The Prospect Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Prospect Hill Historic District in the Willimantic section of the Town of Windham encompasses an extensive residential neighborhood overlooking the valley of the Willimantic River to the south and the Natchaug River to the east. Occupying a grid of more than 40 densely settled blocks on Prospect Hill, the Prospect Hill Historic District rises steeply up from Valley Street, the southern boundary (one block north of the Main Street Historic District), and more gradually from Jackson Street, the eastern boundary, to a broad 400-foot high summit. The internal street grid of the Prospect Hill Historic District is overlaid on these slopes in a fairly consistent pattern along the cardinal points of the compass: Valley Street, Prospect Street, Summit Street, and Lewiston Avenue, the four major west-to-east thoroughfares, are intersected by five major north-south streets, High Street, Walnut Street, North Street, Church Street, and Jackson Street, and a number of shorter connectors. Beyond the northern boundary of Washburn Street are the grounds of the Windham High School. Most of the campus of Eastern Connecticut State University lies to the northwest, but a number of historic properties along the west side of district are owned by the institution.
Of the Prospect Hill Historic District's 993 resources, a remarkable 88 percent contribute to its overall historic architectural character. In addition to more than 600 contributing houses with their associated outbuildings, there are seven historic contributing churches and other religious institutions, six schools, both secular and religious, and one firehouse. The 123 non-contributing resources include two modern institutional buildings and several substantially altered historic houses. The rest are modern houses and outbuildings erected after about 1930, the end date of the district's period of significance.
The vast majority of houses in the neighborhood were built after the Civil War, when most of the streets were laid out for residential development, and the district was substantially complete by the end of the Victorian era, with nearly 460 houses (75 percent) standing by 1910. Growth continued up through World War II and beyond, but at a much slower rate. Ninety-eight more buildings, or 16 percent of the total housing stock, were in place by 1930. There was zero growth during the Depression years, followed by only a limited amount of new construction in the postwar decade.
Most houses are wood-framed, sheathed with clapboard and/or wood shingles. There is relatively limited use of artificial siding; many houses retain historic sheathing and other fabric, or have been restored to their original appearance and decorated with appropriate Victorian paint schemes. Brick over stone foundations and brick chimneys were the general rule but there are a few all brick houses. Historically, the majority of homes were owned and occupied by single families, but there were multiple-family homes and rental properties as well, including apartments, boarding houses, and tenements.
Victorian domestic architecture predominates in the Prospect Hill Historic District, with all the major styles of the period represented. The stylistic range includes the more popular Second Empire and Queen Anne styles, as well a number of Italianate, Stick, Shingle, and Eastlake styles. Many of larger high-style examples are located on the upper reaches of the hill, especially on corner lots along Prospect and Summit streets. Clearly Victorian in their elaboration and massing, most exhibit two or more stylistic influences, especially in the detailing of eaves and porches, the latter a feature of practically every house in the district. There also is a much larger body of simpler Victorian vernacular architecture — houses, tenements, and workers' cottages — many of which display considerable applied detail. While the influence of the Colonial Revival was felt as early as 1900, that style and others from the early twentieth century that appeared by World War I, such as Foursquare or Bungalow, are generally scattered throughout the district on the remaining vacant lots.
The bracketed Italianate, the first fully realized style in the Prospect Hill Historic District, appeared soon after the Civil War and persisted into the 1890s. One of the earliest was the 1865 Origen Hall House at 147 Church Street, which has a Tuscan porch and the typical bay window of this style. The corner tower, with its cutaway corner may be a later addition to the original gable-to-street main block. The triple round-arched gable window here appears as the more classical Palladian version on the c.1890 James Harris House at 175 North Street, which retains Italianate brackets and bays. The unusual veranda with its doubled bracketed and turned posts and elaborate balustrade, has a conical roof at the corner, as well as a pedimented main entrance. The latter feature displays the same type of heavy molding used for the hoods of the second-floor windows on the facade. The Italianate influence is seen in the arched hood molds of several windows on the Burt E. Thompson House at 275 Prospect Street, which was built in 1896. The elaborate two-story porch is pure Eastlake, while the sunburst motifs in the various gables are clearly Queen Anne. The Eastlake had been introduced into the district in 1888 by the A. Walter Dunham House at 65 Chestnut Street.
