Eight 19th Century Buildings in Connecticut

This project is research undertaken in summer 2019 for the Charles E. Peterseon Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. Eight buildings constructed around 1840 were selected for research.

Documentation images within map taken by MDB.

Mary Dahlman Begley
Society of Architectural Historians
Charles E. Peterson Fellowship
Summary Report
August 31, 2019

The eight Connecticut buildings I researched span from the Revolutionary period to the mid 19th century. Architectural history reveals interesting narratives about societal values of the time. I selected based on themes: the evolution of Congregational churches, Colt firearms in a global economy, and architecture of illusion. I took as my goal to connect broad historical narratives to the specific material conditions of each building.

Connecticut’s foundation as a religious colony called for an orderly and decent government; the architecture of meeting houses appears orderly. However, architect-builders and craftsmen drew from disparate sources, informed by an uneven knowledge base, spread by itinerant builders and a small number of books. The values of rationalism and commitment to community are embedded in their work, but the resulting architecture is eclectic. The charming details of inventive capitals, unexpected geometry, or idiosyncratic carvings showcase the craftsmanship of these builders.

In 1818 the Congregational church was disestablished in Connecticut, allowing for a greater religious diversity to emerge. Congregationalists prided themselves on republican values; Episcopalians had a different relationship to Britain. Seeking distance from and connection to the Anglican church, Episcopalian favored the Gothic Revival style. Whereas in classical Gothic architecture, divinity was expressed by proportion, geometry, and use of light, in the Gothic Revival, divinity is expressed by nature of its connection to Christian European antiquity. This knowing application of style is a marker of modernity.

The architecture of Coltsville expresses embedded values of a different nature: the emergence of global capitalism. Armsmear displays Italianate style, which is mutable and additive, perfect for the growing collection of international goods the Colts brought home. Colt Armory exhibits rational values in its restrained red brick and factory windows, but is capped with another display of international travel - a blue onion dome. This dome declares the factory a temple of production and world domination; the crowning element is a gold statue of a rampant colt, prancing atop the world. The buildings at Coltsville represent a shift in Connecticut’s history away from matters of the spirit - values and religion - and toward matters of the social - displays of capital and global cultural exchange.

Wadsworth Stable, Richard Alsop IV House, and King Solomon No. 7 Masonic Lodge share the theme of architectural illusion. Richard Alsop IV House is known for trompe l’oeil wall paintings, a rare survivor of a post-Revolution fad in domestic decorating. The paintings cover every surface, blurring the lines between architecture and ornament. At King Solomon No. 7, trompe l’oeil wallpaper stood in for architecture when funds did not allow for the purchase of real Corinthian columns. The Palladian architecture of Wadsworth Stable is revealed as applied when viewed from the side; the primary facade poke up over the gable, and a window opening intersects with a pilaster. These uses of illusion share an aesthetic aim of presenting finery where there is a lack. The approach is not so different from modern use of veneer brick siding, but in a variety of methods and content. As an architectural designer, I am interested in the line between architecture and ornament as technologies and tastes change. Learning of trompe l’oeil and applied facade in this era will inform my future research on this topic.

In addition to the range of knowledge I gained about Connecticut architecture, I was able to practice research and writing methods. I am in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Minnesota. My process as an architectural designer is informed by research into the history and context of the site. This opportunity allowed me to analyze each historic and cultural artifact on its merit, rather than as a tool for design. I have gained a deeper understanding of the process of researching and writing as a creative act that is designed, just as a building is designed.

I’d like to acknowledge and thank the individuals I spoke with on site visits - the researchers, historians, park rangers, preservationists, and history enthusiasts that I spoke with displayed passion and deep knowledge. I am thankful to my dear friends Ellie Youngblood and Brodie Quinn, for their assistance on my trip to Connecticut. Thank you to Drew Smith for his thoughtful and wise editing. I’m grateful to my advisor at the University of Minnesota, Professor Daniela Sandler, for support and guidance. Thank you to the Society of Architectural Historians, particularly Beth Eifrig and Karen Kingsley, for the opportunity and guidance. I am thankful for Athenaeum of Philadelphia and their funding of the Charles E. Peterson fellowship.