Overview of Architectural Styles in Middletown
The buildings of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were simple and functional. Their form was derived primarily from the building traditions of medieval England. Colonial buildings are constructed of heavy, wooden, post-and-beam frames held together by mortice-and-tenon joints and sheathed in narrow clapboards. A central chimney, which provides heating, also supports the interior framing.
There are few variants of this style. Colonial style houses can often be identified by an overhang across the façade and/or gable end at the second floor level. They range from 1½ to 2½ stories in height; with a doorway in the center of a three-bay or five-bay wide façade. Occasionally a lean-to extension at the rear creates the familiar “salt-box” form. The interior of earlier houses are generally plain with vertical sheathing or plaster on the walls. Raised paneling is used more often in the houses of the late eighteenth century.
Usually the stairway is located in front of the chimney and curves around itself in the narrow space provided for it.
This building type commonly was used in rural areas in Middletown until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the urban area, however, the classical features of the English Georgian style were introduced by the mid-eighteenth century.
The Georgian style was an outgrowth of English Renaissance architecture. The impact of the Georgian style in Middletown was primarily seen in the introduction of rigid symmetry, a balanced façade, the diminishing use of the overhang, and the increasing use of classical ornamentation on the interior and exterior.
In its most impressive form, the Georgian house has a large central hallway, rather than a central chimney. The overhang of the earlier period is no longer used. The exterior is ornamented with a classical doorway, usually with a triangular or scroll pediment, and modillions and dentils often decorate the cornice. Interiors have a balustrade stairway and paneled and plastered walls. High style examples of this style are rare in Middletown; the most notable survival is the Seth Wetmore House (Washington Street Extension, 1746).
A house form which became popular in the late eighteenth century in Middletown was the “half house,” a small house with a three-bay wide façade, and offset door leading into a side hall, and a gable roof with the ridge facing the street. This form continued to be used during the late Colonial, the Georgian and the Federal periods, and successfully incorporated the decorative elements of each style.
The influence of the Adamseque or Federal style, so designated because of its popularity during the American Federal period, became predominant in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The style consists primarily of a specific type of decoration overlaid on houses of Georgian form, including the three-bay, side-hall house. The characteristic ornament of the Federal style is delicate and light. Brick, with its potential for delicate patterns, became a more popular building material in this period.
In Middletown predominant features are the small, columned entrance porch with arched, cove ceiling, which can be seen, for example, on the Mather-Mansfield House (151 Main Street, 1807 to 1810) and John Watkinson House (70 Main Street, 1810); and the use of an elliptical fanlight over doorways and in the gable ends of roofs.
The nineteenth century saw a series of self-conscious revivals of earlier architectural forms. The temples of ancient Greece were the models for the Greek Revival style in America, which was the first of the many stylistic revivals. In Middletown, the Greek Revival style was first introduced in the Samuel Russell House (350 High Street, 1828). Buildings of this style employ Greek-inspired detail:
- Bold, flat mouldings
- Flush boarding
- Plain columns of the Doric or Ionic orders
- Severely square doorways
The temple form is expressed in vernacular building in Middletown as a narrow, two-and-a-half story structure with the gable end of the roof turned to the street and treated as a pediment, and a three-bay-wide façade with a side door. The earliest examples often display details of the Federal style, especially an elliptical fanlight in the gable of the pediment. In its modified form, the Greek Revival temple-form house proliferated in Middletown in the 1840s and 1850s.
Another Greek Revival house type was popular for larger buildings. This type is characterized by a block-like cubical form with a low, hipped roof and Greek-inspired decoration. When constructed of brick, these buildings are often covered with stucco (sometimes scored to resemble masonry) to give a plain, flat surface appearance to the exterior. A notable group of buildings of this type lines the west side of Broad Street.
The Italianate style (modeled after buildings of the Italian Renaissance) was introduced in Middletown just prior to the Civil War. The earliest examples were very plain; however, the style became increasingly elaborate in the late nineteenth century. After the Civil War, the Italianate style became as common as the Greek Revival had been earlier, with many vernacular interpretations.
Its distinguishing form is a main cubical block and a flat or low-hipped roof with wide, overhanging eaves. Decoration is generally classical in inspiration. The relatively rate pre-Civil War examples are chiefly high-style houses on High and Broad Streets, such as the Elihu WM. Starr House (298 High Street, 1841 to 1842) and the William Cooley House (139 Broad Street, c. 1850).
