Windham Center Historic District
The Windham Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Windham Center Historic District encompasses the oldest and, for the town's first one hundred and twenty-five years, the most important and thickly settled, area of this eastern Connecticut community. Today, Windham Center is a typical, New England rural village whose focal point is a small, well-tended green. From here, four roads radiate: to the east (Scotland Road, Route 14) south (Windham Center Road, Route 203), west (Plains Road), and northwest (Bricktop Road, Routes 14 and 203). The green lies at the southwest corner of Plains Road and Windham Center Road; and around its perimeter one finds the densest concentration of structures including the Congregational Church, the Post Office, the Library, a large former inn, and many of the most significant residences. The age of these structures ranges from the early 18th century to the 1950's; but most of the buildings here (and throughout the district) were constructed between 1750 and 1900, representing most often the Colonial, Greek Revival, and Italianate styles, with a sprinkling of Federal houses, some simple examples of other late-Victorian styles, and one important Gothic Revival structure (St. Paul's Episcopal Church). As one moves away from the green in all directions, the density of the buildings decreases and there are more non-contributing structures mixed in with historic buildings. The boundaries of the Windham Center Historic District, however, have been drawn to keep intrusions to a minimum, while at the same time encompassing a coherent visual unit, including open land where necessary to protect unimpeded sight lines towards the village center. The village and the Windham Center Historic District lie on rising land about 250' above sea level. In general, the land to the east is higher, so that from the east one enters the village along Scotland Road down a long hill. To the west, the land falls off towards the level plains of the Shetucket River, a little over a mile away. The predominantly rural nature of the village is enhanced by the continuing cultivation of much of the surrounding open land, either for growing feed corn or as pasture. In all, there are 78 major structures in the Windham Center Historic District, a number which excluded all barns and other outbuildings.
Windham Center today, quiet and residential, is the residuum of a bustling, important town of two centuries ago. Settled in the last decade of the 17th century, Windham first prospered as an agricultural community. A great impetus to further growth was the designation of the settlement in 1726 as the seat of newly created Windham county. Soon, a court house was erected, and several lawyers took up residence in Windham to serve the people who came to plead cases. This legal traffic, which of course included witnesses and judges stimulated the building of several inns and stores; while the activities of a group of Windham merchants brought the town further wealth and influence. Thus, by the 1750's Windham was well established as a prosperous agricultural business and administrative center; and the commodious homes of her citizens reflected this prosperity.
After 1820, however, Windham began to decline. One reason for this change of fortune was the transfer of the county seat to Brooklyn (a more centrally located settlement within the county) in 1819, thus depriving Windham of a portion of its outside traffic. But, the principal cause for the town's decay was the rise of Willimantic, a city within the town's borders, whose ample water resources led to the construction of cotton, silk and thread mills. Attracted by the freight traffic generated by these expanding mills, Willimantic became the destination of several early railroads, the first being the New London, Willimantic and Palmer whose tracks reached the city in 1849. In response to these economic changes, Windham's commercial concerns were gradually transferred to Willimantic, leaving the mother settlement to become a residential center for the proprietors and managers of the city's factories and other businesses as well as a number of doctors and lawyers. It was members of these groups who built the large Victorian residences near the village center. About 1860, the old court house building disappeared, in 1879 the Windham Bank vacated its Greek Revival premises on the green and transferred all of its operations to Willimantic, and one by one shops, stores, and inns either became private residences or were taken down, leaving the settlement today without any commercial establishments except for the post office. Windham Center, then, is a village that was once a town, and much of its intriguing form derives from the remnants of its sometimes obscured past.
Among the 78 major structures within the Windham Center Historic District, only 17 are non-contributing, and these are mostly constructed in a modern "colonial" style so that their presence is not particularly offensive. Most of the historic structures are well cared for and in good repair. The great majority are painted white, although there are several more imaginative color schemes which provide a nice contrast. The use of aluminum and asbestos siding has been kept to a minimum, although many of the houses have modern, asphalt roofs. All of the historic structures have been modified, added to, or restored to some degree: wings have been added, chimneys rebuilt, and new garages constructed; but, in general, these changes have been sympathetically carried out. Three structures have been moved. Sometime in the early 19th century, the original farm house section of the Baker-Weir House, was removed from its original location near Windham Center Road to its present site several hundred feet up a slope to the west and away from the road. A c.1860 Italianate home was once a wing of another house, and was removed to its present location on the other side of St. Paul's Church in the 1940's. Finally, Dr. Chester Hunt's Office (National Register listed in 1970) was moved about 1968 from behind the Shubul Abbe House to its new site along Bricktop Road.
