East Plymouth Historic District
East Plymouth Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
East Plymouth Historic District is located in a small settlement at the intersection of East Plymouth Road and Marsh Road in the northeastern corner of the town of Plymouth, Connecticut. There are eight 18th and 19th century houses clustered around the intersection, at the southeast corner of which stands the focal point of the East Plymouth Historic District, the 1792 St. Matthew's Church. Adjacent to the small clapboarded church, now used as a residence, is a graveyard with many headstones dating from the 1790s and early 1800s. In addition to the houses there are four barns with vertical-board siding, probably dating to the late- or mid-19th century, as well as smaller sheds and outbuildings. Much of the land in the East Plymouth Historic District on the west side of East Plymouth Road is open pasture, while east of the houses on the east side of the road, the land is wooded and rises sharply toward Marsh Pond and its outlet, today operated as a reservoir by the City of Bristol.
The houses in the East Plymouth Historic District include three 1-1/2-story, central-chimney houses dating to about 1800 or earlier; three early-19th century houses set gable-end-to-the-road with simple Federal or Greek Revival details, one of which, was for many years used as a store; and two vernacular post-1850 houses, of which one has some Italianate inspired features. Four of the eight houses have clapboarded exteriors and four have modern siding materials. Five of the houses have had significant modifications to their facades, including added, replaced, or enclosed porches and in one case, Victorian shingles added to the front gable of a Greek Revival style house. The church and all the houses and barns were judged to contribute to the character of the East Plymouth Historic District.
Historic maps of 1852 and 1874 show that there has been little change in the East Plymouth Historic District from what was once there. Old deeds indicate that there was a barn associated with nearly every house, and there is evidence for small workshops, including a shoemaker's shop and a blacksmith shop. The village's district school was located very near the southeast corner of the church, and large stones still there may mark its foundation. A toy factory, saw and gristmill, and tanneries once were powered by Marsh Pond Brook, but time and reservoir construction make it difficult to discern any evidence of these activities. The brook is not part of the district.
The significance of the small group of structures which make up the East Plymouth Historic District is that they illustrate well the historical development of the area: located at the juncture of two country roads, East Plymouth in the late 18th and 19th centuries served as a religious, commercial, and service center for the farm families in the surrounding neighborhood. Of all the buildings, St. Matthew's Church is perhaps the most individually distinguished: dating from 1792, it is the third oldest remaining Episcopal church in the state, and in fact, it is one of only about a dozen 18th-century meetinghouses, either of the established Congregational church or of dissenting groups, left in Connecticut. Built in the vernacular tradition, St. Matthew's Church is well-preserved and in its architecture reflects both the commonalities and differences of Episcopalians and their Congregationalist neighbors. The East Plymouth Historic District's other buildings provide a physical setting for the church and are also important for their own merits. Although most have been somewhat altered from their historic appearance, all retain sufficient historic fabric that their age and original form are obvious, and as the houses of farmers, millers, merchants, and blacksmiths and other craftsmen, they are directly related to the historical role played by the village. Finally, the East Plymouth Historic District's several barns and representative meadow land recall East Plymouth's interdependence with the agricultural, economy of the surrounding area.
St. Matthew's Church
St. Matthew's Church was built in response to a regrouping of Church of England adherents in the towns of Plymouth, Harwinton, and Bristol during the 1780s and 1790s. Some of the people came from St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Plymouth, which had displeased many members in 1790 when the church voted to build its new meetinghouse in Plymouth Hollow (now Thomaston) in the extreme western part of the town. Members living in the eastern part of Plymouth saw the relocation as posing a great inconvenience.
The greater part of the original membership of St. Matthew's came from the church which had been founded in nearby New Cambridge (Bristol) in 1747. The New Cambridge Churchmen, as they called themselves, were former Congregationalists who could not abide the "New Light" theology of minister Samuel Newell. Like many Connecticut Anglicans who had been raised in the Congregationalist religion, they saw the Church of England as a refuge from the "flood of confusion" brought on by the Great Awakening, a way of returning to a more moderate religion.
The New Cambridge Churchmen built their first meetinghouse on Federal Hill, now in the center of the town of Bristol, in 1754. Early arguments over the division of ministerial taxes, as well as outright persecution of Churchmen during the American Revolution, caused the two communities of Anglicans and Congregationalists to grow apart. Many Anglican families located near Chippens Hill in the extreme northwest part of New Cambridge, and others spilled over into Plymouth (then part of Watertown) and Harwinton. Anglicanism was strongest in western Connecticut.
