Somers Historic District
The Somers 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 © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Somers Historic District in the center of Somers, Connecticut, includes a large number of well-preserved houses from the early 19th century, a Gothic Revival cottage, two 19th-century churches, a large inn, an early store, several interesting barns and stables, and a scattering of buildings which, while not as early as most of the houses, nevertheless are of architectural or historical interest. Most of the structures are arranged along Main Street, a major east-west thoroughfare, with small offshoots to the north up Springfield Road and Battle Street. The long, narrow shape of the Somers Historic District goes back to the settlement pattern of the 19th century, when the area was known as "Somers Street." The buildings in the Somers Historic District are generally spaced quite far apart, with extensive plantings in the yards and along the streets. Many are of brick construction.
The overall concentration of historic buildings in the Somers Historic District is moderate: of the 87 structures (not including outbuildings) 55 contribute in some way to the character of the district. However, there are three areas within the district where the percentage of contributing buildings is very high: the northern cluster on Springfield Road, the eastern end of Main Street, and Main Street just west of the town center. Separating the three clusters of historic buildings are a group of modern houses at the southern end of Springfield Road and extensive commercial development on Main Street, including a supermarket, two banks, and two shopping plazas. The large brick Town Hall (1950) also interrupts the streetscape of historic buildings on Main Street, as do the now-vacant lots which reveal the shopping center (adjacent but not included) on South Road. One building listed in the inventory as contributing is 619 Main Street, the Kibbe-Fuller School, opened in 1930. Its Neo-Colonial design is typical of many 20th-century public buildings, and although it has little visual or stylistic relation to the older buildings in the Somers Historic District, it may be argued that in itself it is significant as typical of its period.
Despite the large number of noncontributing structures, and the large size and scale of some of them, the Somers Historic District cannot be logically broken up into a number of smaller districts. First, the district has an architectural unity that transcends the three clusters of historic buildings: certain types of buildings, such as the nearly-identical brick dentillated Greek Revival houses (573 Main Street (Solomon Fuller, Jr. House, c.1840), 41 Springfield Road (c.1840), and 669 Main Street (c.1840), are found in all three areas. Secondly, the Somers Historic District has a visual unity centered on the steeple of the Congregational Church, visible from all the edges of the district. Finally, the center of the Somers Historic District, the place which has the greatest number of noncontributing structures is also the location of several visually prominent buildings, such as the two churches.
The boundaries of the Somers Historic District were delineated according to property lines, architectural relevance, and visual coherence. The depth of the Somers Historic District from the streets in nearly every case is determined by the rear property lines of the lot. Where properties extend, far back from the road, the boundary was simply drawn across the lot from the corners of adjacent lots. However, care was taken to include all related outbuildings by running back a certain distance, as for 568 Main Street (1809), or following a physical feature, such as the stream behind 708 Main Street (c.1840) and 704 Main Street (c.1930). On the west end of Main Street, Battle Street and Springfield Road, there were only modern buildings for a considerable distance beyond the boundary. The same was true for the north side of eastern Main Street, where there is an uninterrupted series of modern ranch houses. On the south side, beyond 708 Main Street, there is one modern house, a large amount of open land, and then a small group of 19th-century houses, including a large and impressive Queen Anne house. However, this group cannot be seen from the present eastern boundary and is therefore neither contiguous nor visually related, nor does the wide expanse between houses conform to the predominant village-like streetscape of the district. The Somers Historic District was not extended down South Road, although two or three plain buildings from the Greek Revival period might have been included. These, however, are barely visible from the center, and are separated from the rest of the buildings by two groups of stores and a commercial building on one side, and a power substation and shopping center on the other.
Although the majority of the historic structures are from the 19th century, there are about a half-dozen 18th century houses. In their present form, these have less architectural integrity than their 19th century neighbors. Some, such as 577 Main Street (Elmwood, 1790), 687 Main Street (Shadow Lawn, Harry Kibbe House, 1894), or 530 Main Street (c.1800), have had Victorian porches or dormers added. Others, such as 491 Main Street (Parsons House, 1772) or 564 Main Street (1795), have had significant changes in fenestration or loss of detail through re-siding. Another older house, the lean-to at 596 Main Street (1746), has considerable original material, but like 564 Main Street, it has a modern entrance treatment that is only Colonial in inspiration.
