South Green Historic District
The South Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†]
The South Green Historic District is an area of approximately 26 acres centered on five blocks of Hartford's principal north-south traffic artery known as Main Street/Wethersfield Avenue. The District runs from South Green on the north (the original southern edge of the seventeenth century town plat) through an array of Victorian mansions to a modest nineteenth century residential area on the south.
South Green itself is a small triangular park dating back to the town's earliest years. Apex of the triangle points north; its eastern and western legs are bordered by Main Street which splits into two sections for the purpose, and its base is Wyllys Street. The park has some planting and many benches. Along its western edge runs a section of the heavy nineteenth century cast iron fence which once surrounded the entire park.
Included in the South Green Historic District are two buildings which have been designated national Historic Landmarks (the Col. Samuel Colt House and the Henry Barnard House) and one which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (the Day-Taylor House). Seven houses along the west side of Wethersfield Avenue have already been determined by the Secretary of the Interior in the course of redevelopment proceedings to be eligible for the National Register. Three other National Register Historic Districts border on the South Green Historic District; these are Charter Oak Place Historic District at the northeast, Colt Industrial Historic District at the southeast, and Congress Street Historic District on the west.
Mass and scale of buildings in the South Green Historic District are remarkably uniform. The tallest structures are the spires of the churches; otherwise maximum height is four stories. The commercial and apartment blocks are modest in size; indeed, difference in date between the nineteenth century double houses and twentieth century six family apartment blocks is minimal.
Construction throughout is almost universally masonry. Brick was by far the favored building material, with occasional use of stone and stucco. An exception is one block on Alden Street which has a group of turn-of-the-century frame houses.
The South Green Historic District is almost wholly residential in character, only exceptions being several retail shops bordering on South Green, three neighborhood gas stations, three funeral homes, two structures devoted to light industrial shops (not street frontage), and three buildings used for studios and professional offices.
There is strong ecclesiastical presence in the area through significant church owned properties. These are St. Peter's Catholic Church and associated rectory, school, and convent; South Park Methodist Church; the Episcopal residence for retirees (Col. Samuel Colt's Armsmear); and St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church and school. Physical maintenance of these properties over the years has been excellent.
Several of the mansions along the South Green Historic District's central Wethersfield Avenue block have been converted to adaptive use. First was Armsmear, No. 80, which became a retirement residence early in the twentieth century. Up the street its neighbor at No. 2 several years ago became broadcast studios for a radio station. Across the street No. 65 is occupied as offices, in part by Hartford Architecture Conservancy and Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, while next door No. 81 (Day-Taylor House) is being rehabilitated by Hartford Architecture Conservancy as professional offices, the initial project of the Conservancy's new Revolving Fund.
The majority of the properties in the southwest quarter of the South Green Historic District along Morris, Alden, and Dean Streets are now owned by the city and are unoccupied. Negotiations are being finalized at the present time with a developer who will rehabilitate this area along with Congress Street.
The South Green Historic District summarizes three centuries of Hartford history with emphasis on prominent citizens, including Col. Samuel Colt and educator Henry Barnard, and important examples of Victorian architectural styles of the second half of the nineteenth century, but also encompassing a modest neighborhood that is as important to the understanding of the city as the mansions along the avenue. With its churches and apartment houses, so essential to urban living, the South Green Historic District is a remarkable definition of a complete neighborhood of the past, standing in good condition and now taking on a resurgence of vitality.
The roots of the South Green Historic District go back to the earliest days of Hartford when in the seventeenth century the South Green was laid out as common pasture. Companion to the South Green itself in longevity has been the Wyllys family name, still present in the name of a street which borders South Green today. Governor George W. Wyllys was in office in 1642; about a century and a half later his descendant, George Wyllys, senior justice of the peace, presided over the first election held by the City of Hartford newly incorporated in 1784 with population of 5,500. At this time, a map of the city made by one Solomon Porter was duly approved. In 1850 another Solomon Porter led the development push which brought the construction of most of the buildings now standing in the district.
