In spite of a slow start, Bridgeport grew into the most populous city in Connecticut. The first settlers wandered over from the neighboring coastal towns of Fairfield and Stratford in 1639 but the city would not be incorporated for another 200 years. The city’s location on the deep Black Rock Harbor fostered a boom in shipbuilding and whaling in the mid-19th century, especially after the opening of a railroad to the city in 1840. In fact, every census report for the next 100 years showed at least a 40% increase in population each decade.
By the 1930s Bridgeport hosted some 500 manufacturing firms churning out almost any product imaginable. Ammunition, chains, rubber goods, typewriters, scissors, toys, hardware, cables, engines, phonograph records, brake linings, sewing machines all shipped from Bridgeport. The first “horseless carriage,” equipped with hard rubber tires and a self-starter, was built here in the early 1890s. The town’s manufacturing base was so diverse it never became known for any one industry.
If Bridgeport was known for anything, it was as the adopted home of America’s greatest showman of the 19th century, P.T. Barnum. Barnum not only moved to town, he served a term as mayor in 1875. Our walking tour will explore the downtown core in an area corralled by the Pequonnock River, I-95 and Highway 8 at the site of an event that was probably much forgotten in Bridgeport a week after in happened on Saturday March 10, 1860, but is still remembered today...
202 State Street at northeast corner of Broad Street
When it comes to the selection of the county courthouse, in Fairfield County money talks and less money walks. There was much debate accompanying the placing of the Fairfield County Courthouse in Bridgeport. Fairfield was the site of the first county seat and there, in 1720, the colonists erected the first courthouse--a wooden structure that was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War. It was rebuilt in 1794. But by the mid-1800s, with the burgeoning industrial and population growth of neighboring Bridgeport made it the obvious choice to host the replacement of the overwhelmed Fairfield facility. Obvious, except to the folks in Norwalk. Bridgeport offered to pay $75,000 to build a courthouse and jail, ending the brouhaha. The sandstone building was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in the Greek Revival-style, which resembles a temple. The building had two main floors for court and county government, a large ground floor for use as City Hall and a large gathering space, Washington Hall, for public meetings. Today it is known as McLevy Hall, named for popular former 24-year Socialist mayor Jasper McLevy, for whom the green the Ionic-columned building fronts. it is remembered today as the location where a little-known Republican candidate for President delivered a two-hour impassioned political speech against slavery on March 10, 1860. Abraham Lincoln, however, probably best remembered Bridgeport as the place where he enjoyed his first plate of New England fried oysters.
WALK AROUND TO THE MCLEVY GREEN BEHIND THE HISTORIC HALL.
Court Exchange Building
211 State Street at Broad Street
C. Barnum Seeley, the grandson of P.T. Barnum, hired architect George Longstaff for this building in 1896. Longstaff envisioned a building worthy of America’s greatest family of showmen and he soon went way over budget. Guests were greeted at the entrance by granite columns topped by statues of lions. The large top floor became the headquarters for the Algonquin Club.
Playhouse on the Green
177 State Street
Playhouse on the Green originated in 1954 as the “Polka Dot Playhouse,” located in Stratford’s Redman’s Hall. The company had several homes before moving to Pleasure Beach in 1967. With support of People’s Bank and the State of Connecticut, the Playhouse relocated here in 1999. The five-story structure was the last commissioned by P.T Barnum, constructed in 1892. The masonry building is embellished with carved brownstone details.
899 Main Street at southwest corner of State Street
Classical Revival master Cass Gilbert gave the Bridgeport Savings Bank a powerful order of Corinthian columns built of Vermont Imperial Danby marble to front the 1917 granite building. The two bronze doors were on display in new York City at Tiffany and Company before being shipped to Bridgeport. The bank merged and became the People’s Bank in the 1920s.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
850 Main Street
Part of Bridgeport’s revitalization effort, this 16-story bank headquarters flowing out of a base of low-rise buildings joined the Bridgeport streetscape in 1989, from the pen of Richard Meier. One of the world’s most acclaimed architects, this was Meier’s first attempt at a skyscraper.
The Barnum Museum |
820 Main Street
Celebrated showman Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum had a museum, maybe the most famous in America in the 1800s, but it was in New York City until it burned down. Barnum also built three mansions in Bridgeport, a town where he served as mayor in 1875, but he never lived here. Instead this highly unique building, like the man himself, was built in 1893 as the Barnum Institute of Science and History from funds bequeathed by Barnum in his will. The rounded corner structure of stone and terra cotta displays influences of Byzantine, Moorish and Richardsonian Romanesque architectural styles. Exhibits chronicle the life of Barnum along three major themes: Barnum the Man; Barnum’s American Museum; and Bridgeport & Barnum.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON MAIN STREET, BACK TOWARDS THE GREEN.