A third style introduced in the 1840s in Middletown emulated the architecture of the medieval period in Europe. The Gothic Revival was a forerunner of “picturesque” form and decoration which was to become increasingly popular in post-Civil War Victorian architecture. Prior to the Civil War, most examples of the Gothic Revival in Middletown are domestic; however, after the war, Gothic became the standard style for ecclesiastical and institutional buildings.
The Gothic Revival style is characterized by asymmetry and variety of form, in contrast to the balance of elements associated with the Greek Revival and Italianate styles. “Gothic” elements, including steeply pitched roofs, pointed-arch windows, parapets and pinnacles emphasize its picturesque character. A particularly fine early example is the brownstone house of Duane Barnes (327 High Street, c. 1847 to 1848).
Middletown’s elite engaged the services of architects to design their houses in the latest style. Many Middletown masons and carpenters became familiar with these styles through their employment in the construction and supervision of architect-designed buildings. Through the building of modified versions of high-style examples for their own clients and in the development of residential neighborhoods for real estate speculation, these local builders were instrumental in introducing changes of taste to the community.
The most important Middletown master builder of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century was Barzalai Sage, who constructed the Alsop House for architects Platte and Benne of New Haven (1838), and the South Congregational Church for the firm of Town and Davis, also of New Haven (1929, demolished). Sage also was responsible for buildings of his own design such as Christ Church (119 Broad Street, 1833) and the First President’s House at Wesleyan (255 High Street, 1837 to 1838), as well as numerous residences. The master carpenter Isaac Baldwin also assisted in the construction of architect-designed houses, such as the Alsop House.
“Picturesque” architecture, first introduced the Gothic Revival style, reached its full development in the Victorian period. The architecture of the time is characterized by both diversity of form and floor plan and exuberance of surface embellishment. Surface decoration includes both medieval and classical motifs which are freely interpreted. A broad range of stylistic treatment is found in both domestic and commercial buildings although institutional buildings, especially churches, remain resolutely Gothic. Despite the overriding eclecticism of architecture of the Victorian period, a few distinct styles can be discerned.
The Italianate style, first introduced in the late 1830s, continued to be popular. In its later phase, buildings of this style became increasingly decorative, as the characteristic cube was adorned with elaborate entrance porches, carved brackets supporting the eaves and cupolas. A good example of exuberant carved work in the Italianate vein can be seen on the Wilcox-Meech House (55 Crescent Street, c. 1871). A more elaborate version of this style is the Italianate Villa, whose form is often asymmetrical, and invariably includes an attached tower. An example of the Victorian Italianate Villa style in Middletown is the Charles G.R. Vinal House (281 High Street, c. 1875).
The second Empire style is an imposing style, and was popular chiefly for large buildings such as the White-Stoddard House on the South Green (now the Masonic Temple, 33 Pleasant Street, c. 1870), and institutional buildings such as Orange Judd Hall on College Row at Wesleyan University (1869 to 1872). It is characterized by the use of the mansard roof, usually covered with decorative slate. Exteriors are elaborately decorated with exuberant, heavy, classical elements and decorative ironwork. Cornices are supported by elaborately carved brackets, and projecting hoods cover doorways and windows.
“Queen Anne” is a stylistic term which embraces a large variety of buildings. The Queen Anne house is characterized by diversity of form: intersecting roofs, bay windows, porches and towers. Decoration is picturesque, including scroll-cut woodwork, clapboarding and shingle siding, and stained glass windows. Typical examples are the houses at 159, 165 and 171 Lincoln Street (c. 1894). More unusual is the J. Peters Pelton House (250 Court Street, 1883 to 1884), with its many projections and docked-gable roofs.
An equally important architectural legacy of the Victorian period are the many houses constructed in the residential neighborhoods of the late nineteenth century. Throughout the city small-scale developers were active building houses for new urban dwellers. Constructed of wood frame or brick, these buildings often cannot be identified as being of particular style. Most have an “L” or “T” shaped floor plan, with a corresponding cross-gabled roof. Decoration can range from minimal to profuse. Sited on small lots, and consistent in scale and siting, these residences give character to many Middletown neighborhoods.
