Architectural History: As Connecticut Grew, Buildings Reflected Changing Styles

Examples of historic architecture in Hartford. From left to right: The Wadsworth Atheneum, The Old State House, Aetna and the Phoenix 'Boat' Building. (Courant File Photos)

Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum — the country's oldest public art museum — positioned itself at the vanguard of Modern architecture in the 1930s with exhibits and visits by the movement's leading proponents.

But the Wadsworth took it a step further: the interior spaces of the Avery Memorial addition, opened in 1934, embraced the Modernist movement: little ornamentation, wide open exhibit areas and skylights flooding the space with light.

Outside, however, the tension between old and new is clearly evident. The design is far more traditional, fitting in with the original museum structures — and sensibilities of the times.

"In the early 20th century, modern architecture was not loved in the U.S.," said Michael J. Crosbie, an Essex architect and professor of architecture at the University of Hartford. "American tastes tend to be more conservative and, of course, modernism was associated with Socialism."

Connecticut's architectural heritage rarely follows well-defined periods. But experts say its evolution has followed a half-dozen or so larger social, economic and technological changes. Even Modern architecture would finally gain acceptance in the 1950s, as Connecticut — and the rest of the country — looked to build cities of the future after World War II.

"The reality beneath all the aesthetics are non-aesthetic drivers: the natural world, technology and social conditions," Duo Dickinson, a Madison architect and writer, said. "There isn't a state in the U.S. that has more stark evidence that reflects changes in those realms."

Alan J. Plattus, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture and founder of the university's Center of Urban Design, said the pace of change hasn't been consistent over time.

"The landscape in Connecticut transformed slowly, at first, in the years before the Civil War," Plattus said, "and then, more dramatically afterwards with the coming of steam power and the Industrial Revolution."

Early Architecture

Most of the early structures in Connecticut — homes and meetinghouses built before the mid-1700s — were wood-framed houses covered with clapboard or shingles. Many of the homes were two-stories, with steeply-pitched roofs to handle heavy New England snowfall.

Not many of the oldest homes survive, but among those that do is the Thomas Lee House in East Lyme, dating back to about 1660. The original building — it later had several additions — has the typical timber frame and pitched roof. It was saved from demolition by an early preservation effort in the early 1900s and one descendant of the Lee family operated the first submarine, "The Turtle" during the Revolution.

"Our stuff wasn't grandiose," William Hosley, a historian who lectures on state architecture in the program "Beauty & the Beast: 300 Years of Connecticut Architecture," said. "Remember these people were Puritans. They were reluctant to show their wealth in flashy ways."

In New Haven, the first planning of a town green began even earlier, in 1638, with a grouping of churches and homes. (They were embellished in the early 1800s, with the grouping of three remarkable churches: Center Church, United Church and Trinity Episcopal Church, according to Christopher Wigren, of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.)

As trade flourished in the late 1700s and early 1800s, especially by river and harbors, merchants did erect larger residences. The Joseph Webb colonial-style house in Wethersfield, built in 1752, is evidence of the growing prosperity that many merchants enjoyed in the Connecticut River Valley in this period.

Thriving trade around harbors is famously depicted in John Stobart's painting of Hartford's waterfront looking up State Street with the Old State House at the top of the hill. The brownstone-and-brick Old State House, constructed in 1796, points to the larger and more grand public spaces that also began to appear in cities. Tellingly, the Old State House faced the waterfront, then the major thoroughfare of transportation and trade.

"This was the beginning of building impressive, monumental structures," said Andrew Walsh, a historian at Trinity College in Hartford. "It was the biggest building in Hartford, by far, and probably in the state. That's a pretty snazzy building."

'Cathedrals Of Industry'

The aftermath of the Civil War would prove to be a critical juncture for the state.

Connecticut and most Northeastern states long had modest factories, but the Industrial Revolution that followed the war led to construction of massive factories. There were the Cheneys in Manchester, with silk manufacturing; Sam and Elizabeth Colt in Hartford, with gun making; and the Tafts at Ponemah Mills in Norwich, with textile production.

The scale of operations was enormous — Ponemah Mills once was said to be the largest textile mill in the world, with 4,000 looms.