by Jim Meehan
“There are no dividends to compare with the comfort and contentment, no returns equal to the personal pride felt by the man who owns the home that shelters his family.”
– Alfred G. Hubbard, Wethersfield Homebuilder
But the living quarters constructed in 1633 by John Oldham and the other “Ten Adventurers” who came through the wilderness from Massachusetts Colony to found our “most auncient towne” – offered shelter, but not much more than that.
“the first homes here were dugouts or, as they appear to have been called, cellars. These cellars were made by digging a pit in the ground, preferably in the side of a bank, and then lining the sides of the excavation with stones and upright logs. With a roof of loges, bark or thatch, and the earth banked high on the outside, a house that was at least big enough to stand erect in, and even move around a bit, was possible.” (Some old Wethersfield houses and gardens.” Adams, Henry Sherman, Printed Privately for the Wethersfield Women’s Saturday Afternoon Club, 1909).
Distinct Architectural Styles – 1635 to 1900
Following the economic doctrine of Mercantilism (or government control of foreign trade) the British had ensured that the settlers it sent to populate what would become the United States were skilled in the crafts needed to establish, grow, and maintain a successful trading colony – house building among them. Publications by leading housing architects such as Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723) and the latest building techniques were made available to these pioneers.
As a result of this expertise the rusticity did not last long. Men, women and children migrated to Wethersfield in 1635 bringing with them carpentry tools that allowed the building of more “civilized’ housing.
The first buildings were small (16′ x 16′) one-room structures with a frame of oak. They were covered with upright boards – hand sawn and fastened with wooden pegs. The steep roofs were covered with hay. One end of the room held a shale stone fireplace with a single door at right angles to the hearth and sometimes one or two windows covered with cloth or paper. Furniture was a chair each for the husband and wife and benches for the children. A board on a trestle served as the table. Beds were a pile of straw opposite the fireplace.
Frame houses began to appear in nearby Hartford as early as 1635. These buildings had two rooms with a chimney between them and a lean-to extension in the rear. There was small entryway and a chimney in front of the chimney. This evolved into a two-story, four room house. A ceiling beam called the “summer” – from the Anglo-French word sumer or somer, meaning packhorse, and referring to the function of the beam bearing a heavy load – ran from the chimney to the sidewall in each of the rooms to support the second floor. The architecture was borrowed from Plymouth Colony founded in 1620. Over time the lean-to was enlarged and made an integral part of the house. Unfortunately none of these homesteads are in existence today.
By the 1730’s the now somewhat wealthy colonists were able to choose a more elaborate architecture modeled after that of the English – a hall running through the house from the front with two rooms on each side and a chimney in each of the end walls. The roof was often a gambrel style (two sided, each with a shallower slope above a steeper one) – so called from the resemblance to the hind leg of a horse, which by farriers is termed the gambrel.
Three homes from the period 1634 – 1699 can still be found in Wethersfield: 481 Main Street 1637 (more likely 1660’s) (George Hubbard House); 400 Hartford Avenue 1666-67 (Sgt John Deming House); and 249 Broad Street 1693; Buttolph-Williams House.
116 Garden Street 1700 (Michael Griswold House);
138 Broad Street 1730 (Col. John Chester);
149 Broad Street 1740 (Elisha Treat);
241 Broad Street 1720 (Hale-Newsom House);
29 Hartford Avenue 1740 (Selden Miner House);
411 Hartford Avenue 1730 (Daniel Buck House);
319 Main Street 1750 (Francis Bulkeley House);
340 Main Street 1740;
366 Main Street 175 (Ebenezer Talcott House);
400-402 Main Street 1744 (Dr. Ezekiel Porter House);
468 Main Street; 1743 (Nathaniel Stillman II);
471 Main Street; 1725;
484 Main Street 1748 (Samuel Woodhouse House);
490 Main Street 1734;
504-506 Main Street 1750;
528-530 Main Street 1727;
and 538 Main Street 1727 (Titus Buck House).
From 1751 – 1800 an additional fifty houses were constructed: eleven on Broad Street, two on Garden Street, nine on Hartford Avenue, eighteen on Main Street, two on Marsh Street, four on Middletown Avenue, one on Nott Street, one on River Road, and two on Warner Place. By 1898 Wethersfield had 331 houses.
