“There are no dividends to compare with 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).
One of the Fastest Growing Towns in the State – 1940 to 1980
Of the nearly 9,900 housing units in the town of Wethersfield approximately 1,000 were constructed in the 1940s (nineteen single-family dwellings in 1945, fifty-four in 1946, 108 in 1947, 149 in 1948 and 150 in 1949) and two-thirds were built after 1950 and more than fifty percent of that two-thirds occurred between 1950 and 1970.
In May 1950 The Hartford Courant reported that “Wethersfield, which started large and early in the 1600s, then slowed down for a couple of centuries, finds itself in 1950 one of the fastest growing towns in the state…”Growth was so rapid in the late forties that the center of town shifted westward to the Silas Deane Highway. Now building is moving southward beyond Mill Woods Park.” Lawrence M. Hubbard, Town Building Inspector estimated at the time that as many as 350 homes could be built in 1950.
There were however three potential obstacles to this expansion. First was the “alleged existence” of undersize (forty foot or less) lots in, among other places, the Goodrich Drive area. “Those who want to develop these dormant areas argue that Wethersfield has an unusually large proportion of A-zone land. The strict requirements of A-zone prevent these properties from ever being developed as it stands now. Hubbard believed that if you have less than three non-conforming lots in a tract you should be granted a variance to develop them, rather than let them stagnate. If there are more than three…they should be cut up into full-sized lots. ‘Which is better for the town,’ he asked, ‘ten small apples or five big ones?'”
The undersized lots were also clustered in several areas: north and south of Nott Street (e.g. Franklin Gardens), along Folly Brook Boulevard, and near Cranston Terrace. “They were nearly all mapped out before 1925 in large tracts by a few developers. Since then they have been sold and resold, until, it is estimated by the Town Plan, 150 different individuals own undeveloped, undersized lots…”
Some of the lots were more “undersized” than others – like the 25′ by 150′ lots in the “Homeland Terrace” tract near Linden Street. “Can you imagine anyone building on a lot that size?” said Building Inspector Hubbard.
One proposed solution was to trade town land for the smaller lots and then combine these smaller lots together into a parcel of sufficient size – however there was nothing in the Town Plan ordinances to compel people to make the exchange. But “when you ask people for their own land, they begin to think it’s very valuable”, according to the Plan Commission. And having many owners with single lots in the middle of tracts that could otherwise be divided exacerbated the problem.
Some of the pint-sized parcels were divided before zoning and “a few have sprouted non-conforming houses.” However state law required drainage and water systems to be at least seventy-five feet apart, house to house, which prevent the future development of the forty-foot lots. This problem is “one of the biggest we are faced with” said the Commissioner, and the solution will come slowly and in a piecemeal manner.
The second obstacle was the area east of Middletown Avenue and the Green – about one-fourth of the town – which lies in A-zone but nobody will buy or build on it because it is in the flood area. “Many townspeople feel a dike should be installed so that the area may be safely developed. Others feel that after the dike is set, the whole of this “meadows” land should be zone for business or industry.”
Issue number three was the “swamp holes” near the railroad. “Many commercial concerns want a railroad siding to use but they want firm land around it. It has been suggested that the town do away with its dump on Marsh Street and start filling in this swampy valley by ‘controlled dumping’ such as has been done successfully along the Conland Highway in Hartford….Within a few years, it is estimated, this entire area could be reclaimed. Besides, the money spent yearly on mosquito control there would be saved.”
The residence at 284 Brimfield Road where Marsha and I reside was originally conceived as a part of a development called Brimfield Gardens, plans for which were filed with the town of Wethersfield on December 14, 1921. According to the Grantee Index to Land Records in Wethersfield, Connecticut, the vast majority of the property in Brimfield Gardens and Brimfield Gardens Addition was owned by members the Isaacson family — Charles, Edward, Oscar, and Lucy — and were purchased from various grantors as early as 1896 continuing into the 1920’s. The major growth spurt in our neighborhood occurred during the second half of the 1940s and the early 1950s when eighteen houses were constructed.
Our house (comprised of Brimfield Gardens Lot 51 and a portion of Lot 52 – both “undersized”) was architected by W.H. Lincoln, and plans filed with the town Building Department on May 9, 1946 show a cost of $8,200 plus plumbing and electrical costs of $650 and $175 respectively. The same basic house plan was also used for the residences at 275, 280, 283, 287, and 306 Brimfield, which were all built in 1946 through 1948. The first occupants of the house, Edward H. and Mary B. Kenyon, purchased it on December 10, 1946 from Frances E. Young who had acquired it from the Isaacsons in September of 1935.
The remaining houses in our section of Brimfield Road (#s 214, 241 and 249) were built in 1975 when the Brimfield Gardens Nursery, which was located at 245 Brimfield Road, relocated.
