Plainfield Street Historic District
The Plainfield Street 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.
Plainfield Street Historic District consists of 30 major buildings, along with 24 associated outbuildings, ranged along Norwich Road (Connecticut Route 12) in Plainfield, Connecticut. The area is primarily a residential one, with some commercial development at the north end, at the intersection with Academy Hill Road. Buildings in the Plainfield Street Historic District are mostly late 18th century and early 19th century in origin, with a secondary concentration from the Victorian period. The houses are set close to the road and are fairly close together. Tall mature shade trees surround most of the houses and line Norwich Road. Many properties retain stone walls along their edges, and there are a number of small barns which date from the late 19th century or earlier. In addition to dwellings, the district includes Plainfield's 1816 stone Congregational meetinghouse, previously listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the middle 19th century, this part of Norwich Road was called Plainfield Street, which is used as the historic name of the district.
Most of the houses in the Plainfield Street Historic District have clapboarded exteriors, stone foundations, and one or two brick chimneys. The 18th-century houses, such as the two small gambrel-roofed dwellings from the 1790s on Norwich Road and a larger 2-1/2 story, 5-bay, house on Academy Hill Road, are plainly detailed houses. The early 19th-century houses are characterized by greater architectural elaboration and include such details as fanlights, quarter-circle gable windows, Palladian windows, projecting pedimented pavilions, and various types of entry treatments. In form, they range from traditional 5-bay houses, on which pilasters or other stylistic details are merely appended, to full porticos on freestanding columns. The Victorian houses show a similar range, from modest Italianate or Second Empire detailing to an full embodiment of the Second Empire style.
Of the 30 major buildings in the Plainfield Street Historic District, 7 were judged to be noncontributing, a laundromat building and six residences from the 1950s and 1960s. The most recent of the historic buildings is a 1929 Colonial Revival house. Although architecturally distinct from the majority of houses in the district, it is related to the historical development of the area as a residential area for well-to-do farmers, merchants, and retirees. Therefore, the period of significance for the Plainfield Street Historic District extends to 1929.
Most of the historic buildings in the Plainfield Street Historic District retain substantial integrity. Nearly all have their basic form and fenestration intact and retain appropriate exterior siding materials and small-pane or Victorian sash. In a few cases modern siding materials have been applied, but even then, the basic form of the house, and in most cases, important architectural details, are still evident.
The boundaries of the Plainfield Street Historic District were chosen so as to include the historic village of Plainfield ranged along the ridge followed by Norwich Road. Nearby properties on Gallup Street and Academy Hill Road were also included because of their proximity and because historically these side streets were part of the settlement. The Plainfield Street Historic District is bounded along several edges by c.1900 residential development, in many cases multi-family dwellings. Historically, these were related to housing speculation and residential expansion which moved up the ridge from the mill village and railroad junction settlement to the south and southwest. Because of their separate historical identity, and their much plainer architectural qualities, these houses were not included in this district. At the north end of the district, adjacent areas of modern commercial and residential development were excluded. In addition, the boundary runs around a monument business and a gas station south of the intersection of Norwich Road and Academy Hill Road so as to exclude them.
Plainfield Street Historic District is significant because the area played an important role in the historical development of the town and because the buildings are well-preserved representatives of several periods and types of architecture. Because of the Congregational church, the area was once the center of religious and political life for the whole town and, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was home to numerous storekeepers, tavern owners, and landholders who chose to live near the crossing of two important colonial roads. The Plainfield Street Historic District's architectural significance derives from its buildings, being typical examples of 18th-century vernacular architecture, the Federal and Greek Revival styles of the early 19th century, and the Victorian architecture of the late 19th century.
Historical Development of Plainfield
Since the early 18th century, the settlement on the ridge along Norwich Road has been the center of several important community institutions as well as a commercial and social center for the entire town. The presence of the Congregational meetinghouse (the 1816 stone building is the second at this location) meant that for most Plainfield families, this area was the focus of religious activities. Although there were Quaker, Separatist, and later, Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic churches in town, for the 18th century and much of the 19th century, the Congregational church on Norwich Road was the predominant religious organization in Plainfield. The buildings in the Plainfield Street Historic District recall this role. In addition to the impressive stone meetinghouse, one of the most elaborate houses in the district was built in 1821 by Orrin Fowler, pastor of the church from 1820 to 1831, and another was built in 1867 as a parsonage, to which was added a study and church library in 1899.
