Quinnipiac River Historic District photo gallery

The Quinnipiac River Historic District is roughly bounded by Quinnipiac Avenue, and Lexington, Chapel, Ferry, Pine, Front, and Lombard Streets.

The neighborhood is a rare surviving an intact example of a 19th-century maritime community. It gained prominence in the mid-1800s as a major oyster port, with ancillary industries of ship building and shipping. It had its own economic and political institutions until the late 19th-century when it was annexed to the City of New Haven. Today there remain a great many early and mid-19th century structures built by oyster dealers, mariners, and traders. Houses spanning a hundred year period (1785-1885) are represented in the district. These include some of the city’s best vernacular examples of Colonial, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Italian Villa styles.

The Quinnipiac River Historic District is centered on the Quinnipiac River, the main topographical feature of the area. The confluence of the Quinnipiac River on the east and the Mill River on the west resulted in a broad, fertile plain know since colonial times as “the Neck” of “Great Neck”. As the fresh water of the rivers blended with the salt water of the harbor, broad shallow basins of water with brackish pools and muddy salt flats formed around the Neck. These pools and flats provided a perfect breeding ground for many shellfish, especially oysters.

The first white settlers came to New Haven in 1638, and the oysters on all sides if the harbor provided an abundant source of food. The Neck was divided into farm lots, and for over 100 years this area remained an open, undeveloped expanse of pasture and salt meadows. On the east bank of the Quinnipiac, the land distribution is thought to have followed a similar pattern – large tracts were divided among the New Haven proprietors as part of the town’s second division in the last half of the 17th century. In 1707, the land in the district was divided when the town of East Haven was formed east of the Quinnipiac. Settlements appeared concurrently on both banks of the river; the village that later became Fair Haven, though politically divided, functioned as one village.

Daniel Brown erected a house (c.1765) on the east bank facing present day Quinnipiac Avenue, a little north of Grand Avenue. The core of this house still survives in a greatly altered state at 715 Quinnipiac Avenue, and is the oldest documented residence in the district. There was little development in its vicinity except for the ferry path that extended from the northwest section of the Neck to the southeast point where Pardee’s Ferry, chartered in 1650, provided a means of transportation for horses and passengers across the river. A small riverside settlement developed along the east bank of the river near the ferry, but no early buildings from this community still exist. The first permanent residents of the Neck had established homes by the late 18th century. Thomas Alling bought a house lot on the Neck in March 1783, and in 1794 Moses and Dorothy Brockett sold a piece of land “with the old dwelling house.” The earliest dwellings were built at the water’s edge on present day North and South Front Streets. Although none of these early houses survive, their form is reflected in houses built in the 19th century. The first houses were small, one- or two-room timber-frame structures built on raised ashlar block basements just above the high-water mark. The houses at 208, 254, and 262 North Front Street, although built in the early 19th century, are indicative of these early waterfront dwellings.

A great spur to the development of the village, then called Dragon, was the construction of a bridge in the early 1790s. The new bridge straddled the river at approximately the same site as the present Grand Avenue Bridge. After the bridge was finished in 1792, settlement shifted northward toward Grand Street, the newly completed east/west axis road linking the bridge to the ferry path. Grand Street (now Grand Avenue) became the main street of the growing village. Stephen Rowe, a leading settler, purchased a lot on the corner of Grand Avenue and North Front Street in 1796, and in 1797 he acquired a parcel diagonally across the corner adjacent to the bridge. In 1804, he built a large tavern and store that became the center of the oyster trade in the early 19th century. This building still stands at 182 North Front Street. Nathaniel Granniss, a real estate speculator, donated three-quarters of an acre just west of the bridge on Grand Street for a public common and site for a meeting house or school.

The east bank also went through a period of change in the late 18th century. The town of East Haven established a public east/west highway in 1790, following approximately the same route as the present-day Quinnipiac Avenue. In the same year, East Haven offered lots for sale between the highway and the river. The construction of the Grand Street bridge linked the small settlement on the east bank permanently with the Neck settlement and provided a more direct route to New Haven for residents of East Haven.