The Town Engineer’s office has “builder’ information on homes for which building permits were filed – 1920s and beyond. For older houses such information is mostly found in private individual’s records such as family histories, or in account books of either the builder or those hiring them – like the files of Master Builder Captain James Francis (1767- 1852).
Captain James Francis was the son of Timothy and Elizabeth Hanmer Francis; with whom he lived on the east side of Hartford Avenue until his marriage to Pamela Welles in 1793 He completed his own residence at 120 Hartford Avenue that same year. His apprentice and brother-in-law Daniel Welles assisted him in the framing, laying the floors and joists, and putting up the partitions. Benjamin Weston, Ashbel Savage and Daniel Woodhouse did the masonry. In 1814 he expanded the house from one to two stories. He and Pamela remained there, raising five children, until his death in 1852. Now known as the Capt. James Francis House, the residence was donated to Wethersfield Historical Society in 1969 by Chauncey Devereux Stillman and his two daughters, Elizabeth Stillman Shafer and Mary Stillman Budnik.
At the age of twenty-one (five years prior) James Francis began keeping detail account books of the work that he did – preparing timber, framing barns and houses, laying joists and floors, portioning interiors, framing and making doors and windows, making paneling, putting on roofs, and making fences. He also made sleighs and simple furniture. These books are now in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society.
His first job was the construction of a barn for his brother Robert on Robert’s property in Newington (possibly 174 Main Street) in 1788. In 1790 he built a four-bay brick house on the same property. His accounts include: “Feb. 22 To making fifteen window frames s 3/per frame 2.5.0 pounds…May 8 To making two Eve Troughs 1.4.0” As compensation his brother, a tailor, made him a nankeen Waistcoat and Breeches, an under Waistcoat, a second Waistcoat and Breeches, a great Coat, and another pair of Breeches.
James would become an expert at framing brick houses – although he also built at least one wooden frame house (for John Francis Jr.). Among his greatest skills were framing of windows and doors; making paneled doors, walls and wainscot; and constructing and glazing window sashes.
In 1789 James records work done on “Coving” (or cornices) for his uncle, John Francis Sr., on his house/tavern at 194 Hartford Avenue – probably as part of converting that building from a one-story gambrel to its present structure. The work continued in 1791 with twenty-two days in April and May done on a writing desk, a chest with two drawers, and a “great gate”.
Lucy Francis, James’ older sister, married William Griswold and in 1791-92 he assisted in changing the appearance their house at 342 Griswold Road by making the frames and windows for the second floor and attic as well as replacing three sets of sashes for the windows at the rear of the first floor. James Francis also had accounts with his wife Pamela Welles’ three older brothers (Joshua, Levi and Gideon). Levi bought furniture from James in 1791, 1794, 1800 and 1801 including a kitchen table, four low chests, three3 chests with two drawers, a high chest and a coffin. Before marrying James’ sister Honour, Pamela’s youngest brother Daniel was apprenticed to James Francis from 1791-99.
In 1791 James Francis also built a four-bay house for Robert Robbins at 132 Broad Street on which he spent twenty-six and one-half days himself and twenty-five and one-half by his apprentice Daniel Welles “making and painting 240 squares of sashes and setting the Glass”. Gideon Welles and brother Daniel each inherited one-half of their father’s house at 500 Welles Road upon his death in 1798. In 1806 Gideon engaged James Francis to expand the home from one story to its present two-story structure.
There is other documentary evidence of James Francis’ work on at least four buildings, and inferred indications of his involvement in several others. Among those on which he is known to have worked are: The John Francis Jr. House (cousin), 88 Hartford Avenue, 1796; The Stephen Willard House, 39 Broad Street, 1797; the Abner Mosely House, 200 Broad Street, 1800; and the Richard Bunce House, 49 Garden Street, 1801. It is also considered likely – because of the construction techniques used and/or his standing as a builder of brick houses – that he may have worked on the Old Academy (150 Main Street and now the offices of Wethersfield Historical Society), and the Samuel Griswold House (121 Highland Street).
The source for most of the above information is Anne Crofoot Kuckro’s “Capt. James Francis Master Builder”. She writes at the end of that work:
“During the period in which James Francis worked styles and methods of construction changed from the center chimney house of the Colonial period to the more varied forms of the early Republic. James stopped short of using the design vocabulary of the Greek Revival. He appears to have been the last Wethersfield joiner to work in the old tradition of raised panel doors and walls, and his work is the final development of that style in Wethersfield.”
