The Rockville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Rockville Historic District is located in the northeast section of the Town of Vernon, Connecticut and grew out of the textile industry that developed along the banks of the Hockanum River in the early nineteenth century. The Rockville Historic District consists of approximately 550 acres (.86 square miles) and includes 975 buildings, a structural density of 1.8 buildings per acre. The Rockville Historic District is a physical reflection of the development during the nineteenth century of a small industrial city. Dominated by its textile mill buildings and with the fall of the Hockanum River as its matrix, the City of Rockville (1889-1965) embodied the urban and industrial development patterns associated with the use of water power in manufacturing.
From its outlet at Snipsic Lake (also called Shenipsit Lake), the Hockanum River drops more than 254 feet in a series of cascades across a distance of one and one-half miles. It flows from east to west between the hills on both sides, giving the Rockville Historic District a steeply-rolling terrain. There is a total of 51 streets within the Rockville Historic District. The major streets, East and West Main Streets, Prospect Street, Union Street, and High Street parallel the river, and provide a continuous link between mill sites and establishing the pattern of street development.
The Rockville Historic District developed gradually over the nineteenth century from a series of mill sites in the 1820s to a chartered city of approximately 7,000 in 1900. Architecturally, the Rockville Historic District represents the popular styles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; there are examples of Greek Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Stick, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, and Bungalow style architecture, as well as simple vernacular structures.
Within the Rockville Historic District there are 847 contributing buildings. With one exception, the Elmathan Grant House (102 Union Street), c.1780, these buildings were constructed between 1830 and 1934. They include a variety of building types: wood-framed workers' houses and tenements, wood and masonry mill owners' mansions, a variety of commercial and institutional buildings, and a diverse collection of textile mill buildings dating from 1834 to 1908.
By 1900 the woolen textile industry in Rockville had reached maturity and the urban development visible today was in place. Population leveled off at about 8,000 and structures built between 1900 and 1934 filled vacant lots within the geographic limits attained by the city in 1900. Although the woolen textile industry in Rockville continued until 1952, it never surpassed the level of development attained by the turn of the century. Because the area was so densely developed, there are few twentieth century intrusions within the urban area. The 128 non-contributing buildings represent 13 percent of the Rockville Historic District. The majority of streets within the Rockville Historic District retain their nineteenth century character. The major area of erosion has been in the center of Rockville where several early mills and commercial blocks have been lost to mid-twentieth century urban renewal. The Rockville Historic District is a compact, substantially intact reflection of the growth of a small industrial city and the evolution of American domestic architecture.
The Mill Village, 1830-1850 — Prior to 1850, Rockville consisted of a series of mill sites and their attendant development linked by the Hockanum River and by East and West Main Street, Prospect Street, Union Street and High Street on an east-west axis, with Grove Street, Mountain Street, Vernon Avenue, Spring Street and West Street providing links to outlying districts and surrounding communities.
The earliest mills were wood-framed structures, often with brick foundations, and were constructed adjacent to the river at one of the twelve cascades which provided the power source. While the earliest of Rockville's mills have been lost over time, two wood-frame mills from this period remain. The Saxony Mill, 1836, at 66 West Street, exemplifies these early mills. Its architectural style is transitional from Greek Revival to Italianate, the result of additions, c.1870. The Hockanum Mill, 1848, at 200 West Main Street illustrates the practice of constructing a wood-frame structure on a brick basement. Its architectural style is Greek Revival, highlighted by a shallow-pitched roof and a smooth frieze with eyebrow windows at the attic story. One extant mill from this period which does not conform to the pattern above, is the Rockville Warp Mill, 1834, at 215 East Main Street. Although it is stylistically similar to the wood-framed mills, its exterior walls are granite laid in coursed ashlar bond.
Each mill site was developed independently of the others, resulting in clustered developments of housing, stores, and other services. Two examples of this early development are Linden Place at the New England Mill and West Main Street opposite the Springville Mill. In both cases the early mill buildings do not survive, but attendant development is very well preserved. The A. Park Hammond and Capt. Allen Hammond houses, 3 and 5-7 Linden Place respectively, are directly opposite the New England Company mill site and were built for the mill's owners. Other buildings on Linden Place include 9, 11, 13, 22 and 25 Linden Place, all one- and two-family dwellings, and 15-17 and 21 Linden Place, both multi-family tenements. All were constructed by the New England Company between 1850 and 1890 to house workers for the nearby mill.
The early extant development along West Main Street occurred in conjunction with the development of the Springville Mill. Chauncey Winchell, a millwright, built his homestead at 174 West Main Street in 1830. It is a classic example of the Greek Revival style with an imposing two-story Ionic portico. Winchell also constructed the house of his partner, Alonzo Bailey, at 162-164 West Main Street in 1836. Though less imposing than Winchell's, the Bailey House is a good example of the Greek Revival style in Rockville. Winchell may have built the houses at 152, 156, and 166 West Main Street as well. All date from the early 1830s, exhibit Greek Revival characteristics, and were owned by men associated with Winchell in the Springville Mill.
Another of Rockville's early builders was William Cogswell, a contractor, carpenter and cabinet maker. Cogswell built his own house at 6-8 Prospect Street in 1842, and by 1870 owned numerous properties in the vicinity of Prospect and Mountain Streets. His own house is constructed in the Greek Revival style, and he probably influenced most of the buildings in this neighborhood built prior to 1860. Houses at 9, 13, and 15 Mountain Street exemplify the use of Greek Revival style in the Mountain Street and Prospect Street neighborhood.
