Sterling Hill Historic District
The Sterling Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. 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 Sterling Hill Historic District is a group of 14 houses with related outbuildings and one church perched upon a broad ridge at the western edge of the Town of Sterling, Connecticut. To the west the land slopes sharply downward toward the Ekonk section of Plainfield, while to the east the land drops off more gently. The principal road in the Sterling Hill Historic District is the east-west State Route 14A, known also as Plainfield Pike, with Green Lane running northward at the summit of the hill near the district's focal point, the Greek Revival style Sterling Hill Baptist Church. Near the church the houses are located close together, but further away from the intersection the houses are set quite far apart with extensive intervening open land.
Seven plainly detailed 18th-century houses make up the largest single type of historic resource in the Sterling Hill Historic District. Two-and-one-half stories high, with the ridge of their gable roofs set parallel to the road, most have clapboarded exteriors, large brick center chimneys, and symmetrical five-bay facades with central entries. One house was originally a "half-house" with rooms on only one side of the chimney. There are two Federal style houses, traditional in form but having elaborate doorways and other architectural detail, and two of the 18th-century houses have later modifications which reflect the influence of the Federal style. The most elaborate house in the Sterling Hill Historic District, with quoins, pilastered entry, festooned fanlight glazing and finely detailed cornice, is the Perkins House, a central-hall house with the middle part of its facade extended forward into a pedimented pavilion.
Three houses in the Sterling Hill Historic District are 1-1/2-story houses from the early 19th century, one of which is oriented with its gable end turned toward the street and has a Victorian porch and bay window. Only two of the district's 15 major structures were judged noncontributing: a Ranch type house built c.1950 and a Bungalow-influenced 1939 house.
Two of the properties, the Gallup Homestead (Dorrance Inn) and the Willard Putnam House, are part of operating farms. Among the numerous 20th-century barns, silos, and sheds associated with these properties are older frame barns on stone foundations which appear to date from the middle 19th century or earlier; the Smith House, also has an old barn nearby. Because of the continuance of agriculture, much of the land in the Sterling Hill Historic District is still open and in meadow, with stone walls demarcating the fields.
The houses have been altered over time, but in nearly all cases they retain their characteristic form and appearance. Three of the 18th-century houses have smaller chimneys replacing their large central stacks, and two have been sided with modern materials. Victorian and early 19th-century six-over-six sash have replaced original windows. Most interiors were extensively remodelled in the early 20th century, though original staircases, fireplaces, and mantels remain in several cases. None of the house has been "restored" with modern reproduction material; what is seen today is authentic and represents the survival of genuine historic fabric.
The Sterling Hill Historic District is significant as a representative example of a particular 18th- and early 19th-century Connecticut settlement type, the upland-ridge village crossroads. Unlike many such centers, Sterling Hill was relatively unaffected by subsequent change in the 19th century or even in recent times, so that it retains much of the appearance it had in its earlier years, with a cluster of old houses, barns, a church, and open fields separated by stone walls. The houses on Sterling Hill are also significant because they embody the characteristic architecture of the period. There are the plain center-chimney houses typical of the 18th century, as well as the finely detailed, elegant dwellings which appeared in the Connecticut countryside in the Federal period.
English settlement of the area which became known as Sterling Hill began in the years shortly after 1700; the place was incorporated in 1721 as part of Voluntown. Voluntown, where some land was reserved for rewarding English veterans of the Indian wars, remained an isolated, thinly populated town throughout the 18th century. Settlement occurred principally along the flat uplands atop ridges such as Sterling Hill, and subsistence agriculture was virtually the only economic activity. Among the houses of early families are the Isaac Gallup Homestead, later known as the Dorrance Inn), a house believed to date from 1732, and the home of Reverend Samuel Dorrance, Voluntown's long-time minister, which is said to date from c.1716. It is perhaps a measure of Voluntown's isolation from the major centers of the colony that the town's established church was not originally Congregational but rather an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, a fact which does not seemed to have alarmed the colony's religious leaders.
