State Register Historic District
The Suburban Westville Historic District is a stylistically cohesive residential neighborhood encompassing 272 acres in the southeast section of Westville, the westernmost section of New Haven. It is historically significant as a neighborhood that represents and identifiable phase in the growth of New Haven in the early twentieth century, and the embodiment of the streetcar suburb typical of early twentieth-century neighborhoods in the United States. In New Haven, a post-Civil War economic depression was relieved by the industrial boom of the 1890s, and at the dawn of the twentieth century, the center of town was suffering from the strain of new industries and new populations. As historians Rollin Osterweiss noted, the Westville area was the final available destination for, “people eager to build homes with pleasant lawns in front and yards for romping children in the rear.” Westville practically exploded with residential development in the early decades of the twentieth century in response to the increasing desire for respite from urban streets, and facilitated by the advent of the Fairhaven-Westville electric trolley.
The district is architecturally significant for its outstanding collection of early twentieth-century architecture as well as its well preserved examples of earlier architectural styles that serve to tie the history of the area’s development together. It is also significant for the number of houses designed by New Haven’s leading architects of the day, some of whom not only contributed many buildings to the landscape, but also chose to build their own homes there.
Prior to the early twentieth century, the southeastern portion of Westville consisted of expansive stretches of fields, forest, and vast tracts of farmland with a scattering of houses. Just to the north of the district was the Westville village, where a core of residential area has been developing since the seventeenth century around a small but highly active and significant industrial and commercial center. However, the southeast section of Westville would not see much development until the last decade of the nineteenth century, as the trolley connected Westville to the downtown, precipitating a burst of development. Many of the district’s early twentieth-century residents would be the officers, owners, and employees of the downtown businesses and companies, seeking refuge from the blighting effects of rapid urban growth.
A few extant houses of Westville’s prominent early families can be found on the district’s oldest roads and serve as a reminder of the district’s rural days. The oldest extant house in the district is 300 West Elm Street, built c. 1779. It was owned by the Dickerman family, who farmed a 20-acre site, ran a cooper shop across Forest Road, and owned a share in a saw mill in the village. Glover Ball, who owned 200 acres in Westville, owned a home at 1274 Forest Road.
It was Westville’s rural seclusion that appealed to Donald Grant Mitchell, a nineteenth-century American author who had been searching all over New England for a tract of land that would serve as his homestead. Mitchell purchased “Edgewood,” a working farm on 300 acres, in 1855. During his travels in Europe, he had become particularly taken with the English countryside and had developed an appreciation for peaceful and gentle rural life. He returned to the United States with the mission of finding a suitable place in New England to live the life of a gentleman farmer. Edgewood became literally his life’s work as he used his training and natural talent as a horticulturist and landscaper to make the farm the physical embodiment of his ideals for gracious living. He made Edgewood nationally famous through his popular essays about rural life using the pen name Ik Marvel. His main house, still extant, is at 999 Forest Road and “Ik Marvel’s cottage” is located at 49 Edgewood Way. The bulk of his farmland lay in the district east of Forest Road.
While Mitchell was enjoying Edgewood, other landowners began in the 1860s to subdivide their large holdings for house lots. Eli Barnett and William Alden both lived on Fountain Street with huge tracts of land extending south into the district. Barnett subdivided his land and laid out a street in 1850 which bears his name today. Although he had completed the division by the late 1860s, few lots were sold. Alden Avenue was laid out in the 1860s by William Alden and Charles Peck was responsible for the development of the northern part of that street as well as Willard Street. Despite these early attempts at development, the area retained its rural character and little new construction appeared on these streets until later in the nineteenth century, when industrial growth took off in the Westville village necessitating a need for housing for the clerks, officers, and retail workers of the area’s businesses and industries.
In 1873, a new bridge was built across the West River that extended Edgewood Avenue from downtown New Haven into Westville, making the area more easily accessible, and helping to set the stage for the development which began with abandon in the early decades of the earliest twentieth century. But it was the electric trolley, introduced in the 1890s, which helped to close the gap between Westville and downtown New Haven. The initial surge of development in the northern section of the district during the last part of the nineteenth century was in direct response to the convenience of the trolley along Fountain Street.
By the early 1900s, the effects of industrialization, a rapid population influx, and new energy and transportation systems were taking a toll on city living, and New Haven’s downtown residents were looking for peace, quiet, and fresh air. The last available area for expansion was the fresh fields of Westville. With the death of Donald Grant Mitchell early in the twentieth century came the sale and subdivision of his estate. The influence of Mitchell’s love of nature and harmony with natural surroundings is evident in deed restrictions relating to lot size, setbacks, and density of development. The land within this subdivision was designed with broad avenues lined with trees. Houses were set on large lots with spacious setbacks.
The popularity of the Edgewood estate development precipitated the subsequent development of other large farms and estates. The Greist family, which owned the successful Greist Manufacturing Company in the Westville village, owned the largest land holding in the district, next to Mitchell’s. Percy Greist partnered with Harry Leonard, a local alderman, to form the Greist-Leonard Realty Company and developed 15 acres bounded by Central Avenue, West Elm Street, Yale Avenue, and West Rock Avenue, calling the area “Rockview.” It was fifteen minutes from the center of the city by trolley, and local papers hailed Rockview as having “all the conditions of health, comfort and restfulness incident to rural life in combination with all the conveniences pertaining to life in the heart of the city.” The Edgewood Development Corporation, also owned by the Greist family, layed out the new streets Westwood Road and Elmwood Road between Edgewood Avenue and Chapel Street and built speculative housing. Private developer Frank Eberth also developed streets between Yale Avenue, Central Avenue, Edgewood Avenue, and Chapel Street. Most of these developments had restrictions regarding price, size of lots, and “character of the houses” as well as a restriction against barns and chicken coops on the properties. Furthermore, commercial establishments were forbidden within these subdivisions.
The district continued to grow through the 1920s and did not slow with the Depression of the 1930s. By this point the district had realized most of its growth potential. While development continued outside the district beyond Forest after World War II, the district retained its character and the relatively few houses built during the 1940s and 1950s contributed to the spirit of the district as a desirable suburban outpost of the downtown area.
The Suburban Westville Historic District is architecturally significant because of its buildings, with well preserved representative examples from each architectural period, illustrate the historical development of the area. Especially notable is the district’s outstanding collection of early twentieth-century domestic architecture, with examples from virtually every popular style of the period. The buildings are well preserved, with virtually no non-contributing infill. Most of the popular domestic styles of the second half of the nineteenth century are represented with particularly good examples of Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne.