Canterbury Center Historic District

Canterbury Town, Windham County, CT

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The Canterbury Center Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]


Canterbury Center Historic District is a small village running three quarters of a mile along North and South Canterbury Roads and extending for another three-quarters of a mile west on Westminster Road. The Canterbury Center Historic District is a mixture of primarily residential properties with a few commercial and public buildings. The houses are generally of wooden post-and-beam construction, 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 stories high, and range in style from the plain vernacular of colonial New England to the Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles of the early 19th century. Only one example of the Victorian era lies within the Canterbury Center Historic District, an Italianate style house at 22 Westminster Road known as the George Washington Smith House. The exteriors of most of the buildings are finished with clapboards, although a good number are covered with shingles or siding; a few buildings are constructed of brick.

Many of the houses in Canterbury Center are of the plain vernacular style of the colonial period, featuring five-bay facades, center chimneys, broad-sided entry facing the road, and windows fitted with small-pane divided sash. Two good examples of the Colonial style are the Stephen Backus House and the neighboring Robert Buswell House at 34 and 44 North Canterbury Road, respectively. Though the house at 62 North Canterbury Road, known as "The Pillars," is a genuine 18th century dwelling and retains many of its original features, its present appearance with a full-width 2-story, columned portico recalls the Colonial Revival style popular in the early 20th century.

A few of the Federal style buildings in the Canterbury Center Historic District show the influence of high style English Georgian architecture, characterized by denticulated cornices, pilastered and pedimented doorways, fanlights, and Palladian windows. Examples of this elaborate style include the Prudence Crandall House at 1 South Canterbury Road and the William Moore House at 1 North Canterbury Road.

The center also includes one religious building, Canterbury's First Congregational Church, set upon land known as the Canterbury Green on the east side of South Canterbury Road. Although the church itself was constructed in 1965, replacing a previous church that burned down two years prior, the white Federal style building complements the village-like characteristic of the Canterbury Center Historic District. The green comprises about 1-1/2 acres of land bounded on the west by Route 169 and driveway and parking lot of the church on the north and east sides, and Library Road on the south. The buildings surrounding the Green date from late-18th century and early-19th century, including the well-known Prudence Crandall House.

On the west side of North Canterbury Road, about 2,500 feet from the Route 169 and Route 14 intersection, lies an 18th-century burial ground known as Cleveland Cemetery, named after Moses Cleaveland, for whom Cleveland, Ohio, is also named.

Two early 20th-century social halls are also included in the Canterbury Center Historic District: the plain vernacular buildings at 76 North Canterbury Road, known as Finnish Hall, and 21 North Canterbury Road, Canterbury Grange No. 70, formally known as the Patrons of Husbandry. Both buildings serve important roles as a place for members of the community to come together and socialize. Of the two public buildings in the Canterbury Center Historic District, only one is considered as contributing. Although the large brick town hall and elementary school building, located at 45 Westminster Road, lies within the boundary of the district, only the building housing the Canterbury Public Library is a contributing resource. It is a small Greek Revival building at 8 Library Road and was built c.1860 to serve as a one-room schoolhouse, known as the Center District School. The building has undergone some alterations to the windows and doors since its construction; however, the small square belfry atop the front, equipped with the original bell, remains.

Although there are several commercial buildings within the Canterbury Center Historic District's boundary, including a bank, gas station, and grocery store, only one, a gun shop at 3 North Canterbury Road, is considered to be a contributing resource. Built in 1898, it served as Frank Hoxsie's drygoods store as well as the village post office.

Also considered to be contributing resources are a number of outbuildings found on many of the residential properties. About twenty 19th-century barns can be found behind houses within the district.

One building has been moved and reconstructed on its current site: the house at 19 North Canterbury Road was built in 1972 using timbers from a c.1700 colonial house frame. Because it is primarily a speculative re-creation, it is counted as a noncontributing building.



