Upper Main Street Historic District
The Upper Main Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 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 Upper Main Street Historic District is located in the city of Ansonia, in western Connecticut. Ansonia is situated on the Naugatuck River two miles above its junction with the Housatonic River, and 11 miles above Long Island Sound. The land slopes sharply from highlands down to the river at Ansonia. Upper Main Street runs in the north-south direction along a ledge east of the river above the level of the water and below the level of the top of the escarpment.
Downtown Ansonia has been the scene of some demolition with a view to urban redevelopment. An empty space south of the Opera House forms the southern boundary of the Upper Main Street Historic District on the west side of the street. The northern boundary is Maple Street, which leads west to a bridge across the river. On the east side of the street, the Upper Main Street Historic District starts at an empty lot north of the A. O. & C. office building, and continues to a parking lot north of 85-89 Main Street. The Upper Main Street Historic District consists of 12 buildings unevenly spaced along both sides of 1/8 mile of Upper Main Street.
West Side of Upper Main Street
The largest, and perhaps the oldest (1869-1870), building in the group is the Ansonia Opera House, which anchors the southwest corner of the Upper Main Street Historic District. Its height and mass and its elaborate High Victorian Italianate facade dominate the street. Moreover, it is important as the southernmost extremity of a continuous row of seven buildings separated only by common walls, that provide a solid streetscape up to Maple Street. All of these buildings are two- and three-story structures, and all are brick. While the heights of their rooflines vary, and the architectural treatments of their facades range from High Victorian Italianate to 1930s commercial, together they form an unbroken entity.
The ground slopes off behind these buildings, toward the Naugatuck River, and grade is one story lower on the back than at the front. The main line of the railroad, initially known as the Naugatuck Railroad Co., is at the level of the river behind the buildings, and beyond the tracks is the river itself.
East Side of Upper Main Street
The east side of Upper Main Street is under the escarpment, but there is enough room between the roadway and the embankment for factory buildings, and factory buildings have shared this area with commercial structures from the beginning of the city's history. The southernmost building on the east side of the street is the office building of the Ansonia Osborne and Cheeseman Co. The rear wall of the office building is a common wall with a much larger factory building, but only the office building relates to the street. The office building faces the street, and is part of the Upper Main Street Historic Distirct streetscape. The yellow brick Neo-Classical Revival elegance of the A.O.&C. office building is matched by its neighbor, the grey granite eminence of the Savings Bank of Ansonia building. Both have colossal Corinthian pilasters, round-arched openings, and heavy cornices with dentil courses and modillions. The facades could be switched. Built a generation after the Opera House, they represent the Neo-Classical Revival in the Upper Main Street Historic District.
Number 105 Main Street, the building north of the bank, is unlike any of the others. Its curvilinear parapet sets it apart from the others architecturally, and it is the only building in the group whose original character has been altered and obscured by rehabilitation.
The two buildings at 99-101 and 85-89 Main Street again are the brick commercial type that makes up the row along the western side of the street. These two buildings have had a factory behind them from the first, and now have a factory parking lot to their north that marks the boundary of the Upper Main Street Historic District. The buildings, seven on one side and five on the other, face one another across the street, which is 62 feet wide including sidewalks, wide enough for two lanes of traffic and parallel parking on each side. The river, the railroad, the embankment, and the factories are all visible from upper Main Street. It is the heart of the city.
From the first, Ansonia has been a factory town, for the most part devoted to the processing of metals. The Upper Main Street Historic District is bordered by factories to the north, on both sides of the street, and to the east. The nearby factory buildings are not included in the Upper Main Street Historic District. The factories provided the economic basis that supported and required the commercial structures, and in this sense the activities in the district were dependent upon the industrial activities carried on in the factory buildings. But the industrial architecture of Ansonia is a separate study in itself, and is excluded from this nomination of a group of buildings that formed the commercial and social heart of the city, as differentiated from the industrial activity.
