Fenwick Historic District
The Fenwick 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 © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Fenwick Historic District is a group of 60 major buildings, most of which are large late 19th- or early 20th-century wood-shingled summer cottages. The cottages are located on a peninsula surrounded by the waters of South Cove on the north and Long Island Sound on the east and south. The central part of the Fenwick Historic District consists of a small grid of streets lined with cottages set amid spacious lawns, north of which is the Fenwick Golf Course. Another open area is at the east end of the district, where there is a large tract of marsh. At the edges of the Fenwick Historic District are roads that follow the shoreline, where the cottages are generally more widely spaced apart. Those that are situated on the waterfront face the sea.
The majority of houses in the Fenwick Historic District are 2-1/2 stories high, with shingled exteriors and porches on two or more sides (and often, a porch on part of the upper story as well). Some of them, particularly the smaller, earlier cottages, display few decorative features or other indication of architectural style . However, nearly a third of the houses can be characterized as examples of the Shingle style of architecture. These typically have complex rooflines, often combining hip, gable, and gambrel shapes; low dormers; and extensive porches with shingled or stick-brace railings and supports. The shingled exteriors sometimes flare outward at the base of a story or wrap inward around a small gable window. Other architectural styles present in the Fenwick Historic District include the Queen Anne style, with its characteristic spindlework, towers, and expansive porches; the Colonial Revival, of which the former Riversea Club, with its two-story circular portico, is an exceptional example; and, for smaller cottages, the Bungalow style, characterized by a roof that slopes forward to form a front porch and a single large second-story dormer on each slope.
The few nonresidential building in the Fenwick Historic District are closely connected to Fenwick's historical development. The Fenwick Borough complex, which includes three barns, a shed, and a small modern office located at the northwestern edge of the district, were the former stables for the residents of Fenwick. The Riversea Club was built in 1885 as a residence, but for many years it was a hotel accommodating visitors to the borough; in the 1950s, it became a private residence again. St. Mary's-by-the-Sea Church has served as the village's nondenominational Christian house of worship since 1886; with its shingled exterior, gambrel roof, and round tower, it echoes the Shingle style architecture of the surrounding cottages.
In the center of the Fenwick Historic District is the Fenwick Golf Course. First laid out in the 1890s, the 9-hole course has been improved and modified through the years. The present arrangement of fairways and greens has been in place since the 1930s, though the numbering of the holes has changed. Currently, the course begins at the northwestern edge of the district, across from the borough offices, and winds its way among the cottages on Agawam, Mohigan, and Nibang Avenues. Also dating at least as far back as the 1930s are the club's tennis courts on the corner of Fenwick and Agawam Avenues.
Of the few noncontributing buildings in the Fenwick Historic District, most are 1-story c.1950 architect-designed Ranch style houses, with low-pitched gable roofs and extensive areas of glass; the house at 18 Pettipaug Avenue is an example. Perhaps because of the facilities provided by the stables that now serve as borough offices, there are relatively few outbuildings. Some of the garages in the Fenwick Historic District are currently attached to the houses and are not counted separately.
The great majority of cottages in the Fenwick Historic District maintain their original form, exterior material (though presumably reshingled over the years), and characteristic architectural details. A few have been sided or modernized with enclosed porches.
The Borough of Fenwick, including most of the Fenwick Historic District, lies within a local historic district. However, the boundaries of the National Register Fenwick Historic District vary somewhat from the local historic district. The National Register Fenwick Historic District includes the Fenwick Borough's office and barns, but excludes all but three houses on Sequassen Avenue and all but one house located off Wilson Avenue and Old Fenwick Road. These areas are predominantly characterized by modern construction. Modern cottages on the eastern edge of the Fenwick Historic District are also excluded.
The Fenwick Historic District illustrates an important development in Connecticut's social history, the creation of upper-class and upper-middle-class seaside summer retreats. Fenwick, laid out in 1870 as a business venture by the New Saybrook Company, became the summer home of many of Connecticut's most socially prominent, politically powerful, and wealthy residents. Industrialists, insurance executives, and financiers from the Hartford and Middletown areas built spacious cottages for their families along Fenwick's winding roads. Boating, bathing, tennis, and golf offered recreational diversion, as did social events at Fenwick Hall, a luxurious hotel that originally stood in the center of the settlement. Aided by its small size and isolated position, socially homogeneous population, and long-term ownership of the cottages, Fenwick developed a community identity that endures to the present.