Canterbury Center Historic District is significant for its historical associations with institutions and people important in the development of the area as Canterbury's town center. The center was the location of Canterbury's first church where town meetings and social activities were held. After turnpikes brought increased prosperity to the crossroads, the area became more densely developed, with numerous residences from the 18th and 19th centuries, barns, and small shops and stores. Along with a former one-room school, two social halls, an historic cemetery, and a small village green, these buildings give Canterbury Center Historic District a distinctive sense of time and place. The Canterbury Center Historic District is also significant because of the architectural qualities of its buildings, many of which represent well-preserved examples of particular periods and styles of architecture. Especially notable are several early Federal-period houses that exhibit elegant Georgian details such as Palladian windows, fanlights, pilasters, and embellished cornices. In addition to the Prudence Crandall House, a National Historic Landmark, there are the William Moore House, 1 North Canterbury Road, and the Dr. Andrew Harris House, 2 South Canterbury Road; three of the four corners of the main intersection are thus occupied by houses of this distinctive architectural type. Since the 1920s, this concentration of relatively high-style architecture in the eastern Connecticut countryside (sometimes referred to as the "Canterbury Style") has been recognized as one of the state's distinctive architectural treasures.[1]

Historical Significance

The area that later became the Town of Canterbury began as land established by a group of settlers led by Major James Fitch of Norwich in 1697. By 1699 the area was incorporated as the Town of Plainfield, and Canterbury itself became a town four years later. In 1705 Robert Green sold 3-1/2 acres of his land, now known as the Canterbury Green, to the Town of Canterbury for the purpose of constructing a Congregational meetinghouse, a place where every family could be expected to gather once a week for religious services and community functions. Construction of the first meetinghouse did not begin until 1711 and the location was chosen to be the highest point of land on the green. It was also decided that the land adjacent to the church would be used to train the local militia. In 1735 a new meetinghouse replaced the first structure and subsequently a third church was erected in 1805. All of the structures remained on the same site as the original building, including the present church constructed in 1965. Although the green has diminished to only 1-1/2 acres over the years, the area is significant as the focus of religious, political, and social beginnings of the town.

North of the Canterbury Green lies Cleveland Cemetery, Canterbury's oldest burial ground, established c.1720. Along with Canterbury's founder, Major James Fitch, and his wife, many of the Center's earliest settlers are buried here. The cemetery was named after Moses Cleaveland (spelling of the family name varies), founder of the Ohio city bearing his name. He was a resident of Canterbury in his early years and returned to his native town shortly after founding Cleveland.

During the 18th century, Canterbury was similar to most other Connecticut countryside towns, being a community made up essentially of farmers practicing subsistence-level generalized agriculture, thus providing for all or most of their own needs. These early settlers decided upon the well-drained level land along the broad north-south ridge, now known as Route 169, to set up their farms. Today the oldest houses and barns in Canterbury remain along this road, recalling the center's origins as a community of farmers.

By the end of the 18th century, Canterbury experienced some economic changes along with the rest of the country. Around the time of the American Revolution, an increase of trade to the West Indies provided a greater market for agricultural products, and the wealthier Canterbury farmers found that by raising a surplus of grain and livestock beyond their personal needs, they could sell the excess products to nearby merchants in Norwich. Although farming was the primary occupation of the townspeople in the early years after settlement, by the end of the 18th century a few shops and inns were scattered near the town green and center. Walter Brewster, a clockmaker and goldsmith, owned a small shop located in the center of town at 5 Library Road in the late 1780s and later sold it to Abel Brewster, who also did pewter work. The location of Canterbury Center along two major roads allowed for these farms and businesses to prosper and by the early 19th century further growth occurred due to improvements of these roads to turnpikes. The road now known as Route 169 which runs north-south from Norwich to Massachusetts was previously the Norwich and Woodstock Turnpike, incorporated in 1801. Present-day Route 14, which runs east-west between Providence and Hartford, was once known as the Windham Turnpike. It was this road that Comte de Rochambeau and his French troops followed on their way from Newport to Yorktown.

