson mansion, built c.1855 by mill owner Arnold Fenner and later occupied by his daughter and son-in-law, has long been recognized as one of Connecticut's outstanding Victorian houses. The house is a well-preserved example of the Italian Villa style, with the characteristic box-like form, flat roof, veranda, belvedere, arched shapes, and bay windows; the plethora of brackets, quoins, canopies, balustrades, and jigsawn scalloped decoration epitomizes the Victorian taste for abundant architectural detail.
Later well-preserved Victorian houses exemplify the Second Empire style with their mansard roofs and scroll-ornamented dormers; the Italianate, embodied in their bracketed cornices, arched windows, bay windows, and verandas; and the Queen Anne style, characterized by asymmetric plans and complex roof lines. Taken together, these individually distinguished examples represent one of the most concentrated groupings of Victorian houses in Plainfield.
Although less numerous, some well-preserved and representative examples of 20th-century styles are also found in the district. Several Bungalows and Foursquare houses embody such distinctive characteristics as roof braces and exposed rafter ends, large dormers and porches, and combined shingle and clapboard siding, all of which treatments were intended to reflect the period's goal of a practical house that used natural materials and honestly expressed its structure. Some of these features also appear in the Central Village Historic District's two nearly identical gambrel-roofed Colonial Revival houses. The district's one 20th-century institutional building exhibits the Neo-Classical pilasters and entablatures which were favored in that period for their connotations of monumentality and serious purpose.
Complementing the more elaborate houses in the Central Village Historic District are those which illustrate vernacular building traditions. Although not of any particular historical style, these houses draw upon more formal architecture for some of their details, while also incorporating the varied sawn, turned, and planed millwork available in the second half of the 19th century. The former store at 11-13 Putnam Road is a well-preserved example: although plain in form, it is embellished by the typically Victorian details turned and sawn balusters and vine-pattern post brackets of its two-story porch. Similar details originally adorned all the small houses built by Walter Palmer in his c.1900 development. Central Village had a local source for such material: Willis Rouse, who lived in and probably built the house at 35 School Street, was a contractor and dealer in sash and architectural millwork. Together with the stores, brick schoolhouse, mill tenements, and former shops, these plainer buildings in the Central Village Historic District enhance its architectural significance by providing a broad range of buildings that reflect the entire historical socioeconomic spectrum.
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† Bruce Clouette and Matthew Roth, Historic Resource Consultants, Central Village Historic District, Plainfield, Windham County, CT, nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.