Friday, November 18, 2011

Robert Wakeman Hill

In the years that I have been working with Waterbury's history, I have repeatedly come across references to an architect named Robert Wakeman Hill. He usually is overshadowed by later Waterbury architects, and I haven't felt like I was very familiar with his work. Some of his better-known buildings were destroyed long ago, while many others simply aren't recognized as being his work.

Earlier this year, I started researching Hill for the Waterbury Hall of Fame. I also put together a slideshow of his buildings for the Induction Ceremony which was held recently. Since then, I have been working on putting together this blog post and have found a few more buildings which I believe he designed. I have included buildings outside Waterbury as well.

Hill was active in Waterbury beginning during the Civil War and continued working until the early 20th century. For a time, he was one of only two architects in Waterbury. He designed buildings when Waterbury was first growing into a city. His buildings were located in what was then the core of the city, primarily downtown, the South End, Brooklyn, North Square and Hillside. As the city development spread outward in the 20th century, the older neighborhoods were neglected. Several of the R.W. Hill buildings that survive in Waterbury are in poor condition. Others have been demolished or drastically modified. I have including historic images when possible to show what has been lost.

Robert Wakeman Hill, in Anderson's History of Waterbury

Robert Wakeman Hill (1828-1909) was a leading architect in Waterbury and the state in the 19th century. He was the official state architect under four governors, designing state armory buildings in Waterbury, New Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk and New London. Hill used Waterbury craftsmen for the state armory projects: carpenter W. M. Cottle worked on the Waterbury State Armory, and Irish immigrant D.E. Cronin, in partnership with John W. Gaffney, built the Norwalk and New London State Armories.

Hill grew up in Waterbury. His father was a carpenter, school teacher and poet. After completing his studies, Hill worked for architect Henry Austin, a major American architect based in New Haven. Hill also worked for a time in Milwaukee, eventually returning to Waterbury and established an architectural practice on Bank Street in 1863.

Hill (seated on right) and other Waterbury artists, including painter Horace
Johnson (seated on left) and sculptor Truman Bartlett (with goatee in center).

St. Margaret's School, Grove Street, Waterbury

Demolished decades ago, the original St. Margaret's School was built on Grove Street in 1865. Most of the Robert Hill buildings I have identified are brick and from decades later. Looking at this postcard now, I can see many of the same architectural features in this clapboard building that he used in his brick buildings.

Collection of Chase Collegiate School Archives

Considering that Hill was in business in Waterbury for about half a century, there are probably many other buildings by him that survive. I have found a reference to a "double house" for S.M. Buckingham, but I have not located it yet.

City Hall, Waterbury

Waterbury's first City Hall building was on the Green in 1869 and probably established Hill as the city's premiere architect. It burned down in 1912, three years after his death. The postcard below is hand-painted. Other versions are painted different colors, so I don't know if it really was this color. I suspect it was not.

Police Department, Leavenworth Street and Harrison Alley, Waterbury

Hill was hired in 1889 to design a new headquarters for the police department, located behind the City Hall building. I haven't been able to find an image of the full building, just the detail below, which is on the Waterbury Police Department website.

The detail image shows a decorative use of bricks to form a sort of sawtooth pattern below the second-floor windows. This is typical of Hill's buildings.

State Armory Buildings

In 1885, Hill was the architect for State Armory buildings in Bridgeport, New Britain and Norwalk. Hill had designed the Waterbury Armory two years earlier. It was located on the corner of Phoenix and Abbott Avenues. I haven't been able to find an image of it, but the following postcard views of his other armories suggest what it might have looked like.

Bridgeport Armory (I'm assuming this is the one by R.W. Hill)

New Britain Armory

Norwalk Armory

City Hall and Opera House, Thomaston

Thomaston's City Hall was built in 1884. Like Waterbury's first City Hall, it was designed as a multi-purpose building, with an Opera House, firehouse and municipal offices.

