Columbia Green Historic District
The Columbia Green Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. 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 Columbia Green Historic District consists of 42 major buildings, along with 23 associated outbuildings, ranged along Route 87 at its intersection with Route 66 in Columbia, Connecticut. The major part of the Green itself is a triangular parcel of land at the northeast corner of the intersection. It is primarily an open lawn area, upon which stands a modern bandstand or gazebo and several monuments. Unlike most town greens, the Columbia Green is not outlined by roadways along its perimeter. Instead, two wide state highways pass through the center of the Green, and only a line of shade-tree plantings separates the Green from the yards of the buildings fronting upon it. The strips of the Green left at the other corners of the intersection are narrower and less well defined.
The buildings in the Columbia Green Historic District mostly date from the early to middle 19th century and have stone foundations, clapboarded exteriors, and brick chimneys. The oldest is the Eleazar Wheelock House, c.1735, one of three houses of the traditional five-bay, central-chimney form. Several houses have Federal or Greek Revival detailing, and there is a scattering of other styles as well, including Columbia's most elaborate Victorian dwelling, the William H. Yeomans House. Although some of the houses have exceptional stylistic detailing, such as the columns and pilasters found in the Greek Revival style houses, others are much plainer vernacular houses without any indication of architectural style. In addition to houses, the Columbia Green Historic District includes several present or former public buildings, three church buildings, and three commercial structures, one an inn which has been a landmark at the Columbia crossroads for more than 200 years. South of the intersection is the old Columbia burying ground, containing within its stone-walled bounds dozens of slate, brownstone, and marble markers from the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Of the 42 major buildings in the Columbia Green Historic District, 11 were judged to be noncontributing. These include the 1953 St. Columba Church, the 1960 Congregational parish house, three buildings so altered from their historic appearance that their age and origin are completely obscured, and several houses of modern construction. The Columbia Green Historic District also includes numerous outbuildings, about equally divided between modern garages (noncontributing) and barns, carriage houses, and garages which date from the period of significance. The Columbia Green Historic District's period of significance extends to 1941, when Yeomans Hall was rebuilt following the fire which destroyed the original building. This period also encompasses the last major physical change affecting the Green, the 1935 widening of Route 66. Because of this period of significance, three houses from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as a stuccoed gas station from the time of the road widening, have been counted as contributing buildings.
Most of the historic buildings in the Columbia Green Historic District retain a high degree of integrity. Nearly all have their basic form and fenestration intact and retain appropriate exterior siding materials. Some houses have had their original small-pane sash replaced with later windows.
The boundaries of the Columbia Green Historic District include most of the built-up part of Columbia center. On the east side, the boundary was stopped so as to exclude the 1948 Horace W. Porter School and concentration of houses and commercial buildings of recent construction. The few modern houses which lie beyond the boundary in the other directions were also kept out. To the north, there are other historic houses further along Route 87. However, these houses are widely spaced, with considerable open land and intervening stretches of modern construction. The area lacks the relatively dense settlement and concentration of historic buildings found in the village center. Therefore, they were not included in the district. For most of its length, the boundary follows the rear property lines of the house lots, though in the northwest quadrant the boundary cuts across the houses' extensive back lots so as to exclude excessive acreage.
Columbia Green is a significant resource because the Green and the buildings and sites surrounding it recall the location's historic role as the town's political, religious, educational, commercial, and social center. From the construction of the first Congregational meetinghouse in 1724 up to the present, the crossroads formed by present-day Routes 66 and 87 has been the location of virtually all the important institutions of Columbia's community life: the church of the town's once-predominant religious body, the oldest burying ground, the Public Library, and the town meeting. With its former taverns, meeting places, and blacksmith shop, the Columbia Green Historic District also evokes the time when the area was Columbia's social and commercial center. Some of the buildings have architectural significance as locally notable examples of particular styles or types of construction, and the cemetery contains numerous significant examples of the 18th-century stone carver's art. Finally, the Green itself has significance as a physical feature: it is typical of the village commons which emerged in the early 19th century, as towns turned reserved town land into central green spaces which, if not quite parks, were consciously maintained as areas of lawn surrounded by shade trees.
Historical Importance of Columbia Center
Columbia was settled in the early 18th century as part of Lebanon, Connecticut, and until its incorporation as a separate town in 1804, was known as Lebanon North Parish, the Second Society in Lebanon, or by its more picturesque name, Lebanon Crank. The two dozen families who started the parish in 1716 built their first meetinghouse not far from the site of the present structure, and for many years both the religious and political life of the community centered around the succession of Congregational meetinghouses which were erected near the crossroads. Other structures associated with the Congregational Church, the town's predominant religion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, are the former parsonage built in 1832 and occupied for many years by the popular and influential Reverend F.D. Avery (334 Route 87); the conference house or chapel, erected in 1870 for meetings of church groups; the Yeomans house across the street, the parsonage from 1926 to about 1950; and the small Bungalow style house to the south, now the parsonage but for many years the home of long-time sexton George Champlin.
Town meetings were also held in the church building, even after disestablishment in 1818, and it was not until 1836 that the town built its own building for meetings. In 1900 the Yeomans family gave a new town hall and meeting place, called Yeomans Hall, to the Town. This structure served until it burned in 1940 and was replaced by the present Yeomans Hall. Although only 49 years old at the present time (1990), this building is significant because it continued Columbia Green's function as the location of the town's political institutions. Other public functions which were centered on this important crossroads include the town's first burying ground, the only cemetery until 1851; the one-room district school, which served the families in the immediate vicinity of the Green; and the town's World War I monument.