Mechanics and Farmers Savings Bank
930 Main Street
The Mechanics and Farmers Savings Bank was chartered in 1871 and organized two years later by Lyman Sheldon Catlin. For its first 60 years the bank was a physical orphan, occupying such spaces as the Barnum Building and the basement of the Connecticut Bank Building. In 1930 the bank got its own home in this Neoclassical vault with engaged, fluted Doric columns. The bank remained independent until 1991 when it failed in the early 1990s.
City Savings Bank
948 Main Street at northeast corner of Bank Street
This Neoclassical multi-story bank replaced the 1885 Victorian Romanesque United Bank Building in 1912. The bank traces its roots back to 1859. The architect was Warren R. Briggs.
955 Main Street
The CityTrust Complex consists of four separate buildings erected between 1917 and 1930. Three of the buildings are of the Colonial Revival style. The Morris Plan Bank and the Trust Department, the smaller buildings in the complex, are of red brick with ornamental cast stone detailing. The Liberty Building is a nine-story steel frame building with terra cotta rib slab construction. The fourth building, the eleven-story CityTrust is a distinct example of the Art Deco style and has extensive carved granite and glazed terra cotta ornamentation, and extensive remaining interior detail.
TURN RIGHT ON WALL STREET.
109 Wall Street at southwest corner of Wall Street
Before you turn onto Middle Street take note of this Beaux Arts building from 1903 that features classical motifs and the busts of lions and a woman.
TURN LEFT ON MIDDLE STREET.
U.S. Post Office
120 Middle Street
A picturesque Victorian post office that stood at Broad and Cannon streets was demolished in the 1930s and replaced by the clean lines of this block-long Art Deco building.
TURN LEFT ON GOLDEN HILL STREET. TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
1315-1357 Main Street
Thomas Lamb, America’s premier theater designer, built the biggest movie theater ever erected in Connecticut here in the 1910s. Actually the Beaux Arts building included the Palace Theater, the Majestic Theater and the Savoy Hotel upstairs - where a room could be had for $1.50 in the day. By all accounts this was one of the most fabulous stages ever built in America. The Majestic closed in 1971 and the Palace hung on a few more years, screening adult movies. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and has been awaiting a hopeful, and frighteningly expensive, restoration ever since.
TURN LEFT ON CONGRESS STREET. TURN LEFT ON LYON TERRACE.
45 Lyon Terrace
Bridgeport’s new City Hall harkens back to the form of the ancient Greeks with a three-story Ionic portico supporting a front portico.
Old Fairfield County Courthouse
172 Golden Hill Street at Lyon Terrace
As we learned at McLevy Hall, Bridgeport and Norwalk jockeyed to be the home of the Fairfield County seat until Bridgeport ponied up money to construct the courthouse in the 1850s. In the 1880s it was decided to build a new courthouse. Again Norwalk lobbied for the county seat and this time offered $100,000. But Bridgeport came back with a $150,000 bid. Warren R. Biggs brought the concepts of brawny, rough-cut rounded arches of leading American architect Henry Hobson Richardson to Golden Hill in 1888 for the new Fairfield County Courthouse. Today it is Geographical Area Courthouse No. 2, where all but the most serious criminal cases are heard.
TURN RIGHT ON GOLDEN HILL STREET.
Downtown Cabaret Theatre
263 Golden Hill Street
The Downtown Cabaret Theatre is a direct descendent of the Sacred Heart University Cabaret. After several successful seasons in an academic setting, the entire company moved into the basement of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Senior Center in 1975. The assembly room of the former YWCA was converted to a theatre, including the addition of a balcony and air conditioning. Another $1.3 million went into another renovation in 1995. The award-winning theater, drawing upon both Connecticut and New York talent, now seats 276.
TURN LEFT ON LAFAYETTE STREET. TURN LEFT ON ELM STREET.
Golden Hill United Methodist Church
210 Elm Street
The First Methodist Society in Bridgeport was organized in 1817 and by 1823 a wooden structure, standing at the crossroads of two major downtown arteries was ready for services. It burned in 1849, being replaced by a brick building that served the needs of the community for nearly 80 years. The present stone Gothic sanctuary, built on Golden Hill overlooking the city, dates to the 1920s.
TURN RIGHT ON BROAD STREET.
Burroughs and Saden Public Library
925 Broad Street
Bridgeport boasted a library as early as 1828 but did not get a public library until 1881 when one was created by act of the Connecticut General Assembly and the Bridgeport City Council. The Library purchased that collection of the Bridgeport Library Association and moved into rented quarters. In 1883, upon the death of Catherine Burroughs Pettingill, the Library Board received as a gift the building at the corner of Main and John Streets. The library moved into the upstairs rooms and rented out the ground floor to retail shops to provide a steady flow of operating cash. The arrangement proved adequate for almost 50 years. The current Burroughs Library Building opened to the public on April 25, 1927, designed in the Classical Revival style by architects Dickson and Palmer. In 2003 it picked up the name of George A. Saden, a retired Superior Court judge who died at the age of 92 and had been a member of the Library Board of Directors since 1993.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.