The contemporary Second Empire style flourished in the decade of the 1880s. While all 35 district examples have the typical dormered mansard roof that defines this style, there is a range of size, with the larger and later examples displaying an uncharacteristically complex massing. The simple cube form of the smaller houses was often enlarged with a two-story wing, such as the one found on the Samuel Burlingham House at 142 Prospect Street. By 1880 two nearly identical large Second Empires built on prominent corner sites on Prospect and Valley streets had numerous appendages and Eastlake style wraparound verandas (Samuel E. Aidon House, 290 Prospect Street and Charles E. Carpenter House, 324 Valley Street).
The Queen Anne style was launched by the J. Dwight Chaffee House, erected in 1880 at the corner of Summit and North streets (183 Summit Street). In addition to the usual rectilinear massing and complex multi-gabled roofline and tower, gable pediments are fully elaborated and various types of sheathing are employed. Although each of the later Queen Annes are individually detailed and no two are exactly alike, as the following examples show, many of the larger stylish homes in the district were variations on this theme, and as is the case with the Chaffee House, they are informally landscaped to make the most of their relatively small lots. Here the property is set off by a cobblestone retaining wall capped by shaped evergreen hedge, which runs around the corner onto North Street, with an opening for the entrance walkway on Summit.
Polygonal corner towers are found on two Queen Annes erected five years later: the John L. Walden House midway up the first block at 20 Turner Street and the Albert French House, which sits across from the Chaffee house but faces onto North Street (190 North Street).The tower roof on the French House may be a replacement. A two-stage bracketed tower with a bell-shaped roof adds interest to the Frank M. Smith House at 7 Cottage Place. The James A. McAvoy House on its corner lot dominates the adjoining streetscapes on Maple and Bellevue (63 Maple Avenue). Of particular interest here is the second-floor porch recessed behind an arcade. A similar classical motif is expressed in the band of round-arched glazed and blind openings that detail the broad end gable of the Frank M. Wilson House at 196 Church Street.
The Shingle and Stick styles that appeared in the district in the 1890s were often just a variant of the basic Queen Anne. The rounded forms usually associated with Shingle style are only marginally evident, as shown by the curved recess for the gable windows on the facade of the 1896 Reverend Edward A. George House at 90 Windham Street, but the peak above reverts to an angular form. Shingles were used to good effect on the second Albert L. French House at 125 Summit Street, most notably on the skirts of the of the veranda and the second-floor porch and flared overhang, but again the form and massing are Queen Anne.
While the walls of the George Taylor House (193 Church Street) have a typical Stick-style delineation, there are other stylistic influences, particularly the Eastlake porches and the sunrise motif of the Queen Anne. Similar features are found on the some of the Victorian vernacular houses in the district. Representative examples include the John A. McDonald House at 167 Summit Street, tucked in between two of the district "mansions" on the short block from North to Church streets and the John McDonough House near the foot of Jackson Street (221-223 Jackson Street). Shingled flared gables are found on the 1896 William D. Grant House at 291 Prospect Street, but again much of the rest of the wall surface is divided by trim boards. The unusual wraparound veranda here displays spiral turned columns with triangular brackets. They are doubled along the sides and single at the outside corner where the balustrade curves around to newel posts that define the entrances on either side. By the turn of the century, the rest of this block contained slightly more modest, closely sited examples of conventional Queen Annes, with towers and nicely detailed verandas (Joseph B. Riordan House, 305 Prospect Street; Samuel J. Miller House, 315 Prospect Street; Archibald Turner House, 321 Prospect Street).
Most of the vernacular architecture is found along the peripheral streets and comes in all shapes and sizes. The shape may be as varied as the houses on High Street where many now serve as university offices, or as regular as the simple gabled forms that line the west side of Jackson Street. Facade gables of single and multifamily houses establish a regular rhythm on the west side of Oak Street and the eastern end of Summit Street. Slightly smaller houses are found in the first block of Carey Street in the northeast corner of the district. The series of cottages that line some stretches of Valley, Chestnut, and the south side of Prospect streets display Carpenter Gothic or Craftsmen detailing. On Lewiston Avenue, such cottages often are interspersed with larger Victorian vernaculars and the contrasting styles and forms of the early twentieth century.