It should be noted that the residents of Windham Center are in the process  of creating a local historic district under State statute. The tentative boundaries of this district, however, are somewhat different from those of the National Register Historic District.
Finally, the archeological potential of this district appears limited. There are no mill sites or places where manufacturing was carried out on a large scale within its boundaries. The only areas that might be of interest are the locations of two important buildings which have been removed. These sites are:
A. The Court House: evidently a large frame structure which stood here until the 1860's. There is no physical evidence extant on the site's surface.
B. Site of the Town Gaol: this important structure housed the British prisoners of war during the Revolution who carved the image of Bacchus now preserved in the Windham Library. The building was removed in the late 1940's and there are no above-ground remains.
The Windham Center Historic District is significant in three areas. First, several of the structures within the district are associated with the lives of individuals important in state and national history. Second, the Windham Center Historic District is an impressive "catalogue" of 18th and 19th century American vernacular architecture, expressing in particular the way in which older buildings were adapted, and rebuilt in later styles. Finally, there are three small structures within the district which were used for commercial purposes in the 18th century. Such structures are extremely rare and are especially worthy of notice and future study.
Windham was the home of two of Connecticut's most important Revolutionary leaders, Eliphalet Dyer and Jedediah Elderkin. The careers of these two individuals were closely parallel. Both were Yale graduates who became lawyers, pleading their cases in the Windham court house. Both men became large landowners in town, both held the rank of colonel in the militia, both represented Windham at many sessions of the Connecticut General Assembly, and both were members of Governor Trumbull's War Council (afterwards, the Council of Safety). Finally, they lived next door to one another in houses which still stand.
Colonel Eliphalet Dyer was born in Windham in 1721. After graduating from Yale, he returned to his native town and took up the practice of law. Between 1747 and 1762, he served in eleven sessions of the General Assembly, and, in the latter year, was named to the Governor's Council. Dyer was principal organizer and supporter of the Susquehanna Company, an ultimately unsuccessful venture of Connecticut men to lay claim to and settle parts of northern Pennsylvania under the terms of the colony's sea-to-sea charter. Indeed, so ardent was Dyer in his speeches before the General Assembly urging Connecticut officially to support the Company's stand, that a wit penned:
"Canaan of old, as we are told,
With the coming of the Revolution, Dyer left off his advocacy for the Western lands and concentrated his attention on serving the colonists' cause. Named a member of the Council of Safety, Dyer was sent by the General Assembly, along with Silas Deane and Roger Sherman, to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second in 1775. Not reelected in 1776, and thus not a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was returned to the Congress again in 1777, 1778, and 1779, where he labored in concert with the other delegates to bring the Revolution to a successful conclusion.
After the War, Dyer served as Chief Judge of the Superior Court, retiring in 1793 to Windham where he lived until his death in 1807. Dyer appears to have been a large, blustery man whose character embodied both considerable virtues and faults, a paradox which the observant John Adams noted in the diary he kept at the Continental Congress. Dyer, he wrote, was "...long-winded and round-about, obscure and cloudy, very talkative and very tedious, yet an honest, worthy man, means well and judges well."
Jedediah Elderkin was born in Norwich in 1717. After graduating from Yale and studying law, he moved with his family to Windham in 1745 where he had bought some land and a house. As his law practice flourished, Elderkin bought more land and began to interest himself in a number of other activities. His political career commenced with his election to the General Assembly in 1751, a position he was to hold many times over the next three decades. Interested in Dyer's Susquehanna scheme, he joined his neighbor as an early subscriber to the company's stock. Politics and the law, however, were not Elderkin's only concerns. Like many Enlightenment figures such as Franklin and Jefferson, Elderkin had scientific and commercial interests. In particular, he experimented with and became one of the pioneers of silk production in Connecticut, establishing a plantation of mulberry trees on his farm in South Windham, and developing methods of spinning silk thread and weaving silk cloth which other entrepreneurs in Mansfield and Windham used with considerable profit.