The nursery – a mail order purveyor of exotic plants, and a residential landscaper that specialized in rare trees and Japanese Gardens – was established in 1927 and occupied four lots of Brimfield Gardens Addition. The house at 245 Brimfield Road was built in 1924 and served as home to the Marshall family, who ran the business.
Much of their design and planting work was in New York and Long Island, however they did leave their mark on the neighborhood in the form of three trees: a Cedar of Lebanon, said to be the lumber with which Noah’s Ark was built; and two Chinese Gingkos, traditional symbols of longevity. (As I was writing this article the Town of Wethersfield removed one of the Gingkos.)
In January 1942 a proposed subdivision near Brimfield Gardens was causing turmoil in town. “More than 150 Wethersfield citizens, meeting in the Wethersfield High School Sunday afternoon on a few hours notice protesting the choice of what was called ‘one of the most beautiful locations’ in the town as the site of 63 defense housing units, planned action which may result in a trip to Washington by former Congressman William J. Miller on their behalf.
“The site announced Saturday by Hartford housing authorities is a 21-acre stretch of high land west of Maple Street near the Deane Highway. It is owned by Leon W. Lewis of 99 Maple Street, who stated at the outset of the meeting that in spite of objections made by him to the housing authorities, he had had to give in and sign over a 60-day option to the Government Saturday afternoon receiving a dollar as down payment. Condemnation proceedings would have gone into effect Monday, he said, if he had not signed.”
The proposed housing units were for workers in defense industries and their families. Concerns were expressed about the increase in the school population caused by children of the workers who would be slated to go to the Griswoldville school – “the only school in town which has an empty room”, according to Superintendent of Schools Wilson Greer.
Howard B. Phelon cited the absence of defense industries in the town as a reason for not having the housing. Because the units may be bought by the residents it was possible “in the future you may have a Government-owned house next to a privately owned house next to a Government-owned house and so on”, warned former Congressman Miller.
The dissidents did not prevail and in March 1942 the Defense Public Housing Authority purchased an additional adjacent six acres for the subdivision from A. G. Hubbard. The supplemental land would be used as playground area. George W. Steidle Jr. was named Project Manager and a projected completion date of August 1942 set -which was delayed to early September by the short-term unavailability of some essential construction equipment.
The Town Plan Commission, chaired by Warren S. Chapin, announced the project would be named “West Field Heights”. “The name is of historical significance, the site of the houses being a part of the ‘Great West Field’ largest of the four great ‘fields’ included in Wethersfield’s original town plan of 300 years ago. The ‘fields’ were granted as woodland, farming or grazing supplements to homesteads…’Great West Field’ was sometimes called ‘the four-fold division'”.
The subdivision now houses 130 low and moderate-income families and is overseen by the Wethersfield Housing Authority.
In 1950 western Wethersfield’s Timber Village – marketed as “a development of colorful homes in a rustic setting judiciously cleared to make room for roads and homes without destroying the basic charm of a birch tree woods surrounding the area” – began, of necessity, as a virtual lumber camp with the removal of approximately 100 trees.
Developer Louis Mitnick (Liberty Homes) said that equipment of the Wethersfield Lumber Company, of which he also was President, would be used to cut the timber into firewood. The buildings were to be two-story homes “of the highest quality construction” ranging below $15,000 in price.
In addition to the excess timber in the village another problem was the shape of the roads. “The builder pointed out that original plans called for straight streets, but that further consideration and consultation with national associations had convinced him of the value of curving streets. ‘The Federal Housing Authority is deadly opposed to straight streets,’ he said. He also revealed that the proposed curbed streets of timber Village involve about 1000 more feet of frontage, but actually permit fewer lots. Among the advantages of the curved streets, he said, are the creation of a pleasant, park-like effect for the residential area and also slower speed for automobiles passing through.”
By March 1951 twenty-nine houses were occupied and another sixteen were in various stages of development. The home of Robert and Carolyn Green at 6 Beech Tree Drive was featured in Robert J. Stinson’s Real Estate column of the Hartford Courant. The house is a 1,029 square foot rectangular one-story building with six rooms (three bedrooms) and a gable roof. A five room with two bedrooms was also available. To provide variety a hip roof as well as different types of windows and trim was offered.
Also in 1950 homebuilder Frank T. Ferrigno, twenty years old, built his own house at 20 Gracewell Road, east of Ridge Road. Ferrigno created his own specifications and plans, which were then drawn up by John Garofalo of Wethersfield and estimated the cost of the house at $25,000. The house was “of frame construction and brick veneer at window sill height, the house has a hip roof and one-foot overhang. The double course of wood shingles, 12 inches to the weather, gives a wider width appearance noticeable in ranch -style housing.”