The commercial architecture of Upper Main Street in Ansonia by its exceptional integrity provides an accurate record of the important contributions made by Main Streets to the commercial and social fabric of small New England cities during the late-19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The 12 buildings in the cohesive grouping are artifacts of a centrality of commercial and social activities that has ceased to exist.
The confluence of the Naugatuck River with the Housatonic River made a natural site for settlement, and the town of Derby was established there in 1675. The town originally extended ten miles up the Naugatuck River, but it was gradually reduced in size as other towns were split off from it, including Naugatuck, Beacon Falls, Seymour and Ansonia.
In 1844 when Anson G. Phelps was looking for a site for a new plant for the Phelps, Dodge Co., which already had a factory in the Birmingham section of Derby, he decided on the location now known as Ansonia, probably because of the availability of both cheap land and water power. Anson G. Phelps (1781-1853) was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, but directed his business enterprises from New, York City. He never was a resident of Ansonia. For a name for his new location, Phelps was advised to "take your Christian name, Anson, and make a Latin word of it and call it Ansonia, this will be euphonious, rather poetical, and will carry your name to the latest generations." The metal working trade of which Phelps, Dodge was a part already was active along the Naugatuck River Valley, and has continued ever since to be the valley's principal industrial activity. Ansonia became a borough in 1864, a town in 1889 and a city in 1893.
The status in 1868 of buildings on land along Upper Main Street that comprises the Upper Main Street Historic District is shown in an atlas of that year. A footbridge over the river, that has now become the Maple Street Bridge at the north border of the district, was already in place. Three stores stood below the bridge on the west side of the street, with land between and around them owned by W.&L. Hotchkiss. On the east side of the street the Methodist church is shown opposite the bridge. It burned in 1921, and the land upon which it stood is not included in the Upper Main Street Historic District. Below the church was a lumber yard and the premises of the Osborne and Cheeseman Hoop Skirt Factory. While the O.&C. presence continues, the existing factory building appears to have been built subsequent to 1868, and in any event it is not in the Upper Main Street Historic District. The locations of the three stores on the west side of the street are not consistent with the present structures, and thus it appears that all the buildings in the Upper Main Street Historic District were constructed after 1868.
Perhaps the first to be built was the Opera House. It was constructed at a cost of $40,000 by the Ansonia Hall Company which was organized June 25, 1869 "to erect, maintain and lease in parts or entire a suitable building for a public hall, stores, offices and rooms for societies and individuals of a public nature." There were 20 stockholders in the Ansonia Hall Company of which the Phelps, Dodge Co. was the largest. Construction was completed by October 29, 1870 on which date the Ansonia Land & Water Power Co. conveyed to the Ansonia Hall Company the land with the Ansonia Hall Building standing thereon, "said building having been erected by and at the expense of the grantee."
An 1875 perspective view of Ansonia shows that the four buildings from 42 through 74 Main Street had been built by that year. The year date 1881 appears under the cornice of 36 Main Street, the building known as the Sentinel Block because it long housed the editorial offices and presses of The Naugatuck Sentinel, a newspaper founded in 1871 that continues to publish. The Sentinel block is the northernmost of the row of five buildings that were among the assets of the W.&L. Hotchkiss Co. distributed, apparently at the time of the firm's dissolution, on March 25, 1885. According to the firm's January 1, 1879 balance sheet, the W.&L. Hotchkiss Co. had assets of $130,442 with $79,062 represented by real estate, and most of the balance by mortgages. Willis Hotchkiss (b.1803) and Lewis Hotchkiss (b.1805) were brothers who learned the carpenter and joiner trade from their father. Lewis left the Naugatuck valley and owned 300,000 acres of land in Canada where he operated saw mills before returning to Ansonia to go into the building business with his brother. He is spoken of as the "architect" of a new church at Humphreysville. As the 1868 atlas shows they owned the land, as they were builders by trade, and as their financial statement shows a figure adequate for these blocks, the presumption is that they were the builders of the row of buildings from 36 through 74 Main Street.
