Westville Village Historic District

The Westville Village Historic District encompasses a small, but densely developed commercial area that reflects the area’s history as the commercial center of Westville.

The boundaries of the district extend 2/10 of a mile along Whalley Avenue, running generally north-south. The district includes a portion of Blake Street, which runs perpendicularly to Whalley Avenue, as well as Tour and West Rock Avenues, which form a horseshoe-shaped side street on the southerly end. As the name implies, Westville lies in the western portion of New Haven, connected to the center of the city by Whalley Avenue.

The Westville Village Historic District is historically significant for its contribution to New Haven’s growth as a major industrial center from the second half of the 19th through the mid-20th century. In contrast to the light manufacturing and mercantile concerns located in downtown New Haven during this time, Westville was home to larger industrial factories which took advantage of the open space and waterpower from the three major water arteries: Wintergreen Brook, the West River, and Beaver Creek. As New Haven participated in the industrialization that transformed Connecticut in the second half of the 19th century, industries located in the Westville Village Historic District made unique contributions that served to distinguish New Haven as a provider of industrial innovations to the nation.

Architecturally, the district is significant because its buildings provide a tangible reflection of the area’s development from a mill village to a small, but active, industrial and commercial center. Although the buildings have evolved, the existing architecture provides a clear representation of how the district looked during its period of significance.

Although land in Westville was opened to private ownership within a few years of the initial settlement of New Haven, the area was largely unsettled and undeveloped until the late 17th century. Originally named “West Field,” and then Hotchkisstown after one of the original settlers, Westville remained a separate entity from New Haven until its annexation in 1872.

Early inhabitants sought to utilize the waterpower provided by the area’s three major water arteries. John Sackett erected the first mill in 1696. During the 18th century, other small mills appeared, including two gunpowder mills that became the target of British attack in 1779. As downtown New Haven increased its commercial and shipping activities after the Revolutionary War, Westville expanded its milling activities, making the transition to the modern industrial age. A number of new firms emerged and constructed larger mills. David Dixon and William McIntosh erected a large mill along the West River for the production of woolen and cotton cloth. After this mill closed in the early 19th century, J.K. Herrick and Joseph Parker established a paper manufacturing company on the site. That company pioneered the manufacture of blotting paper. Also during this period, David Bunce purchased a sawmill and converted it for the production of book paper, refined product for bookmaking. This mill stood at what is now 495 Blake Street.

Tied to both the development of these early mills and the continuing expansion of industry, was a steady population growth. The district began to take on its current appearance during the late 19th-century, the height of the village’s growth. The horse-drawn trolley system connected Westville with the central city in 1861, allowing it to grow to a greater degree, and during the late 1860s, Whalley Avenue (then Main Street) began to make a transition from a predominantly residential area to a more commercial core. Small businesses and trade shops, including a dry goods store and a tinsmith shop, began to appear. Beecher and Sons, manufactures of matches and fruit baskets, was built on the site of the Bunce papermill. The company became the largest producer of sulfur matches in the country between 1856 and 1866, and invented the first machine for dipping matches.

Beecher and Sons went through several mergers with its competitors, finally emerging as the Swift, Courtney and Beecher Company. In 1880, the company incorporated under the name of the Diamond Match Company and moved operations in Chicago, leaving behind an empty factory complex. The Geometric Tool Company began leasing the facilities left by Diamond Match in the early 1890s. That company later purchased the site and erected new structures in the early 20th century. The Geometric Tool Company produced the Automatic Self-Opening Die Head, a patented device that aided in the mass production of threaded metal parts. The company remained in operation on the site for nearly one hundred years. The buildings underwent adaptive reuse in the 1980s and the complex is now known as the Blake Street Center.

The Greist brothers briefly owned a bicycle shop in downtown New Haven before forming the Greist Manufacturing Company in 1894, with Ebenezer Beecher as the company’s first president. The company set up shop across the street from Geometric Tool and manufactured sewing machine attachments and “other mechanical specialties.” Early in the 20th century, the company built a complex of industrial structures that are still standing, and mid-century additions have been replaced by modern apartments.