When the Revolution began, Elderkin was named to the Council of Safety and quickly became Trumbull's right-hand man within the state, taking up and executing many of the governor's most difficult commissions. For example, early in the War Elderkin was asked to accomplish three difficult tasks. First, in 1775 he was sent to New London where he surveyed the port and made recommendations for its defense. In early 1776, he was directed to visit Salisbury where he studied and then supervised the conversion of a foundry there into a cannon works which produced valuable weapons throughout the War not only for the Continental army but for the fledgling navy's men of war as well. Finally, also in 1776, Elderkin and Nathaniel Wales of Windham, with the governor's urging built a gunpowder mill at Willimantic which, together with Col. Pitkin's mill in East Hartford, produced much needed powder for the war effort. Elderkin's ability to execute difficult tasks successfully led the governor and the council to call upon his services repeatedly in the war years that followed to procure ordinance, purchase supplies, and to take charge of prisoners.
After the Revolution, Elderkin retired to Windham where he continued to practice law and to manage his various business interests. In failing health, his last public service was to attend the state convention which ratified the Constitution where he urged its adoption. He died at Windham in 1792.
Another significant resident of Windham was Zephaniah Swift. Born in 1759, Swift grew up in Lebanon and graduated from Yale in 1778. After studying law, he settled in Windham where he quickly made his mark as a brilliant attorney. First elected to the General Assembly in 1787, he served in several other sessions until 1792 when he was elected to the federal House of Representatives a position which he held for three consecutive terms. Returning to Connecticut, Swift was named a judge of the Superior Court in 1801 and served on the bench until 1819, the last five years as Chief Justice.
Swift was an exceptional legal scholar. In 1795, he published the first volume of his work, A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut, which was the first treatise on the origins and organization of the state's laws and codes. After his retirement from the bench in 1819, Swift was selected by the General Assembly to revise the Statutes of Connecticut to bring them into conformity with the new constitution adopted in 1818. Following the successful completion of this task and drawing on its experience, Swift wrote his magisterial two volume, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Connecticut. Based upon his earlier published work, the Digest was used throughout the 19th century by legal students in many states and by attorneys as a reference and authority before the courts. Swift died in 1823, the year in which the last volume of the Digest was published. Local legend says that his first law office was in a wing of the Woodworth House. Later in his career, he built a large house at the top of Moulton Hill on Scotland Road, which, unfortunately, burned to the ground about 1920.
The final individual of importance with whom Windham Center is intimately connected is the artist J. Alden Weir. Born in 1852, the son of a professor of drawing at West Point, Weir at an early age was determined to be a painter. At twenty-one he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts; and after three years of study he returned to the U.S. and began work as a portrait painter and art teacher in New York City. His connection with Windham was forced through his introduction, courtship, and marriage in 1885 to Anna Baker, the daughter of Charles Baker, a retired Army officer and wealthy Windham landowner, whose large house still stands on a sloping lawn above Windham Center Road. Although Weir, Anna, and their growing family visited Windham occasionally in the first years of their marriage, most of their time was spent in New York or on their own farm in Branchville, CT (near Ridgefield). However, after the birth of their fourth child in 1892, Anna suddenly died; and Weir, devastated by the blow, brought his children to Windham to stay with their grandparents and Ella, Anna's older sister. A year-and-a-half later, Weir married Ella; and from this time forward his connections with Windham and the Baker house became greater; indeed, after the death of his father-in-law, he inherited the house and surrounding farm. Weir often spent his summers in Windham and entertained many fellow artists here, including John Singer Sargent.
The years between the early 1890's and the beginning of World War I were the most fruitful period of Weir's career. Having developed a highly personal style that would lead critics to identify him as an American Impressionist of the first rank, Weir first gained wide recognition in 1893 when he was chosen, along with his friend and contemporary, John Twachtman, to exhibit his work in a joint exhibition in New York with the French artists Monet and Besnard. Because of his ability and outgoing personality, Weir became one of the leaders of a small group of artists who withdrew from the National Academy and the Society of American Artists in 1898 and pledged to show their works in small exhibitions of high quality. The group, "Ten American Painters," or "The Ten" as they came to be called, included Weir, Twachtman, Childe Hassam, Edward Tarbell, Frank Benson, Joseph De Camp, Willard Metcalf, Thomas Dewing, Edward Simmons and Robert Reid; and their departure from the artistic "establishment" of their day created quite a stir. Weir contributed regularly to the exhibits of "The Ten" until the movement declined after the outbreak of the War. He died in 1919.