Oyster fishing and trading were the primary industries of the growing waterfront community. In the first two decades of the 19th century, scattered parcels were bought and sold all along the water’s edge. The parcels often included the “waterlot” in front of the parcel where the residents usually built a small wharf or shed. The mollusks were gathered in long dugout canoes then taken to each household were they were opened by women and children in the dark, cool basements of each dwelling. After opening, the oysters were placed in the wooden kegs for shipping.

Oyster dealing was not the sole commercial activity however. Many early residents owned small ships or schooners that plied the Atlantic coast. Several residents, including Stephen Rowe, traveled as far south as the West Indies. Other residents were ship builders, constructing one- and two-masted schooners in shipyards along the muddy banks. Still other residents were small farmers.

The years 1825 to1865 saw the establishment of the bustling waterfront community that is now Fair Haven. At a meeting of the villagers in 1824, it was resolved to change the name of the community from Dragon to Fair Haven. The initial settlement along the riverbank had grown into a densely settled autonomous community complete with its own political, social, and economic institutions. In 1808, there were 150 people living in 50 dwellings in Fair Haven. By 1840, there were 787 inhabitants. It was during this period Fair Haven split from the town of New Haven and created its own semi-autonomous government.

Oystering, and its supporting industries, was a major factor in the growth of Fair Haven. Residents of neighboring towns moved here in the 1830s and ‘40s and built small waterfront dwellings along North and South Front Streets. In front of their houses they extended wharves of cut sandstone into the muddy banks of the river. The importation of oysters, first from neighboring rivers and bays such as the Housatonic River, Newark Bay and the North River, and then from more distant places, such as Egg Harbour and Delaware Bay, helped to make the local industry blossom into a major regional center for oyster dealing and processing. By the 1830s, local mariners were sailing to the Chesapeake Bay, returning with large quantities of southern oysters.

The importation of oysters gave rise to a dramatic increase in the scale of local operations. A fleet of schooners built in local shipyards brought back thousands of bushels of oysters to be processed and then shipped inland to regional markets. Although many families supplemented their incomes by processing oysters at home, a growing number of dealers were large enough to be able to employ a dozen or more people. Oyster wharves and sheds were built to handle the work. One such dealer, Levi Rowe and Company, had 20 vessels in operation and employed over 100 people in processing 150,000 gallons of oysters a year.

The oyster industry brought a host of ancillary industries to the community. One of the earliest and most significant was shipping and shipbuilding. By 1836, twenty vessels were owned by Fair Haveners—including six in the West Indian trade—while the others toured the Atlantic coast. These small marine operations exported lumber, apples, fish, and ice to the south and brought back cargoes of coal and cotton to New England. By the mid-19th century, the number of vessels increased dramatically to handle large shipments of imported oysters. The demand for ships gave birth to a local ship building industry. Four major shipyards were located within the district: the G. W. Baldwin Company and the J.H. Woodhouse yards on the east shore, and Tuttle and Munsell Company and Lane and Jacobs Company on the west shore.

Keg, pail, and tub makers were a third local industry spawned to meet the needs of the oyster trade. Zadoc Morse is listed as a keg maker in the 1847-48 New Haven City Directory. The “business rectory and Map of Fair Haven, 1856” lists James A. Preston on Ferry street, L.A. Tanner on Pearl Street and James Broughton in the King Block as oyster keg and can manufacturers. By 1868, three large companies dominated the market, producing the 150,000 kegs needed yearly. These were the Fair Haven Keg and Can Company, the Kellogg and Ives Factory, and the Fair Haven Oyster Keg Company.