The expansion of the Geometrical Tool and Greist Manufacturing companies prompted the laying out of Tour and West Rock Avenues. Garrett Fitzgerald, who subdivided the property, acquired the land within the horseshoe-shaped side street early in the century. Tour Avenue was for a brief time named “Greist Avenue,” presumably because the road led to the factory. West Rock Avenue was named Tryon Avenue until the late 1930s. It was actually an extension of the portion of Tryon Avenue that lay on the other side of Whalley Avenue. The houses built on this side street were multiple-family dwellings that housed employees who worked at the nearby Greist and Geometric Tool companies or in businesses on Whalley Avenue. Fitzgerald also owned the parcels along Whalley Avenue between Tour and West Rock. The houses built there were initially single-family residences.

Commercial development continued along Whalley Avenue until well into the 1920s, and later, as the nation emerged from the Depression of the 1930s, the Greist Manufacturing and Geometric Tool companies contributed to reviving the city’s industrial life.

The Westville Village Historic District is a well-preserved village center that continues to present the story of the area’s development as a commercial/manufacturing center. The scale and density of the commercial and residential architecture is representative of the original layout of the village. The major industrial complexes are still sited on large parcels of land. The village was a sought-out destination for enterprise around which a residential village with supportive services developed. This is in contrast to other outlying commercial districts in the city, which grew in order to accommodate a burgeoning inner city population.

The district is mainly commercial in nature and the dominant building type in the district is the simple frame house. The adaptation of the houses on Whalley Avenue for commercial use, not only reflects the development of the district from a small residential village to a commercial district, but is also representative of general patterns of style and development in New Haven during this period.

A staple of the Whalley Avenue streetscape is the narrow, frame Queen Anne or Italianate house with its gable end to the street. By mid-19th century, as was happening in other pockets of New Haven, these houses began appearing on Whalley Avenue as commercial blocks. These were houses built specifically to combine ground-floor commercial space with living quarters in the upper levels. For example, 904-06 Whalley Avenue was built for Frederick Roth in 1880 specifically as a shoe store and his residence.

Meanwhile, earlier houses which were built strictly as single-family residences, such as 914-18 Whalley Avenue (1795), began to serve a different purpose; lower stories were converted for commercial use with storefront alterations. These early 20th-century storefront conversions were in response to the consumer needs of the growing outlying residential area.

One- and two-part commercial blocks, constructed solely for commercial purposes, also began appearing on Whalley Avenue. Number 900-02 Whalley Avenue is a two-story frame commercial block with a flat roof. Built c. 1910, it originally housed a tailor shop. Number 898 Whalley Avenue (1948) was a retail store before being converted for restaurant use in the early 1970s. Buildings such as these were part of an emerging pattern in New Haven at the beginning of the 20th century, when the idea of separating uses, both in zoning and building design, began to take hold.

In addition to representative building types, several buildings in the district are well-preserved examples of a particular architectural style and/or are associated with a significant architect of the time. New Haven at the turn of the 20th century was about to enter its last big development boom before the World Wars and the Great Depression would severely limit building activity. Residential development began to spread west of the city center, and the planned development of Beaver Hills was followed by a surge of building in Westville just south of the district.

All of this had an effect on the district as new Neo-Classical Revival-style buildings began to appear. The Masonic Temples at 949 Whalley Avenue (1926) and 903-11 Whalley Avenue (1912-13), and the Alfred Minor building at 833 Whalley Avenue (1906-07), were among the new buildings bringing distinction to the district in the early 20th century.

The Westville Masonic Temple Association commissioned R.W. Foote to design a Masonic lodge in 1926. It is the most prominent example of Classical Revival style architecture in the Westville area. R.W. Foote was an acknowledged leader among New Haven architects of the time. In addition to elaborate private homes around the city, he also designed the building at 124 Temple Street for the United Illuminating Company (1909).

512 Blake Street (1840) is a refined and well-proportioned example of a Greek Revival house. An unusual element is the Greek honeysuckle pattern on the corner boards.

Situated beside a pair of identical houses that were built speculatively, is 426 West Rock Avenue (1928), a modest example of the Tudor Revival style. Built during the same period as the outlying residential area of Westville, its style is a distinct departure from the other residential architecture in the district. The outlying area of Westville began to develop in the first quarter of the early 20th century, with a number of larger-scale homes built in the popular styles of the period. Though moderate in comparison, the house exhibits the distinguishing features of the style, including a steeply pitched cross gable on the façade, and decorative half-timbering.

Although many of the buildings in the district have been altered or re-sided over the years, the basic architectural forms of the structures haves not been compromised. In fact, many of these architectural changes have served to maintain the district’s history of commercial vitality.

The Westville Village Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on December 2, 2002.