Industrial Expansion, 1850-1875
Between 1850 and 1875, Rockville experienced physical expansion in conjunction with the growth of its woolen industry. Both the development of new technologies, such as the retooling of the Hockanum Mill, and the demand for woolen textiles created by the Civil War fueled this development. Village Street especially symbolizes this expansion. Other streets opened or built-up during this period include Morrison, Hammond, McLean, Oak and Ward Streets, Union Street between Ward and Prospect Streets, and the west end of Prospect Street.
Mills erected during this period exhibit the first use in Rockville of brick masonry exterior walls with wood timber frames, called slow-burn construction. The first of these was the Florence Mill, 1864, at 121 West Main Street. Its architectural style is transitional from the Italianate to Second Empire, highlighted by a slate-shingled Mansard roof and an imposing six-story stair-and-bell tower with an arcaded belfry.
Coupled with the construction by Albert Dart of a large waterwheel, 55 feet in diameter, at the second mill site downstream from Snipsic Lake, was the erection of three new mills immediately following the Civil War. They include Samuel Fitch and Sons mill, constructed by the Carlysle Thread Company in 1865, at 98 East Main Street; the Belding Silk Mill, constructed as the Rose Silk Mill in 1867, at 104 East Main Street, and the Dart Stone Mill, 1868, constructed on Brooklyn Street but listed at 104 East Main Street. Samuel Fitch and Sons Mill is a brick Italianate structure with a wood-framed belfry centered on its ridge. The Dart Stone Mill is a stucco-finished stone structure with stone and brick foundation walls. Its picturesque character is enhanced by its location astride the water fall at this mill site. The Belding Silk Mill is a brick Italianate structure highlighted by a four-story stair tower with a projecting cornice with paired brackets at the corners.
One extant mill building from this period, which does not conform to the pattern above, is the wool sorting building at the New England Company, 1860, located at 16 Vernon Avenue. Like the earlier building at the Rockville Warp Mill, this structure exhibits Greek Revival details and is constructed of granite laid in coursed ashlar bond.
Village Street from Ward Street to Orchard Street was opened to development about 1865 and experienced rapid growth between 1865 and 1875. It was a densely populated street, developed primarily by German immigrants, with sturdy vernacular buildings. Many of these were three-family structures with the owner's apartment on the second floor and two rental apartments on the first floor, such as the house at 70 Village Street, c.1865. Most of these houses were built with two-story verandas.
Rockville's domestic architecture kept pace with changing styles during this period. The Italianate, Italian Villa and Gothic Revival styles were popular. The Israel Kellogg House, c.1850, at 62 Union Street is a classic example of the Italianate style. It features a projecting, bracketed cornice with eyebrow windows at the attic story and a broad wrap-around veranda. The Lewis A. Corbin House, c.1855, at 59 High Street is an excellent example of the Gothic Revival style. Constructed in stucco-finished stone with verandas on both sides of a central gable, it features a steeply-pitched roof with corbelled parapets at the gable ends.
Listed on the 1869 atlas map of Rockville as an architect and superintendent of building, Augustus Truesdell exemplifies the architect-builder of this period. His home at 132 Prospect Street was constructed in the Italianate style in 1852. It features a three-story tower, set at 45 degrees to the building, at the southwest corner of the building and a two-story veranda on the south facade. Also constructed in 1852, the Italianate house at 136 Prospect Street was built by Truesdell and exhibits details similar to Truesdell's own home.
Urban Development, 1875-1900
As Rockville's woolen industry prospered during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, its population continued to grow, and its physical development reached its peak. With the incorporation of the city in 1889 came an urban self-image. Building and zoning regulations, such as construction and demolition permits and uniform setback requirements, helped to define an urban character for Rockville by 1900. The downtown district around Central Park especially symbolizes this urban development. Other streets opened or built up during this period include Lawrence, North Park, Thompson, Orchard and Nye Streets and Talcott and Davis Avenues.
Mill buildings constructed during this period were generally additions to or modernizations of existing facilities. The Hockanum Company constructed a three and one-half-story brick building in 1881, adjacent to its wood-framed structure at 200 West Main Street. The building is essentially Romanesque Revival in style. The New England Company constructed a four and one-half-story brick building in 1885 at 18 Vernon Avenue, adjacent to its earlier structures at 12 and 16 Vernon Avenue. The building features a six-story square stair-and-bell tower with an open belfry. The Springville Manufacturing Company constructed a modern brick mill in 1886 at 155 West Main Street. The building was equipped with automatic sprinklers, elevators and electric lights. It features a five-story stair-and-bell tower with a slate-shingled pyramid crowned by a pair of finials. The Rockville Warp Mills Company constructed a three-story brick building in 1888 at 210 East Main Street, across the street from the early stone structure at 215 East Main Street. Finally, Belding Brothers and Company constructed a three-story brick building, c.1890, at 10 Grove Street, adjacent to its earlier brick structure. The building features a crenellated parapet and a tall five-story stair-and-bell tower.
The urbanization of downtown Rockville culminated coincidentally with the granting of a city charter in 1889. The area surrounding Central Park began to exhibit urban characteristics as early as 1870 following construction of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1867, at 24 Park Place. The first floor housed a savings bank in an effort to make optimum use of this valuable city property. The Citizen's Block, 1879, at 28-32 Park Place, maintained the scale established by the church. Memorial Hall, 1889, at 14 Park Place, was constructed as a town hall and Civil War memorial on the site of the First Congregational Church of Rockville. It is a good example of the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style with a solid horizontal mass punctuated by a tall Romanesque style with a solid horizontal mass punctuated by a tall octagonal tower. Rockville National Bank, 1889, at 5 Elm Street, Union Congregational Church, 1889, at 3 Elm Street, and the Fitch Block, 1889, at 20-32 Union Street complete Rockville's most urban streetscape. All were constructed on the sites of earlier wood-framed structures destroyed by fire in 1888. The pivotal building of the three is the Union Church whose massive granite walls, large Romanesque-arched windows and doors, and tall, pyramidal spire allow it to enclose the open space of Central Park while turning the corner of Elm and Union Streets.