In contrast, the Federal period houses are abundant and well-preserved. Although all are relatively plain and rural in character, three are somewhat more elegantly detailed than the others: 521 Main Street (Nathaniel Parsons House, 1819) has splayed lintels, a recessed arched entryway, and fan louver, more formal than the plain window and door treatment of the similar brick house at 645 Main Street (Jonathan Clark House, 1813). The Pease House, 567 Main Street (1828), may incorporate an earlier 18th-century part, but as it now stands, it is solidly of the Federal period, with thin pilasters, an elliptical window, and an elaborate cornice. This house includes a window and door motif found throughout the Somers Historic District in the late Federal and Greek Revival houses: a molded architrave with blocks at the corners, often carved with circular bosses. The final one of the more elaborate Federal houses is 568 Main Street (1809), which has the traditional five-bay facade but within the gable end. It too has an elaborate cornice and finely-detailed window caps.
Most of the Somers Historic District's other Federal period buildings are quite plain, with only the return of the molded cornice, pilastered doorway, and an elliptical window as ornamentation. There are a number of brick examples and essentially similar frame houses. Some of these buildings were built quite late, such as the 1834 Methodist Church, whose fan louver in the gable is clearly a Federal detail.
For the most part, the Somers Historic District's Greek Revival houses continue the form introduced in the Federal period: a 2-1/2-story house with the gable end turned toward the street and an offset entrance. The brick Greek Revival houses mostly have dentillated cornices with the dentils carried up the rake. The frame houses often include corner pilasters, entrance porticos, or simple pilastered doorways. The Dr. William Woods House, 653 Main Street (1805), is an earlier house brought up to date about 1845 with a portico, heavy cornice and trabeated gable window. Other updated buildings include the 1795 Claudius Pease House at 611 Main Street and the Somers Inn (1804), the latter a large brick building dominating the major intersection. Its Federal origin is evident in the splayed window lintels, but the later full-width portico in the front gives the building more of a Greek Revival appearance. The Congregational Church (1842) is the most outstanding building in the style: its Ionic portico, large proportions, and two-stage tower make it one of the most impressive buildings in the district. The Somers Historic District also includes several very small 1-1/2-story houses, some with narrow attic windows, whose Greek Revival inspiration can be seen in their simple pilastered entrances. Only a few houses of this period have had their integrity compromised by alterations or insensitive siding.
There are only two Gothic Revival buildings in the Somers Historic District but both are notable: the Warren Kibbe Cottage (33 Springfield Road), and the barn with the Pease House. Other Victorian-period houses, of which there are four, are plain gable-roofed houses, almost without elaboration other than a porch or some peak ornament. The 1896 library is a small building that can only be called eclectic. One house from 1894, called Shadow Lawn (687 Main Street, Harry Kibbe House), is a hipped-roof Colonial Revival house with extensive interior panelling and an elaborate stable.
The final type of house found in the Somers Historic District is a 20th-century type, the Bungalow, of which there are four examples quite intact. These have a distinctive sloping roof, exposed rafter ends, and are 1-1/2 stories high, with a dormer lighting the attic story. Although these buildings offer a contrast to the earlier historic architecture of Somers, they were classified as contributing because they are a well-preserved group typifying a particular historical building style.
To sum up, of the 87 major structures, 55 have historical or architectural significance. There are seven 18th-century houses, 37 from the Federal or Greek Revival periods, seven Victorian houses, and four Bungalows. Of the historic houses, perhaps ten have had their character changed through alterations or siding material which have concealed or destroyed details. All the others retain their characteristic form and details, making the district a good collection of well-preserved vernacular architecture, representative of the town's historical development from the 18th century to the present.
The Somers Historic District is an area of both local historical and architectural significance. The historical development of this part of Somers, which served as the religious, political, and commercial center for the surrounding agricultural area, is reflected in the buildings along Main Street and nearby roads. The buildings also illustrate several chapters in American architectural history. There are several buildings of individual significance, and many others which taken together, form groups of well-preserved examples of particular historical styles, especially vernacular Federal and Greek Revival designs. The number of brick houses is also an unusual feature of the Somers Historic District which adds to its distinctive character.