Well into the nineteenth century, South Green was pasture land and life in the surrounding area was pastoral. Two houses remain from this era, the earlier being the birth place and life time residence of Henry Barnard (1811-1900; designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966) at 118 Main Street on the east side of the Green. A contemporary of Horace Mann, Barnard is widely given equal rank as a reformer of the educational system. After a long campaign that culminated in establishment of Hartford Public High School (the first in Connecticut), Barnard went on to become the first state commissioner of education, and in 1867-70 first United States Commissioner of Education. He left his mark on the nation, and the home he left in this district is important in the history of American education.
Nearby, perhaps next door at the time it was built c.1840, is the great Greek Revival house of Ellery Hills. Said to have been built by his brother, the professional thoroughness with which the Ionic detail is executed suggests that this brother may have been Chester Hills, author of The Builders Guide, or one who at least was familiar with the book. This pattern book, published in Hartford in 1834, has been credited by Talbot Hamlin as being of quality equal to others of the era. General plan for the colossal Ionic portico easily could have come from plate 13 of the book, and plate 32 could well have furnished design for the pilaster capitals' anthemion ornament under egg-and-dart molding. A neighborhood footnote is that Henry Barnard prepared plans for school houses which were published in the second edition of Hills' Guide. Both the exterior and interior of the Hills house are substantially in prime original condition, the whole forming a period treasure not duplicated in Hartford, and perhaps not in Connecticut.
Before discussing the South Green Historic District's growth and development in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is important to note that during the first half South Green was the southern boundary of Hartford. Traffic was heavy along the "Ancient Road to Wethersfield" as the avenue was known and pressures for expansion were building up in this period. Among the first to take action was Colonel Solomon Porter, West Indies trader, wholesale grocer, and president of the State Bank who built his imposing, square, Italianate mansion (now demolished) on property at the corner of Wyllys Street and Wethersfield Avenue c.1850. The appearance of the house is permanently recorded in a cameo-like sculpture in a marble bench of the children's park near the district given to the city by his granddaughter in 1942. Shortly after Porter's house went up Col. Samuel Colt, in 1857, completed Armsmear next door and the magnificence of the east side of Wethersfield Avenue thereupon was difficult to match elsewhere in the city.
In response to the need for more city land the southern boundary of Hartford was moved further south in 1854. In the same year Congress Street was accepted as a city street; so were Morris, Alden, and Dean Streets. The building boom was on.
The firm of H. & S. Bissell, masonry contractors and developers, was active in this energetic development. They built the two big brick Italianates at No. 81 and No. 65 Wethersfield Avenue. No. 61 was pure speculation. Bissell put up the house, then advertised it for sale in the newspapers. They found a buyer in Albert Day, merchant, land owner, and lieutenant governor. This house, now known as the Day-Taylor House, is on the National Register of Historic Places and currently is in process of rehabilitation by Hartford Architecture Conservancy.
For No. 65, H. & S. Bissell had a client before completion in James H. Ashmead who took title from the Bissells on 5 November 1859. Ashmead had a partner named Edmund Hurlbut with whom he conducted a gold beating business which has survived in a successor firm in Hartford, now the only gold beating shop in America. A peripheral activity of the partners was buying and selling real estate together in adjoining Congress Street. Hurlbut built the house on the southeast corner of Congress and Wyllys Streets, the finest on the block. A few years after Col. Samuel Colt died in 1862, his widow as executrix of his estate bought No. 65 for Sam C. Colt, the Colonel's "nephew" or illegitimate son. Thus the handsome house at No. 65 has architectural and historic significance as an important part of the 1850's building boom with ties to a unique Hartford industry, to the development of the adjoining street, and to the tangled affairs of the Colt family headquartered across the street at Armsmear.
Elsewhere in this row along the west side of Wethersfield Avenue, several double brick houses were erected. These square, substantial homes, standing today, had front porches with impressive Corinthian capitals and were examples of a type of house of which a large number were to be found in the Hartford of that day. They are of significance as prime specimens of an important Hartford house design. On Morris, Alden and Dean Streets smaller, simplified versions of the same thing have survived. On the avenue they were bigger, fancier, and more expensive while on the side streets they were less so but still adequate to provide quite comfortable living. The relationship can be seen today as it existed a century and a quarter ago, and adds strength to the South Green Historic District as a sociological demonstration of what living in Hartford was and is like.