Walker Hall, 50 DeForest Street, Watertown

Built in 1883, Walker Hall was once the Watertown Library. It was recently acquired by Taft School, whose original building (now gone) was a former hotel designed by Robert Wakeman Hill.

Bronson B. Tuttle Home, 380 Church Street, Naugatuck

Completed in 1881, this was part of an estate that included a carriage house and greenhouse. The house was given to Naugatuck in 1935 and is currently the office building for the town's Board of Education.

Route 63 has since been built dividing the property, with the carriage house on the opposite side of the road from the main house.

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Tuttle House Interior, 2016

Congregational Church Parish House, Naugatuck

Naugatuck's Green is best known for the buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White, but Hill was there before them. The Parish House for the Congregational Church was designed by Hill and completed in 1888. The adjoining Church was designed by Stanford White and completed in 1903.

Parish House Interior, 2016

Parish House Interior, 2016

Parish House Interior, 2016

Parish House Interior, 2016

St. John's Rectory, Church Street, Waterbury

The rectory building for St. John's Episcopal Church was completed in 1886, at a cost of about $16,000.

The building features some typical design elements used by Hill: red brick walls and terra cotta decorative rosettes.

Litchfield County Courthouse, Litchfield

Very little of this resembles the original design. Built in 1889 in the Romanesque Revival style, it was drastically remodeled in 1913 to 1914 when the town felt that a Colonial Revival style was better suited to their image.

Postcard c. 1910, from Judicial Branch website.

The 1889 construction of the Litchfield County Courthouse was done by the John W. Gaffney Company of Waterbury, which built several R.W. Hill buildings.

Coe Brass Office Building, Torrington

Built in 1881, the Coe Brass office building was remodeled several times, in 1888, 1911 and more recently.

The original design can be seen in the historic image below.

Coe Brass office building, c. 1893

Hall Memorial Chapel, Riverside Cemetery, Waterbury

The chapel was completed in 1885 and was named for Samuel W. Hall, who left a bequest of $20,000 in 1877 for its construction.

The chapel was renovated and the spire rebuilt in 1893.

Griggs Building, 221-227 Bank Street, Waterbury

The Griggs Building is named for its first owner, Henry C. Griggs, who was a founder of the Smith & Griggs brass manufacturer, involved in banking and real estate, served as Alderman, and was twice elected to the state legislature.

The Griggs Building was home to several hotels in its early decades. By 1978, it was extremely run down, as can be seen in the photo below, one of fourteen taken as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available on the Library of Congress website.

Bank Street buildings, 1978, Collection of Library of Congress, HABS CT-410

The building has since been restored. The details of the architecture can best be seen from the upper floors of the Buckingham parking garage across the street.

As is typical with many Hill buildings, the Griggs building is a combination of brick with terra cotta decorative elements.

Henry Griggs' son, Wilfred E. Griggs, was an architect. He joined Robert Hill's firm after returning from his studies in 1891. He became one of the most prominent architects in Waterbury during the early 20th century and was the official successor to Robert W. Hill.

Protector Hose Company No. 4 Firehouse, 904 Bank Street, Waterbury

The fire company held a lavish party on March 26, 1883 to open the new firehouse in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The Waterbury American newspaper published a detailed description of the event and the building, mentioning Robert W. Hill as the architect, Chatfield & Chatfield as the mason and F.B. Smith as the carpenter.

The building has been greatly modified over the years, with entries and windows having been bricked up. It is now the V.F.W. Post 7790.

The firehouse originally had a 50 foot hose tower, used for drying hoses, a bunk room and a parlor. The parlor was furnished with carpeting, curtains, a wall clock donated by the Waterbury Clock company, a piano and chandeliers (presumably small!).

The feast at the grand opening in 1883 included soup, cold roast turkey, chicken and sparerib, cold boiled corned beef, tongue and ham, hot potatoes and turnips. That has no bearing on the architecture, but I thought it was a fun tidbit to include.