Another example of Rockville's public buildings constructed during the period of urbanization is the Rockville High School, 1892, at Park and School Streets. This Richardsonian Romanesque building was designed by Francis R. Richmond of Springfield, Massachusetts, architect for the Memorial Hall. It uses its horizontal mass, punctuated by the four-story tower, to effectively turn the corner of the two streets.
Two of the streets which experienced intensive development during this period have significant numbers of similar houses. Numbers 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17 Lawrence Street were constructed c.1890 for Lawrence Young a prominent Rockville businessman and landlord. They were two-family tenement houses, and they exemplify the vernacular style of Rockville's late nineteenth-century domestic architecture. Numbers 15, 17, 21, 25, 29, and 33 Orchard Street were constructed c.1890 by the Hockanum Company to house key workers. They are vernacular adaptations of the Stick style and feature uniformly detailed verandas.
Rockville's domestic architecture during the period of urbanization again kept pace with popular styles. The Frederick Gilnack House, 1890, at 19 Elm Street, is an excellent example of the Second Empire style. Its late construction date illustrates the lag time often associated with vernacular use of architectural styles. The Joseph Pethybridge House, 1878, at 79 Talcott Avenue is a typical example of Rockville's Victorian Gothic cottages. City Council records of the 1890s often refer to these one-and-one-half story houses as cottages. The two Stick style houses at 10 and 12 Ellington Avenue were constructed in 1885 for Cyrus Winchell, a real estate developer. 10 Ellington Avenue was designed by Palliser, Palliser and Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut; 12 Ellington Avenue was probably the work of this firm, also. The George Sykes House, 1893, at 76 Prospect Street, is a classic example of the Queen Anne style. It is the first of a series of large scale homes constructed by the owners of Rockville's textile mills between 1890 and 1910. It features large turrets at three corners and a broad veranda with a porte-cochere.
J. Henry McCray exemplifies Rockville's builder-architects of this period. In 1891, he constructed his own home at 18-20 North Park Street. To develop this and the adjacent properties at 22-22-1/2 (1891), 24-26 (1898) and 28-30 (1898) North Park Street, McCray was forced to blast ledge from the steep, rocky hillside at the edge of the city. The value of land within the city limits made this expensive endeavor worthwhile.
The Mature City, 1900-1934
By 1900 the street pattern of the urban core of the City of Rockville was fully established. Post-1900 development was limited to infill construction on vacant lots and replacement construction in the downtown business district. No new streets were opened within the district.
The Rockville woolen industry reached its peak about the time of the First World War. The last textile mill to be built in Rockville was the Minterburn Mill, constructed in 1906. The Minterburn Company was organized in 1906 and purchased the properties of the Rockville Warp Mills on East Main Street. In 1906 the company constructed the reinforced-concrete Minterburn Mill at 215 East Main Street to manufacture woolen textiles. At the same time, the Hockanum Company, Springville Manufacturing Company, New England Company, and the Minterburn Company formed a holding company for the purposes of purchasing raw materials and distributing finished goods. The holding company, called The Hockanum Mills Company, constructed an addition to the Springville Mill offices at 155 West Main Street in 1909. This was among the last buildings constructed by Rockville's woolen textile manufacturers. In 1934, the Hockanum Mills Company sold all of its holdings to M.T. Stevens and Sons of North Andover, Massachusetts.
Reflecting the prosperity of Rockville's woolen industry at the turn of the century are several buildings designed by Charles Adam Platt of New York City. The William and Alice Maxwell House, "Kellogg Lawn," 1905, at 31 Union Street, exemplifies Platt's work. Its Classical Revival style is evident in its symmetrical facade with large panelled doors framed by pilasters, a decorative frieze, and a bracketed stone cornice. Platt designed two more buildings for the Maxwell family: the Francis T. Maxwell House, "Maxwell Court," 1902, at 9 North Park Street, and the Rockville Public Library, the "George Maxwell Memorial Library," 1904, at 52 Union Street.
The Charles Phelps House, 1907, at 1 Ellington Avenue was designed in the Georgian Revival style by Hartwell, Richardson and Driver of Boston, Massachusetts. The house features a hip roof crowned by a wood balustrade and a symmetrical facade with a central portico.
Rockville's extant vernacular architecture of this period includes examples of the Colonial Revival and Bungalow styles. Most of these were constructed on lots still vacant in 1900, primarily near the edges of the district.
Most of Rockville's turn-of-the-century urban character survives intact. One street, Market Street, which ran south from Main Street to High Street, opposite Park Street, has been sacrificed to mid-twentieth-century urban renewal. In return one street, Court Street has been created. The urban renewal program has cost the city a portion of its downtown fabric.
With a few exceptions Rockville's nineteenth-century mills retain their turn-of-the-century appearance. Some structures have been lost to fire, some were demolished during the 1940s, and some have suffered unsympathetic alternations by recent owners. Still, buildings remain substantially intact at nine of the twelve original mill sites.
In the case of Rockville's collection of extant domestic architecture, it is here that the ambiance of the turn-of-the-century city has suffered the least damage. Although a large number of houses have been oversided with asphalt, asbestos, aluminum and vinyl, most have retained original windows and doors. One of Rockville's most important resources is its diverse collection of wooden porches and verandas. This fragile resource may be difficult to protect and preserve, but the large number of them remaining intact warrants special attention.