The area also served important governmental functions. Town meetings were held in the Congregational meetinghouse, even after disestablishment in 1818, until a Town House was built in 1872 in Central Village, a settlement to the north which had grown up around several textile mills. Plainfield was also for many years the site of the area's probate court, which was held in the residences of longtime judges Joseph Eaton (20 Academy Hill Road), Waldo Tillinghast (525 Norwich Road), and Joseph Hutchins (a later owner of 583 Norwich Road).
In 1770 local citizens, seeking a way for students to prepare for college beyond the curriculum offered by local district schools, established the Plainfield Academy. The Academy flourished for many years, attracting at one point more than 100 pupils from outside the town. In 1825 a large Gothic Revival style stone building was added to the Academy's original brick structure. Although today little remains to mark the site of the school's classroom buildings, the role of the Academy in making Plainfield Street an important place is recalled by a small gambrel-roofed house in the district built c.1790 by Alpheus Hatch, one of the Academy's principal instructors.
In the colonial period, Norwich Road (present-day Route 12) was one of the major inland routes through Connecticut. Academy Hill Road and its continuation, Cemetery Road, were part of the Hartford to Providence route. As a consequence, the area now embraced by the district was a crossroads and became the site of numerous stores and taverns. The most famous of these was Eaton's Tavern, a large inn which stood at the intersection of Gallup Street and Norwich Road, and at which both Lafayette and Washington are said to have been entertained. Although the stores and taverns themselves have disappeared, the Plainfield Street Historic District includes many houses associated with early entrepreneurs, such as pocketbook maker George Middletown; general-store owners Major John Douglas, who carried textbooks to sell to Academy students, and Edwin Tucker; doctors/apothecaries Daniel Gordon and Josiah Fuller (535 Norwich Road); and tavern owners Ebenezer Eaton and Ebenezer Eaton, Jr.
Plainfield prospered into the early 19th century, partly as a result of the two roads being upgraded by turnpike companies. In addition to the village's storekeepers, large landholders benefited in this period from greater access to markets and from wool and stock raising. In fact, there was not a firm line between merchants and farmers: many of the village's merchants were also wealthy landowners, and prosperous farmers such as Edward P. Hall had interests in commercial enterprises and land development plans.
Around 1830 the village's preeminence began to wane. By this date, Moosup and Central Village were well-established as textile mill centers, built up with so many houses, schools, churches, and stores that they began to surpass the older settlement on Norwich Road. In 1839 the Norwich and Worcester Railroad was opened, with the Plainfield station located about a half-mile west of the ridge. In 1854 a second railroad, running between Providence and Hartford, was completed, crossing the earlier line near the Plainfield station and leading to a new focus for commercial and residential development around what became known as Plainfield Junction. This part of town grew even more after 1905, when the huge steam-powered Lawton Mills were built alongside the railroad tracks. Except for the Eaton Tavern and some stores in the Union Hall building, built c.1880 primarily as a meeting place for social organizations such as the Plainfield Band, the area on Norwich Road became entirely residential.
Because of its location on the ridge, and the large houses of prosperous citizens built in the early part of the 19th century, the Norwich Road settlement continued to be the neighborhood of choice for many of the town's more well-to-do families. In the second half of the 19th century, the area, which had come to be called "Plainfield Street" in contrast to the junction, was distinguished by its large, well-kept houses and the tall old trees which lined the roadway and spread a canopy of foliage overhead. To the earlier houses were added new ones in Victorian styles. Some were built by old Plainfield Street families, such as that built by Edward Hall in 1877 or the house of Judge Hutchins's sisters. Others were the homes of people whose business interests were elsewhere, such as that of Walter Kingsley, who ran the largest drygoods store in Plainfield Junction. Still others were homes of wealthy people who retired to the pleasant surroundings of Plainfield Street, such as Lemuel Cleveland, heir to an Ohio real estate fortune, whose house is one of the district's showpieces, or Eva Pike, widow of the owner of the U.S. Dye Company in Sterling, Connecticut.