Rose Hill Hose Company No. 5 Firehouse, 325 Baldwin Street, Waterbury

The Fire Department budget in the Waterbury Municipal Register for 1882 listed two payments to Robert W. Hill for architectural services, and it listed two new firehouses under construction. The Protector Hose Co. No. 4 was one; the Rose Hill Hose Company No. 5 was the other. No other architect appears to have been employed at this time, so I think it is safe to assume that Hill was the architect for the Rose Hill firehouse.

It's been a Hindu Temple for a few years now. The neighborhood is pretty run down, and the firehouse has seen better days, but the exterior architecture is more or less intact.

This is one of the upsides to historic buildings being neglected--oftentimes the alternative is that the historic buildings have been modified so much that very little of the original design survives. During the middle of the 20th century, the movement for modern styles led to a lot of beautiful historic architecture being lost completely.

I have more photos posted of this building than some of the others partly because so much of the original detail survives, and partly because I'm not sure those details will survive for much longer.

Firehouse, Litchfield

This one is on the Green in Litchfield and is much better cared for than the two firehouses in Waterbury. It is now a bank.

Comparing this to the ones in Waterbury can be depressing, but it can also be inspirational, letting you see just how beautiful they could be if restored.

The back of the building has more decorative brickwork.


The next set of buildings are ones that I believe (to varying degrees) to have been designed by R.W. Hill. His obituary stated that he designed a number of public school buildings in Waterbury. I tried to identify the exact school buildings, but the Board of Education did not identify their architect(s) in the annual budget reports found in the Municipal Registers.

Studying the history of architecture (and other visual art) requires a fair amount of detective work, especially when you are trying to identify who made something. Trying to figure out which buildings were designed by Hill involves using the scraps of available information as clues. I know he designed a number of schools, and I know what years he worked as an architect. The next step was to find out which school buildings were constructed during those years. The final step was to study the design of the buildings and see if they are similar to buildings we know were designed by Hill. This process is more or less the same for other types of buildings. The results are as follows.

Republican Building, 229-231 Bank Street, Waterbury

Although much more subdued than the neighboring Griggs Building, this one features some typical Hill elements. It was built in 1883 for the Waterbury Republican newspaper, founded two years earlier by J. Henry Morrow.

The decorative sawtooth brickwork and the terra cotta rosettes are the biggest clues that this building might be the work of R.W. Hill.

Duggan School, Bank Street, Waterbury

Duggan School is very similar in design to the Thomaston City Hall and Opera House. Architects are unlikely to copy the designs of their peers, so it is probably safe to assume that Hill was the architect for Duggan.

Although I have not been able to find proof that Duggan was designed by R.W. Hill, I have found reference to the construction being done by James F. Gaffney, whose company did work for other Hill buildings (see History of New Haven County, Vol. 2).

Welton Street School, Waterbury

This is a gorgeous building, sadly allowed to sit neglected by the City of Waterbury. I would love to see it converted to market-rate apartments.

This is almost certainly designed by Hill. The rosettes under the peak of the roof are the same as those used on the St. John's Rectory building, the Thomaston City Hall, the Naugatuck Congregational Parish House, and the Protector No. 4 firehouse.

Take a look at the design of the porch, in terrible condition but original to the building. There is so much detail to the woodwork, far more than you would see in a building constructed today.

Also look at the sawtooth brickwork and the cross-shape to the school's name and construction date. These are design clues that help connect the architect of this building to other buildings with similar features.

Washington School, Baldwin Street, Waterbury

Washington School has been modified pretty dramatically since it was built, but it still retains design features that connect it to the Welton Street School--the peaked roof with the lunette (half-circle) window below are some of those features.

The building originally had a central clock tower similar in design to the one at Duggan. The photograph below is black and white, but you can still get a sense of multiple paint colors used on the woodwork of the building. The angle of the photograph also shows that the footprint of the building is similar to that of Welton Street School, although doubled.

Washington School, circa 1909. 
Collection of Mattatuck Historical Society.

Some of the woodwork has survived, as has the sawtooth brickwork running between the tops of the upper windows.

