Main Street Historic District
The Bristol Main Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Bristol Main Street Historic District is located in what was historically the commercial center of Bristol, along Main and Prospect streets. Main Street runs north and south and the district begins on the south side of the intersection of Main Street with Summer and High streets and continues south along the axis of Main Street to the north side of the intersection of Riverside Avenue. The Main Street Historic District extends east of Main Street along one block of Prospect Street. Divided by the railroad tracks, the Main Street Historic District is bisected by a large steel railroad bridge with dressed stone abutments crossing Main Street south of Prospect Street. Bounded on the north by the Federal Hill Historic District, and on the south by the former manufacturing village along the banks of the Pequabuck River, the Main Street Historic District is located between the historic residential and industrial areas. The slope of Main Street is steep as it drops down to the area around the river, giving a sweeping vista to the commercial area. The downtown area once encompassed a larger area than the district, but a devastating flood in the mid-1950s and urban renewal efforts led to the demolition of many buildings on the west side of Main Street south of the railroad bridge.
Containing 21 buildings, of which 18 contribute to the architectural significance of the district, the Main Street Historic District includes buildings constructed in a variety of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century styles. Although masonry construction dominates the fabric of the Main Street Historic District, the different types of stone and brick used provide contrasting colors and textures to make for a lively and attractive streetscape. Most of the earliest buildings are constructed of brick. The Mitchell Block, built c.1870 in the Italianate style, displays a richly detailed example of the mason's art, using brick quoins and patterns of molded brick. The former Town Hall, dating from c.1873, is similar in style and proportion to the Mitchell Block, but the use of a fine rosy brick contrasted with massive stone lintels and sills gives the building a strikingly different appearance. The Romanesque Linstead (c.1889) and Neubrauer Blocks (c.1896) are plainer examples of brick construction, but they also exhibit finely detailed brickwork on their upper stories.
The early-twentieth century saw intense building activity within the Main Street Historic District. The Renaissance Revival and Neoclassical Revival styles were the most popular during the early years of the century. Large brick commercial blocks with metal cornices like the Curtis and Anderson Block and the Curtis Building were constructed c.1904-1905, but more monumental still was Theodore Peck's design for the Bristol National Bank (c.1904), built in the Neoclassical Revival style.
The most ambitious building of the period, and the one which remains the centerpiece of the Main Street Historic District, is Walter Crabtree's design for the Bristol Trust Company (1907). It was built of marble with a tiled roof, and monumental brass doors, and placed in a landscaped setting. The main banking room has a cove ceiling with four murals representing finance, agriculture, industry, and commerce. The finance mural shows a figure holding a tablet flanked by the Treasury Building on Wall Street, New York City, and the Bristol Trust Company. The bank, built on the northeast corner of Riverside Avenue and Main Street, was originally balanced by the Neoclassical Revival Post Office (demolished) on the opposite side of Main Street. Also built in the Neoclassical style was Redmen's Hall (1911) on Prospect Street. The entrance was originally very like the Bristol National Bank on upper Main Street, although it has now been replaced by a movie theater marquee. A late example of the Neoclassical Revival style in the Main Street Historic District is the Bristol National Bank at 200 Main Street, built in 1923. The streamlined cast-stone facade of the Lorraine Building is the only example of the Art Deco style in the Main Street Historic District.
In the Bristol Main Street Historic District is preserved the financial, commercial, and governmental heart of the Town of Bristol. Linking the residential area of Federal Hill and the industrial area that grew up along the banks of the Pequabuck River, the commercial buildings that still stand along Main Street reflect the growth, urbanization, and prosperity engendered by the diversified economy of this manufacturing center. The buildings within the Main Street Historic District are representative of a variety of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century styles and include the work of a number of local architects, as well as one commission awarded to a nationally recognized firm. Significantly, most of these buildings have been little altered from their original appearance.