The 18th-century houses in their present state are not of the same level of architectural significance as the later houses (though in most cases appropriate restorative changes have not been pre-empted). Nevertheless, they add to the Somers Historic District because they show the continuity of settlement there from the middle of the 18th century. They also are of importance in showing how the traditional five-bay form was first adapted in later periods, and then abandoned in favor of the gable-end-to-the-street orientation which predominated in the Federal and Greek Revival periods.
The Somers Historic District's many Federal-period buildings are important because they are in general well-preserved and representative examples of rural architecture of the period. Moreover, the buildings range from rather plain brick and frame houses, with only a pilastered door frame or a semi-elliptical gable light as elaboration, to the more richly detailed houses such as 567 Main Street (Pease House, 1828) and 568 Main Street (1809). The swags, mutules, dentils, thin pilasters and fanlights are all elements which typify the Federal period aesthetic of light, free adaptation of Classical precedents. Also of note are two types of window and door treatment begun in this period and carried over in later years. One is the use of molded boards and corner blocks to form an architrave around the opening. This motif is found in the elaborate Pease House, in the very plain house at 673 Main Street (c.1830) where it is the only clue to the date of the house, and in the interior woodwork of 51 Springfield Road (c.1830). The other distinctive motif is the use of molded pilasters, with grooves of alternating concave and convex sections. Somewhat resembling fluting, this type of pilaster is found in doorways which are Federal in proportion as well as in heavier Greek Revival entrances. The repetition of these motifs in several houses gives the district an architectural unity that adds to the individual merits of the buildings.
The heavier proportions of the Greek Revival style are well represented in the bold dentillation of the brick houses, the wide entablature of the Woods House, and the portico of the Somers Inn. Other representative Greek Revival features found throughout the Somers Historic District include wide panelled corner pilasters (547, 559, 588 and 659 Main Street), free-standing flat-roofed porticos, one with cresting, and the use of thick pilasters and heavy entablatures to form window and door frames. A variety of economic levels is represented, from cottage-like 1-1/2-story houses with only a Greek door treatment to 2-1/2-story houses complete with entrance porticos, pilasters, flush-boarded gables and full cornice return.
The Congregational Church (599 Main Street) is the largest and one of the most significant of the Greek Revival buildings. For good reason, it is rather typical of churches of the period: the building committee directed the architect, Daniel Colton of nearby Longmeadow, Massachusetts, to copy the columns of the East Hartford meetinghouse and the tower of South Cornwall's. The records of the church reveal that the question of whether to have two tiers of side windows in the traditional manner, or one tier of long windows was undecided even as the walls were being raised. Apparently a middle course was taken, as there is presently one row of long openings fitted with two tiers of windows.
Brick was used very little in Connecticut during the 18th century, but it became quite common in the first part of the 19th century, especially in combination with the brownish-red sandstone used throughout the district for lintels and foundation facing stones. Clay for brickmaking is widely distributed in the Connecticut River Valley, as is the stone, though the best-known brownstone quarries are further south in Portland. There are numerous brick early 19th-century houses on both sides of the River, but in its number and concentration, Somers is outstanding. It is interesting to note that the use of brick as a material did not influence the design of buildings much until the Greek Revival, when bold dentils could be done in brickwork. About a quarter of the Federal and Greek Revival buildings are brick, and this proportion is one of the characteristics that make Somer's streets different from those of other towns.
Among the later buildings, the Warren Kibbe Cottage is significant as an excellent example of early Gothic Revival or Carpenter Gothic. it has the typical features of the style: board-and-batten walls, narrow paired windows, steep gable roof, and an overall verticality. Equally important is the barn of the Pease House, which has delicate bargeboard and a pendant in the peak, two other types of picturesque ornament favored in that style. Shadow Lawn is also of individual merit. Built in 1894 for the son of the town's richest man (though he never lived in it!), the house's extensive interior woodwork in the Neo-Colonial manner illustrates the refined domestic setting available even in small towns like Somers. The slate-roofed outbuildings, particularly the stables, further exemplify an upper class life-style. At the opposite end of the home owning spectrum are the four Bungalows, significant in that they are little altered and represent the dominant small house design of the early 20th century. In both form and materials (like the pressed cement-block underpinning), these four are representative of a distinct building type.