Fenwick also has exceptional architectural significance; its buildings exemplify particular architectural styles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most notably the Shingle style. With their characteristic wood-shingled exteriors and broad rooflines, Fenwick buildings such as St. Mary's-by-the-Sea and more than one dozen large cottages represent one of the largest concentrations of well-preserved Shingle style buildings in Connecticut.
In an age before air conditioning, people of every social station sought escape from the stifling heat of the city. For many, this meant a trip by trolley to an amusement park or beach, or perhaps a short stay in a seaside boarding house. The state's more prosperous residents, however, were able to acquire cottages at the shore where their families could spend the entire summer. Improvements in transportation, an increase of leisure time, and newly acquired wealth all contributed to the growth of coastal resort areas. Most often, these seaside communities were characterized by particular gradations of social class, with the size, spacing, and stylishness of the cottages increasing toward the higher end of the social scale.
Surrounded by water on three sides, yet easily accessible by railroad from Hartford and Middletown, Fenwick held great appeal for the families of central Connecticut's elite. Originally part of a large parcel of land owned in colonial times by George Fenwick, one-time governor of Saybrook Colony, and his wife, Lady Alice Fenwick, the area had become simply another saltwater farm by 1870, when it was purchased by the New Saybrook Company. The company, many of whose officers and stockholders were among the principal business and political leaders of Connecticut, purchased the peninsula with the intention of creating a summertime retreat, with the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company of Hartford as the chief financial backer of the project. The insurance company also had a stake in the Valley Railroad, which connected Hartford with nearby Saybrook Point.
The railroad opened in 1871, by which time the New Saybrook Company had finished a large hotel it called Fenwick Hall. Although the hotel was not a success, several of the company's lots were sold to well-to-do families from central Connecticut, and by 1884, 18 cottages had been constructed in Fenwick. The following year, the residents of Fenwick, led by Morgan G. Bulkeley and the Reverend Francis Goodwin, established a borough government to regulate the use of property and thereby protect their interests.
In 1887 the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company went bankrupt, and Fenwick Hall came into the possession of Edward Stokes, a man with close ties to the New York City political machine. It was rumored that Stokes had committed a murder, but escaped prosecution because of the influence of his political associates. Guests of the hotel under Stokes's ownership included politicians, entertainers, and other celebrities, and he spared no expense in providing them with lavish accommodations. This colorful era came to end in 1894 when, following a tax dispute, the hotel was bought at auction by Fenwick resident Morgan Bulkeley. From then on, the hotel primarily served as a social center for residents and to accommodate guests from the same social circle. When Fenwick Hall burned in 1916, its function was taken over by the Riversea Inn, as the large Colonial Revival style building at 20 Fenwick Avenue was then known.
The people who made Fenwick their summer home were prominent political, business, and civic leaders, mostly from Hartford and surrounding central Connecticut towns. Among the many notables who summered at Fenwick were the families of Morgan G. Bulkeley, president of the Aetna Insurance Company and at various times Mayor of Hartford, Governor of Connecticut, and a U.S. Senator; Bulkeley's brother-in-law, Leverett Brainard, another former mayor and proprietor of Hartford's largest publishing house, Case, Lockwood and Brainard; George Welles Root, a wholesale dry goods merchant; John Hall, president of Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company; George W. Cheney, of the Cheney silk mills in Manchester, Connecticut and a vice-president of Phoenix Mutual Insurance Company; and Katherine Houghton Hepburn, president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and a leader in the fight to secure the vote for women. These and other Fenwick families were joined together by a loose but wide-ranging web of business and political relationships, and many were related through family connections as well.
Although it was a small-scale community dedicated to privacy and quiet living, Fenwick did offer its summer residents numerous recreational possibilities. Sometime in the 1890s, the remaining vacant lots in the interior of the peninsula were put to good use as a golf course, making it one of the oldest courses in the country. Meandering among the shingled cottages, Fenwick's nine holes have remained substantially unchanged since at least the 1930s, except for the numbering (the course originally started and ended at Fenwick Hall, but now proceeds from the borough offices, located near the barns on Maple Avenue that formerly served as common stables). There were tennis courts from an early date as well, and both tennis and golf tournaments were held annually for the men and women of Fenwick. Finally, Fenwick's physical location, surrounded by the waters of South Cove and Long Island Sound, made it ideal for sailing and boating enthusiasts; the Fenwick Yacht Club dates from 1928.