Rental properties, or tenements, range from simple one-family cottages and workers' duplexes to rather stylish double-deckers with detailed porches. Even though the side-by-side, wood-framed duplex with a Colonial form was a common type of workers' housing, they are uncommon in the Prospect Hill Historic District. One of the two existing brick examples is located at 46-48 Spring Street. The Frank Larabee House, a double-decker at 61 Oak Street features Queen Anne cutaway corners and imbricated shingles in the gable. The Eastlake porches on the Latham Company Tenement, a double-decker on Spring Street, are quite exceptional (66-68 Spring Street). Between 1900 and 1920, larger multifamily houses were erected along the east side of Jackson Street and lower Turner Street. The Bungalow was popular in the Prospect Hill Historic District. The Foursquares that were equally popular in this period include the c.1915 Michael J. Turbridy House at 73-75 Maple Avenue. A two family house, it almost overwhelms its Second Empire neighbor built almost 40 years earlier (Dr. Andrew J. Creighton House, 79 Maple Avenue).
Valley Street was a favored location for several of the churches in the Prospect Hill Historic District. Two near the middle of the street were designed in the Gothic Revival style: St. James Episcopal Church (210 Valley Street) was built of stone, while the First Congregational Church (199 Valley Street) on the opposite corner is brick. The light orange brick of the Romanesque Revival St. Mary's Church (57 Valley Street) near the eastern end of this street, as well as the square towers flanking the nave, reveals the European inspiration for Walter Fontaine's design.
Right around the corner on Jackson Street are several buildings associated with St. Joseph's Parish, beginning with a Victorian Gothic church designed by architect Edwin Howland, which was erected in 1874. The all-brick complex also includes a 1892 Second Empire convent, a 1900 Gothic Revival rectory. The 1907 parochial school for the parish just around the corner on Valley Street, was designed in the Georgian Revival style (St. Joseph's School, 21 Valley Street).
Among the public educational institutions in the Prospect Hill Historic District are the Natchaug School (123 Jackson Street) just up the street from St. Joseph's, a Tudor Revival brick building, and the Windham High School (later Kramer Middle School) near the west end of Prospect Street (322 Prospect Street). Two other educational buildings now associated with Eastern Connecticut State University are located at the intersection of Valley and Windham streets: Noble School, a Neo-Classical Revival structure built in 1909 as a model teaching school for the State Normal School (284 Valley Street) and Burr Hall, a large Collegiate Gothic erected in 1921 (89 Windham Street).
One of the largest concentrations of Victorian domestic architecture in the state, the Prospect Hill Historic District fully expresses the stylistic exuberance that characterized the era. Displaying an exceptional richness of ornamentation and diversity of form, the architectural legacy of the Industrial Revolution, all the major styles are freely interpreted and often combined with Italianate, Second Empire, and especially Queen Anne and its later variants, a significant dominant presence. While encompassing a cross-section of urban Victorian society with a wide range of occupational and ethnic diversity, the Prospect Hill Historic District also reflects and embodies the aspirations and entrepreneurial spirit of an emerging middle class in the scale, location, and architectural style of the resources.
Historical Background and Significance
Willimantic was first known as Willimantic Falls, a village in the Town of Windham that developed around an early eighteenth-century grist and sawmill site. By the time the industrial potential of the Willimantic River (a 90-foot drop in less than a mile) was fully realized, Willimantic was a separate political entity with divergent economic interests. In 1833, with a population of 2000, Willimantic became a borough, and by 1893, was restructured as a city with more than 10,000 residents. Although for much of this period, Windham was the county seat and remained an agricultural and mercantile center, Willimantic evolved as a fully-fledged industrial city specializing in the manufacture of textiles and thread, as well as a regional hub for the railroads. Major mill complexes along the Willimantic River were erected for Windham Cotton on the west and Willimantic Linen Company, later the American Thread Company (ATCO), on the east. In the boom years following the Civil War, a number of smaller steam powered factories and silk mills were established on the valley floor just below the Prospect Hill Historic District between Main and Valley streets. Industry drove the economic engine that created a business center with retail stores and banks on Main Street and wholesale suppliers set up in business near the railroad. New streets were laid out over Prospect Hill, which rapidly developed as a residential neighborhood.
