Manchester can be proud of its ten properties on the National Register of Historic Places. These designations don’t
come easily. The process of nomination is arduous and includes research, justification, and much work assembling
photographs, forms, and maps, and presenting the nomination at a hearing before the State Board of Preservation – a
potentially intimidating event, since the Board members are each experts in fields such as architecture, landscape history,
and archeology. An approved State nomination goes to the National Park Service for review and approval.
1. Manchester’s first Register listing, and a very grand one, took place in 1978: the Cheney Brothers National Historic Landmark District. The “Landmark” in the name is prestigious. If you’ve followed the Coltsville (Hartford) proceedings, you’ve seen the intensity of the work involved in achieving the “Landmark” distinction. And Manchester has had this relatively rare honor for over 30 years. The Landmark district shows, even more so than a regular historic district, a totality of community history. In the case of the Cheney Landmark District, the listing recognized that the area “...commemorates the Cheney family’s silk manufacturing enterprises. With over 200 mill buildings, worker houses, churches, schools, and Cheney family mansions, this is an excellently preserved example of a 19th to early 20th-century paternalistic mill town.”
Manchester’s 1980 development plan for the area noted that “the combination of mansions, mills, and worker housing ... represents what is perhaps the best surviving example of an owner-managed family mill town in the United States.”
So, it wasn’t the large number of mills or the individual mansions, but the entire 175 acres, encompassing silk mills and related buildings, the 1785 Cheney family homestead, hundred-plus-year-old Cheney mansions, the Great Lawn, schools, churches, a hall, and over 275 residences built for company workers and their families. The District extends about 1.25 miles from east to west and about 0.6 miles from north to south, in an irregular shape reaching from east of Main Street, north to High and Laurel Streets, west to Fairfield Street and south to the southern side of Hartford Road.
• There’s a detailed map showing buildings, dates and photographs on this web site; to see it, click on the map icon.
Having the Landmark designation was instrumental in obtaining funding for the remodeling of many mill buildings into apartments. If you saw the abandoned mills in the late 1970s, you’d have a hard time believing they would ever come back to life. To me, Cheney Hall, a jewel in the Landmark district, was a miraculous renovation – the dreadful condition, the water damage, and the wildlife inside the building made me wonder if the historians and fundraisers had let wishful thinking affect their grasp on reality. But town residents, the Little Theatre of Manchester, and the Cheney Hall Foundation did believe in miracles, and their preservation efforts brought us an award-winning renovation in 1991. This year and next, Little Theatre of Manchester celebrates its 50th anniversary, and we salute their successes in operating Manchester’s own community theater.
2. Pitkin Glass Works at the corner of Parker and Putnam Streets was listed in 1979. Although the stone building looks like a ruined castle, it is more intact than most 18th-century glass works, and according to Richard Ciralli, head of the Pitkin Glass Works Corporation, it is “the finest glass works in the state.” The factory operated from 1783 until about 1830. It got its start when Connecticut’s General Assembly granted Captain Richard Pitkin and his sons a 25-year monopoly on manufacturing glass, rewarding them for providing gun powder, at a loss, to the Connecticut militia from 1775 to 1781. The factory was famous for the clarity and high quality of its glass, mostly in shades of green. Several archeological digs have taken place at the factory.
• To access the Pitkin Glass page on this web site, click: Pitkin Glass Works.
3. Edward L. Burnham Farm, at 580 Burnham Street West, was added to the National Register in 1982. It has 1.65 acres, a charming two-and-a-half-story farmhouse dating from 1862, and outbuildings reminiscent of those on farms in New Hampshire. It is not easy to find, because the Burnham Street area changed dramatically with the construction of I-291. I called upon Mapquest, which sent me from Manchester via East Hartford back to Manchester, but eventually I found it. This property recently changed hands, and I salute the new owners for their good choice of a historic property.
4. U.S. Post Office, at 479 Main Street at the intersection of Center Street, joined the Register in 1986. Now the Weiss Center and converted to Town offices, it was built in 1931, an example of architectural eclecticism incorporating a wealth of classical and Georgian-revival details. Its architects carefully matched it to the oddly shaped site. The post office was a WPA project. To access a newspaper account of the opening of this building, please click Manchester Herald Article.
5. Main Street Historic District, roughly the Downtown area, was added to the Register in 1996. Most of the buildings date from between 1890 and 1940. The area encompasses Main Street, from Center Street, to Charter Oak Street. We’re fortunate to still have our Downtown, considering the fate of many central business districts, including the old Depot Square in the North End, demolished during the 1960s as part of Urban Redevelopment.
6. The Woodbridge Farmstead, at Manchester Green, was placed on the Register in 1999. The Woodbridge Farm and Meadowbrook Dairy once encompassed many acres at Manchester Green. Today, the house and grounds are owned by the Manchester Historical Society – a gift from the late Ray and Thelma Carr Woodbridge. The white farmhouse in the Greek revival style dates from 1830, and one of the barns is even older.
• To access the Woodbridge Farmstead page on this web site, click: Woodbridge Farmstead.
7. The Manchester Historic District joined the Register in 2000, and goes beyond the Cheney Brothers Landmark historic district (see above). It’s roughly bounded by Center Springs Park, Main Street, I-384 and Campfield Road, and encompasses more of the Cheney worker housing and other vintage buildings.
8. The Manchester Historic District Boundary Increase added property east of Main Street in 2001. The area is roughly bounded by East Center, Harrison, Norman, Charter Oak, Main and Cottage Streets and contains 2,500 acres and 914 buildings. The Manchester Historical Society has led several walks on the East Side, including one that focused on the variety of porch styles.
9. Union Village was added to the Register in 2002, and recognizes one of Manchester’s early industrial areas. The Union Cotton Mill was established in 1794 by Samuel Pitkin, using water power from the Hockanum River. The mills were located west of Union Street, below the huge dam at Union Pond. As with other mill areas, worker housing was provided, and many examples of these houses are part of the district. The mills closed about 1900, and nothing remains of the bricks and stone near the river.
10. Case Brothers Historic District in Highland Park was listed in 2009, and includes the former Case Brothers paper mills off Glen Road, three Case family mansions, stone walls and carriage paths, the Case Mountain Recreation Area owned by the Town, and the Upper Case Pond and other parcels owned by the Manchester Land Conservation Trust. This is a popular wilderness area attracts many hikers, walkers, and bicyclists, who can enjoy many miles of trails. Although the mills no longer make paper, they have been reused for various small businesses.
Bonus: Although the Hilliard Mills haven’t been added to the National Register, they have been on the Connecticut register since 1989. At 642 Hilliard Street, the mills sit at the confluence of Bigelow Brook and the Hockanum River. Established in 1780, the woolen mills produced blankets for soldiers in the War of 1812. The mills kept weaving until the mid 1930s, and the buildings later housed Pratt & Whitney operations, Tober Baseball manufacturing, and Bezzini’s Old Colony Furniture. Today the mills are being renovated and already house offices and a catering firm, with more space being prepared for adaptive re-use. We salute the energetic young men who have worked long hours to clean up and renovate the site.
• To access the Hilliard Mills web site, please click: Hilliard Mills.
So, Manchester can pat itself on the back for having such a wide array of historic properties on the register. The Manchester Historical Society is proud to lead walking tours in the historic districts. More information about scheduled walks can be found at this web site by clicking: events.html.
Susan Barlow serves on the Board of Directors of the Manchester Historical Society