A picture taken at the time of the Great Blizzard of 1888 shows the space between the Opera House and the Hotchkiss buildings still occupied by two small frame structures, probably two of the stores that show on the 1868 atlas map. They were replaced in 1897 by the Terry Block, a four-story structure that suffered severe damage by fire in the late 1930s. After the fire, the top two stories were not re-built, and the block since that time has been a two-story structure.
The fact that the ground sloped down from Main Street to the railroad provided a practical convenience for the row of stores located on the west side of the street. A railroad spur ran along directly in front of their rear lower level loading doors, providing for efficient handling of incoming merchandise.
The southern portion of the Upper Main Street Historic District on the east side of Main Street long was dominated by the A. O. & C. Co., or Cheeseman's as it was known locally. According to the 1887 Ansonia city directory, the Osborne and Cheeseman Co. manufactured a variety of brass goods, skirt material, suspender and garter webbing, and shoe and corset laces. The narrow fabrics part of the business survived the longest; in World War II the plant is said to have employed 1,600 people in the manufacture of ammunition belts. In the 1950s the manufacturing enterprise was terminated and the real estate sold. Their fine office building appears to have been built soon after the turn of the century, with the attic probably a later addition.
The Savings Bank building has two dates in its facade, 1862 and 1900. 1862 is the year the bank was organized. It had quarters in the National Bank building, demolished, that was just south of the district, until building its own structure in 1900.
The 1868 atlas shows that the passway between 99-101 Main Street and 105 Main Street was a path to a footbridge over a power canal that ran close to the escarpment. It is now a passway to a factory wall.
The 100 feet of Main Street frontage north of the passway, the location of 85-89 and 99-101 Main Street, was sold by the Ansonia Land and Water Power Co. April 10, 1869 to John B. Gardner. An 1890 picture shows the two buildings in place, in front of and part of the John B. Gardner Co. manufacturing buildings. The Gardner Co., founded in 1867, produced clock dials and clock parts for several decades. As the directories show that tenants occupied the two front buildings, at least in part, it may be that Gardner used them for a retail outlet for his products and as income producing property.
Four styles of architecture are represented in the Upper Main Street Historic District, High Victorian Italianate, late-19th century commercial, Neo-Classical Revival, and 1930s commercial. Unfortunately, the name of only one architect is known, W.E. Griggs of Waterbury, Connecticut, who designed the Terry Block, 76-88 Main Street. The Opera House and the two Neo-Classical Revival buildings all appear to be professional work, but thus far anonymous. The bank building is the only one of the three with its original appearance still unchanged as the yellow brick office building had the attic added, and the Opera House had the additional windows inserted in the second floor. An 1896 photo shows the Opera House still without the added windows in that year.
The late-19th century brick commercial buildings are similar to one another in mass, scale, and general plan but different in details. The sheet metal cornices are a unifying element, but at different heights and in different profiles. An early color post card shows 36 through 52 Main Street with the red brick unpainted, in contrast to the present yellow paint which appears to have been in place for some years. The post card view also shows these buildings with shutters. Cast iron and terra cotta found their way to Ansonia, cast iron in the lintels and sills of the Gardella Block, 46-52 Main Street, and terra cotta in the three-tier band of tile under the cornice of the Gardner Block, 85-89 Main Street. The use of brick laid diagonally to form bands between windows appears on both sides of the street, at 42-44, and 85-89 Main Street. Modernization came to the second Gardner Block when the Chicago windows and stucco bands were added some time after 1890. They do not show in the 1890 picture, although the truncated corner on the passway does, apparently an original feature that was matched on the south side of the passway when the Bennett Building was constructed. The truncated corner of the Bennet Building has now been made into a square corner. The nine-foot passway through the north Gardner Block is carefully spelled out in the land records for the purpose of providing access to the Gardner factory in the rear, and the requirement to maintain the passway still encumbers the title to 85-89 Main Street.