Allen Lincoln (1817- 1882), a farmer and merchant trader, recognized the residential potential of Prospect Hill in the early 1860s. At that time several roads traversed the hill: High Street, the old road to Mansfield and the first thoroughfare to the north, laid out in the early borough years; Jackson Street, part of the old turnpike named for Lyman Jackson, an African-American farmer who owned the land there; and a few blocks of Church Street were in place by the 1850s (the site of a church no longer extant). Most of Prospect Hill Historic District area was still sparsely settled farmland when Lincoln purchased a large tract and laid out Valley Street, with one-block connectors to Main Street. Although he also laid out Prospect Street, his widow gradually sold off the lots there after his death. Another developer, George Hewitt, laid out and developed Summit Street in the early 1880s. In 1886 Hewitt also put through Lewiston Avenue, named for the market gardener and nurseryman who had his fields and greenhouses there. By 1889 the Windham Chronicle reported that there were "plans to build this season" on all but two of the building lots there. Oak Street and Hewitt Street ran up hill to connect Prospect and Summit the following year. High Street remained the eastern boundary of the neighborhood, until Windham Street was laid out in 1892 through the property of the Windham Cotton Company, which had donated land for the State Normal School (284 Valley Street), the forerunner of Eastern Connecticut State University. By the end of the century much of the rest of the street grid was in place, including the upper northeast corner of the district once known as the South American Lot, where it is said that Bolivia Street and Lima Street were named by the well-traveled lady who had owned the land.
The "Hill" as the neighborhood was once known, contained one of the largest concentrations of entrepreneurial talent in the region. While there were no extremes of wealth or poverty, it was home to a substantial middle class, at first, mostly descendents of old Yankee stock. The upper echelons of this class, the builders of the "mini mansions" on the more desirable streets, were managers and owners of mills and stores, commodity wholesalers, financiers and bankers, and educated professionals, and a number held elected or appointed local and state offices. Several helped transform the face of downtown Main Street with modern brick commercial blocks; others published and edited the local newspapers. Near the end of the century, some of their neighbors were of Irish, French-Canadian, or Swedish descent. Many of these immigrants were assimilated into the community and made contributions to the mercantile growth of the city. Numerous small scale store owners and service providers also lived in the neighborhood, as did many white collar workers, the indispensable clerks of the mills, banks, and stores, along with a substantial group of tradesmen and mill workers.
A number of borough elites were associated with industry. Foremost among them was Frank T. Webb, and J. Dwight Chaffee. Webb, a Scotsman who made his fortune in the retail clothing business, founded the Windham Silk Company. A prominent banker as well, Webb lived at the corner of Church and Summit streets (214 Church Street). Chaffee, the owner of Natchaug Silk Company, had a fine house befitting his station at the corner of Summit and North streets (183 Summit Street). Other manufacturers represented in the Prospect Hill Historic District included owners of smaller textile factories, such as Goodrich Holland, the owner of Holland Silk Company at Church and Valley streets, who lived nearby in the next block north at 134 Church Street in his c.1870 Italianate, or John B. Capen, who lived in one of the early Colonial Revivals (c.1890) at 293 Jackson Street and was a partner in Wells Thread with William Jillson. Most of the others were secondary suppliers of goods and machinery to the major mills. Among them were Walter G. Morrison, secretary/treasurer of Morrison Company (textile machinery), who lived at 71 Prospect Street, John R. Loomis, a partner in H.C. Smith (silk mill supplies) with a Craftsman/Foursquare at 119 North Street, and Arthur G. Taylor at 12 Bellevue Street, who had a small silk thread company on Bank Street.
Some of the fine houses in the Prospect Hill Historic District were owned by supervisors at the mills. Three of the overseers at Willimantic Linen (ATCO) lived on Prospect Street: Herbert Wheelock, Amos M. Hathaway, and Samuel L. Burlingham (182, 191 and 142 Prospect Street). Others with this responsible position included O.W. Alpaugh and Charles Alpaugh, father and son, who had c. 1885 Victorian cottages at 69 and 83 Turner Street and James McAvoy at 63 Maple Avenue. His wife ran "The Paris House," a millinery shop downtown.
