Today Bristol is known as the home of ESPN, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network that pioneered the concept of 24-hour sports television coverage. But it was another time-related industry that first brought the town to prominence more than two centuries ago.
As early as 1790 it is known that Gideon Roberts was making clocks in town and peddling them around the countryside on horseback. In the adjoining town of Plymouth Eli Terry innovated the compact shelf clock to bring time to those who could not afford tallcase cabinet timepieces. When Terry developed a system that harnessed the power of water and enabled him to mass produce clock gears from wood his explosive success encouraged others to join the industry.
Bristol, which was largely unsettled thanks to its rocky soil, did have that source of water power that made the town a desirable place for would-be manufacturers. In 1822 Chauncey Jerome, who had started his career a few years earlier in Waterbury making dials for long-case clocks, moved his business to Bristol, opening a small shop with his brother Noble, producing 30 hour and eight-day wooden clocks. Before he took the business to New Haven in 1842 the Jerome Clock Company had grown to be the largest in the country. By some repots in the 19th century, Bristol had 280 businesses engaged in the clock business.
Bristol was known as Farmington’s West Woods when the first settlers arrived sometime in the 1720s. In 1742 Bristol became a separate parish within Farmington and a meetinghouse was located on Federal Hill. As Bristol’s industrial identity emerged Federal Hill became home to the town’s economic elite. Their homes spread out down the slopes, first Federal and Greek Revival dwellings and then exuberant Victorian homes. Today Federal Hill has been designated an historic district, one of the largest in the state with nearly 1000 buildings. Our walking tour of this architectural jewel of Bristol will begin at the bottom...
Bristol Public Library
5 High Street at Main Street
Wilson Potter of New York City, who specialized in academic buildings, designed the Colonial Revival public library behind a quartet of Ionic columns in 1906.
WITH THE LIBRARY ON YOUR RIGHT, WALK NORTH ON MAIN STREET, UP THE HILL AS YOU BEGIN TO PASS THE VICTORIAN HOUSES THAT ARE THE TRADEMARK OF FEDERAL HILL.
230 Center Street, at southeast corner of Main Street
Joel Tiffany Case is credited with building more than three score houses around Bristol. One architectural historian said this of Case: “His work, often bizarre and sometimes beautiful, is unique to Bristol.” This is his most idiosyncratic creation. The eclectic Victorian, drawing on elements of the Gothic Revival, Italianate and Second Empire styles, was built in 1880 when Case was 35 years old. He lived in the house a short while before selling it to Charles Henry Wightman, owner of a Bristol flour mill. Wightman, still in his twenties, died two years later and the house subsequently passed through several owners but always retained its name - Castle Largo.
TURN LEFT ON CENTER STREET. PASS SPRING STREET ON YOUR RIGHT. JOEL CASE BUILT SPRING STREET AND DESIGNED EVERY HOUSE ON THE STREET. IF YOU WANT TO STROLL DOWN IT TO SEE WHAT REMAINS OF HIS HANDIWORK, TURN RIGHT AND RETURN TO CENTER STREET TO CONTINUE THE TOUR.
Bristol Historical Society
98 Summer Street at southeast corner of Center Street
After landing on the list of The Most Threatened Historic Places in Connecticut early in this century this red brick building is now the home of the Bristol Historical Society. It began its life in 1890 as the city high school. Waterbury architect Theodore Peck used the brawny Richardsonian Romanesque style that was popular in civic buildings in the late 1800s. The rounded arches and stone trim were popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston. The building was used as a school until 1922.
Prospect United Methodist Church
99 Summer Street at southwest corner of Center Street
The Methodist Episcopal Society of Bristol was legally incorporated in the 1830s and land purchased for a typical small country church on West Street. The congregation prospered through the years and moved to this location in 1880, settling in a new brick church closer to the center of town. Within a decade large additions were made as the congregation continued to grow. In 1894 a new granite structure with a prominent tower was dedicated. The cost was borne entirely by John Humphrey Sessions. Owner of the Bristol Foundry Company that produced clock casings, Sessions was one of the founders of the Bristol National Bank, president of the Bristol Water Company and an original stockholder of the Bristol Electric Light Company. The chapel could seat over 2,000 people and was considered one of the state’s most handsome church buildings. Inside the carpets and upholstering were donated by John Humphrey Sessions’ sons and an elegant organ contributed by William Edwin Sessions. the family’s gift to the church totaled $75,000.
TURN RIGHT ON SUMMER STREET.
William S. Ingraham House
156 Summer Street
New York architects Babb, Cook & Willard brought the distinctive Shingle Style variant of the Queen Anne style toFederal Hill in 1890 with this house for William S. Ingraham. Ingraham spent four decades as general manager of the E. Ingraham Company turning out clocks and watches. In addition to sheathing in shingles the style is characterized by wide, prominent front gables. The house was heated by pipes connected to the Ingraham factory, Bristol’s first example of heating a house from outside, a practice to be followed by other factory owners in the city. It was also one of the first houses in Bristol to be electrified.
Miles Lewis Peck House
174 Summer Street
Down the street from his high school, this is another design by Waterbury architect Theodore Peck, executed in 1881 for his cousin Miles who was president of the Bristol Savings Bank. Peck used sharp gables decorated with barge boards from the Gothic Revival style and blended with elements of early Queen Anne architecture such as the wraparound porch and fish-scale shingles.
