Connecticut’s architectural legacy—from early settlements by colonists to contemporary designs by leading global firms—follows the trajectory of American architectural history. Connecticut’s built environment was first developed by the American Indian tribes who inhabited the region. Beyond archaeological excavations, however, almost no physical structures of these pre-Colonial settlements have survived. The region that became the state of Connecticut was first explored by Europeans in an expedition led by Adriaen Block, who surveyed the coast of Long Island Sound and traveled up the Connecticut River in 1614. The Dutch West India Company set up trading posts near what is now Hartford in the 1620s, fortifying their post over time, before abandoning it in 1654.
Connecticut was first settled by Massachusetts Bay Puritans, who established settlements in Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford in the mid-1630s. Other colonies were founded by new groups of colonists from England in Saybrook (1635) and New Haven (1638). These first colonists brought with them new diseases, which largely decimated the Native population by the mid-seventeenth century. At the same time, conflict arose between colonists in various locations and the Pequot tribe, who sought to drive the Europeans out of the region. The Pequot raided many towns, including Wethersfield and Fort Saybrook, which ultimately led to a counterattack by the colonists, ending with the Mystic massacre in 1637 and the retreat of the Pequots.
With these settlements came the construction of domestic architecture, of which Connecticut boasts some of the most important, both historically and architecturally, and also most unusual in the United States. The Henry Whitfield House in Guilford (1639–1640), is the oldest example of masonry construction in New England and is Connecticut’s oldest surviving house. Both the Stanley-Whitman House (1709–1720) in Farmington and the Buttolph-Williams House (1711) in Wethersfield showcase wood-frame construction, typical of English colonial domestic architecture. While classicism became a ubiquitous style choice for many Connecticut homeowners, the Greek Revival Samuel Wadsworth Russell House (1828) in Middletown by architect Ithiel Town, became a model to emulate. Classicism found new forms of expression over time, as exhibited in the Renaissance Revival Eolia Mansion (1904–1910) in Waterford and the almost stage set–like classicism of the facade of the A. Everett Austin House in Hartford. Connecticut also boasts some of the most eccentric examples of domestic architecture, from actor William Gillette’s self-designed Arts and Crafts folly in East Haddam known as Gillette Castle (1914–1918) to the over seven-story Heublein tower on Talcott Mountain in Simsbury built for a German-American entrepreneur, as well as the more recent folded and jagged 18.36.54 House (2010) by Daniel Libeskind in New Milford.
As elsewhere in New England, the Puritan colonists began constructing houses of worship as soon as they were able, often following existing models and prototypes. Old Trinity Church in Brooklyn replicates design elements of Peter Harrison’s work in Boston and Newport, while others, such as the Congregational Meetinghouse in Farmington, follow Georgian precedents. Fine examples of religious architecture continued to be built in the twentieth century, most notably Wallace K. Harrison’s so called Fish Church in Stamford (1958), which employs precast concrete panels and stained glass in inventive ways.
Connecticut has also been the site of great innovation in the development of new architectural styles. The Grove Street Cemetery Gate in New Haven is one of the earliest and clearest expressions of the Egyptian Revival, which developed in the nineteenth century particularly for funerary architecture. More recently, Connecticut has been the site of early and preeminent works of both Modernism and Postmodernism. William Lescaze’s Frederick Vanderbilt Field House (1929–1931) in New Hartford is considered the International Style’s first example of domestic architecture in the United States. New London is home to two of the country’s best examples of modernist prefabricated home design: the Winslow Ames and Steel Houses (1933). New York Five architects Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman built two of their seminal early works in the state: Meier’s Smith House (1965–1967) in Darien and Eisenman’s experimental House IV (1975) in West Cornwall.
Connecticut’s urban centers of Hartford and New Haven developed largely in the nineteenth century and prospered further in the twentieth. As the state and corporate capitol, Hartford’s most important buildings are governmental and corporate. Charles Bulfinch’s design of the Old Connecticut State House (1796) is a fine example of Federal architecture with its grand temple front. While the General Assembly met both in New Haven and Hartford for decades, following the Civil War, Hartford was chosen as the site for the sole capitol. Richard Upjohn’s competition winning design (1872–1878) was built with the aid of his competitor, James G. Batterson, but nonetheless resulted in a grand expression of the Gothic Revival and was certainly influenced by the recently completed Palace of Westminster in London. Hartford developed economically in large part due to the insurance business, gaining the nickname, “Insurance Capital of the World.” Through the mid-twentieth century, many agencies built their corporate headquarters in Hartford, including the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Building (1963–1964), the world’s first two-sided skyscraper. Like many cities, Hartford faced decline following World War II, which resulted in some companies moving their headquarters to the suburbs. Connecticut General hired Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) to design their corporate campus in Bloomfield starting in 1954. This shift to suburban campuses also became a trend in the communities closest to New York City and includes the construction of the American Can Company (1970) in Greenwich by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM and Kevin Roche’s design of the Union Carbide Headquarters (1982) in Danbury.