Some managers came to Willimantic from other industrial communities. Among them was Origen Hall, who built his Italianate at 147 Church Street. The overseer of the winding room at Hall Thread, he had been chief machinist and steam engineer when the company was located in South Willington. John A. Conant, who once had worked at the Cheney Mills in Manchester, also ran a silk mill in Mansfield before he became superintendent at Holland Silk Company. He was succeeded in this position by his son, Deloraine Conant, who lived in a Colonial Revival Foursquare at 81 Chestnut Street, and later by attorney Frank H. Foss, who built a Bungalow at 208 Summit Street in 1920.
Several people in the Prospect Hill Historic District helped make Willimantic a regional financial center. Edwin Buck was president of the Willimantic Savings Institute, the first bank in town with offices in the company store at Windham Cotton in 1842.
Buck, who built a Second Empire House at 150 North Street was a sawmill owner in Ashford, before coming to Willimantic in 1875 to establish E.A. Buck & Co., commercial millers and grain dealers. A state representative and probate judge, Buck also served as Bank Commissioner of Connecticut. His son, William, who joined the milling company, lived next door to his father in an 1890 Queen Anne (158 North Street). Frank Webb, vice president of the Savings Institute, became president at Windham National after that bank was moved here at 214 Church Street from Windham Center in 1879. Edgar Bass, the cashier there, built his Foursquare on 357 Prospect Street in 1910. John L. Walden, secretary/treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank, founded in 1872, another state legislator, lived in a large Queen Anne at 20 Turner Street.
Over time, district residents kept pace with the modernization of transportation. George W. Snow and Orila J. Trudeau were carriage or wagon makers with houses on lower Bellevue and Chestnut streets (George W. Snow House, 31 Bellevue Street; Orila J. Trudeau House, 14 Chestnut Street). Judging by his stylish Queen Anne on a prestigious block on the western end of Prospect Street, Archibald Turner was one of the more successful of the six or more owners of livery stables operating along Valley Street (321 Valley Street). James J. Tew, another Chestnut Street resident (112 Chestnut Street), was a farrier with a shop and stables on lower Church Street. Blacksmiths Paul Marcel (46 Lewiston Avenue) and Theophile Loiselle (328 Valley Street) were two of the many French Canadians who left the mills and went into business for themselves. Alphonse Gelinas, who lived at 130-132 Jackson Street, had a stable on Valley Street, which later became a trucking company. Roland P. Jordan, whose 1906 Second Empire home was located at 206 Walnut Street, was associated with Jordan Auto, one the first car dealerships in Willimantic.
With 52 trains a day passing through Willimantic, it is not surprising that at least four men in the district were employed by the railroads. Lorenzo Litchfield and William Ashley, station agents for the New York, New Haven and Hartford lived on Windham and Spring streets (84 Windham Street and 33 Spring Street) and Edward Wyatt, chief clerk there, at 15 Chestnut Street. John Fahey, yard master for the New England Railroad, had a house at 210 Jackson Street.
A number of Prospect Hill Historic District residents were wholesale or retail purveyors of the perishable goods shipped to Willimantic by rail. Wholesale grocers Frank Larabee and Edwin Bugbee lived on Prospect Street (55 and 97 Prospect Street). Bugbee's company at Valley and Jackson streets also supplied flour and seed. Swifts Meat had a wholesale outlet at the rail yards run by Arthur French. By 1875 the company was shipping meat from Chicago in refrigerated cars. French, who rose from bookkeeper to head of the company, apparently celebrated his success by building a large house on Summit Street, his second in the neighborhood (125 Summit Street).
Among the ten grocers in town supplied by these dealers was Burt Thompson, who lived at 275 Prospect Street. Thompson's store was in Franklin Hall, a commercial block he owned on Main Street. Judging by the size and elegance of his Second Empire home at 290 Prospect Street, Samuel Amidon was one the more successful. Partners in local grocery firms included Orange Perkins of Perkins and Bliss at 195 High Street and George Burnham of Burnham & Kelly at 148-150 Church Street.