Hiram Barnes manufactured lime from oyster shells, first on South Front Street, then on Chapel Street. Other merchants and artisans took advantage of the new prosperity in the community and opened shops here. The New Haven City Directory of 1847-48 lists sailmakers, tinners, wheelwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, and grocers, all serving the community in large and small business blocks built on the east and west approaches to the bridge. Dr. Charles S. Thompson opened a drugstore in the White Store building on the west side of the bridge. The Todd Block, a four-story masonry building, was built in 1859 on the site of Rowe’s Tavern (the tavern was later moved to the rear of the lot). Daniel M. King purchased Heman Hotchkiss’ hotel block around 1850 and opened the Fair Haven Coffee House (still standing at 14 Grand Avenue) in a small portion of the building. The rest was filled with a variety of small merchants and artisans. Ambrose Todd and Horace R. Chidsey opened a grocery and feed store on Grand Avenue about 1860 (still standing at 89 Grand Avenue).

As the population grew in the waterfront community, so too did the number of religious and social institutions. In the early 19th century, Fair Haveners traveled either to New Haven or East Haven to attend church services. By the 1830s, however, several local congregations were in the formative stage. The First Congregational Church of Fair Haven was organized in 1830 with 56 members, 23 from the east shore and 33 from the west shore. A Greek Revival-style church was built on the schoolhouse lot donated by Nathaniel Granniss. By the mid-1840s, the simple Cape of the earlier schoolhouse was dressed in distinctive Greek Revival-period detailing, including a wide entablature with box cornice and return, and a trabeated surround framing the entry. The Zina Ball House at 228 North Front Street (c. 1844) is a good example of the antebellum version of this form.

The domestic architecture of the early-19th-century period is closely related to its Colonial predecessors. On the west bank of the river the Levi Grannis House (198 North Front Street, c.1790) is a proto-typical late 18th-century dwelling. The building has a center chimney and is one-and-a-half stories tall, built on a random block ashlar basement. The form and detail is strictly vernacular. The raised basement is a common indigenous feature that served as a workspace protected from the elements and separate from the living quarters. The basic one-and-a-half story, frame gable-roofed post-Colonial house seems to have been the most common type of residence built during this period. Several examples of this house form survive at 208 North Front Street (1818-19), 254 North Front Street, 7 Pine Street (1820), and 8 Pine Street (1822).

Another building type during this period is exemplified by Rowe’s tavern, a two-story five-bay single-pile frame structure with a central chimney. Another example of this form is the James Hunt House (1812) at 718 Quinnipiac Avenue on the east bank of the river. The Justin Kimberly House at 624-628 Quinnipiac (1828-1829) and the Aner Brown House at 291 Lenox Street (1812) present variations on the form.

Foreshadowing the popular gable-to-the-street Greek Revival house form is the Chancellor Kingsbury House at 10 Clinton Avenue (1816). This two-story frame structure is three bays wide, with a side-hall plan and elliptical fanlight over the entry. Other houses showing the transition are the Rowe-Fowler House at 736 Quinnipiac (built between 1806 and 1811), and the Henry and William Linsley Houses located respectively at 641 and 645 Quinnipiac Avenue (both 1828).

Few documented commercial buildings from this period survive. The most substantial of these is the King Block at 14 Grand Avenue (c. 1820). This two-and-a-half story brick structure is set with its gable end to the street, typical of the Federal style. The building is one of the earliest commercial structures in the city.

The two-story, gable-fronted Greek Revival-style dwelling followed the one-and-a-half story Cape in popularity. There are more examples of this house type (1835–55) in the neighborhood than any other. Built on a raised, or partially raised, brick basement, most have functional subterranean working space with one or more forms of egress, and large window openings. The roof ridge lies perpendicular to the street, allowing for narrower urban houselots with deep rear yards. Each house has a box cornice with complete return across the gable end, a rectilinear window in the gable, usually with Greek Revival-style tracery, and a trabeated surround or classical portico at the entry. Despite severe alterations, the five dwellings at 58 to 72 East Pearl Street (1835-1843) demonstrate the order and grace created by the repetition of this basic type. Whether planned or spontaneously generated, this ensemble created an ordered streetscape befitting a growing community. A slight variation of the two-story, gable-fronted Greek Revival house can be seen in the one-and-a-half story gable-fronted dwelling that also appeared during this period. These have details similar to the two-story dwellings, but are scaled down to fit a smaller structure. Examples remain at 32 and 66 Chambers Street, 52 and 94 Exchange Street, and 200, 288, and 292 North Front Street.