The long addition on the back of the school is newer, not by Hill.

The woodwork of the side porch is more or less intact, but it looks like it may have been somewhat modified.

Porter Street School, Waterbury

This is definitely by the same architect as the Welton Street School. They are almost twins in some regards.

Porter Street School. Collection of Mattatuck Historical Society.

It was located on Porter Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood and is long gone.

Porter Street School. Collection of Mattatuck Historical Society.

Lewis Block, 846-852 South Main Street, Waterbury

This is one of my favorite Waterbury buildings, an apartment block, possibly built in 1890. By 1902, it was called the Lewis Block.

The apartment block was built on a small corner of land on the Mad River, surrounded by factories on all sides: Benedict & Burnham, Steele & Johnson, Waterbury Button Company and Waterbury Buckle Company.

The first floor had a variety of businesses over the years. For the first few decades of the 20th century, the business owners on the first floor included an Italian shoemaker, a German barber, a Chinese laundryman, an Irish physician and a druggist. Shortly before World War II, a tavern was opened in part of the first floor. A luncheonette was opened by 1970. Today, the first floor is residential.

This is one of the buildings that I attribute to R.W. Hill, but I have no solid proof that he was the architect. The main reason I suspect it to be a Hill building is the use of decorative checkerboard brickwork, which he used on the Protector No. 4 firehouse.

George Granniss and Enoch Hubbard Houses, 33 and 41 Church Street, Waterbury

The last two buildings were attributed to either R.W. Hill or Henry Austin, with whom Hill started out, many decades ago.

The George N. Granniss house, at 33 Church Street, was built about 1865. Granniss was a successful photographer, establishing his business in 1851.

The Enoch Hubbard House was built in 1864.

By 1875, both houses were owned by the Burrall family.

Hill designed more than just buildings. He was also the architect for the Civil War Monument in Woodbury and the Civil War Monument in Winsted.


Dan Cavallari said...

This was a fantastic article. The Lewis Block is also one of my favorite buildings. I started a novel that takes place partly in and around the building, in about 150 pages into it and got stuck.

This made me miss Waterbury terribly. I wish I could do more for my hometown, because I feel like so much amazing history is being neglected and is therefore at risk. There's so much potential in that city...I wish I could be more of a part of preserving it.

I once told a friend of mine that JFK gave a speech from the Elton Hotel's balcony. He didn't believe me until I showed him the plaque. I feel like every Waterbury kid should know that.

Anonymous said...

The prior comment has it right - this is a terrific article, way more than what one normally sees in the blogosphere. While much has been lost, the good news is that as best I can tell, none of the surviving works looks in any way endangered with the possible exception of the Welton Street School. I remember going into that school as a child to get vaccines, it housing the city health department at the time.

JFK's speech at the Elton was more significant than a typical campaign stop. From what I understand it was just a few days before the election, the outcome of the election being very much in doubt at the time (JFK just barely won, and if it hadn't been for several thousand dead "voters" in Chicago ...) Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on one's perspective, a modern-day presidential candidate would be highly unlikely to do anything of that sort, as Connecticut is no longer a competitive state in national elections.

Oh, one more thing. Even by the hirsute standards of the day, Hill had a magnificent beard.


Dale O'Leary said...

Love the pictures of Washington school and glad to see my classroom is part of the original building.

Robert Puffer said...

Thanks again for all your work on this. It's just amazing that you were able to find so many buildings that Robert designed.

We had a great time at the Hall of Fame ceremony. I think Robert would have been very proud to be honored by the town (I know I was very proud of him).

Once again, thanks for all your hard work. It will be nice to be able to pass along all the knowledge to my boys.

Robert Hill Puffer

Emery Roth II said...

What an extaordinary bit of research and photography. Thank you. I have been going through newspapers in Ansonia, and a Mr. Hill, I assume the same, is identified as the architect of the Ansonia Opera House. Here are two photographs and blog entries that I posted earlier this year.

Thanks again for filling in everything else.