Prospect Hill Historic District residents provided a wide range of other goods and services. John Leonard, a florist, and Henry Whitford, a baker, ran their business out of their houses (John Leonard House, 393-395 Prospect Street; Henry C. Whitford House, 258 Lewiston Avenue). Undertakers Origin Sessions and William Cummings lived across from each other at 283 and 284 Prospect Street. Physicians with home offices included Isaac Gallup at 39 Pearl Street and Andrew Creighton at 79 Maple Avenue; John D. Bentley, a dentist, lived at 180 Church Street. Mill workers could quench their thirst in at least five grog shops, including one run by John McDonough, who had a nice house at 221-223 Jackson Street. Delphis Boucher, a French Canadian who once lived over his saloon on Milk Street, erected a fine Queen Anne on upper Jackson Street in 1905 (296 Jackson Street). Factory-made shoes could be purchased at W. N. Potter's store in the Hamlin Block, which he also owned (146 Church Street) or at Charles Risedorf's (183 North Street), but it is likely that Zephir Bergeron cobbled and repaired shoes at a shop at his house at 85 Turner Street. Thomas Turner's drygoods emporium, possibly the largest of the three in town, was located in the Turner Block; and appropriately enough, the proprietor built his home at 14 Turner Street. Both partners of Carpenter & Fowler, hardware dealers, lived in the district (Arthur R Carpenter House, 156 Prospect Street; A.T. Fowler House, 18 Bellevue Street), as did Jay Grant of Hurley & Grant (164 High Street). Howard Alford employed his son, Giles, as clerk in his hardware store and they lived side by side at 196 and 200 Prospect Street. Patent medicines often were hawked by travelling salesmen in this period, but Frank M. Wilson actually had a drugstore, probably the first one in town. His firm, F.M. Wilson & Co., wholesale and retail purveyors of medicinal extracts, was located in the Fuller Block, which he owned. Wilson, who was elected first selectman of Windham and became head of the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association, lived in a shingled Queen Anne at 196 Church Street.
The presence of not one, but two newspapers in this period, as well as a newsstand on Main Street, was a sure sign that the city had come of age. Arthur I. Bill, editor and publisher of the Willimantic Journal lived in a Queen Anne at 183 Prospect Street and had a printing plant on lower Church Street (now in the expanded Main Street Historic District). John A. McDonald, the editor and owner of the Willimantic Chronicle, a newspaper still in business today, lived at 209 Church Street. George H. Bartell, a reporter at the Chronicle who became the printing company treasurer, lived next door in a house McDonald built for him (215 Church Street).
With Willimantic growing at a rate of 1000 new residents a year, there was a great demand for housing. Several large lumber and architectural millwork firms and a virtual army of local carpenters and construction firms kept pace with the district's building boom, with many of them engaged in real estate speculation. W. H. Latham, an architectural millwork firm, was located in the middle of a block between Valley and Spring streets. The company laid out lots and built workers' housing along Spring Street, including an elaborate double-decker tenement to advertise their wares (58, 61 and 66-68 Spring Street). Several other firms built housing for employees, including Loomer & Kingsley, lumber and coal merchants, which had a tenement at 23-29 Maple Avenue. A Victorian vernacular at 120 North Street was home to Loren Lincoln of Lincoln & Boss, a company that also specialized in architectural sash and blinds. The principals of Hillhouse & Taylor, perhaps the largest of the millwork firms, were neighbors on Church Street (James W. Hillhouse House, 185 Church Street; George F. Taylor House, 193 Church Street). George Taylor's Queen Anne/Stick style house displayed much of the fancy architectural millwork produced by the company.
Edgar C. Washburn was one of the many carpenter/builders who lived at 265 Lewiston Avenue who built houses on speculation for sale or rent. Valentine Murphy of Doyle & Murphy, builders, also lived there (61 Lewiston Avenue), as did Charles L. Crane, a partner in Latham & Crane (85-87 Lewiston Avenue). Albert and Nazaire Routhier, father and son, built their own Bungalow there about 1920 (35 Lewiston Avenue). Elievdore Loiselle built a Foursquare for his father, Theophile, on the west end of Valley Street (328 Valley Street) and three other houses to rent in the same block, all in 1913 (330, 334 and 338 Valley Street).
