Victorian Fence Posts Along North Street

It’s been well documented that Litchfield, as much as any other town, is a shining example of the Colonial Revival. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Litchfield residents remade their town from one that featured many Victorian homes (with a few structures remaining from the Colonial Era) to an embodiment of Colonial architecture, with many homes painted in the classic white-with-black-shutters look.

Among the most notable examples of the Colonial Revival’s impact on the town’s appearance are the redesigned court house tower and the restored Congregational Church. There are still vestiges of the earlier Victorian design, even if they are small. The North Street fence shown above features a classic Colonial look. But a closer examination of the stone slabs reveals:

… the post holes from an earlier Victorian metal fence. A similar metal fence is visible in this c.1905 post card of North Street:

Many such holes and old stone posts are visible around town, reminders of the fact that the historic Colonial appearance of Litchfield was carefully crafted over decades, more than a hundred years removed from the Colonial Era.

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Congregational Church Cornerstone

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Litchfield’s Congregational Church has been called “the most photographed church in New England.” It’s Greek Revival design and the simplicity of its black shutters and white paint seemingly epitomize colonial architecture. Its style is a perfect match to its setting.

Except that this is both Litchfield’s third and fifth Congregational Church, a story partly illuminated by this cornerstone.

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The first Congregational Church was erected between 1723 and 1726 in the intersection of the town’s major north/south and east/west roads, where today we would find the green. A largely square structure, it was sold in 1761 and the larger second Congregational Church was erected the following year.  By 1828, the church building had deteriorated so badly that one anonymous writer to the Litchfield County Post commented, “the shabby building pains the eye of every stranger.” The structure’s dilapidated condition – coupled with their era’s surge in desire to separate church and state, as manifested in Connecticut’s 1818 constitution – led to a decision to build a new Congregational Church off the green.

It is the construction of this church that is commemorated by the “1829” on the cornerstone. For its popularity and the rave architectural reviews the structure draws today, its design fell out of favor in the post-Civil War era. Of the building, Henry Ward Beecher, who had grown up in Litchfield, remarked “There is not a single line or feature in the old building suggesting taste or beauty.” With the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture, the third church was moved down the Torrington Road in 1873 and replaced by a wooden structure with dark stained glass windows and dark paneling and furniture, representative of the Victorian era.

The third church served as a gym, a roller skating rink, concert and dance hall, and movie theater, until the Colonial Revival swept the nation in the 1920s. At that time, Edgar Van Winkle, chairman of the Congregational Church’s building committee, termed the fourth church a “monstrosity” and, in 1929, hired noted architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr., to develop plans to move the third church back to a site opposite the green and restore it to its Greek Revival splendor (if not to its exact appearance, as several details were changed). This restoration is commemorated by the “1929” on the cornerstone.

The Congregational Church is an iconic symbol of Litchfield, but its foundation highlights the fact that this was not always the case.

For more on the architectural history of Litchfield’s Congregational Church, see Rachel Carley’s excellent book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (2011).

 

 

Wild Garden Monument

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What might appear to be Litchfield’s newest monument is simply an older one, once again back in sight.

In 1922, the White Memorial Foundation leased 150 acres east of Little Pond to the Litchfield Garden Club for the “creation and maintenance of a wild garden containing trees, shrubs and flowers native to Connecticut and to Litchfield County.”  (The Garden Club paid $1.00 to lease the land for ten years.) Trails were opened allowing visitors to access the gardens and Little Pond, and the Sutton Bridge was built to cross the Bantam River.

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A 1932 map showing the Litchfield Wild Garden. The Sutton Bridge appears at the bottom. “Map of the Litchfield Wild Garden” Litchfield Historical Society, Helga J. Ingraham Memorial Library. Thanks to Linda Hocking at the Litchfield Historical Society for providing the digital image.

One trail began at the intersection of Old South Road and Gallows Lane, and there the Garden Club placed a monument to greet visitors. It read:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,                                                                                                     The song of the birds for mirth,                                                                                                           One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden                                                                                       Than anywhere else on earth.

The lines are from the poem “God’s Garden” by English poet Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858-1932), and are commonly found on plaques in gardens.

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In 1975, the Wild Gardens reverted back to White Memorial, and the small plot of trees at the intersection of Old South and Gallows soon engulfed the monument. Recently, however, it has been been brought back into view, and while several words are missing from the poem, it remains a tribute to the splendor of the natural world that surrounds Litchfield.

The Residence of Charles D. Wheeler

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Charles D. Wheeler (1817-1895) was a Litchfield farmer who built this home on what is now Hutchinson Parkway (named for Isaac Hutchinson, Wheeler’s son-in-law) around 1840. With its gables emulating pediments and its pilasters, it is representative of the Greek Revival style of architecture. The home still stands, and its barns are cataloged in Historic Barns of Connecticut.

This illustration appeared J.W. Lewis’s 1881 History of Litchfield County, Connecticut. Those with a careful eye might notice the hitching posts and carriage steps along the white picket fence. Such vestiges of a bygone era of transportation still dot Litchfield’s landscape, including these on North Street:

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Hidden Nearby: The Torrington Savings Bank

Alexander Hamilton (1755? to 1804), first United States Secretary of the Treasury

Alexander Hamilton’s envisioned an economic future for the United States in which the fledgling country would soon rival the great powers of Europe in industrial production. The introduction of factories to the new nation was dependent upon banks that could provide access to the money needed to fund such undertakings. The result was the Bank of the United States, which was chartered in 1791, and operated until its charter expired – and was not renewed – in 1811. Five years later the Second Bank of the United States was created by Congress and President James Madison. However, an extension of its charter was vetoed by Andrew Jackson in 1832, leading to the transfer of the Bank from federal to state control in 1836.