Canterbury Center was also a focus for educational institutions. In addition to the center District School, a one-room schoolhouse for the general public, several higher-level schools were kept in private homes. The Reverend James Cogswell kept a school in his home at 12 Westminster Road in which Benedict Arnold was a student before the Revolution. John Adams ran an academy at Canterbury Center in the 1790s and in 1855, William Kinne kept a preparatory school for young men in the Dr. Andrew Harris House. However, Canterbury's most significant school was headed by Prudence Crandall herself, established in 1831. It originated as a school for young white women, but when Sarah Harris, an African American, also applied for admittance and was accepted, she initiated a turn of events which would lead to the conversion of the school to a setting for training young African American women to become teachers, despite ardent protest from the townspeople. Due to this continuous resistance from the town, the school was only able to endure for little more than a year after its conversion, finally closing in 1834.

While the 18th and early 19th centuries were prosperous times for the Town of Canterbury, by the end of the latter, its population had fallen to a level below 1,000. With the coming of the railroad through towns like neighboring Plainfield, Canterbury bypassed altogether, was not able to develop commercially or industrially, thus losing residents to westward migration and outside opportunities. At the end of the 19th century, only one general store, Frank Hoxsie's drygoods store at 3 North Canterbury Road, remained in the center. While neighboring towns flourished through industrial growth, Canterbury continued to survive through agricultural tradition well into the 20th century. Canterbury Grange No. 70, the local chapter of the national organization, the Patrons of Husbandry, was first established in 1887 to organize social functions for the town's agricultural community. The Grange met in private homes prior to building its hall in 1915 at 21 North Canterbury Road.

The early 20th century brought with it a large influx of European immigrants to the eastern part of Connecticut, many settling in Canterbury. The greatest number in Canterbury were Finnish, and they occupied a number of farms that remained from earlier residents who had moved on to other towns and opportunities. The Finns concentrated on raising dairy products, chickens, and a variety of vegetables for market sale. Their presence in Canterbury grew throughout the 20th century, becoming the largest Finnish community in the state. Consequently, the Finnish American Heritage Society was established, and Finnish Hall, 76 North Canterbury Road, was erected in 1924 for holding community meetings and social functions.

Canterbury Center remained the place of residence for several of the town's successful manufacturers and merchants. George Washington Smith, who was the son of blacksmith Washington Smith, resided at 22 Westminster Road. He owned a mast-hoop shop which made wooden fixtures for securing sails to the masts of sailing ships. Marvin H. Sanger, a local merchant, banker, and former Secretary of State, owned the house at 9 South Canterbury Road. This house was also once the home of Lillian Frink, one of the first five women to be elected to the State House of Representatives in 1921. Beginning around 1922, the barn at the rear of the house was used by Merrit Hawes as a factory for making split-bamboo fishing rods. These rods were widely popular throughout the world and are considered to be collectors' items today.

Architectural Significance

Canterbury Center Historic District has architectural significance because its buildings include many well-preserved examples of particular styles and periods of architecture. The domestic architecture of rural colonial New England, simple in form and plainly detailed, is represented in the district by numerous houses embodying the genre's typical features: clapboarded (or wood-shingled) exteriors, symmetrical facades with center entries, small-pane divided sash, and large central chimneys of stone or brick. Prime examples that embody many or all of the characteristics of the type include the Stephen Backus House at 34 North Canterbury Road and David Nevins House at 7 South Canterbury Road.

Several of the district's early 19th-century buildings embody extensive detailing derived from high-style English Georgian architecture of the type popularized by James Gibbs in his Book of Architecture, which was widely available in America by the late 18th century. These houses feature denticulated cornices, pilastered and pedimented doorways in projecting center bays, fanlights, and Palladian windows, as in the William Moore House at 2 South Canterbury Road and the hip-roofed Prudence Crandall House, 1 South Canterbury Road. These use of such details, derived from classical and Renaissance precedents, was regarded at the time not so much as a style of architecture, but rather as architecture itself in its one true form. The Samuel Pellet House at 11 North Canterbury Road originally built c.1752, is an example of a remodelling in the Georgian style, with fluted pilasters on pedestals and double denticulated cornice applied to the plain vernacular style of the colonial period.

The essence of the Federal style proper is reflected in the form of the slender corner pilasters, fanlights, Palladian windows, and cornice enrichment such as that found on the Dr. Andrew Harris House, located at the intersection of Routes 169 and 14. Although less extensively detailed, the house at 9 South Canterbury Road is also representative of the Federal or Adam style; its fan louver on the front gable reflects the style's favored geometric shape, the ellipse. Both buildings illustrate the use of more delicately scaled Classical and geometric details that was the core of the style; although many of the elements were similar to those on the houses that have been termed "Georgian," the overall effect was more restrained and, arguably, elegant.