One notable innovation was the radio-controlled door on the basement level garage. The cobblestones used in the fireplace were taken from the ones used in the old surface of Morgan Street Hill in Hartford.
Ferrigno began framing houses for his father Joseph, a Hartford area builder who erected the Capitol National Bank and Trust Company on Asylum Street in Hartford plus several apartment buildings on Farmington and Asylum Avenues in the capitol city.
Meanwhile Bernard Friedman’s 80 building Glenwood Homes development – being built on a high knoll west of Ridge Road and Nott Street – was being delayed by townspeople complaints, “floating labor”, theoretical highways, and curling shingles.
Several Wethersfield residents carped that the residences looked “more like a ‘housing project’ than a development of new homes in Wethersfield. ‘Within their class and price, these are good houses being built by Glenwood Homes’ said [Town Building Inspector] Hubbard. ‘They are being constructed according to good standards and the best know-how of the building trades.'” Also, because the builder was rushing to complete the project in advance of a projected severe shortage of materials, “they have been forced to hire what the Building Department calls ‘floating’ labor. Because of this the Building Department has been keeping close watch on the construction.
The five-room ranch type houses were built at an estimated cost of $8,500 per on 75′ by 150′ lots (adequate for A-zone properties) would sell in the $11,450 to $12,200 price range.
In May 1951 the completion of the sub-division was held up because the town was still considering building a cross-town highway east of the Berlin Turnpike that would run across eight undeveloped plots in Glenwood Homes. The State Highway Department, whose assent was required, were not able to devote any time to this issue because “the national emergency had diverted interest to other projects.”
At the same time “the side shingles on about twenty of the houses began to shrink and curl.” Unless they were warped too badly new shingles were being placed over the defective ones at a cost of $40,000 to the builder and Mr. Friedman decided not to pay the supplier of the wall covering – Dart and Bogue Company of Waterford – who in turn attached forty of Glenwood Homes’ building lots.
None the less Glenwood Homes was completed and Joseph X. Friedman submitted plans to the town for new rental development (“Goodwin Manor”) to be built on land Friedman had acquired on the east side of Hubbard Road between Jordan Lane and the Hartford town line. The area had previously been declared a “garden apartment” spot zone but several developers had looked at the project and passed on it because the opposite side of the street where Goodwin Park is located could not be developed.
Another set of garden apartments – three buildings with thrity-three living units – facing Belcher Road and Emerson Street were built in 1952 by J. George Shilke. The red brick Georgian two floor units rented for $135 a month.
In the mid 1960s H. Newton Griswold and Merritt Baldwin begin the building of Pyquag Village is south Wethersfield. (Pyquag (“cleared land”) was the Wongunk name for the area of town around what became Wethersfield Cove.) The plan called for between 300 and 400 homes, all of Colonial style with a minimum of 1,900 square feet of living space, but designed differently to meet the individual owners requirements. All utilities including electric, were underground. Some of the houses were designed by William Pimm and the realtors were Francis W. Bradley and the Janes & Roberts Company.
The original plan for Pyquag Village asked permission to build the homes under “special residence” which would allow individual lots sizes to be reduced and provide common parks and greens. The Plan Commission denied this request in 1964 because there was no “special residence zone” on the books. The Zoning Board reviewed the possibility
In retirement H. Newton Griswold Jr. was a farmer and market gardener who was famous for his horseradish – “…the best, and I always looked forward to a yearly jar” according to one remembrance in his online obituary.
In February 1969 The LaCava Construction Company began making preliminary construction and sales schedules for their Cedar Meadow section of Pyquaug – beginning at the end of Highcrest Road to the Rocky Hill town line. The section was to contain seventy-five homes – half of the amount LaCava has available in Pyquag Village – laid out in an “open space concept” with acres of open space and winding roads (in one case divided). In keeping with the style of the larger development, the homes were to be Colonial. Prices started in the upper forties and the builder handled sales.
LaCava Construction was founded by George LaCava Sr. who came to America from Italy in 1906 at the age of seventeen. He successfully built single, and multi-family houses plus a twenty-six unit apartment on Garden Street in Hartford in the 1920s and then suffered from the economic depression of the 30s when he left the construction business and worked as a butcher, a grocer and a salesman. The company was not active during World War II but returned to business in 1945 with George and his four older sons who had returned from service. First they built single-family dwellings in Hartford’s south end. Three other sons joined the business and they began creating small developments and in the mid-1950 constructed several major subdivisions in Rocky Hill. In 1963 two more sons joined the firm, which concentrated on building single-family subdivisions and custom built homes on individual lots. Among the subdivisions were Rocky Hill Estates and High Ridge Manor (Rocky Hill), Meadowbrook Manor (Cromwell), Long Hill Park (East Hartford), Colonial Ridge (Bristol) and Ridge Crest of Wethersfield, built on thirty-five wooded acres at the intersection of Jordan lane and Ridge Road on land previously owned by the Connecticut Institute for the Blind.