In recent years (1980-1984) private developers have shown renewed interest in Rockville's domestic architecture. While some have undertaken extensive historical rehabilitation and restoration, a few have subjected their properties to alterations which completely obscure the original characteristics of the building. In the inventory which follows, several of the buildings so altered are described as having a significant loss of architectural integrity due to exterior alterations. Nevertheless, these buildings are listed as contributing since they retain their historic place in the streetscape and, despite alterations to exterior materials, windows, porches, etc., maintain the historic setbacks, scale and massing which give the street its nineteenth century character.
The Rockville Historic District is a significant example of a small, self-contained industrial city that grew out of the development of water-powered textile manufacturing in the nineteenth century. Textile manufacturing was initiated in Rockville as early as 1815 and continued well into the twentieth century, producing woolen fabrics of nationally and internationally recognized quality. The extant mill buildings, constructed between 1834 and 1906, record the evolution of the textile industry throughout this period. The compact and still substantially intact City of Rockville that developed around the mills is a product of the Industrial Revolution. Its superb collection of mills, commercial and public buildings, and residential structures demonstrates the changing architectural taste of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and contains significant examples of Greek Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Stick, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Classical Revival, Colonial Revival and Bungalow style architecture as well as adaptations of the various styles to simpler vernacular structures. In its architecture, street plan, and building types, Rockville reflects, in microcosm, individual and community response to the growth and change that occurred in rural Connecticut as a result of nineteenth century industrialization, immigration, and urbanization.
In 1726 the Town of Bolton was planning to construct a common through the center of its expanding settlement and expected that each of the farmers would give a portion of his land for that purpose. It was discovered, however, that one farm was owned by Samuel Grant of Windsor. Fearing that Grant, a non-resident, might not be willing to give up a portion of his farm for the common, the proprietors offered to trade Grant five hundred acres in North Bolton (later the Town of Vernon) for his farm in Bolton. Samuel Grant looked over the land offered and to the surprise, as well as the relief, of the Bolton proprietors accepted the offer. Much of the five hundred acres consisted of rough hilly land watered by a tumbling twisting stream, the Hockanum River. Grant may have speculated on the possibilities of locating a grist or saw mill in the area, but he could not have imagined the real potential of that turbulent stream. It was not until the nineteenth century and the advent of the Industrial Revolution that the power of the Hockanum's falling water was tapped and the City of Rockville created along its rough and hilly banks. Until then, the Grant family developed only that portion of the land which was suitable for farming.
About the time of Grant's land swap, 1725 or a few years later, the Payne family built a saw mill at the outlet of Snipsic Lake by "snaking" a hemlock across the stream, thus creating the first primitive dam on the river. At the lower end of the cascading river, Samuel Grant, or possibly his son Ozias, built a grist mill. The heavy use of the saw mill in the spring frequently caused a scarcity of water in the harvest season for the grist mill, and consequently no further development of the Hockanum was attempted until the early nineteenth century.
The Town of Vernon was created in 1808 by the separation of North Bolton from the town of Bolton, and it was shortly after this event that the full potential of the Hockanum River began to be realized. In 1809, Peter Dobson, an English immigrant, had come to Vernon and found work in a carding mill then operating in Talcottville on the Tankeroosen, a tributary of the Hockanum. Dobson had experience in England in cotton manufacturing, and in 1811 he purchased a mill on the Tankeroosen previously used for making linseed oil and began the manufacture of cotton yarn. In that same year, Delano Abbott, an enterprising farmer in Vernon Center, brought Dobson a small piece of cloth he had obtained from a Hartford tailor. The two men unraveled it and discovered "the warp was cotton yarn, and the filling woolen yarn, five threads down and one up." English goods were scarce at this time due to the impending war with Great Britain, and Abbott began the manufacture of this coarse woolen cloth to meet local demand. The cloth was known as satinet.
Satinet proved to be a boon not only locally but to American manufacturers generally. Unable to compete with English woolens at this early stage in American technology, pioneer American woolen manufacturers found satinet ideally suited to their needs. The cotton warp yarn could withstand the harsh action of the cam loom then in use and could be produced easily by existing American cotton mills like that of Peter Dobson in Talcottville. In addition, it required only a low grade wool filler such as Delano Abbott, with Peter Dobson's help, was able to produce. Given the large and immediate domestic demand for cheap woolens, particularly during the War of 1812, the profitability of satinet was assured and it became the foundation for the development of the woolen industry in the United States. Within twenty years satinet represented one half of the factory production of American woolens. More particularly, it sparked the development of the woolen industry along the banks of the Hockanum River in what was destined to become the City of Rockville.
The successful development of the textile industry required more than a knowledge of spinning and weaving; equally as important were the engineers and builders who constructed the mills and water wheels and dammed up the streams. In addition, it needed men with an entrepreneurial spirit to invest in these new and risky ventures. Such men soon appeared along the Hockanum, drawn by the possibilities it offered for the harnessing of water power. Prominent among them was Colonel Francis McLean of Vernon. In March, 1821, McLean bought a large tract of land from Grant's heirs in what is now the Center of Rockville and built the first dam at that site. Then, in partnership with George and Allyn Kellogg and Ralph Talcott and with a capital investment of $16,000, he built the first woolen mill on the Hockanum River. The cloth produced in the new mill was satinet. The mill, with its boarding houses and owners' houses formed the nucleus of a new settlement form, the industrial village. It was a modest beginning. As William J. Cogswell, one of the participants in the hew endeavor, recalls,
"There were no cultivated fields to please the eye, no herds, or next to none, were seen on the surrounding hillsides. With the exception of sixty acres of clearing, the surrounding on all sides, except in the west, was forest. There were four dwellings then without paint on their walls; the factory showed no paint. Three horses and two cows comprised the list of stock. There were less than fifty souls of any age in this district from 1820 to 1825, and '26 even."