Bristol's Main Street Historic District exemplifies a typical early-twentieth century town center. The buildings are of masonry construction, most of them brick, and they range in height from two to four stories, with storefronts on the ground floor. The upper stories were generally designed for offices or apartments, or a combination of the two. Buildings in commercial centers rarely retain their original storefronts, but several within the district have maintained their early-twentieth century storefronts, or have storefronts that have been altered in very minor ways. Notable among these are those of the Linstead Block (238 Main Street), the former Town Hall/Bristol Savings Bank (242-244 Main Street), the Curtis Building (255 Main Street), and Funck's Block (13 Prospect Street). The upper facades have suffered even fewer changes, and the streetscape is enhanced by the use of different colors of brick, molded brick insets, stone and cast-stone motifs, and wooden and metal cornices of varying designs. Other rare survivors in the Main Street Historic District are associated outbuildings, built behind the main commercial facades and used for storage purposes or shops which manufactured custom-crafted items sold in the commercial buildings fronting the street. The two-story frame carriage house and two brick buildings behind 242-244 Main Street are examples of outbuildings of this type, once common in commercial areas.
All the most important events in the history of banking in Bristol took place in the Main Street Historic District, and nearly all of Bristol's pre-1950 bank buildings still stand within the district. These banks provided a showcase for regional and national architectural talent; the Bristol National Bank (200 Main Street) was designed by the office of McKim, Mead and White. The Main Street Historic District also contains the work of two capable regional architects. Bristol-born Theodore B. Peck (b.1856), the designer of an earlier Bristol National Bank (247 Main Street), was a Waterbury architect. A graduate of Cornell, he apprenticed with R.W. Hill. Peck was the brother of both Bristol historian Epaphroditus Peck and Miles Lewis Peck, the latter both treasurer of the Bristol Savings Bank and director of the Bristol National Bank. In addition to the Victorian Miles Lewis Peck House (174 Summer Street, Bristol), several major turn-of-the-century structures in downtown Waterbury were designed by Peck.
Walter Percival Crabtree (1873-1962) designed two of the most frequented structures in the Main Street Historic District, the Bristol Trust Company (150 Main Street) and Redmen's Hall (43 Prospect Street). The Bristol Trust Company is the best example in town of a commercial building executed in the Neoclassical Revival style. The grounds, complete with a bench overlooking the corner of Riverside Avenue, were landscaped with native plants in a formal setting that complemented the formality of the marble bank building. The interior was designed by Mortensen and Holdensen of Boston, a firm responsible for the interior of many public buildings and theaters in this period. The murals in the main banking room were the work of artist and teacher Vesper L. George. A modern drive-in teller window has been built on the north side of the bank, but the interior and exterior otherwise retain much of their original appearance. Crabtree apprenticed with William C. Caldwell of New Britain. Caldwell had an office in Bristol in the 1890s, and Crabtree worked in his office while Bristol's early-twentieth-century town hall on North Main Street was being designed by Caldwell's office. In 1905 Crabtree opened his own office in New Britain, where he operated his business until he moved to Hartford in 1930.
In Bristol, Crabtree followed his design for the Bristol Trust Company with two residential commissions, one for the Ernest R. Burwell House (1918), and one for the DeWitt Page Mansion (demolished), both on Grove Street.
Two of Crabtree's most notable commercial designs are located in New Britain: the Neoclassical Revival Elks' Club (1911, Washington Street) and the Art Deco-style Fred Beloin Building (1942, 248-250 Main Street/32 West Main Street). His other bank commissions include the Plainville First National Bank (1910, West Main Street), the Suffield Savings Bank (1918, High Street), and the Hartford Trust Company (1918, 561 Prospect Avenue). Other documented residential commissions in Hartford County are 52 Thomson Road (1936), 55 Thomson Road (1936), 126 South Main Street (1936), and 638 Park Road (1936) in West Hartford; 66 Bloomfield Avenue (1929) in Hartford; and 68 Forest Street (1907) in New Britain. Crabtree also designed the R. Wallace and Sons Manufacturing Company in Wallingford (1922, Quinnipiac Street), and a residence in Holyoke, Massachusetts (1896, 69 Dwight Street). Crabtree was a member of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Institute of Architects from 1931 to 1935.