In 1962 the town of Wethersfield established its Historic District in order to “to promote the educational, cultural, economic and general welfare of the town through the preservation and protection of historic buildings and places of interest. It also seeks to preserve and protect Old Wethersfield’s various distinct architectural styles…[houses] located north of the Wethersfield/Rocky Hill town line, south of the Wethersfield/Hartford town line, east of the railroad tracks and west of 1-91, (with a depth of 200 feet on the east side of Middletown Avenue, south of Maple Street)”. The area contains about 1,100 houses 150 of which were built before 1850. However not all of Wethersfield houses built prior to 1800 are within the district.
The online “Wethersfield Historic Properties Inventory” which contains much detailed information about houses within the Historic District lists only three builders other than James Francis during the time period 1634 – 1800: Judah Wright, Abraham Crane, and Appleton Robbins.
Judah Wright is identified there and on the web site of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum as the housewright of the Joseph Webb House in 1752 on 211 Main Street in Wethersfield. Judah Wright was born in Wethersfield in 1710 and died “after 1751”, possibly the same year the Webb House was built. He was the son of Jonathon Wright and Ann “Hannah” Hand and had two children – Reuben (abt. 1749) and Asel (abt. 1751). I found no record of his Judah’s wife and their mother.
“The house was built in 1752 by Joseph Webb following his marriage to Mehitabel Nott in 1749. A young and successful merchant, he hired Judah Wright to frame a stylish three-and-a-half story house and shop with a massive gambrel roof that provided greater upper-floor storage for Joseph’s trade goods. It was also probably used as the sleeping quarters for the household’s enslaved Africans.
“In 1914 the Webb House was bought by a group of local businessmen who sought to operate it as an athenaeum or library. When they failed to raise sufficient funds, they sold it to Wallace Nutting in 1916. After extensive redecorating, including the installation of painted murals in the hallway and front parlors, he opened the house to the public on July 4, 1916, as a sales area and studio. The Webb house was one of several historically significant sites in the “The Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses.” Unfortunately, with the travel restrictions created by World War I, Nutting lost money on the venture. He sold the house to the Colonial Dames of Connecticut in 1919 to be preserved as a house museum.”
The house at 27 Warner Place was built around 1760 by its owner Appleton Robbins (1739-1824). Robbins married Mary Stillman in 1763 and they had nine children together. Robbins was a graduate of Yale College and a lawyer. His grandfather Gentleman John Robbins came to Wethersfield around 1638 and was a selectman and member of the Connecticut General Assembly who married Mary Welles daughter of then Governor Thomas Welles. The nearby house on 14 Warner Place was built thirty years later (1795) by Appleton Crane (1739-1808) – another owner/builder and a successful tanner. He married Mary Robbins and raised seven children in this home.
During the nineteenth Century seventy additional houses were built in what was to become the Wethersfield Historic District. The Wallace T. Fenn house at 84 Broad Street (1897) was designed by Frederick R. Comstock. The style of the building is “Colonial Revival” – consciously evoking the look of its 100-year old actual colonial neighbors. The residence appeared as “Design No. 8” in “Modern American Dwellings, 1897: Practical Designs for Builders and Those Intending to Build” by Donald J. Berg”.
Comstock worked in Hartford from 1893 to 1898 and was associated with the architect Brooks M. Lincoln and William H. Scoville, the most successful builder-developer of his day in Hartford. He designed a Colonial Revival house (now demolished) for G.W. Pomeroy on 1 May Street in Hartford that was featured in the “American Architect and Building News” and another of the same style on 198 Wethersfield Avenue. He also did the flatiron building at the intersection of Ann Uccello and High Streets with Main Street in the capitol city. Similarities in style suggest that Comstock may have architected another house at 349 Main Street in Wethersfield for photographer Richard De Lamater. It is not known who the builders of this or the Fenn house were.
“Capt. James Francis Master Builder: Brick Architecture in Wethersfield before 1840”, Anne Crofoot Kuckro; 1974; Wethersfield Historical Society
“Wethersfield Historic Properties Inventory”
http://hpi.wethersfieldct.com/index.cgi/1- temporarily unavailable
Wethersfield Historical Society archives
Historical Hartford Courant (1923-1984) [Online]
Historical Hartford Courant (1992-current) [Online]
About the Author: Jim Meehan