At this point, Rockville's history might have been the same as that of any small mill village developed on the Rhode Island style so characteristic of Eastern Connecticut. Under this system, which differed greatly from the large factories of Lowell and Lawrence, ownership was usually a partnership rather than a corporation. The owners would be involved in all facets of the operation, would live within the village and have a close rapport with their workers. Frequently, entire families would be employed, and the social structure would be close-knit and paternalistic. What made Rockville's development exceptional was its geography. From the outlet at Snipsic Lake, the Hockanum River drops in a series of cascades 283 feet over a distance of one and a half miles. Each cascade created a potential mill site or privilege that could be exploited. This was crucial to Rockville's early development because it created not one but several "villages," each centered around a mill privilege.
Colonel McLean, more interested in engineering than manufacturing, was the first to leave the Rock Mill to build another mill under a new partnership, this time with Alonzo Bailey. In 1831 the partners formed a company and built the Frank mill on a site further downstream. Finally McLean built a paper mill upstream from the Rock. This mill was never very successful, and the site was eventually redeveloped as a textile mill. McLean was also responsible for laying out major roads in the area, which greatly improved transportation.
By 1840, several sites on the river had a mill and a collection of dwelling houses. Altogether, the river afforded thirteen different privileges, all of which would be independently developed, creating a diverse industrial complex. As the separate "villages" grew together, they created first the village of Rockville and then, in 1889, the City of Rockville. In 1840 Rockville received its first post office and its name which honored the first factory, the Rock Mill. The first street to be formally laid out, predictably, was Main Street which followed the course of the Hockanum and tied together all the individual mill complexes.
Cotton and silk as well as wool were manufactured in Rockville but over time wool came to predominate. While satinet had provided the foundation for Rockville's industry, it was the manufacture of fine woolens and worsteds that insured the steady growth of the industry throughout the century. The first mill to manufacture all wool cloth was the New England Company. The company had been founded in 1837 by George Kellogg, formerly of the Rock Mill, and Allan Hammond, another of Vernon's enterprising young farmers. The first mill produced satinet, but it burned in 1841. It was rebuilt immediately and equipped with entirely new machinery which made possible the manufacture of fancy cassimeres. This new branch of the woolen industry had been introduced in the United States with the invention of the Crompton loom, first used in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1840. The great advantage of this loom was that it could produce an intricate pattern and one which could be easily changed. In addition, its gentle action made possible the use of a woolen warp. Hammond was apparently familiar with the Crompton loom and according to local history understood "the mystery of setting up a loom chain to make a figure in weaving." Soon other mills in Rockville were converting to fancy woolens because of the higher profits they offered. The introduction of this new product required a high degree of skill, however, more than that which had previously been provided by inventive Yankee farmers and their families. It was the need for workers and managers with greater skill and experience in the woolen industry that ushered in a new era in Rockville's history. Immigrants with the necessary skills were now drawn to Rockville's mills as an earlier generation of mill builders had been drawn to the water power of the river.
The first newcomers were English, men who, like Peter Dobson, had learned their trade in the more advanced British mills. Prominent among them was George Sykes, son and grandson of British woolen workers. Brought to America with his parents as a boy, George Sykes followed his father into the woolen industry. Starting as a boy in the carding room he advanced rapidly in the traditional progression from weaver to loom-fixer to superintendent of the weave room. In 1866, at the age of 26, Sykes came to Rockville to assume the management of the Hockanum Company mill. Familiar with every aspect of woolen production, he soon set the Hockanum Company on the path that would lead to national recognition. By the turn of the century, he had become President, not only of the Hockanum, but of the Springville and New England mills as well, and under his management the products of these mills achieved national and even international renown. At the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1892, the products of the Hockanum mills were pronounced "equal in every respect to the best made in Europe." In the 1900 Paris exposition, Sykes' three mills each won a gold medal. The cloth for the inaugural suits of President William McKinley in 1897 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 were made in the Rockville mills.
Not all British immigrants rose to managerial positions, of course, but their superior skills were just as necessary in every branch of the business. After the Civil War, British immigration was supplemented and then superseded by a wave of German immigrants, and it was the Germans who formed Rockville's most distinctive ethnic community until after the turn of the century.
The Civil War brought a burst of expansion in the woolen textile industry in Connecticut, and Rockville felt the impact of this sudden prosperity. The beautiful Florence Mill, now listed on the National Register, was built in 1864. It marked the transition of Rockville's mills from wooden to brick structures, and its early use of Second Empire style was a source of pride to the villagers. Rockville's mills began to show some diversity in this period, also, as three new mills were built on the second privilege; the Carlysle Thread Company Mill, 1865; the Rose Silk Mill, 1869; the Dart Silk Mill, 1868. It is said that at the time Albert Dart built the huge waterwheel, 55 feet in diameter, that supplied the power for the three large mills, he offered the land and fifty horsepower free to anyone willing to establish a new business, believing that "diversity of business was essential to the permanent welfare of a community."
With the increase in population as a result of industrial expansion, new streets began to open up, spreading out from the main artery of Main Street, the river, and the mills. Village Street, which developed between 1860 and 1875, became closely identified with the German community that had formed as a result of the influx of German workers into the mills. On Village Street one could find stores which catered to German tastes, social halls with their flourishing societies, lager beer saloons, an immigration agent, and a travel agent who sold steamship tickets for a German line. Village Street houses were owned and occupied by workers in the woolen mills, and apartments were rented by the owners to other workers. Most appear to have been German in this period. The street maintained its ethnic identity until well after the turn of the century. By 1910, however, as Germans assimilated into the general population, their places in the mills and, in time, their Village Street homes were taken by a new group of immigrants, the Polish.