A third popular housetype during this period was the two-story Italianate house. Built between 1848 and 1860, these dwellings are characterized by their box-like forms, broad, projecting eaves, and full front porches or verandas. Although the Italianate style originally denoted large houses of grand proportions, it was adapted in Fair Haven and elsewhere to modest vernacular interpretations. Two large Italianate houses remain at 37 East Pearl Street (c. 1852, remodeled in the Second Empire Style in the 1870s) and 106 Exchange Street (1850-51). Many smaller homes of this style were built; among these are 42 and 88 East Pearl Street, 74 Houston Street, and 57 and 97 Clinton Avenue, 264 North Front Street, 315 Lenox Street, and 27 Oxford Street. Several reflect, on a modest scale, the influence of architect Henry Austin’s designs, particularly those of the large houses that he designed on Hillhouse Avenue. The massing, proportion and details of several houses within the district are similar to those of the James Dwight Dana House at 24 Hillhouse Avenue. Among these are the Samuel Hemingway House (37 East Pearl Street, c. 1852) and the Willis S. Barnes House (42 East Pearl Street, c. 1846), the Dan and Julia Smith House (59 East Pearl Street, c. 1855), and the Elijan S. and Jane Ball House (76 East Pearl Street, c. 1852). The Lyman Woodward House (169 Grand Avenue, 1851-52) is the last surviving true suburban villa in the district. Although the Woodward House was not built on the same scale as the Dana House, it is a grand house for Fair Haven, and may well have been designed by Austin. Grand Avenue, which, in the early 19th century was a residential street mainly comprised of large estates, began to be developed commercially after the Civil War. Hence, the Lyman Woodward house is a rare survival not only in the context of the section of Grand Avenue included in the district, but of the street as a whole.

The last domestic housetype of this period is the two-and-a-half story, gable-fronted Italianate built from 1848 to1865. The gable-fronted Italianates tend to be larger in scale than their Greek Revival predecessors and have bold, heavy detailing. The lateral and raking eaves project sharply over end walls, and the window surrounds and entry porches have a modeled quality. Often these houses have an elaborate entry porch or large veranda with carved columns. In several instances, a three- tiered off-center Tuscan tower creates the finishing touch to this urban and slightly exotic housetype. Several of these mid-19th-century dwellings remain at 48, 59, and 69 East Pearl Street, 19 and 27 Perkins Street, 17 Pine Street, 274, 285 and 296 Lenox Street (much altered) and 583-85 Quinnipiac Avenue. Again, many houses of this type borrowed details from Henry Austin’s grand designs.

Throughout much of the building history of this period, one particular carpenter-builder appears again and again. Elbert J. Munsell built many dwellings and structures in Fair Haven from the1830s until his death in 1853. He can be credited with the permeation of the two-story Greek Revival housetype, as he built many of them. He also built several houses in the Italian Villa style, including the residence at 76 Pierpont Street (c. 1870) and his last residence at 106 Exchange Street (1850-51). Other buildings built by Munsell include the houses at 32 and 36 Pine Street (1853), and the double house at 37-39 Grand Avenue (1833-34).

The two most important individual structures built on the east bank of the river during the mid-19th century are the Second Congregational (Pilgrim) Church (65 East Grand Avenue, 1851), a late Greek Revival brick structure, and the Saint James Episcopal Church (60 East Grand Avenue, 1844), a brownstone Gothic Revival church which is a scaled-down version of Ithiel Towne’s Trinity Church (c.1813) that stands on the New Haven Green.

On the west bank, the First Congregational Church moved from its site on Grand Avenue between Perkins Street and Clinton Avenue to a new site on Grand Avenue between Atwater and Bright Streets. The new church (1853) is a brick structure combining Italianate and Neo-classical motifs designed by Fair Haven resident Volney Pierce.

In 1977, the City of New Haven designated a section of this area as a local historic district. The entire Quinnipiac River District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 28, 1984.