Bristol had two town centers by the early nineteenth century: North Village and South Village. North Village lay along the Hartford-Danbury Turnpike, near the path of present-day Route 6, and contained the town post office, hotel and other services. South Village was a collection of manufacturing sites grouped along the Pequabuck River. Clockmaking was the single most important industry in Bristol in the years prior to the Civil War, and it was during this period that Bristol became a clockmaking center for the nation.
The origins of Main Street, Bristol, can be traced to Chauncey Jerome, a former apprentice of clockmaker Eli Terry who moved to Bristol from Plymouth in 1821. Jerome, Darrow & Co. made wooden movement shelf clocks and was housed in a small shop on 17 acres in South Village on the north side of the Pequabuck River, south of the Main Street Historic District. Bristol-made clocks bound for market in America and Europe were shipped down the Farmington Canal beginning in 1828. But as early as 1826 Jerome had expanded his operations and saw the need for a better transportation system to support his growing enterprise. In that year, Jerome petitioned the Town of Bristol to lay out a road east of his factory, and build a bridge over the river. The town agreed, but only if Jerome would pay for the bridge and half the cost of the land for the road. This road became known as Main Street. Other important industrial complexes, most relating to the clock industry, came to be constructed in the nineteenth century on the flat land on the banks of the Pequabuck on the south end of Main Street.
Although industry was responsible for the genesis of Main Street it was the completion of Bristol's railroad link in 1850 that made it the town's commercial, financial, and administrative center. The Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad Company linked the town to major markets. The first depot (demolished) was built on the west side of the street where the line bisected Main Street at the north end of the district. The post office and a number of commercial businesses moved from the North Village to Main Street at this time. The commercial center, consisting of a group of frame structures, was located south of the railroad tracks on the east side of Main Street. In January 1870, these buildings were destroyed in a dramatic midnight conflagration. They were replaced by two brick commercial blocks constructed on the same site as the frame commercial buildings for Julius Nott and Henry A. Seymour. The first bank on Main Street was located on the third floor of one of the Nott and Seymour blocks. The Bristol Savings Bank, organized by Miles Lewis Peck, opened for business in 1870. This block was destroyed by fire in 1873, and the bank elected to build its own brick banking house on the east side of Main Street north of the tracks (242-244 Main St.). The town offices were housed on the upper floor of the bank building and remained there until a new town hall was constructed near the corner of Main and North Main streets at the turn of the century. Shortly after the savings bank was rebuilt, a commercial bank was organized. The Bristol National Bank was founded in 1875 by John H. Sessions and Charles S. Treadway, two prominent industrial leaders of Bristol, and shared the Bristol Savings Bank building until 1878. The investments of the Bristol National Bank supported industrial and commercial expansion in town at a time when capital for new and expanded enterprises was much in demand.
The second Nott and Seymour Block was demolished at the turn of the century when a railway bridge was built over Main Street in order to eliminate the dangerous grade crossing. This change in the manner in which railroad traffic was handled resulted in a number of physical changes to the north end of Main Street; the passenger station (demolished) was moved to the east side of the street, and the course of Prospect Street was changed so that it would continue to run north of the tracks. The most obvious change, though, was the construction of the railroad bridge with its impressive dressed stone abutments which still dominates the north end of the district.
By the time the railroad bridge was built, commercial structures lined upper Main Street in much the same way they do today. Brick commercial buildings dating from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries still dominate the fabric of the district. A building boom after the turn of the century was responsible for some of the most elaborate structures in the district. The bank buildings were among the most outstanding, notably the Bristol National Bank (1904; 247 Main St.). However, the grandest of the banks built during this period was the Bristol Trust Company, constructed on the northeast corner of Main Street and Riverside Avenue. The main Post Office, which since the 1850s had been located in South Village, was rehoused in 1912 in a large Neoclassical Revival building directly opposite the Bristol Trust Company on Main Street (demolished c. 1960). An important survival from this period of Bristol's development is Redmen's Hall (43 Prospect Street). Built in 1911, it housed an armory on the first floor, with the meeting hall of the club on an upper floor. The building housed special events, high school graduations, and car shows. For many years the largest hall in town, it was central to life in Bristol in the early years of the century. It was later converted to a movie theater.