By 1880 Vernon's population had grown to over seven thousand and the vast majority were concentrated in Rockville, The village began to suffer growing pains as the burgeoning population encountered problems with which the rural town government was unwilling or unable to cope. Soon the village residents began to talk of a city charter that would make it entirely independent of town control. As early as 1884, the city press asked the question:
"Why postpone a step which ought long since to have been taken, one which will put our overgrown village into its proper position among the leading cities of the State, and which must eventually prove advantageous to all who call it home, to none more so than the very taxpayers who now shrink from it on the ground of expense?"
Among the needs of the villagers for which rural Vernon did not feel obliged to pay were adequate fire protection, — the mills were a constant source of danger in this respect — a police force, street lights, sewers, sidewalks, and some control over building lines in view of the building boom that was changing the village center into an urban downtown. After a decade of agitation, the City of Rockville was incorporated March 28, 1889 by an act of the State Legislature.
The next two decades saw great changes in the center of Rockville as the new city sought to live up to its aspirations to be among the leading cities of the state. A fire in 1888 had destroyed the Second Congregational Church and a major business block adjacent to it. These buildings were replaced in 1889 by the new brick Fitch Building and the Union Congregational Church. North of the church and completing the streetscape surrounding Central Park, the Rockville National Bank erected a fine new brick building to replace an earlier wooden one which suffered extensive damage from the fire. The Memorial Building, also facing the park, was constructed 1889. By 1892, a new high school was added to a growing collection of Richardsonian Romanesque buildings in the downtown area. In the adjacent residential neighborhood surrounding Talcott Park, a newly self-conscious middle class remodeled, removed, and rebuilt, transforming the area in high Victorian style.
In the summer of 1908, Vernon celebrated its one hundredth anniversary, and the residents of Rockville draped their buildings with bunting, held parades and auto races, and looked back with pride on a century of solid achievement. In the first century of its history, a wilderness had been turned into a bustling little city of nearly 8,000, and everyone anticipated the City of Rockville would continue to grow and prosper. In fact, this was not to be the case; Rockville would never surpass this moment in time. The population of the city had leveled off as its industry had reached maturity at the turn of the century. Its last textile mill had been built in 1906. Rockville had reached a plateau in its development that would last until after the Second World War.
The First and Second World Wars brought temporary prosperity, as they always do in the woolen industry with the demand for uniforms and blankets, but not the sustained growth that the War of 1812 and the Civil War had brought. As New England's textile mills closed their doors one by one, Rockville marked time, sustained by two important factors. Rockville's workers believed that the quality of the Hockanum River water produced finer woolen cloth than could be obtained anywhere else. While this claim may or may not be true, it was a fact that the extraordinary quality of the products of the Rockville woolen mills had established for Hockanum Woolens a national reputation for excellence. Equally important, perhaps, was the geography of the river. The diversity of the industry in Rockville, with its numerous individual mill operations, had tended to keep production small enough in scale to maintain sufficient flexibility, allowing the owners to meet the challenge of a rapidly changing world of fashion. Nevertheless, a long twilight settled over the industry; the mills continued to operate but under changed conditions. The old owners, the families who had run the woolen mills for several generations, sold out to a national firm, M.T. Stevens and Sons, in 1934. Production decisions were no longer made locally, but in New York board rooms. Finally, the mills closed permanently in 1952, marking the end of the woolen industry, and shortly afterward, an end to the city as a political entity. In consolidation of the town and city governments took place and Rockville became just a "section" of the town of Vernon.
Following the Second World War, the town of Vernon experienced a population boom as the rural area underwent rapid suburbanization. The new Wilbur Cross Highway made commuting to Hartford quick and convenient, and Vernon became another bedroom community for the Hartford area. At first the change seemed beneficial; the newcomers brought business to downtown Rockville and the center of the city hummed with activity. But gradually, new shopping centers nearer the highway drew business away from Rockville; there never seemed to be enough room in the old nineteenth century city for all the new cars. Like other cities, big and small, Rockville began to decay at its center. An urban redevelopment project was initiated in the 1960s. This brought some new buildings to the center, and lost some old buildings to parking lots, but even with the new parking space, it was never very successful. Downtown Rockville continued to be bypassed for the new shopping centers. Several of the oldest wooden mills were demolished or lost to fire, and the turn-of-the-century mansions were converted to apartments, funeral homes, or other institutional uses. Still, because Rockville had a well-developed urban environment, it somehow managed to preserve much of its nineteenth century character and charm. What remains of the built environment is a silent testimony to a way of life and an industry which has vanished.
The Mills — Nine of the original thirteen mill sites remain with most of the mill buildings still intact. Although they have been converted to other uses, they remain virtually unaltered, and still dominate the dense urban landscape. The construction dates of the buildings span the century from 1834 to 1906 and provide an architectural record of the diverse architectural styles adapted to industrial buildings during this period. The major dams and other artifacts of the water system also remain, and, although many of the canals have been filled in and the river itself covered over in the redevelopment area, they provide clues to the engineering and technology involved in water-powered manufacturing over the course of the nineteenth century. The mills still relied on water power, with turbines replacing waterwheels, until after the turn-of-the-century, but none of the original machinery or waterwheels have survived.