Three home styles were offered: a raised ranch (the most popular type of American home at the time), a 2,100 square foot side-side Colonial, and a six-and-a-half room L-shaped ranch with a two-car attached garage – “new concepts of residential living ” for the “space age home owner”. The tract consisted of eighty-one lots.
George LaCava Sr. retired in the late 1960s to his homes in Wethersfield (Judd Road) and Saybrook where he tended his large gardens of tomatoes and roses. He died in 1979 at the age of eighty-nine. The Hartford Courant described him as “funny energetic, kindly and brusque. He looks like Santa Claus in a hard hat.” And a man who believed in craftsmanship and hard work. In April 1970 H. Newton Griswold opened several model homes for the new Cricket Knoll section of Pyquag Village.
The Kind of Money That Houses Will Bring – 1980 et seq.
In a 1982 Hartford Courant article by Jan Tarr the former Wethersfield Historical Society Director Douglass Alves is quoted: “Wethersfield ‘was the breadbasket for Hartford until the Second World War,’…Then, as the land became more valuable for housing, the transformation from farming community to suburban center began.” Farms along Wolcott Hill Road, Maple Street, Wells Road and the Silas Deane Highway were converted to residential sub-divisions. Much of the remaining farming – Morris and Anderson Farms – was done in the 1,600 acres of the Connecticut River meadows. In 1979 the forty-three acre Steucek Orchards in the Goff Brook – Prospect Road area was sold to LaCava Construction (now operated by the La Cava sons). The new Orchard Hill subdivision would contain ninety-nine houses.
“‘We did it because we just got a little older and tired and had an opportunity to get a little bit of money to live on the interest of it without working,’ said Albert Steucek. ‘A farmer’, Steucek said, ‘could take half the equity of a farm (in Wethersfield) and buy another farm elsewhere. Farm as a gentleman.'”
In 1984 Thomas and Henry Leonard sold thirty acres of their 130-acre dairy farm in the Willow – Prospect Street area to LaCava Construction. Like the Steuceks, the Leonard brothers found it difficult to make a living in farming. “Thomas Leonard said current federal policies, which attempt to limit the amount of milk produced, are making business very tough…..For the good businessman, you can still make it, but not a decent living.'”
Town Councilman and vegetable farmer Frank Morris said, “I have mixed emotions about it….I know the struggle the Leonard Brothers went through…You just get to an age where you say ‘what the hell?’ “I can’t blame them when people come and shower them with money. They just can’t feed cows and bring the kind of money that houses will bring.”
The additional land for the forty-two acre subdivision was sold to LaCava by Joyce Howland whose parents (Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Smith) built what was originally to be “summer home” on their Prospect Street property. Ms. Howland remembered “when only about two cars a week passed by her home. But the road was frequently used by vagrants making their way across town to the turnpike.” In 1940 Prospect Street became a state highway (Rte. 287) and “things changed overnight”. Raymond Smith ran the Straddle Hill Orchard on the property and Mrs. Howland remembered him “sitting in the basement at midnight on a Sunday night polishing each apple as if it were a jewel.”
LaCava told Mrs. Howland that he planned to name the subdivision Straddle Hill after her father’s orchard and designate one of the subdivision’s roads as “Scott Road” in memory of her son who had died of Addison’s disease at the age of twelve. Today “Scott’s Way” and “Straddle Hill” are roads in the eighty-three unit Collier Farm Community, which was completed by LaCava Construction in the late 1990s.
“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes.
“Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?” (Henry David Thoreau)
Or, I would ask (as just one of Wethersfield’s many cowbirds and cuckoos), “shall we each live poetically in our own pit in the ground?”
By the turn of the twentieth century the transition of Wethersfield from the breadbasket of Hartford to one of its major “bedroom suburbs” was completed. And thanks to the work of the Historic District Commission, Town Planning Commission, and the many builders of our town’s edifices the various distinct structural styles of Connecticut’s “most auncient towne” have been preserved and complemented by each successive wave of development – all of which now, in their turn, continue the story of Wethersfield’s architectural history.
“Capt. James Francis Master Builder: Brick Architecture in Wethersfield before 1840”, Anne Crofoot Kuckro; 1974; Wethersfield Historical Society
“Wethersfield Historic Properties Inventory” [Online]
Wethersfield Historical Society archives
Historical Hartford Courant (1923-1984) [Online]
Historical Hartford Courant (1992-current) [Online]