In addition to its own government, recreational facilities, and hotel, the Fenwick summer community had its own house of worship. Initially, the Reverend Francis Goodwin held Sunday services in his house, but as the number of worshippers increased, Goodwin designed and built a small chapel on his property. In 1886 the chapel had become too small, so it was moved and enlarged with more pews and a bell tower into the present St. Mary's-by-the-Sea. The church offered a nondenominational Protestant service.
Fenwick represents one of the state's largest concentrations of Shingle style buildings; 17 of the Fenwick Historic District's 60 major buildings exhibit characteristics of the style. The most obvious of the distinctive Shingle style traits, the use of wood shingles as the primary exterior material, is common to all of these buildings, with the house at 26 Fenwick Avenue representing one extreme of the continuum: even its porch railings and columns are shingled. As was common in the style, Fenwick cottages exhibit a uniform shingled exterior surface, uninterrupted by corner boards or elaborate window trim. In conformance to the style's preference for exterior uniformity, details such as porch woodwork assume the form of simple stick bracing.
As an architectural concept, the Shingle style goes beyond simply the use of a particular siding material. Shingle style houses have a pronounced mass to them, a sense of heaviness and horizontality, that often was created by the use of a single large main roof, such as a gambrel or hip roof, in contrast to the usual Victorian practice of equal-sized cross-gables. Dormers, where present, were usually made distinctly subordinate. Many of the buildings in Fenwick illustrate this principle. The house at 34 Pettipaug Avenue, for example, achieves the desired heavy appearance by having its gable-on-hip roof encompass the two-story side porches, thereby creating a single block, whereas in earlier Victorian styles the effect would likely have been one of a profusion of appendages. The house at 12 Pettipaug Avenue has a similar roof, but smaller second-story porches. Nevertheless, it achieves the same effect by making the porch roofs into extensions of the main roof; indeed, the first-floor porch itself appears as a continuation of the main roof, interrupted only slightly by the second-story walls. Finally, many Fenwick Shingle-style buildings augment the effect of massiveness by giving the roof a flare at the eaves, or having an upper story swell out and overhang the lower story, or by including pent roofs over window and door openings. All three techniques appear in a quintessential Shingle-style building in Fenwick, St. Mary's-by-the-Sea.
Although the Shingle style is the single most frequent historical architectural style found at Fenwick, other styles are represented in the district by well-preserved examples. The asymmetrical rooflines, towers, and multiplicity of porches with elaborate sawn and turned detail that characterized the Queen Anne style are embodied in a number of houses; in some cases, these Queen Anne style houses include Shingle style elements such as shingled porch railings or shingled walls that curve in toward an attic-story window. The Colonial Revival style has an outstanding representative in the former Riversea Inn, remodeled into its present appearance c.1910. Its two-story portico, symmetrical facade, and small-pane sash typify the Colonial Revival movement, which used the elements of high-style early American buildings to create connotations of elegance and tradition. Finally, a number of the smaller cottages built in Fenwick c.1920 typify the Bungalow style with their single-story height, large central dormer, and porch formed from an extension of the main roof.
Although they are generally large, comfortable houses, the cottages of Fenwick are not elaborate by turn-of-the-century standards. Part of the reason for the overall lack of ostentation is the nature of Fenwick itself. Since it was an almost private retreat, where everyone knew everyone else, it was hardly necessary to make social statements by means of architecture. Also, many of the houses were designed by gifted amateurs, rather than professional architects. Two of the houses for whom a designer has been identified were by local builder George Sheffield, and he may be presumed to have designed others for whom no attribution has been made. The Reverend Francis Goodwin drew the plans for his own cottage (15 Pettipaug Avenue) and for St. Mary's-by-the-Sea (30 Agawam Avenue). John Dwight Parker, a Hartford insurance executive, designed his family's large shingled cottage at 16 Old Fenwick Road; his grandson, John Parker "Jack" Wayne, was the architect of the large brick house at 12 Mohigan Avenue.
As the term is used in Connecticut, a borough is a governmental subdivision that has special regulatory and taxing powers within a particular area of a town; Fenwick has been a borough since 1885.
Beers, F.W. County Atlas of Middlesex, Connecticut. New York: F.W. Beers & Co., 1874.
Borough of Fenwick Historic District Study Committee. Report. 1975.
Grant, Marion Hepburn. The Fenwick Story. Connecticut Historical Society, 1974.
Henderson, John T. "Borough of Fenwick, Connecticut". Map 247, Old Saybrook Town Clerk map files, 1934.
† Bruce Clouette and Maura Cronin, consultants, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Trust, Fenwick Historic District, Old Saybrook, Middlesex County, CT, 1994, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.