The Downtown — The downtown center of Rockville is the one area most seriously eroded by post-World War II redevelopment efforts. Only two commercial buildings, constructed in 1929, remain on the south side of Central Park. However, the Pitch Building, Union Congregational Church, the former Rockville National Bank building, all constructed following the fire in 1889; the Citizen's Building, 1889; the former Methodist Church and People's Savings Bank, 1867; and the Memorial Building, 1889, grouped around the north and west sides of the park present a pleasing and harmonious streetscape. Similar in scale, design, and period of construction, they are a reminder of the wealth the woolen industry produced and an expression of Rockville's aspirations to become one of the leading cities in the state.
The Neighborhoods — For the most part, Rockville's neighborhoods reflect a mixture of housing types and styles. The earliest Greek Revival buildings are scattered throughout the Rockville Historic District. Growth occurred by increasing density rather than by geographic expansion. The mill sites at the beginning and end of the fall of the river imposed constraints at the eastern and western edges of settlement, and the hills to the north and south prevented expansion in those directions. Also, the concentration of mill sites encouraged dense development as workers chose to build on difficult sites rather than locate very far from their workplace. Rockville remained a "walking city" for as long as the mills remained in operation. While the residential neighborhoods present a generally mixed picture of land use, building types, and architectural styles as one period of development was superimposed upon a previous one, it is possible, through research, to peal back those layers of development and highlight representative neighborhoods at various stages in the city's growth.
West Main Street — This neighborhood remains as a record of how the village might have appeared when this really was Rockville's main street. The river, the mills, the houses of mill owners and workers, the buildings that houses the stores or other commercial activities are all represented. Most date from 1830 up to the Civil War period with but one area of intrusion from the mid-twentieth century. One cluster of residential structures opposite the Springville Mill, 152, 156, 162-164, 166, 174 West Main Street, recalls the 1830s when the only settlement here was a mill and a few buildings which housed owners and workers.
Village Street — Most of this street was developed during the post Civil War expansion period, from 1865 to 1875. Of the original two blocks, one has "been lost to the expansion of Rockville General Hospital. One block, however, remains intact. Of the forty houses on this block, only two were built after the turn-of-the-century; all were built before the First World War. Historically the street has strong ethnic associations. It was settled when the German immigrants were just beginning to come to Rockville to work in the woolen mills. In contrast to the earlier Main Street, the house lots are half the size, and the multi-family houses built to accommodate the influx of new mill workers must have created an unaccustomed density in the rural village. Unlike better known examples of workers' housing, Village Street represents neither the abandoned housing of the middle class nor the uniformity of company built housing. These Village Street houses were individually built, quite possibly by the more affluent members of the working class who lived here. While many of these houses have been altered over the years, the street still reflects the character of its mid-nineteenth century origins.
Talcott Park Neighborhood — This neighborhood, directly south of the Ellington town line and adjacent to the downtown area might be termed the suburban development of the 1880s and 1890s. It is focused around a small city park and completes the growth of Rockville up to the Ellington line. Predominately a middle class neighborhood, it demonstrates that the single family home in a segregated neighborhood was not always the American dream. In this neighborhood even the wealthiest residents were willing to sacrifice spacious lots for proximity to downtown offices and other workplaces. Alongside the mill owners' mansions may be found two-family and even multi-family houses, as well as several combined office/residential structures. The impression of this neighborhood is one of elegant city homes, but equally of one reflecting the mixture of housing types found in the earlier village.
Rockville's Builders and Architects — Rockville's earliest buildings, both the mills and houses, were constructed by millwrights and local carpenters. These men were self-taught carpenter-builders who probably worked from pattern books, translating the prevailing architectural styles of the period into their vernacular buildings. Usually they learned their craft working on the mill buildings and their own homes before entering into business for themselves. Several of these men stand out in the architectural history of Rockville.
One of the first builders identified with Rockville was Chauncey Winchell. Winchell began work as a millwright in 1802, working on several of Vernon's earliest mills in the Talcottville area. In 1829 he came to Rockville and became one of the founders of the Springville Mill, one of Rockville's earliest woolen mills. In the vicinity of the Springville Mill, Winchell constructed a number of houses for himself and his associates in the mill. The Winchell homestead, built in 1830, is the epitome of the Greek Revival style which characterized the early mill village.
A contemporary of Winchell, William T. Cogswell, a contractor, carpenter, and cabinet maker, also began work as a young man in the Rock Mill and gradually acquired skill as a carpenter-builder. His home, 6-8 Prospect Street, built in 1842, followed the prevailing Greek Revival style, but incorporated a latticed arbor-porch. This earliest surviving example of what became a most enduring characteristic of Rockville's domestic architecture, the wide front porch or veranda, presaged the romantic Italianate and Gothic Revival styles that swept the mill village in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Italianate and Gothic styles may have been introduced in Rockville by the architect, Augustus Truesdell. Truesdell worked in Rockville from about 1840 until his death in 1872. Nothing is known of his background other than the fact that he did have an architectural practice in Rockville and was able to provide original designs for buildings both here and in other areas of the state. Truesdell's work survives in two Italianate houses on Prospect Street (numbers 132 and 136). His nephew, Albert S. Truesdell, designed the Gothic Revival Lewis Corbin House (59 High Street), c.1855, during the time he worked with his uncle in Rockville. He later located permanently in Putnam, Connecticut.
The best known of Rockville's self-taught architect-builders was J. Henry McCray. McCray, a native of Ellington, Connecticut, worked as a carpenter in Springfield, Massachusetts before coming to Rockville in 1885. He was employed by Belding Brothers and Company until 1901 when he entered into business for himself as an architect and builder. McCray's earliest known work (31 Davis Avenue, 30-32 Elm Street, 18-20 and 22-22-1/2 N. Park Street) were adaptations of the popular Stick and Queen Anne styles. By the turn of the century, McCray's buildings reflected the changing popular taste. The houses at 58-64 Park Street, 24-26 and 28-30 North Park Street were designed in the Colonial Revival style, while St. Joseph's School, 185 Union Street, was designed in the Classical Revival style.