The window arches of the Terry Building, now only two stories high, are unusual, and indicate that Griggs, its architect, was an individualist. The thin brick used as voussoirs make an arch that is thicker as it rises to almost a point at the center, a design not often seen in an 1890s building. As a further idiosyncrasy, this building originally has a central stepped pediment.
Next door to the Terry Building, 68-74. Main Street underwent substantial facade changes at an undetermined date in the 20th century, perhaps as late as 1950. Originally, the building had a heavy cornice, similar to the others, with a central half-round pediment, and conventional rectangular windows. All this was changed with the introduction of the tripartite windows under basket handle arches and a stepped parapet at the roofline.
A further unifying element in the west side row that has been lost, was a secondary cornice line over the storefronts, no longer apparent in the present treatment. The early photographs also suggest the presence of some cast-iron elements in the storefronts that conceivably may still be in place under the structural glass.
Sense of Time and Place
The ambience of Upper Main Street and its central importance in the function of the commercial and social life of the community up to approximately the time of World War II emerge from study of the history, architecture, and function of this eighth of a mile stretch of downtown.
During its period of greatest vigor, gracious elms and cast-iron street light stanchions lined both sides of the street. Trolleys ran down the middle. Grassy lawns flanked the A.O.&C. office building, in front of the factory. Each building had its awning.
Everything was here — shops, professional offices, news dealer, Y.M.C.A., drug stores, Morris Plan Bank, billiard hall, restaurant, Board of Health, Salvation Army, Post Office, and Western Union and Postal Telegraph. Gardella's fruit store was a fixture for decades.
In the evening, all important events took place at the Opera House, including dances, graduation exercises, and boxing matches, in addition to theatrical performances. The Passtime movie theater occupied the upstairs of the Gardner Block. Various lodges, such as Clan McDonald and Lady McDonald and the Daughters of Scotia, met in the several halls above the stores. It was a bustling scene, day and night.
Now a barber shop that has been in the Hotchkiss Block since World War II and the continued use of the I.O.O.F. lodge rooms as a meeting hall by a union are about the only remaining remnants of former activities. Several of the old organizations continue in existence on Main Street, having moved a few blocks to the south, although the Y.M.C.A. has a new building to the north. Familiar names, formerly located in the Upper Main Street Historic District, that have moved to the south include Marks Hardware, Seccombe Mens Shop, the Post Office, the Savings Bank of Ansonia, and the Ansonia National Bank. Further south, but still on Main Street, more new construction has created the Ansonia Mall. The scene has changed. The twelve buildings that remain standing in a cohesive group along Upper Main Street are a record of a way of life that has ceased to exist.
Aero View of Ansonia, Conn., Waterbury, Connecticut: Hughes and Bailey, 1921.
Derby Land Records.
C. B. Gillespie, The Transcript Souvenir History of Ansonia, Connecticut, 1896.
Illustrated Review of the Naugatuck Valley, New York: Sovereign Publishing & Engraving Co., 1890.
Leo T. Molloy, Tercentenary Pictorial and History of the Lower Naugatuck Valley, Ansonia: Press of the Emerson Brothers, Inc., 1935.
New Haven County Atlas, New York: F.W. Beers, 1868.
New York Industrial Recorder, Special Number, "The Naugatuck Valley," New York: Frederick S. Hills & Co., 1899.
Beach Nicholls, Map of Ansonia, Birmingham, Derby, Shelton and West Ansonia, Philadelphia Publishing Co., 1883.
Samuel Orcott and Ambrose Beardsley, The History of the Old Town of Derby, Connecticut, Springfield, Mass.; Springfield Printing Co., 1880.
J. L. Hockey, ed., History of New Haven County, Connecticut, New York: W.W. Preston & Co., 1892, v.2.
Map of the Town of Derby, Philadelphia: McCarthy and Arrott, 1852.
† David F. Ransom, consultant, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Upper Main Street Historic District, Ansonia, CT, nomination document, 1979, National Parkl Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.