Most of the rest of the development was smaller in scale, with residents building additional houses in their immediate neighborhoods, either on their own subdivided property or on new streets laid out inside the blocks. The latter was the case with Lincoln Avenue, laid out by M. Eugene Lincoln, the local postmaster (5-7, 9 and 17 Lincoln Avenue). Carpenter Charles Raynes developed Raynes Court with two rental cottages (15 and 17 Raynes Court) and built other income properties on Summit. Asher Holmes, a fish and oyster dealer, built four houses on Lewiston Avenue and lived in one of them (250 Lewiston Avenue). Leander Freeman, who came to Willimantic with an Irish railroad work crew in the early 1870s, became a successful businessman with a chain of jewelry stores in Connecticut. In addition to his house at 269 Jackson Street, Freeman built and owned at least five rental properties nearby (243-247, 251-253, 255-259, 261-265 and 264 Jackson Street).
Even prominent businessmen like William A. Grant, a wholesale dealer in flour and grain, indulged in some limited speculation. The modest Queen Anne he built next door to his mansion was sold to Joseph Riordon, who rose from clerk to president of the Boston Store in the Murray Building on Main Street (William D. Grant House, 291 Prospect Street; Joseph B. Riordan House, 305 Prospect Street). This fashionable block became home to several other upwardly mobile district residents. Samuel J. Miller, once a clerk at Willimantic Linen, moved here (315 Prospect Street) after becoming clerk and treasurer for the City of Willimantic. Wilton Little, who had risen up through the ranks at Morrison Company, built a new house there (333 Prospect Street). He had sold his first house around the corner at 122 Windham Street to George Phoenix, principal of the State Normal School. By 1900 George Elliot who worked for many years at Chesbro, a fire insurance company and wholesalers of coal, wood, bicycles, and carriages, bought out the company and built a Queen Anne at the corner of Prospect and Windham streets (347 Prospect Street).
Much of the institutional development in the Prospect Hill Historic District symbolized the economic and social progress of successive waves of immigrants. Many of the Irish who came to Willimantic to build the railroads at mid-century were hired on as construction workers for the large granite mills at ATCO and Windham Cotton along the river. Despite an initially hostile reception, a number stayed in town and, with their wives and children, found work in mills, and established a largely Irish enclave along Jackson Street. The Irish were first served by a mission priest from Middletown, with mass held in parish homes. Their first church was an old wood building moved to a lot on lower Jackson Street, the site of the present St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, built in 1860 (99 Jackson Street). St. Joseph's Convent, erected across the street in 1892, became the first hospital in Willimantic in 1908 (100 Jackson Street). A new parish parochial school replaced an earlier wooden building at 21 Valley Street in 1907. The Irish community was large enough to elect Danny Dunn, one of their own, as mayor of city in the early 1900s. A successful politician who had served as a state legislator and register of voters, Dunn had built a two-family home at 203-205 Summit Street in 1893.
Many French Canadians from Quebec came to Willimantic to work in the mills after the Civil War. They worshipped at St. Joseph's until their own Romanesque Revival church was completed at 57 Valley Street in 1907, the first French-speaking parish in Connecticut. St. Mary's Convent, located behind the church at 80 Maple Avenue, was once the home of George Harrington, a prominent politician who served as the first mayor of the city in 1894. There was a Swedish Lutheran Church at 92 Oak Street by 1894, and a Ukrainian church was also erected there in 1954 (70 Oak Street).
Victoriana at its most prolific, the Prospect Hill Historic District is distinguished by the exceptional quality, range, and integrity of the architecture. Certainly other urban neighborhoods in the state were graced by stylish houses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but few are so densely concentrated or so consistently elaborated. From the smallest worker's cottage to the mill-owner's mansion, nearly every house displays some level of architectural detail.