The pattern of the pre-1780 houses on Sterling Hill (Dorrance Homestead, c.1716; John Douglas House, c.1759 and Gallup Homestead [Dorrance Inn], c.1732) was typical of 18th-century agricultural areas in Connecticut: widely separated houses and accompanying barns sited close to the road, with fields delineated by stone walls (actually stone bases for wooden rail fences) running back from the thoroughfare. Sterling Hill today continues to maintain much of this appearance. The persistence of agriculture has retained the open land, old barns (as well as new), and wide spaces between homesteads which characterized Sterling Hill in the past.
Sterling Hill became more densely settled toward the end of the 18th-century, in part because of increased travel on the road now known as Route 14A. The road was a major link between Rhode Island and central Connecticut, as evidenced by the route the French Armies took, camping overnight on Sterling Hill in 1781 and 1783 before continuing on their journeys. Many of the houses on Sterling Hill are said to have served at one time or another as taverns, and the Dorrance Inn is described at length by Marquis de Chastellux, one of the French officers surveying the army's route. The other road, Green Lane (originally Great Lane) was known as the road to Brooklyn, the seat of Windham County. (Even in 1800, none of the intervening communities — Moosup, Central Village, Wauregan, Danielson — existed: all developed later as mill-related villages.)
In the 1790s the area experienced two important changes. In 1794, the north part of Voluntown was incorporated as the separate town of Sterling, named after a physician who promisee to build the town a library in return for the honor (a promise unfulfilled). Sterling was in an unusual position: it had no church within its borders. Worshippers attended services in the surrounding towns, including the Congregational churches in Plainfield, South Killingly and Voluntown and Baptist meetings in nearby Rhode Island. Consequently, in 1797 the residents of Sterling Hill decided to provide a place for town meetings, which in other towns were held in church buildings. Although occasional religious services were held, the present Sterling Hill church was primarily intended for the town's civil meetings, and thus ranks among the earliest secular public buildings in the state. In 1812 the trustees of the meetinghouse made it available to Sterling Baptists, and it remains a Baptist meetinghouse today. The building was thoroughly remodeled in the Greek Revival style in 1859.
The second change of the 1790s was the incorporation of the New London and Windham County turnpike and consequent improvement of the main road through Sterling Hill. The company's charter allowed it to build a better road and collect tolls on a route running from the Rhode Island border to Norwich, Connecticut (one tollgate was near the house of tollkeeper Francis Smith). The road connected with other important routes, such as the one leading through Plainfield to Worcester, Massachusetts, and another connecting >Hartford and Norwich. The turnpike increased travel through the village, benefitting the tavernkeepers of Sterling Hill. More importantly, it provided a wider market for the area's farmers. Around 1800 there was a noticeable turn toward supplementing subsistence agriculture with marketable commodities such as livestock and wool. A period of prosperity ensued, at least for the larger landowners, and corresponds with the building and remodelling of several Sterling Hill houses in the more elaborate Federal style.
By 1800 Sterling Hill appeared as a model Connecticut village. Timothy Dwight, travelling from Rhode Island, which he found "destitute of beauty...[with] very few proofs either of skill or success," described Sterling Hill in much more attractive terms:
"At Sterling, we were pleasantly advertised that we had entered the State of Connecticut by the sight of a village, with a decent church and schoolhouse in its centre, and by the appearance of comfortable dwellings and better agriculture. The country was rough, here also; but it wore the appearance of having been dressed. Every thing looked as if the activity of man had been successfully, as well as diligently, employed to render life easy and desirable (Travels, v.2, p. 38)."
The great dynamos of the 19th century, however, left Sterling Hill virtually untouched. Railroads passed through nearby communities such as Plainfield, a quarry operated in Oneco just to the east, and textile manufacture created whole new villages everywhere along the Moosup and Quinebaug Rivers. Railroads and industry passed by Sterling Hill, and except for some Victorian alterations to one house, the Hill's physical appearance remained frozen in time.
Most of Sterling Hill's houses are typical of New England vernacular building practices in the 18th century. The traditional house form — gable roof with the ridgeline parallel to the road, a symmetrical five-bay facade with a central entry, and a large central chimney — is found throughout the district. Most have clapboarded exteriors, the most common type of exterior covering in the houses' period. Although most of the houses have been modified with later doorways and sash, they retain their characteristic form. Two variants are found in the Sterling Hill Historic District. The original portion of the Dorrance Homestead was a "half-house," with rooms on only one side of the chimney stack and a correspondingly offset entrance. The Gallup House shows the attic-story overhang construction which was popular (but never universal) in the 18th century. Such an arrangement, consisting of four to six inches of projection on the gable ends, may have some utility in simplifying the end upper corner joints, but it was probably primarily decorative and does not seem to have been a direct descendent of the dramatic framed overhangs of 17th-century houses.