A political cartoon critical of Jackson’s 1832 veto of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States.

In the wake of the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States in 1836, banks across the country struggled with fraud, counterfeiting, and the lack of access to banks for many Americans. Banks were banned altogether in Wisconsin. In the states of the Northeast, where banking continued with few interruptions, industry thrived. This was not the case in other parts of the country. The National Banking Act of 1863 hoped to ensure consistent regulation of banks – and thus, consume confidence – across the country. This was especially important in the midst of the Civil War, as banks were the major purveyors of war bonds. With access to capital restored, American industry was poised to explode.

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This formed the backstory to the founding of the Torrington Savings Bank. Originally chartered as the Wolcottville Savings Bank in 1868, its first location was in the Granite Block, opposite today’s Warner Theatre. Francis Holley was the first president of the bank. In 1881, the bank changed its name to the Torrington Savings Bank. In 1938, the bank moved to its present headquarters, at the corner of Main Street and Mason Street, which had previously been the site of the George S. Weeks Grocery.

The Torrington Savings Bank, built 1938. Photo courtesy of Torrington Historical Society

The noted American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) famously said that in architecture, “Form follows function.” This is evident in architect Carl Victor Johnson’s design, in which the sturdy brick and stone design is offset by colonial revival architecture, reminding passersby of the bank’s New England roots.

For more on the history of the Torrington Savings Bank building – and an excellent source for the history of Torrington – be sure to check out the Torrington Historical Society’s “Audio Walking Tour of Downtown Torrington.”

For more on the history of counterfeiting in Litchfield County, see my book, Wicked Litchfield County.

DAR’s Memorial Window at Litchfield Historical Society

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One of Litchfield’s newest markers (along with the War on Terror monument on the green) was dedicated in September 2016. It commemorates the dedication of a stained glass window in the north side of the Litchfield Historical Society.

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The window was dedicated in 1907 by the Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as a memorial to the more than 3,000 men from Litchfield County who served in the War for Independence. For more on the service of these men, click here.

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Frederic Crowninshield (1845-1918)

 

The Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter was founded as an independent branch of the DAR in 1899. Prior to that, it had existed as an adjunct of the Judea (Washington) Chapter. Elizabeth Barney Buel, the first regent of the chapter, spearheaded the effort to place a memorial stained glass window in the Noyes Memorial Building, which at the time housed both the historical society and the town’s library. It required considerable fund raising, both for the execution and installation and for the services of artist Frederic Crowninshield, who was president of the Fine Arts Federation and former instructor at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts School of Drawing and Painting. Crowninshield is perhaps best known for his stained glass window Emmanuel’s Land , depicting a scene from Pilgrim’s Progress, in Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church.

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Crowninshield’s design for Litchfield depicts a young man with a sword in his right hand and a laurel branch in his left, symbolic of victory in the war. The full beauty of the artist’s design is visible when the window is illuminated at night.

 

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The Noyes Memorial Building, Litchfield Historical Society. The Revolutionary War Soldiers Memorial Window is at the far right of this picture.

 

In 1964, the library moved from the Noyes Memorial Building (named for Julia Tallmadge Noyes, a granddaughter of Mary Floyd Tallmadge) to its current location in the former home of Oliver Wolcott, Jr. This allowed for the Litchfield Historical Society to occupy the entire building on the corner of South and East Streets, where the young man with drawn sword in the window can guard the town’s history.

LHRR Series: The Last 1/10th Mile

Runners making the final turn from South Street to West Street experience the surge of adrenaline that comes with the wall of sound rising from the crowds along the sidewalk and the Green. The Green, the center of community activity in Litchfield, has not always been the pastoral heart of the town.

An 18th century map of Litchfield drawn by Ezra Stiles. Courtesy of Yale University.

Like many Connecticut communities, the Green began as simply a very wide road. In Litchfield, it was Meeting House Street, and was what is now East and West Streets. The western portion of this road was 264 feet wide, with the eastern portion stretching to 330 feet wide. (Colonial roads were much wider than our modern roads, in part because the lack of effective road building tools meant that large boulders and tree stumps would be left, so travelers needed ample space to get around them.) In the roadbed where Meeting House Street intersected with North and South Streets stood the Congregational Church. In 1752, the county courthouse was also built in the center of the road, and the sheep and pigs of local farms milled about.

Lyman Beecher, minister at the Litchfield Congregational Church from 1810 to 1826.

At that point the town did not have a centralized commercial district, but in the coming decades, especially during the Revolutionary War, businesses in town clustered around this intersection. An 1814 map of town shows a great deal of activity on North Street, with the courthouse having been moved to the southern side of West Street. The Congregational Church – with Lyman Beecher as minister – still stood in the intersection. This is commemorated with a monument that today is in the southern portion of the Green; there was, however, no grass there in 1814.

 

The Litchfield Green,. 1907.

What we would recognize as the Green began to emerge after a new Congregational Church was built outside of the intersection in 1828-29. The town decided to grade its central area to create a commons. This was divided into three sections, East, West, and Center Parks. By the time of the 1851 county centennial, this had become the major meeting place in town. The early 20th century would see transformations of the Green by Litchfield’s Village Improvement Society, but for the new sidewalks, lighting, and trees that came and went, the Green had become the heart of town, which it will be tomorrow when approximately 1,500 await the start of the 40th Litchfield Hills Road Race.

Good luck to all runners!

For more on the development of the town of Litchfield see Rachel Carley’s book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).