As Rockville matured into a prosperous urban center in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the more affluent residents of the community began to look for known architects to design their commercial, residential and public buildings. The first such architect to be employed was S.M. Lincoln of Hartford who designed the "Citizens' Block" on the corner of Park Place and Elm Street in 1879  In 1889 Warren E. Hayes of Minneapolis was engaged to design a new church building on the Corner of Elm and Union Streets. Hayes, a specialist in church design, was the originator of the diagonal form of auditorium and incorporated this feature into the Union Church building. The same year, Richmond and Seabury of Springfield was selected to design the Memorial Hall, now serving as Vernon's Town Hall. Richmond also designed Rockville High School, built in 1892. These public buildings introduced the Richardsonian Romanesque style to Rockville.
The Stick style remained popular throughout the 1880s for residential buildings, however. A fine example is the house at 10 Ellington Avenue, designed by Palliser, Palliser and Co. of Bridgeport in 1885. The original drawings for this house have survived and are held by the present owner. 12 Ellington Avenue was probably also a Palliser design since both houses were built in the same year by Cyrus Winchell, a local real estate developer.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the mill owners began to build the mansions that document the prosperity and accumulated wealth produced by the textile industry in Rockville. The Prescott-McLean House, 1888, at 46 Park Street was designed by Jason Perkins of Boston and records the transition from Stick to Queen Anne style. The George Sykes House, 76 Prospect Street, built in 1893 is a classic example of the Queen Anne style. Although the architect is unknown, the building bears a striking resemblance to the work of Hartwell and Richardson of Boston, particularly as exemplified in the Henry Yerxa House, Cambridge, designed in 1887. The Sykes House is a fully shingled house with corner turrets and diamond shingle patterns, a Hartwell and Richardson trademark, in the gables. The interior plan is also similar to the Yerxa House, with a living hall which directs attention to the stairway where the fireplace is located on a landing several steps above the hall and flanked by superb stained-glass windows. Since Hartwell, Richardson, and Driver is known to have designed the Charles Phelps House, 1 Ellington Avenue, for Elsie Sykes Phelps, George Sykes' daughter, it is possible the firm may have designed the earlier Sykes house as well.
Perhaps the most distinguished architect to have worked in Rockville at the turn of the century is Charles A. Platt whose three buildings, Maxwell Court, Kellogg Lawn, and the Rockville Public Library are among the Rockville Historic District's most significant architectural resources. Designed in the Classical Revival style, they are important early examples of Platt's work. Maxwell Court, built in 1902 for Francis T. Maxwell, part-owner of the Hockanum Mills Company, represents Platt's first large scale project. In the design of this house he was able to work out fully his ideas on the integration of building and landscape. Sited on a hill above the city, within walking distance of the busy mills but still offering broad vistas to the south and west, Maxwell Court is a fine example of the American country house movement. Kellogg Lawn, built in 1906 for Mrs. Harriet K. Maxwell, is less representative of Platt's ideas. Perhaps this was due to the restrictions imposed by the site in the very center of the industrial city where the first Kellogg home had been built by Mrs. Maxwell's father, George Kellogg, one of the founders of the pioneer Rock Mill. In addition to their homes, the Maxwell family also engaged Platt to design the Rockville Public Library which was dedicated to the memory of George Maxwell and opened in 1904. This small private library was Platt's first public building and an important precursor of the public buildings for which he later became well-known.
The development and growth of the textile industry was the spearhead of the Industrial Revolution in Connecticut, as elsewhere. The products of Connecticut's textile mills surpassed all other products in dollar value throughout the nineteenth century. Despite its importance to the economy of nineteenth century Connecticut, however, the industry has received little scholarly attention. Rockville's uniquely preserved built environment, the vernacular architecture of its various building types, and composition of its residential neighborhoods provides a rare opportunity for the study of both the industry and the type of community it created during this period in Connecticut's history.
Recognizing the historical and architectural significance of its nineteenth century urban area, the Town of Vernon has acted in a variety of ways to preserve the old city. Through the efforts of the Board of Education, two former school buildings have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Individual property owners initiated the listing of 3 mills on the Register. In addition, town government agencies have cooperated through actions to maintain the historic street plan and infrastructure, the establishment of a demonstration project on historically certified adaptive re-use, and most particularly, the enactment of historic district zoning. It is hoped that these actions will result in renewed interest and investment in the area guided by a concern for the preservation of Rockville's rich architectural, industrial, and social history.
[2l]Architect's drawings. Vernon Historical Society Collections.
Brookes, George S., Cascades and Courage: History of the Town of Vernon and the City of Rockville, Connecticut. Rockville, CT: T.F. Rady & Co., Printers, 1955.
Cogswell, William T., History of Rockville from 1823 to 1871. Rockville, CT: Rockville Journal, 1872.
Cole, Arthur Harrison, The American Wool Manufacture, Volume 2, Appendix B. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.
Cole, J., History of Tolland County, Connecticut Including Its Early Settlement and Progress to the Present Time. New York: W.W. Preston & Co., 1888.
Commemorative Biographical Record of Tolland and Windham Counties, Connecticut. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1903.
Homespun to Factory Made: Woolen Textiles in America, 1776-1876. North Andover, MA: Merrimack Valley Textile Museum (Exhibit Catalog), 1977.
Vernon, Connecticut: A Survey of Architectural and Historical Resources, Volume 1, The City of Rockville. Connecticut Historical Commission.
‡ S. Ardis Abbott and Robert B. Hurd, The Vernon Historical Society, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Rockville Historic District, Vernon CT, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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