Hartford and its surrounding communities have also served as the cultural and intellectual center of the state. Mark Twain constructed one of the city’s most fashionable nineteenth-century residences (1873–1874), with interiors by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s firm Associated Artists. The city is also home to the art collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, whose original building (1844) was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. One cannot also forget to mention the work of Theodate Pope Riddle, the first woman to become a licensed architect in both New York and Connecticut. Her Avon Old Farms School (1918–1929) is a late example of the influence of the English Arts and Crafts movement in America and her home, Hill-Stead (1901), designed in conjunction with McKim, Mead and White on the model of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, is an early example of the growing influence of the Colonial Revival.
New Haven’s architectural history is most closely tied to that of Yale University, founded in 1701. As the city developed around New Haven Green, so too did Yale, with countless exemplary buildings of their respective time periods. From the university’s oldest surviving structure, Connecticut Hall (1750–1752) to Richard Morris Hunt’s historicist and eclectic design of the Scroll and Key Society building (1869–1870) and Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Library (1960–1963), Yale employed the country’s leading architects to design new structures on campus. As the primary institution for the training of architects in the state and with an esteemed faculty, Yale’s Architecture School became a hub for progressive design ideas. The school’s faculty and alumni designed some of the most influential and distinctive buildings of postwar modernism in New Haven with the support of progressive institutional and civic leaders. These works include Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery (1952) and the Yale Center for British Art (1969–1974), Eero Saarinen’s David S. Ingalls Rink (1952–1958), Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building (1958-1964) and the Temple Street Parking Garage (1959-1963), and Kevin Roche’s Knights of Columbus Headquarters (1968–1970).
Connecticut, like many of its neighboring states, prospered in the nineteenth century through growth impacted by the industrial revolution. Beginning in 1855, the Colt Armory was developed by Samuel Colt for the production of firearms and included Colt’s own Italianate home, Armsmear (1855). While much of the state’s industrial architecture has been lost, the Remington-Union Metallic Cartridge Shot Tower (1909) has survived, though its future preservation is in jeopardy. The tallest building in the state when built, the Shot Tower’s height was required to create lead shot and is one of the few surviving structures of this type in the world. While firearms were certainly a major industry, textile mills also abounded in the state. Of particular importance was the Willimantic Linen Company. In 1880–1881, the company constructed Oakgrove, one of the country’s earliest progressive worker’s housing community, a neighborhood of single-family houses located close to the factory.
New building types came to Connecticut as a result of America’s industrializing and urbanizing society. In 1875–1876, Henry Hobson Richardson designed the Cheney Block in Hartford, home to several dry goods stores and offices and the cornerstone of a new retail center in downtown. With the advent of rail transportation, many cities and towns saw the construction of train stations. Notable examples are New London’s Union Station (1885–1887), also by Richardson, and McKim, Mead and White’s Union Station in Waterbury (1905–1909).
Today, Connecticut has developed a strong tourism economy, centered on the coastline communities of the Long Island Sound. Previously functional buildings, such as the New London Harbor Light (1801), have become tourist destinations and coastline icons. In recent years, casino gambling has flourished, in particular with the construction of Foxwoods on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation and Mohegan Sun (1995–2002) in Uncasville. Mohegan Sun features interiors inspired by the Mohegan tribe and was built on former brownfield site of the United Nuclear Corporation, which built nuclear reactors for the nearby submarine industry in Groton.
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Garvan, Anthony N. B. Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial Connecticut. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951.
Hosley, William N, and G.W.R. Ward, eds. “Architecture.” In The Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820. Hartford, CT: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1985.
Isham, Norman Morrison, and Albert F. Brown. Early Connecticut Houses; an Historical and Architectural Study. New York: Dover Publications, 1965.
Kelly, J. Frederick. Connecticut’s Old Houses; a Handbook and a Guide. Stonington, CT: Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, 1960.
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