Weir's increasingly strong identification with Windham after the death of his first wife was reflected in the paintings he completed of village and nearby scenes in the 1890's and the first two decades of the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous is The Red Bridge (1895), a picture of an iron bridge across the Shetucket River, now in the Metropolitan Museum. Also of interest are the five or six paintings that Weir made of the factories and their surroundings in nearby Willimantic, including Thread Kills, Willimantic Thread Mills (1893, Brooklyn Museum), The Factory Village, and Willimantic; and paintings of Windham Center scenes such as Barns at Windham Village (c.1914, City Art Museum, St. Louis), and Snow in Windham. The one painting of Weir's that remains in Windham Center at the present time hangs in St. Paul's Church. It is a carefully worked out, full-sized design for a stained glass window which Weir had constructed in the Church of the Ascension in New York City as a memorial to Anna. The subject is the flight into Egypt, and the work portrays Mary, Joseph and the Child at a moment of rest during their journey. Typical of Weir's mature work, the colors chosen here are mainly blues and greens in soft, pastel shades.
The 18th and 19th century houses and public buildings which stand in Windham Center today are a visual expression of the culture and prosperity of the farmers, merchants and professional men who built them. No man here ever made so much money that he was able to employ a prominent architect and to build a high-style mansion. Rather, most of the houses are commodious, solid examples of American vernacular construction; and the architectural significance of the Windham Center Historic District is that it serves as a visual tableau of changing styles and tastes over two centuries. If there is one theme here, it is that of constant rebuilding and reuse. That is, many of the houses built in an earlier style were later modified or completely reconstructed in another style. This reflects a combination of a general American with a particular Yankee trait: a desire to "keep up with the Joneses" in current fashions; and a belief that one should never throw away or tear down something of value. Evidence of this theme will be pointed out in the discussion that follows.
The first houses built in Windham were small, 1-1/2-story frame structures. The best preserved house from this earliest period is one built around 1710, a gable-roofed building with added lean-to, central fireplace, and corner posts with a very pronounced flare. By 1750, the pioneering, subsistence agriculture stage of Windham's history was past. Her farmers were becoming wealthy from the sale of their surplus crops, some were becoming merchants, and lawyers and other professionals were moving into the town. In response to these changes, larger houses were built and older houses were rebuilt in a plain but comfortable style which still dominates Windham's architectural character. These new houses were generally 2-1/2 stories with five-bay main facades, oak framed and clapboarded with gable, wood-shingled roofs. The first houses in this style had central chimneys, while later structures were of the central hall type. Examples of this sort of house stand side-by-side at the foot of the green and were probably constructed between 1755 and 1765. Examples of older houses which were "undated" to the new standard by raising roofs and building wings include the Col. Jedediah Elderkin House, Woodworth House, and home of an Episcopal minister.
After the Revolution, a number of Windham homes were remodelled or embellished with late-Georgian details. For example, front blocks were added to houses, featuring end chimneys and wider window openings above which, on the first story level, were flared board heads suggesting stone lintels (since removed on Col. Jedediah Elderkin House), a decorative motif found on a number of other Windham area houses. Another late-Georgian design worthy of note is the beautifully worked door frame on J. Hebbard House.
Windham possesses only three Federal style houses; but each is of considerable interest. The two earliest structures built between 1810 and 1820, are traditionally proportioned houses having 2-1/2 stories, five-bay main facades, and gable roofs with their ridges parallel to the road. Both, however, are constructed of brick and have a number of Federal style details. The third house is a very interesting late-Federal structure, built about 1825, which manifests the slow change to the Greek Revival style that was taking place in Windham and elsewhere at this time. For example, the house's gable end faces the street and the door frame is offset in the three-bay main facade. The main decorative detail is the corner pilasters; but unlike the severely plain pilasters on later, fully-developed Greek Revival houses, these have slender stiles and delicate rope-turned edges.
After 1830, the Greek Revival style may be said to have totally captured Windham Center's architectural imagination. New houses were built and old houses were rebuilt in the new fashion with great enthusiasm. The tone of the new movement was set by the building of the Windham Bank in 1832 with its classical portico, and by major house reconstructions undertaken by "Dr. D.W.C. Lathrop about 1855, and Charles Taintor, a wealthy merchant, about 1840. Lathrop began with a typical 2-1/2-story, five-bay house and added across the front a massive triangular pediment supported by large Ionic columns; while Taintor grafted a new Greek Revival main block on to his older home. Other Windham citizens, unable to match the lavishness of Lathrop and Taintor, nevertheless tried to "update" their houses to reflect the new style as best they could. The most common way was to add corner pilasters and a Greek Revival door frame (for example, the Col. Thomas Dyer House), or just the door frame. One of the modest houses built entirely in the new style includes the E. C. Wyllys House.