Agriculture was the foundation of Columbia's economy, and most of the residential structures which line the roads leading from the Green were those of farmers. However, what trade there was in town centered on the Green, where there once were several inns, blacksmith shops, and general stores. The oldest of the inns, known by numerous names throughout history dates in part back to about 1750 and accommodated some of Rochambeau's officers as they scouted the route to Yorktown. The house at 319 Route 87, now the new library, also once served as a tavern, and before Route 66 was widened in 1935, there was another store and "hotel" at the southeast corner of the intersection. One of the blacksmith and carriage maker shop buildings remains at the extreme western edge of the district. Both commerce and agriculture in Columbia received a boost from road improvement in the early 19th century, when both roads were upgraded by turnpike companies. Several of the houses in the Columbia Green Historic District were lived in at one time or another by the various hotelkeepers, merchants, and craftsmen with businesses at Columbia center. The largest and most elaborate is the house built by William H. Yeomans, a merchant, farmer, and surveyor who was judge of probate, represented Columbia in the Legislature, and served on the State Board of Agriculture.
Social organizations also centered their activities at Columbia Green. The upstairs of the inn at the northwest corner has a large open room that accommodated a ballroom and meeting place. The house at 175 Route 66, rebuilt in 1890 following a fire, was a meeting place for Masonic groups as well as the Columbia Grange, which also met at one time or another in the Inn and the old Yeomans Hall. The new Yeomans Hall also served as a major social center, a place where community organizations held their meetings and events.
The Columbia Free Library started in 1883 in a small building at a site nearly opposite the present library. In 1903, the old building was moved to the southeast corner of the intersection, where it was converted into a dwelling, and a new building was built and named for Saxton B. Little, an early benefactor who had established a book-purchase fund. Recently the library was moved again into the Rice-Soracchi House at 319 Route 87.
Columbia's best known historical figure is Eleazar Wheelock, who served as the Congregational minister from 1735 to 1769. Wheelock became interested in the education of Native Americans, and aided by a grant from Mansfield farmer Joshua Moor, established a school in 1754 expressly to educate Native American youths and English students who were to serve as missionaries to Native Americans. The classes were first held in Wheelock's home (329 Route 87), but soon a school house was built to accommodate the students. Both boys and girls came to Columbia to study at the school. The most famous graduate was Samson Occum (1723-1792), who became a Congregational minister and returned to his people as a missionary. Numerous other graduates, both Native and English, became schoolteachers and applied themselves to the education and acculturation of Native American groups throughout the colonies. In 1769 Wheelock moved his school to Hanover, New Hampshire, where it continues today as Dartmouth College. The old schoolhouse in Columbia was taken over for a district school, in which capacity it was remodeled in the 1850s in the Greek Revival style. It has been moved several times, but it has always stood somewhere near the Green not far from its present position, in which it was placed in 1948.
Architectural and Artistic Significance
Many of the buildings in the vicinity of the Columbia Green have exceptional architectural qualities and represent the town's best examples of their type. The Greek Revival style is exemplified both by the relatively formal Ionic porticoes, matched-board siding, and crossetted window surrounds of the house at 322 Route 87 and by the denticulated pilasters and deep cornices of the plainer house at 339 Route 87. Both are well-preserved structures with all of their original architectural detailing intact. Among the institutional structures, the schoolhouse and Congregational chapel are significant because their clapboarded exteriors, small-pane windows, and simple Greek Revival detailing, such as pilasters and a full cornice return, are typical of mid-19th century schools and meetinghouses. The house at 309 Route 87 embodies the distinguishing characteristics of Gothic Revival architecture with its steeply pitched dormer and intricate bargeboard, and both its neighbor and the Congregational Church represent the transition from Greek-inspired Classical detailing to Italianate forms such as curved brackets and window hoodmolds. Columbia's two most elaborate Victorian-period buildings are the c.1880 house of William H. Yeomans and, next door, the former Saxton B. Little Library, built in 1902. Both illustrate the complex massing, variegated exterior materials, and ornate eclectic detailing characteristic of that period's architecture.
Gravestones are today recognized as a major medium of artistic expression for 18th-century New Englanders. The carvings of death's-heads, angels, funerary symbols, and border designs in Columbia cemetery are typical examples of the genre. The cemetery is notable as an exceptional concentration of stones carved by Columbia craftsmen Benjamin Collins (1691-1759) and his son Zerubbabel (1733-1797), two artisans active throughout eastern Connecticut. Their Columbia stones include one of the earliest marble markers known in Connecticut, the 1791 stone of Lydia Bennitt. Carved by Zerubbabel Collins, who had moved to Vermont in 1778, it may have been intended partly as an advertisement for future orders of Vermont marble, since the price of seven dollars was conspicuously included.
Finally, the landscape architecture significance of the Green itself is worth noting. In its layout the Green represents one of two major types of New England village centers. While many examples of the other type, the rectangular Green bordered by highways, survive throughout the region, the Columbia type, green areas surrounding an X-shaped intersection of highways, is much less common. Both types, however, with their areas of lawns, lines of shade trees, public monuments, and gazebos and bandstands, represent an early 19th-century domestication of the rutty, ill-used 18th-century common into something resembling public green space.
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† Bruce Clouette and Matthew Roth, consultants, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Columbia Green Historic District, Columbia, CT, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.