Bristol, grown rich on its strong industrial base, showed a concern with public improvements in the 1910s and 1920s which typifies many communities of the period. The new bank buildings, Redmen's Hall, and the Post Office were early indications of the progressive ideals of the community. Another improvement of the period that had a significant impact on Main Street was the construction of Memorial Boulevard at the southern end of the Main Street Historic District. Connected to Main Street in 1921 at the behest of Albert F. Rockwell, the founder of New Departure (a division of General Motors), Memorial Boulevard was designed as a parkway with a grassy median in the center and a monumental structure at one end in remembrance of those from Bristol who had served in World War I. This project involved major engineering, since the Pequabuck River had to be rerouted and put in a channel north of its former path and underground for several blocks beneath the commercial area. In exchange for the execution of his pet civic project, Rockwell donated money to construct a new town high school (on South Street, south of the district). In 1918 the town commissioned the preeminent American town planner, John Nolen, to prepare a survey of the town and make suggestions for improvements. Nolen was commissioned to write a town-wide plan which included some recommendations for the commercial area along Main Street. The largest change he suggested was the construction of a town hall plaza on the south end of Main Street which would tie into an extensive greenbelt of town-owned land along the south bank of the river. Although Nolen's plans were never fully realized, his plan generated much discussion and fueled efforts to improve Main Street, including the construction of a new street-illumination system.
The most extensive building activity of this period outside street improvements involved the local banks: in 1923 the Bristol Savings Bank moved to a building on the east side of Main Street (demolished). Bristol National Bank constructed a new building with a prominent street-side clock in the same year (200 Main Street). The Great Depression brought an end to the construction of new buildings within the district. In the 1930s the commercial building at 176 Main Street was renovated in the Art Deco style, its facade proclaiming it's new name: the Lorraine Building. It became the last stylish building to be added in the district for more than 30 years. In the 1950s, with the decline of industry in the center and increasing suburbanization, the population concentration began to shift to outlying areas. In August 1955, a flood wreaked havoc in town, and was particularly devastating on the lower end of Main Street, near the river. The flood's aftermath, combined with poor vehicular access and a lack of parking, led to the creation of the Redevelopment Agency in 1958. Federal control of the project through the HHFA resulted in much demolition and new construction. The final blow came in 1967 when the State of Connecticut reneged on its promise to extend Route 72 to downtown. What remains of the historic commercial heart of Bristol are the commercial structures along the axis of Main Street, stretching from the residential district of Federal Hill on the north to Memorial Boulevard and the former industrial sites on the south.
Atlas of Hartford City and County. Hartford, Baker and Tilden, 1869.
Bailey, Chris. Two Hundred Years of American Clocks & Watches. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.
Bristol Annual Report. Bristol, 1870-1902.
"Bristol National Bank, 1875-1925." Bristol, 1925. Pamphlet in collection of Bristol Public Library.
"The Bristol Trust Company's Banking Building." n.p., n.d., pamphlet in collection of Bristol Public Library.
Clouette, Bruce, and Roth, Matthew. Bristol Connecticut; a Bicentennial History 1785-1985. Canaan, New Hampshire, Phoenix Publishing, 1984.
Clouette, Bruce, and Roth, Matthew. National Register of Historic Places nomination for Downtown Waterbury Historic District, 1983.
Hancock, John L. John Nolen and the American City Planning Movement, a History of Culture Change and Community Response, 1900-1940. Unpublished dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1964.
Nolen, John. Bristol Connecticut: Local Survey and City Planning Proposals. n.p., 1920.
Reisner, David, and Ohno, Kate. National Register of Historic Places nomination for Ernest R. Burwell House, Bristol, CT, 1993.
Sanborn Insurance Maps of Bristol, 1884, 1895, 1900, 1905, 1911, 1916, and 1921.
Souvenir Book of Bristol's Triple Celebration. Bristol, 1921.
† David Reisner and Kate Ohno, Greater Bristol Preservation Trust, Main Street Historic District, Bristol, CT, nomination document, 1994, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.