Today those qualities which attracted people to Plainfield Street are still apparent. Though many of the trees shown in early picture postcards are gone, other trees and old stone walls are in place to suggest something of the street's former quiet, shady ambience. And the area's many well-preserved old houses and the stone meetinghouse recall its history as Plainfield's premier crossroads village.
The houses in the Plainfield Street Historic District embody the distinctive characteristics of several different types of historic architecture. Taken as a whole, the Plainfield Street Historic District represents the greatest of 18th and early 19th century buildings in the town, as well as having two of the town's most elaborately detailed Victorian buildings.
The Plainfield Street Historic District's earliest houses illustrate many of the key attributes which define the rural domestic architecture of 18th-century Connecticut, including orientation with the ridgeline parallel to the road, small-pane sash, large brick chimneys, and limited architectural ornament. These few houses exhibit quite a range within the type, including gable and gambrel-roofed examples, 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 story houses, and both the five-bay symmetrical facades which today have come to connote the 18th-century New England house and the asymmetrical, smaller examples which are now known to have been more typical of the period.
The fine-scale, freely interpreted Classical detailing which became popular in the early 1800s and which today is recognized as the Federal style is epitomized by several buildings in the district. These range from the very formal, such as the Congregational Church and the Orrin Fowler House, both of which have the elegant cornice mutules and free-standing portico columns typical of the style, to more vernacular examples which append Federal style details, such as corner pilasters, fanlights, and quarter-circle gable windows, to the traditional five-bay form. Particularly noteworthy are two well-preserved examples of the pedimented pavilion form, a variant which was especially prevalent in eastern Connecticut in the period. Much of the detailing introduced as part of this style, such as corner pilasters, sidelights, and entry surrounds composed of molded frames and corner blocks, also characterized buildings in the Greek Revival period, but with heavier proportions. The Plainfield Street Historic District has buildings which exemplify these Greek Revival details, such as 501-503 Norwich Road and the updated 18th-century house at 532 Norwich Road.
The Victorian period introduced an architecture which was eclectic and characterized by the extensive use of machine-made architectural woodwork. These attributes are evident in the district's buildings from that period. Even the fairly simple Victorian buildings have the reference to Italian or French historical models which was typical of the period, along with such characteristic details as bracketed cornices, specialty windows, and turned, jigsawn, and incised ornament. The Plainfield Street Historic District also has two of the town's most elaborate Victorian houses. The 1877 Edward P. Hall House, called a "tasty little residence" by one writer of the period, has intricate architectural woodwork everywhere from the cornice of its belvedere to the paneled bases of its bay windows. The 1871 Lemuel Cleveland House is equally rich in ornament, but because it is larger, its appearance is more grand than the Hall house. The grandeur is augmented by the use of flush boards, in imitation of masonry, and by the use of projecting and receding elements on the facade, thereby adding complexity of form to a house already exceptionally detailed. The Cleveland house ranks among the state's foremost examples of the Second Empire style.
Bayles, Richard M. History of Windham County, Connecticut. New York, 1889.
Burgess, Charles F., ed. Plainfield Souvenir. Moosup, Conn., 1895.
Commemorative Biographical Record of Tolland and Windham Counties. Chicago, 1903.
"Historic Resource Survey of Plainfield Community Development Areas." Plainfield, 1981.
Larned, Ellen D. History of Windham County, Connecticut. Worcester, Mass., 1880.
Plainfield Bicentennial Committee. Plainfield Bicentennial, A Souvenir Volume. Norwich, 1899.
U.S. Works Progress Administration. Census of Old Buildings. Plainfield folder. Manuscript, c.1935, Connecticut State Library.
Baldwin, I.J. Map of Plainfield, Connecticut, and Vicinity. Providence, 1892.
Gray, O.W. Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties. Hartford: Baker & Tilden, 1869.
Map of Windham County, Connecticut, 1855. Philadelphia, 1856.
† Bruce Clouette and Matthew Roth, Consultants, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Plainfield Street Historic District, Plainfield, Windham County, CT, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D. C.