Another family of architectural styles, the Queen Anne, got its start in the district in 1890 when Henry Barnard sold the lot on the south side of his house to Elizur S. Goodrich, president of the Hartford Street Railway Co. (one of the first in the country to electrify, in 1894). Goodrich put up the neighborhood's first house in the Queen Anne style, brick, with clapboards in the gables, dormers, and classic ornament. Three other fine examples of this style followed in the 1890's further south at Nos. 43, 91, and 97-99 Wethersfield Avenue.
In this decade, two of the most elaborate and highly decorated houses in the district were built by Mrs. Mills S. Munsill, nee Mary Jane Borden, daughter of the man who made a fortune in condensed milk. The estate of Solomon Porter sold off a front lot to her on the southeast corner of Wyllys Street and Wethersfield Avenue where in 1892 she built the expensive, ornate mansion which is historic for having Hartford's first private elevator, among other reasons, and which is now constructively re-used as studios for a radio station.
Three years later she built a house next door at No. 14 Wethersfield Avenue for her son. This house is one of the few in the South Green Historic District for which the architect is known. He was William H. Allen of New Haven. After both Mrs. Munsill and her son died in 1912 the two houses came into the hands of prominent Hartford families in whose honor two nearby schools (Naylor and Kinsella) were named.
In addition to one- and two-family buildings, the South Green Historic District has nineteen apartment buildings constructed between 1870 and 1930 which are an integral part of the streetscape. These apartment houses are sturdy buildings representative of their times, in varying qualities of design but all with some degree of architectural pretension ranging from heavy applied cornices through exaggerated rustication to quality materials and restrained classic detail.
While the quality of these apartment houses is uneven, as a group they "belong" and they provide a catalog of city apartments when they were a spacious and economical solution to housing city families. The point is illustrated by citing construction history of three of the buildings. No. 20 Wethersfield Avenue was one of the first of the type; it went up in 1912 size 37x86 feet at cost of $26,000. Initially two families lived on each of the four floors but in 1944 this number was doubled, increasing the total number of tenants from eight to 16. At No. 96-98 Main Street architect W.E. Becker in 1920 designed a 54x114 foot building for 24 families at cost of $70,000. The most elaborate such building in the South Green Historic District is No. 7-9 Wyllys Street by Dunkelberger and Gelman in 1925. It cost $135,000 for a building approximately 80x134 feet containing 72 apartments. The Dunkelberger in this partnership was George F. Dunkelberger who is better known for having designed the Merritt Parkway; Parkway bridges and this building have in common the same characteristic whimsical approach to design.
The burst of building activity which occurred in the 1850's generated a need for churches which was met on South Green with construction of two new edifices. On the east side of the Green architect John Murphy designed St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, which upon its completion in 1868 was the first large Catholic church in Hartford and at the time was the largest in Connecticut. The interior, designed by John LaFarge in 1887 and meticulously maintained for 90 years, is distinguished by its grace and colors, its quatrefoil medallions by Adolph Khuen, stained glass windows by F. Mayer, and paintings by Louis Lamprecht.
Across the Green, in 1875 the Methodists put up their substantial brick and brownstone church with black walnut and chestnut pulpit and Tiffany stained glass window. In the post World War II era a third church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Michael's (1952), came into the district at 125 Wethersfield Avenue. The strong ecclesiastical influence of this trio of churches has been an important stabilizing force in the South Green Historic District.
Henry Barnard, ed., Armsmear: the home, the area, the armory of Samuel Colt. A Memorial, New York, 1886.
Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1944.
Chester Hills, The Builders Guide, revised edition, Hartford: Case, Tiffany and Burnham, 1846.
† David F. Ransom and Ms. Merle Kumner, Hartford Architecture Conservancy, South Green Historic District, Hartford, CT, nomination document, 1977, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.