Trinity Episcopal Church
173 Summer Street
The Trinity Church traced its roots back to 1747 and this handsome stone sanctuary was built in 1949. In 2007, after disagreements about the ordination of women and gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions the congregation, like dozens across the country, defected from the Episcopal Church to join a more conservative Anglican group and prompting a legal battle over who owned the church: the parishioners or the diocese. In this case the diocese prevailed and the Trinity congregation vacated the premises.
TURN RIGHT ON PROSPECT PLACE.
Walter Ingraham House
72 Prospect Place
In 1892 Walter A. Ingraham succeeded his father Edward to the presidency of the E. Ingraham Clock Company that had been started 65 years earlier when his grandfather, then 22 years old, began manufacturing clock cases. That same year he had this Romanesque brick house with magnificently detailed terra cotta ornamentation built. The house is built on a base of granite blocks and underneath were pipes that linked to the factory furnaces to heat the building, like his brother’s place on the next block.
TURN LEFT ON MAPLE STREET.
The American Clock & Watch Museum
100 Maple Street
In 1952, with his family business clocking in at over 118 years of operation, Edward Ingraham spearheaded the creation of a clock museum to preserve the heritage of the product that made Bristol recognized worldwide. The Federal-style 1801 home of Miles Lewis was purchased for the collection of some 300 clocks and a small library. Today the museum houses over 4,000 timepieces in the modified Lewis house that retains its original integrity.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON MAPLE STREET TO THE INTERSECTION OF PROSPECT PLACE AT THE POINT OF THE TRIANGULAR FEDERAL HILL GREEN WITH QUEEN STREET AND BELLEVUE AVENUE.
St. Joseph Catholic Church
33 Queen Street
In 1850 there were only nine priests in the entire state of Connecticut to minister to its Catholic population. The Irish Catholics that had begun to settle in Bristol Centre first greeted the itinerant priest in a house on Queen Street near the site of the present day church. In 1855 a small wooden church was constructed and on October 1, 1864 Bristol was made an independent parish. The present English Tudor Gothic church, built of grey Massachusetts granite, dates to 1925. The twin towers loom 96 feet above the Federal Hill Green.
First Congregational Church
31 Maple Street
The Congregational Church was built in the Greek Revival style in 1832, highlighted with Gothic-flavored elements such as the finials on the square tower. The church organized in 1747 and built its first meeting house on the Green in 1753. It was replaced in the early 1770s, the immediate predecessor of today’s sanctuary.
WALK DOWN BELLEVUE AVENUE, WITH FEDERAL GREEN ON YOUR LEFT.
William Sessions House
54 Bellevue Avenue
In 1903 when the E.N. Welch Company began foundering William Sessions, whose family foundry made castings for the clockmaker, took an interest in horology and bought the controlling stock. It was his plan to produce everything required for the clocks .. movements, cases, dials, artwork and of coarse, castings. The Sessions Clock Company indeed prospered mightily. In 1909 Sessions retained Samuel Brown of Boston to design a new home on land next door to a previous house Sessions had owned. Brown delivered an Italian Renaissance mansion of Kibbe brownstone (a hard stone quite different from the soft brownstone commonly used in residential construction) fronted by a half-round, Ionic portico of white marble. Inside the house sported Tennessee marble floors, gilded ceilings, carved wainscoting of Honduras mahogany, and a fireplace of gold and black Egyptian marble. The music room seated 100 and had a massive pipe organ, semi-elliptical balcony and elaborated carvings, some of which disguise openings to echo chambers in the attic. The house holds a proud spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
William Sessions House
36 Bellevue Avenue
This picturesque house is what William Sessions considered a “starter house” before he moved into Beleden. Built in 1885, it features many decorative flourishes including fish-scale shingles, half-timbering, sunbursts and spindled woodwork.
A.L. Sessions House
25 Bellevue Avenue
Albert L. Sessions was the nephew of William Sessions. His father, John Henry Sessions, ran the family’s trunk hardware-making business which Albert took over in 1902. He was already the treasurer of the Sessions Clock Company. He built this mansion shortly thereafter. The story goes that he retained a Waterbury architect to travel to England to study authentic Georgian architectureupon which to model his new home. It was constructed of brick and red sandstone and its frothy decorations - Doric columns, balustrades, corner quoins, rusticated walls with beltcourses, dentils, broken round and scroll pediments - caused it to be known around town as the “Wedding Cake House.” By the middle of the 1900s it was serving as the Town Club and today houses a local funeral home.
TURN RIGHT ON HIGH STREET.
S.E. Root House
51 High Street at Bellevue Avenue
New York native Samuel Emerson Root arrived in Bristol at an early age and by the mid-19th century had carved out a niche in the town’s clock-making culture as a manufacturer of dials and other clock trimmings. His Italianate house from the 1870s is another legacy of builder Joel T. Case. The flat-roofed or shallow-pitched Italian villas with round-arched windows were the dominant style among mid-19th century Fedreal Hill houses. Today it serves as offices of the city’s Youth Services department. The transformation into office space retained the fenestration and roof cornices but no attempt was made to integrate the Italianate styling into the squat brick addition.
CONTINUE DOWN THE HILL ONE BLOCK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.