The typical Victorian commercial building is constructed of brick, and is about three or four stories in height. In some cases the only decorative relief is a bracketed cornice. Other commercial buildings may be as fully embellished as the houses of the period. A small group of buildings, which exhibits the great variety of expression found in late Victorian commercial architecture, is on lower Court Street, and includes the Middlesex Banking Company (179 Court Street, 1874), the Masonic Meeting House (181 to 183 Court Street, 1877) and the Middletown Club (189 Court Street, 1888).
In these buildings, brick terra cotta and wood all lend themselves to a rich, exuberant, decorative treatment. A unique Victorian commercial building in Middletown is Southmayd’s Building (542 to 544 Main Street, 1872), which has an ornate façade of cast-iron.
The industrial buildings of the late-nineteenth century are an often neglected, but nevertheless significant building type of the period. Generally constructed in brick, three or four stories in height, these buildings display far less decoration than their residential counterparts. Visual interest is provided by variety of window openings and occasional brick corbelling of the walls and cornice. Perhaps most appealing is the charm of their mill-pond sites, as for example, at the Starr and Russell Mills (Beverly Heights, c. 1865) and the Russell Company Upper Mill (475 East Main Street, 1845 and 1870). These handsome and serviceable buildings are an important record of Middletown’s most significant era of industrial growth.
The predominant influence on architectural style in the early twentieth century was the revival of classicism. Plan and form were once again characterized by regularity and symmetry, as opposed to the picturesque and asymmetrical quality of the architecture of the late Victorian period. Decoration is classical with decorative elements incorporated into buildings according to established rules of correct proportion and hierarchy of placement.
The architecture of the Renaissance provided the inspiration for most public and institutional buildings. These buildings tend to be the most formal, correct and imposing of any of the period. They often display richly decorated facades of marble with carved columns and pilasters. The Renaissance Revival style is represented by numerous buildings in Middletown’s downtown.
The style was especially popular for financial institutions, for example, Liberty Bank (315 Main Street, 1928). Perhaps the most notable local example of the style is Wesleyan University’s Olin Library (200 Church Street, 1925 to 1927), with preliminary designs by Henry Bacon, and final plans by the firm of McKim, Mead and White, the foremost architectural firm of the time.
Commercial buildings of the early-twentieth century are larger in scale and size than their predecessors. Rarely however, do they extend over five stories in Middletown (with the exception of the Hotel Arrigoni, 605 Main Street, 1914). Almost universally they are constructed with a steel frame, rather than with the load-bearing masonry walls used earlier. The metal frame, filled in with brick or occasionally concrete, allows for larger window openings and more open facades than is found on earlier commercial buildings.
When decoration is used, it consists of classical elements such as pilasters and cornices. Large brick buildings of this type are prominent on the east side of the North End of Main Street.
Representative of the popular commercial buildings of this era is the Caulkins and Post Building (484 Main Street) with its wide, long windows, and a plain façade decorated only by a classical cornice. When Caulkins and Post remodeled this store in 1895, its modern features were praised: great size, large expanses of open floor space for showrooms, passenger elevator, and electric lighting and steam heat. An observer concluded “In short, the methods in vogue in great cities for expediting business and for convenience of patrons have all been adopted.”
A few Commercial buildings in Middletown are of the Art Deco style. Buildings of this type have a modern and “stream-lined” appearance and employ geometric decoration such as zigzags and chevrons. A notable Middletown example with a stuccoed and marble façade is the Woolworth Building (428 Main Street, 1939).
Domestic architecture also experienced a revival of interest in Colonial architecture and classical expression. The houses of the Colonial Revival interpret the Georgian architecture of the English Renaissance and the buildings of Colonial America with varying degrees of accuracy. Some are nearly duplicates of American Colonial buildings, built on a larger scale, such as the Holy Trinity Rectory (148 Broad Street, 1902 to 1903). Others display greater freedom of form and are simply overlaid with decorative elements inspired by Colonial building. For example, a house which has the irregular form and plan of the earlier Queen Anne style may display columns, pediments and balustrades typical of Georgian houses.
The Colonial Revival style was used successfully in small-scale residential buildings in Middletown. The concentration of one-and-one-half story houses on Mount Vernon Street, with gable and “Dutch Gambrel” roofs, is a good example of the versatility of the Colonial Revival style.