The vernacular practices established in the 18th century continued into the 19th, as evidenced by several Sterling Hill houses. The Federal period Willard Putnam House (c.1800) has only its elegant doorway and a slightly different gable-end attic-window arrangement to distinguish it from its c.1750 neighbor. Even the two small early 19th-century houses at the west end of the district, (c.1800 and c.1840) continue the gable-roof, central entry, center-chimney form but with somewhat different proportions.
Sterling Hill also has architectural significance because of its several fine specimens of Federal architecture. In the early years of the 19th century, houses in rural areas of Connecticut began to be built (or remodeled) in a style derived from the ornate Georgian Classicism which had already made some impact on urban architecture. In addition to the use of Classical elements such as columns, pediments, and dentils, the architecture of the Federal period also introduced the geometric and foliate motifs and the sense of light, elegant ornament made popular by the Adam brothers in Britain.
The resulting free interpretation of Classical elements is clearly evident in the Judge Oliver Perkins House. In addition to the features derived from Georgian precedent, such as the pediment and fluted Ionic pilasters, the house embodies the Adamesque aesthetic in the delicate fluting and triglyphs which outline the doorway; the small scale of the Greek fret, coved mutules, and other ornament; the use of floral appliques in the neckings of the pilasters; and the geometric effects in the fanlight glazing.
The doorway on the Willard Putnam House (c.1800) represents the beginning of the style's emergence. The thickness of the pilasters and relative heaviness of the pediment's moldings contrast with the lighter proportions of the Perkins House's entry. But the scale of the modillions and dentils, and especially of the incised diamonds surrounding the fanlight, point to the type of ornament which typifies the Federal period. The doorway on the Willard Putnam House also includes two features which are uncommon, if not idiosyncratic: the paneled door with back-to-back ellipse segments (the entirety of the original is no longer evident because of the glass) and the extension of the pilaster fluting into the neckings.
Two other doorways, though more modest, also embody Federal style elements, in both cases added onto older houses. The entries on the John Douglas House (c.1759) and the James Dorrance House (c.1790) continue the use of slender pilasters to separate the major elements and both have thin moldings outlining frieze panels. Probably dating from the end of the Federal period, these doorways add to the architectural significance of the district: they illustrate vernacular adaptations of forms found in the village's more high-style houses. The doorways represent the quest for greater formality and more elaborate detail which characterized the early 19th century. The same idea is evident in the rail-and-panel fence in front of the James Dorrance House; with its stylized pineapple finials, it is a survival of the utmost rarity.
Bayles, Richard M. History of Windham County, Connecticut. New York, 1889. 1880.
Dwight, Timothy. Travels in New-England and New-York. New Haven, 1821.
Plainfield Probate District, Sterling estates. Microfilm, Connecticut State Library.
The Roads Lead Back to Glory: The History of Sterling, Connecticut. Sterling, 1982.
Sterling in Retrospective. Sterling, 1976.
Terry, Marian Dickinson. Old Inns of Connecticut. Hartford, 1937.
Wood, Frederic J. The Turnpikes of New England. Boston, 1919.
Works Progress Administration, Census of Old Buildings. Manuscript, State Library, c.1935.
Baldwin's Map of Plainfield, Connecticut, and Vicinity. Providence, 1892.
"Forty-Ninth Camp at Voluntown [Sterling Hill, Connecticut], 1782" in Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S.K. Brown, The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army. Princeton, 1972.
Gray, O.W. Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties. Hartford: C.G, Keeney, 1869.
Woodford, E.M. Map of Windham County, Connecticut, 1855. Philadelphia, 1856.
†Bruce Clouette and Matthew Roth, Historic Resource Consultants, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Sterling Hill Historic District, Sterling and Plainfield Connecticut, nomination document, 1985, National Park Serice, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.