The heavier proportions to classical elements that developed in the Greek Revival period are also embodied in a building in the district, the former Center District School, a single-story structure with plain corner pilasters and molded capitals, wide frieze, and a square belfry.

The center includes only one example of an architectural style from the Victorian period, a time when manufactured architectural millwork allowed a greater range of ornamental details, even in relatively modest dwellings. The c.1885 house at 22 Westminster Road reflects the eclecticism and dense architectural detailing of the Victorian era, particularly in the Italianate influence in its porch columns and archways and bay and round-arched windows, even while it exhibits a Gothic Revival flavor in its steeply pitched roof.

The Canterbury Center Historic District's single example of the Colonial Revival style, popular in the early 20th century, is called "The Pillars" and is at 62 North Canterbury Road. It was originally built c.1760 and featured typical Colonial period elements; however, around 1913 its owners transformed it into its present state by adding a two-story full-width porch, complete with denticulated cornice and large columns. As was typical in the Colonial Revival, the desire for the connotations of elegant living associated with early American society led to an exaggerated level of architecture. While perhaps believable as a southern plantation, the house strains credibility as a dwelling in a rural New England town such as Canterbury; however, the intent was not so much to reproduce colonial architecture as to abstract and combine the best or most formal elements, so as to invoke a sense of tradition and respect for America's heritage.


  1. See Old Canterbury on the Quinebaug (White Pine Architectural Monographs, Vol. IX, no. 6, 1923).


Bayles, Richard M. History of Windham County, Connecticut. New York: W.W. Preston & Company, 1889.

Burgess, Charles F. Plainfield Souvenir. Moosup: Charles F. Burgess, 1895.

Canterbury Historical Society. Archives and Photographs. Prudence Crandall House Museum, Canterbury. Elizabeth Fairbrother, Curator.

Commemorative Biographical Record of Tolland and Windham Counties, Connecticut. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Company, 1903.

Connecticut Historical Commission. Historic and Architectural Survey of Canterbury: Canterbury Center, Packerville, and Route 169, 1992.

Connecticut State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1865 and 1866. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Co., 1865.

Hetrick, Andrew J. A Historical Discourse Preached in the Meeting House at Canterbury, October 27, 1895. Norwich: Record Job Print, 1895.

Larned, Ellen D. History of Windham County, Connecticut. 2 Volumes, Priv. Printed, 1874, 1880.

Lincoln, Allen B. A Modern History of Windham County, Connecticut. 2 Volumes, Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1920.

Old Canterbury on the Quinebaug. White Pine Architectural Monographs, Vol. IX, no.6, 1923.

Slater, James A. The Colonial Burying Grounds of Eastern Connecticut and the Men Who Made Them. Hamden: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1987.

Underhill, Charles R., Jr. Research files on Canterbury historical sites. Currently in possession of Alison Underhill Haber.

U. S. Census Office. Manuscript Population Schedules, Canterbury, Windham County, Connecticut, 1850-1910. Microfilm, Connecticut State Library.

U. S. Works Progress Administration. Census of Old Buildings in Connecticut. Manuscript. Connecticut State Library, c.1935.

Windham County, Connecticut, Business Directory. West Killingly: Windham County Transcript Office, 1861.

Maps and Views

Barber, John W. Connecticut Historical Collections. New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1838.

Map of Windham County, 1855. Philadelphia: E. P. Gerrish, 1856.

Gray, O. W. Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties. Hartford: C.G. Keeney, 1869.

Baldwin, I. J. Baldwin's Map of Plainfield, Connecticut, and Vicinity. Providence, 1892.

  1. Bruce Clouette and Hoang Tinh, Historic Resource Consultants, Inc., and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Centerbury Center Historic District, nomination document, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Canterbury Road North • Canterbury Road South • Elmdale Road • Library Road • Route 14 • Route 169 • Westminster Road

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