State Register Historic District

Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues

Frank E. Craig House, 122 Davenport Avenue, c. 1870.

Frank E. Craig House, 122 Davenport Avenue, c. 1870.

The historical significance of the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District lies in the fact that it retains evidence of its original residential and commercial character. A visitor to the area would be able to get a picture of the broader immigrant settlement patterns in the Hill by visiting the District.

The Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District is architecturally significant as a well-preserved urban neighborhood that developed between the Civil War and World War I. As a result of a particularly extensive program of urban renewal implemented in New Haven, and especially the Hill during the second half of the twentieth century, many neighborhoods were lost. This District is one of the few remaining areas of the Hill left intact.

The setting of the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District is dense and urban, with uniform setbacks, few fences, and little street furniture. Almost all the houses have been converted to multiple occupancy. Many have been sided with synthetic siding, and many porches, either original or later additions, have been enclosed. Despite these changes, the houses retain their basic form and character and, taken as a whole, present a unity of scale that gives an accurate picture of the neighborhood’s historic appearance. Since the 1980s a number of houses have been demolished for blight clearance. There are few modern intrusions; the most notable are Resurrection Lutheran Church and a large addition to the Jewish Home. In addition, new infill housing has been constructed, particularly on Vernon and Ward Streets, but it is similar in size, massing, and materials to the historic housing of the district.

The Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District is a discrete urban neighborhood that encompasses both sides of Vernon, Ward, Asylum, Baldwin, and Kossuth Streets between Davenport and Congress Avenues, as well as the portions of the avenues that adjoin these streets. Congress Avenue has a mixture of commercial, industrial, and residential buildings. Many of its residences are flats located above stores in three-story brick commercial blocks, though a row of houses survives between Daggett and Arch Streets. Apartment blocks, like the commercial blocks, are large brick structures that typically fill their lots almost entirely; they lack storefronts. Architectural detail is generally limited to a bracketed cornice, though three apartment blocks (619-635 Congress Avenue) have more elaborate facades. The industrial buildings, at the eastern end of the district, are one-story masonry structures. There is one large institutional building, the Welch Training School, located at 495 Congress Avenue and individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Hill was one of the slowest areas of New Haven to develop, in part because of its topography. Originally covering the whole southwest quarter of the city south of Davenport Avenue, it was separated from town by the West Creek and formed an isolated peninsula between West Creek and West River. The land itself was not easily habitable; low lying marshy grasslands were generally poor for agriculture. The Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District was located on higher ground but stayed largely unsettled. Closer to the water, near the docks and the railroad, small villages of Irish immigrants began to settle in the early 1820s.  

Around 1810, Congress Avenue was opened to the Mildford Turnpike by a bridge, built across the West River. The bridge provided access to the land, mostly fields, in the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District and the area remained sparsely developed in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the decades following the Civil War, successive waves of immigrant groups came to settle in the area, attracted by jobs in the growing industrial center that New Haven was becoming and by the low cost of housing in the Hill. This rapid expansion of population triggered the construction of most of the houses and other buildings that now fill the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District.

In addition to the major employers such as the railroad, gun manufacturers, and carriage works, a variety of other industries were established in New Haven in the later part of the nineteenth century. The growth of these and other major manufacturing concerns in the last half of the nineteenth century led to a rapid population explosion as new immigrants arrived to provide labor. Construction during the 1870s of most of the houses that now fill up the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District accommodated many of the laborers who fueled the success of these industries, and their families. Late nineteenth century census data record a large number of German immigrants working as corset stitchers and pressers.

With the end of the nineteenth century came another great wave of immigrants, particularly Jewish and Italian. By the turn of the century a large population of Russian Jews had settled in the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District. Many of the heads of households were skilled laborers or proprietors of their own businesses. A notable indication of community investment at this time was the construction of the New Haven Jewish Home for the Aged on the corner of Davenport Avenue and Asylum Street (1923). Originally devoted to the housing and care of elderly Jews, the building is now used primarily for administration and day services. It has evolved into a resource for the broader community regardless of ethnic or religious background.

Immigration from Puerto Rico began to rise after United States Commonwealth status was conferred upon that country in 1917. While many Puerto Rican immigrants arrived to work in agriculture, eventually the city attracted many with better paying industrial jobs. Just prior to World War II the Puerto Rican population in New Haven began to build, first with a small group of men who arrived from Puerto Rico to work at the Winchester Repeating Arms factory, and them steadily increasing as the century wore on.

During the second half of the twentieth century, New Haven demolished large areas of the city for slum clearance and highway construction. While the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District escaped large-scale demolition, it was affected by urban renewal as middle-class residents moved to the suburbs and were replaced by low-income families whose homes elsewhere in the city had been razed.

Today, the district is home mainly to African American and Puerto Rican families, and community investment is evident in the institutions which address local needs. The Lutheran Church on Davenport is now operated as a mission church by the New England Lutheran Synod. The 1883 building was replaced in 1969 with one designed by the local architecture firm of Granberry, Cash and Associates. Other indications of local involvement in Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District are a community garden on Davenport Avenue and Christian Community Action, a faith-based community service organization on the same street.

Like many similar neighborhoods, the Upper Davenport and Congress Avenues Historic District served many, if not most, of the day-to-day needs of its inhabitants. The neighborhood was primarily a place of residences (occupying several rungs of the social ladder), but it also offered places of employment, both commercial and industrial, stores, churches, a school, and other institutional buildings. A variety of building types housed these many activities, their forms and styles reflecting both the diversity of activities and the span of time over which they were built.

 

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