Every district has its stars, individually significant well-preserved resources that are outstanding examples of architectural style. On Prospect Hill, perhaps as many as 100 houses meet these criteria and contribute to the extraordinary significance of the Prospect Hill Historic District. Their collective contribution, which in no way detracts from individual significance, is enhanced by a generally high level of architectural integrity. While the ownership status originally proclaimed by the location and scale of many of these major contributors was somewhat diminished in the wake of rapid and dense development, these stars still dominate the district streetscapes, often literally towering over their neighbors.
One of these significant properties stands out for its major contribution to the architectural development of the Prospect Hill Historic District. As a style setter, the J. Dwight Chaffee House at 183 Summit Street clearly defined the design parameters for most of the Late Victorian styles. Built in 1880, a very early example of the Queen Anne, its sophisticated and well-integrated design established a pattern language for the rest of the century. The pattern consisted of broad pedimented facade gables, with some level of applied architectural detail or textured surface, to define the facade, and often incorporated multiple secondary gables to highlight complex roof lines. The anchor and focus of the composition was provided by a tower and the encompassing sweep of a veranda, the latter feature often elaborated with a variety of machine-made architectural elements.
Even though Victorian society was primed for change, ready to embrace every new architectural style as it came along, it was the application of the new production methods and advances in machine technology of the Industrial Revolution that truly liberated architectural taste. With the introduction of the "balloon frame" in the 1850s, a method of construction made possible by the availability of standardized dimensional lumber and mass-produced nails, houses were no longer limited to the box-like forms of post-and-beam framing, paving the way for the asymmetrical massing of the more complex forms and styles seen on Prospect Hill. Even the more commodious houses could be built quickly and relatively inexpensively. Together with the mass-produced architectural millwork of the machine age, the humblest cottage could be individualized and the sky was the limit for the more elaborate houses of the well-to-do. As demonstrated by the nearly universal elaboration of residences on Prospect Hill, at a time when a "fancy" house was a symbol of status, the degree of ornamentation was only restricted by good taste, or perhaps, the depth of the homeowner's pocketbook. Obviously the unusual number of lumber and millwork companies doing business right in Willimantic was key to the extraordinary variety of architectural ornament in the district, as they vied with each other to produce an astonishing range of turned, sawn, and applied detail for house exteriors and even imported exotic woods for interior paneling and moldings.
Although the Chaffee House and few others in the district have the hallmarks of a professional, few architects designed custom houses for the middle class in this period. Most people turned to the many readily available published sources for the design of their homes, especially catalogs put out by individual architects. By the 1890s these catalogs were often published by firms with a stable of architects, such as the Century Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Building supply and construction companies, like those in Willimantic, often had stock plans for sale, and of course, by the early 1900s, complete mail-order houses were available from firms such as Sears Roebuck. These catalogs were more than a source of ideas for the prospective homeowner. In addition to promoting the joys and benefits of home ownership, most plan books included some practical advice on hiring contractors, as well as detailed materials lists and cost estimates. In fact, with their detailed and scaled floor plans and elevation drawings, a skilled carpenter might build a house right from the pages of the catalog.
Architects, like S.D. Reed, published their plans as a cost-effective way to reach a wide audience. Obviously aimed at urban populations in New England, Reed's designs were named for cities. In addition to the "Norwalk" and "Hartford" models, he included a cottage especially designed for a narrow (25') urban lot called the "Willimantic." Several houses on Carey Street come close, but the exact model could not be found in the district. Identified as Design VII in Reed's 1885 catalog, this cottage could be built for as little as $1500, an amount that did not include indoor plumbing. Later in the century, however, such amenities were routinely provided, along with central heating and gas lighting. By then, the cost of a large two-story house with a tower, and such features as inglenooks and fireplaces just for show, could exceed $7500.00.
Of particular interest to architectural historians is the fact that Reed's designs were not identified by conventional style nomenclature. Instead they were described and promoted as "free style," which in the architect's words, "... forms may be treated and dressed to secure variety of outline and picturesque expression." As the Prospect Hill District so well demonstrates by the blurring of stylistic distinctions and the occasional excessive elaboration, "free style" was certainly the informing architectural metaphor for the Victorian era.
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‡ Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Preservation Associates, LLC, and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commissions, Proscpect Hill Historic District, Windham, CT, nomination document, 2003, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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