Because of the number and location of noncontributing structures, the Somers Historic District does not present a continuous streetscape of historic buildings. Nevertheless, within each of the three clusters there is a coherent visual environment created by the concentration of old buildings. For example, the group just west of the main intersection includes the landmark Somers Inn, two brick Greek Revival houses in excellent condition, and two of the most finely-detailed Federal buildings. Taken together, these buildings recreate in part a typical early 19th century street, one that is at the same time unique to Somers.
Less tangible than their architectural details are the historical associations which make these buildings important cultural resources. The broad economic development which made this area the town center, as well as the daily life of the place, are illuminated by the physical remains of history, of which these buildings are a major part. These houses, churches and other buildings are the structure upon which the fabric of local history is applied. They provide a frame of reference for remembering the persons and events of Somers' past.
The base of Somers' economy was agriculture: first the general farming of the 18th century and then the more specialized fruit-growing, tobacco, and dairy enterprises of the 19th century. The town's agricultural past is well-represented by the extensive group of farm buildings at the eastern end of the district and the large barns with the Deacon Charles Morgan House (1810) at 666 Main Street. Even in the center of town there is evidence of at least part-time farming, with several good-sized barns. Manufacturing was almost non-existent in this part of town, though Charles Morgan, who lived in 666 Main Street, had a blacksmith shop across the street and Ebenezer Clark manufactured straw bonnets near his house (645 Main Street) from about 1824, using as patterns the palm-leaf bonnets of the nearby Enfield Shakers.
In the 19th century the area embraced by the Somers Historic District developed as a commercial center. Its position at the intersection of two major thoroughfares made it a convenient central place. Formerly there were several Greek Revival stores clustered around the intersection, but today only the Somers Inn and the adjacent building remain as evidence of the place's long history as a center of business. However, the Inn still operates as an inn, and the building next door, formerly a general store and post office, is a craft workshop, so these two buildings continue to fulfill their historic functions.
This area also became the political and religious center of the town. The location of the Congregational meetinghouse there in 1842 (the previous meetinghouse stood further north beyond the district's northern boundary) confirmed the area as the center of town: both the services of the predominant religion and town meetings were held in the church. The 19th century was a time of religious diversity, however, as shown by the small Methodist church now the library, which formerly stood just south of the intersection. Somers Street, as it was called in the 19th century, also had a Presbyterian Church, later sold to the Spiritualists. The location of the public library in 1896 and the consolidated school in 1930 continued the recognition of the area as the town center, a long-term historical development based upon its commercial, religious and political predominance.
The residences in the Somers Historic District are also associated with these activities. Many of the houses were occupied by persons whose business or profession linked them to the town center. Warren Kibbe, who ran the Somers Inn and at one time the adjacent store, built the Gothic Revival cottage on Springfield Road. Other houses in the center were owned or occupied by the merchant L.E. Pease, two doctors (653 Main Street, Dr. William Woods House, 1805 and 568 Main Street, 1809), a sawmill owner (588 Main Street, Woodward House), the religious leaders of the Congregational and Spiritualist societies (41 Springfield Road and 50 Springfield Road), and Mary Chapin Pease, who ran a "Select School" in her home (611 Main Street) and later became head of Mount Holyoke Seminary, now Mount Holyoke College. The richest man in Somers was Henry Root Kibbe (1825-1909) who returned to town after making a fortune in the notions business in Philadelphia. His mansion is no longer standing, but the large Colonial Revival house he built for his son, now called Shadow Lawn, indicates something of the wealth and lifestyle of this prominent Somers family. In contrast, the small plain house, 677 Main Street, was occupied by John Bond, a stage driver. Some elaborate and some modest, these houses help to bring to life the men and women whose everyday actions make up the history and heritage of the town.
Billings, Erastus. "Somers, Connecticut, Its History." Tolland County Press, April 5, 12, & 19, 1877.
Cole, J.R. History of Tolland County, Connecticut. New York: W.W. Preston, 1888.
Davis, Fred C. and Richard W. Somers: The History of a Connecticut Town. Ellington: K & R Press, 1973.
Somers, Connecticut, Thru the Camera's Eye. Somers: Somers Historical Society. 1978.
† Bruce Clouette, consultant, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Somers Historic District, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.