Modest in size, Windsor village has made important contributions to architecture in Vermont and it retains a remarkable concentration of buildings of state and national significance. It is a place freighted with history—political, as the site of the drafting of the Vermont constitution; cultural, as a center of publishing and education; and industrial, as a home of significant invention and the birthplace of the state's machine-tool industry. Windsor village embodies this history with a spectrum of commercial, residential, and public building types and styles. Among them are landmarks of achievement and design.
Windsor is a Connecticut River town, chartered under the New Hampshire Grants in 1761 to proprietors from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The village quickly established itself as an important place, partly by its status as the northernmost point of navigation on the Connecticut and partly by the industrial potential of the sixty-foot drop in Mill Brook as it enters the river. In 1777 delegates met here in Elijah West's tavern on the river road (Main Street), at the road inland to West Windsor (State Street), to establish the “Free and Independent State of Vermont.” From 1778 to 1788, the village served as shire of Windsor County, and from 1777 to 1808 as part-time state capital.
Political status brought educated, entrepreneurial, and progressive professionals to the rapidly growing community, and Windsor entered the new century as Vermont's largest town (2,950 residents by 1820) and its first significant center of urbane refinements. With three newspapers by 1800, it became an important center for printing and the distribution of information. The town's status as a transportation hub was enhanced by the construction in 1796 of the first regional toll bridge across the Connecticut River on the site of the present-day Windsor-Cornish bridge (1866), which at four hundred and sixty feet is the longest covered bridge in the United States. The Pettes Coffee House (1801) ranked as the state's best public house, a meeting place for dancing schools and Vermont's first Masonic lodge as well as a stopping place for visitors and dignitaries, who viewed Windsor as the state's center for polished manners and elegant buildings.
Its status as a place of architectural excellence was largely due to the presence of Asher Benjamin, who, having designed the meetinghouse of 1798, took up residence between February 1800 and May 1802. During this period he built at least three houses on Main Street and published the second edition of his The Country Builder's Assistant.Here he brought his Adamesque, Connecticut Valley style to its most refined and flamboyant. Two of the houses have been demolished, but the style survives in the house he built in 1801 for prominent jurist Jonathan Hatch Hubbard (the house is now in New Canaan, Connecticut, where it was moved and restored in 1956). While in Windsor, Benjamin and fellow builder and partner Stephen Savage were solicited for designs for the house of the Reverend Sylvester Dana of Orford, New Hampshire, in 1801. Before he left for Boston in 1802, Benjamin advertised the opening of what is perhaps the first school of architecture in New England. Through Benjamin's activity and the skill of local tradesmen, Windsor became a source for the dissemination of fine building practice as Benjamin-inspired craftsmen spread to such towns as Randolph, Norwich, and Castleton.
In 1809, Windsor prevailed over competitors for the location of the first Vermont State Prison (closed in 1975 and converted to apartments). Prison specialist Stuart J. Park of Groton, Massachusetts, was responsible for its construction on upper State Street. Prior to his arrival in Windsor, he had built Charles Bulfinch's Massachusetts prison in Charlestown (1806), and he would build the New Hampshire statehouse in Concord in 1816. Park was accompanied by master masons who built the prison keeper's house (1810; demolished) with recessed brick arcading. It is probable that, as a group, they did much to establish Windsor County's fine brick tradition, and helped to spread it beyond the county's borders.
The presence of the prison enhanced Windsor's industrial status, providing a ready labor force for the production of tools, machinery, and fire-arms that made the small town one of the leading manufacturing centers in nineteenth-century New England. The Ascutney Mill dam was equally critical to industrial production in Windsor. In 1834 the town built this first gravity-arch dam in the United States across Mill Brook, which in 1970 was designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark. A third component in Windsor's manufacturing success was the inventiveness of its citizens, who are credited with the band saw, the revolving hydraulic pump, the underhammer rifle with interchangeable parts, and the Windsor repeating rifle. Aided by the arrival of the railroads in 1849, success at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and government and international contracts for firearms and firearm production machinery, Windsor's businesses thrived into the 1870s.
There was little new domestic construction during the second half of the nineteenth century. Town population peaked at 3,134 residents in 1839 then declined to 2,119 in 1900. Economic mainstays were a succession of precision machinery and machine-tool manufacturers, and major housing initiatives were dependent on their projects. For example, the 1909 construction of a new Windsor Machine Company plant between the railroad and the river and its subsequent acquisition by the National Acme Company, followed by World War I orders for shell-producing machines, led to a housing shortage. Acme's solution was to build a neighborhood of modest workers' houses of standardized design on the banks of the Connecticut off River Street. Along Jarvis and National streets, the company built shotgun-like, single-family houses. On River Street and Foster Avenue, near the entrance to the neighborhood, Acme built more picturesquely massed two-family houses with salt-box profiles.
A pattern of industrial acquisition and consolidation ultimately proved detrimental for Windsor as national industries moved elsewhere in the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century. Architectural attrition set in until a crisis in 1972 over the Windsor House (WS39) catalyzed renewed pride in the community's landmarks. The rescuers of this hotel, Historic Windsor, Inc., became one of the earliest and strongest preservation organizations in the state, working to conserve Windsor's architectural heritage and sponsoring workshops on preservation techniques.
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