After the Revolution, the small church on Federal. Hill, which had suffered from lack of regular use during the war, was repaired and occupied for a while. But the condition of the building, as well as the concentration of Anglican families in the western part of what in 1785 had become the town of Bristol, made desirable the erection of a new church, one whose location would be convenient to the Chippens Hill families as well as to those in the eastern part of Plymouth who had withdrawn from St. Peter's. In 1791 a new parish was formed to serve these families, and in December of that year the parish voted to begin erecting the present St. Matthew's church.
The architecture of the church reflects its origins in a rural Anglican community. It has the simple form and unadorned exterior typical of 18th-century meetinghouses, as well as the broad rectangular plan (32' by 42') which made for a nearly square audience room. The interior likewise was finished with materials familiar to country builders: wide-board floors and raised paneling. The only departure from the overall simplicity are the fluted decoration on the gallery and the pilaster-and-arch surround on the main entrance; these are but simplifications of designs readily available from sources such as Gibbs' Book of Architecture.
In all these respects the building is like contemporary Congregationalist meetinghouses. In this period, the old style of plain meetinghouse, resembling an ordinary residence except for its large size, was only beginning to give way to the more elaborate church-like designs characteristic of the early 1800s. The Episcopalians of East Plymouth, in their beliefs and form of worship, were quite similar to their Congregationalist neighbors. The emphasis was on preaching, not liturgy, and vestments were not common. The church was originally fitted with a high central pulpit, an indication (along with the lack of a chancel) that the reading of the Word of God and the preaching of the minister were foremost in the minds of the congregation which built this church. Long and narrow proportions, Gothic windows with stained glass, chancels, large altars, and choirs were later developments in Episcopal church architecture which accompanied a greater emphasis on processions, ceremony and liturgy.
The Episcopalians undertook one departure in church architecture which might be interpreted as a statement of their religious allegiance: they voted to make one tier of windows rectangular-shaped and the other tier arched, an arrangement popularized by Gibbs and one which had been used for the prominent colonial Anglican churches of King's Chapel, Boston and Trinity Church, Newport. For some unknown reason, all the windows were made round-arched in shape. The people of East Church, as this area was sometimes called, also distinguished their building by having it consecrated, a ceremony performed in 1795 by Bishop Samuel Seabury.
The story of St. Matthew's Church was repeated (with variations) throughout the state. As dissenting groups split off during the Great Awakening, communities found themselves divided into religious factions. In eastern Connecticut, "New Light" proponents withdrew into Separatist churches, many of which later joined with Baptist congregations. In central Connecticut, several Church of England parishes were founded by people unable to accept New Light Congregationalism. Many of these groups survived in one form or another into the 1790s, and contributed to the religious diversity of the state. Ultimately, religious pluralism and the quest for religious freedom led to the Constitution of 1818, which disestablished Congregationalism as the religion of Connecticut.
Historical Development of East Plymouth
Until after the Revolution the area which became East Plymouth was not highly settled; indeed, even as late as 1803 some of the acreage in East Plymouth was still common land as yet undivided among townspeople. After the Revolution, Anglican families from New Cambridge bought property and settled near the site of their church. Among the first were the Gaylord and Tuttle families. In addition to building houses and barns and farming the land, these settlers built small-scale industries along Marsh Pond Brook. Among the earliest was a tannery run by William Gaylord and later by Constant Loyal Tuttle, and grist and carding mills run by Luman Preston. Because of the roads which led to Bristol and Harwinton, the place became a minor crossroads, with at least one "merchant's store" in the 1790s and a tavern. There also is evidence for blacksmith shops in the village, and in the early 19th century East Plymouth became the site of a district schoolhouse, located just to the southeast of the church.
Throughout the 19th century, East Plymouth continued to be highly dependent upon agriculture. Nearly all the properties at one time included barns, and most residents were either full or part-time farmers. The village's industries were tied to the needs of the farming community: a gristmill for grinding their grain and blacksmiths to repair implements and shoe their draft animals. Even men with other occupations spent much of their time farming: blacksmith J.R. Coy, who lived in a house with 34 acres under cultivation in 1860 and raised a large amount of potatoes.