The only interruption of this Greek Revival enthusiasm was the construction of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Built in 1833, a year after the Windham Bank, this small church is one of the most interesting and important ecclesiastical structures in the state. In form a traditional meeting house design (a wide rectangle without a chancel), the architectural details are clearly Gothic, a reflection of changing Anglican ideas about the proper setting for religious services. Indeed, in this small country church one can clearly see the influence of Ithiel Town's Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, begun only five years earlier.
With the onset of the second half of the 19th century, a new style came to dominate building in Windham. This was the Italian Villa and related Italianate fashions; and within the boundaries of the Windham Center Historic District there are nine houses which reflect their influence, allowing one to compare stylistic forms and decorative elements. Among these nine houses, is the most important, whose massing and decorative details make it one of the finer examples of the Italian Villa style in Connecticut. Most of the others are simply large houses with wide eaves and large cornice brackets although they are not without interest. And, here too, one finds the theme of rebuilding present; one was formerly a late 18th-century, 2-1/2-story, gable roof structure, which, about 1855, was "Italianized" by raising and flattening its roof and by adding large cornice brackets. Also, the Baker-Weir House has a large Italianate wing appended to its main, 18th-century block; while numerous houses in the district have bracketed bay windows and door hoods supported by large consoles (for example, the Shubul Abbe House).
Italianate showed a remarkable persistence in Windham Center, the last house in the style being constructed about 1885. It is interesting to note that there are no Second Empire or Stick style structures here; while the Queen Anne style, so noticeable in the residential areas of Willimantic only a few miles away, is absent except in two very plain farm houses and in the general massing of the Congregational Church, built in 1887. The absence of these styles is difficult to explain; although one may speculate that the downturn experienced by New England Agriculture after 1870 may have limited the means of farmers to build houses in the newer styles. Also, the attraction of Windham as a residential precinct for the professional classes working in Willimantic may have declined as civic improvements made the city a healthier and more agreeable place to live, while the opening of pleasant areas in the surrounding hills to development offered men the opportunity to build homes closer to offices and factories.
The final area of significance that the Windham Center Historic District possesses concerns three small structures within its bounds which were built for commercial purposes in the 18th century. As such, they are rare and unique remnants which tell us something about the economic life of Connecticut before the development of the railroads when small scale enterprise was dominant; they were a tannery, a hat shop, and a doctor's office. It should also be noted that the buildings are linked architecturally, for all have one-room deep, gambrel-roofed sections. In the case of Dr. Hunt's Office, this section forms the entire structure; while the tannery and the hat shop have gambrel-roofed wings. Why this is so is unclear and surely calls for further study.
A History of the Village and First Congregational Church, Windham, Connecticut. Mimeographed typescript, 1975.
A Memorial Volume of the Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Town of Windham, Connecticut. Hartford: The New England Home Printing Co., for the Bi-Centennial Committee, 1893.
Dexter, Franklin Bowditch. Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College with Annals of the College History. 6 Vols. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1885-1912.
Draft Report for the proposed Windham Center Historic District. Typescript, 1977.
Groce, George C. "Eliphalet Dyer: Connecticut Revolutionist." The Era of the American Revolution, Studies Inscribed to Evarts Boutell Greene. Edited by Richard B. Morris. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
Guide folder issued by the Windham Free Library Association for an Open House Tour, June 9, 1956.
Julian Alden Weir: An Appreciation of His Life and Works. The Phillips Publications, Number One. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922.
Larned, Ellen D. History of Windham County, Connecticut. 2 Vols. Privately printed, 1874-1880.
Lincoln Allen B. A Modern History of Windham County, Connecticut: A Windham County Treasure Book. 2 Vols. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1920.
Mattoon, Lillian G. and Donald P. Chronicle of St. Paul's Church, Windham, Conn., 1832-1964. Mimeographed typescript, 1964.
Weaver, William L. History of Ancient Windham, Genealogy, Parts XC through XCII, Elderkin. Elderkin Historical Series, Number One. Lakeland, Florida: Privately printed, 1949 (a reprint of Weaver's newspaper articles published in the Willimantic Chronicle between December 21, 1865 and February 15, 1866).
† Henry Keiner, Consultant, Connecticut Historical Commission, Windham Center National Register District, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.