The area did feel the effects of industrialization taking place in nearby towns. One resident, Wyllys Hinman, was a clockmaker, and William Yale had a small factory at the outlet of Marsh Pond which made toy wheelbarrows. These activities, however, were soon outpaced by large-scale mechanized manufacture then underway in places like Bristol and Bridgeport. By the time of the Civil War, the age of the country mechanic had passed. As agriculture declined as well, East Plymouth toward the end of the 19th century was becoming a place to live for people who worked elsewhere. Residents in 1874 included not only farmers, a blacksmith and tanners, but two workers in the Terryville lock factory as well. Moreover, turnover in the population had been so great that Episcopal St. Matthew's was no longer the church for the people of the village, and the membership of the church grew ever smaller.
The buildings of the East Plymouth Historic District are closely entwined with the history of the village. One house on East Plymouth Road was owned for seven or more decades by members of the Kimberly family, beginning with Josiah Kimberly, who took over the tannery business started by the Gaylord and Tuttle families. His son Eber E. Kimberly was a tanner as well and also made the leather into boots and shoes. Another house is also associated with the Kimberly family built for Frederick Kimberly, son of shoemaker Eber E. Kimberly. Farmer, Virgil Johnson built a house about 1867. A 2-1/2- story house was built c.1839 by blacksmith, James C. Johnson. A 1-1/2-story, gambrel-roofed house was owned throughout most of the 19th century by gristmill owner/farmer Samuel Preston and his son Orrin, a merchant who built the Greek Revival house next door originally as a store. Among the owners of an 18th century clapboarded 1-1/2-story house on East Plymouth Road besides the blacksmith John R. Coy, were toy manufacturer William Yale, and clockmaker Wyllys Hinman.
The houses in the East Plymouth Historic District are typical of what one would expect in a rural farming area. The oldest houses, like St. Matthew's Church, follow no formal style but rather reflect the vernacular building traditions of New England. Of the earliest houses, there is a fine example of its type — clapboarded, five-bay facade, small windows fitted with small-pane sash, stone foundation, large central chimney and interior paneling — all representative of the 18th-century 1-1/2-story house. The gambrel-roofed variant is more altered but share many of the key 18th-century characteristics with its neighbor.
Stylistic features appeared in the Greek Revival period, with pilastered entries, fluted-board window and door surrounds, full cornice returns, and rows of dentils recalling elements from Classical Greek architecture.
Although the East Plymouth Historic District's mid-19th century buildings followed the by then common practice of orienting the house with the gable end facing the road, architectural elaboration still, fell far short of what would be found in wealthier or more cosmopolitan areas. Even accounting for some loss of detail through siding and alteration, the importance of the East Plymouth Historic District's Greek Revival period houses is as representative examples of homes of rural persons of modest means, and not as architectural masterworks.
East Plymouth Historic District has historical and architectural importance because of the landmark St. Matthew's Church, a relatively rare example of 18th-century Connecticut meetinghouses and one associated with a historically significant religious minority, and because of the surrounding houses and barns. The village's buildings recall the development of East Plymouth as a center for the surrounding farm families, with the homes of millers, blacksmiths, merchants, and farmers, as well as a former store. Though somewhat altered, the buildings retain much of the form and appearance they presented in the period in which the village developed. Modest examples of vernacular architecture, they help to create a sense of time and place which is unique to East Plymouth.
Atwater, Francis (comp.). History of the Town of Plymouth, Connecticut. Meriden, 1895.
Kelly, J. Frederick. Early Connecticut Meetinghouses. New York, 1948.
Plymouth Land Records, 1795- , Plymouth Town Clerk.
Ryan, J. Francis. Plymouth, Connecticut, 1776-1976. Priv. pr., 1976.
U.S. Census Office, manuscript returns, 1850 census of population and census of agriculture.
W.P.A. Census of Old Buildings, c.1935, Plymouth Folder, Connecticut State Library.
County Atlas of Litchfield, Connecticut. New York: F.W. Beers, 1874.
Woodford, E.M. Map of the Town of Plymouth. Philadelphia, 1852.
† Bruce Clouette, Historic Resource Consultants and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, East Plymouth Historic District, Plymouth, CT, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.