New Britain’s reputation as the “Hardware City” began about 1800 when James North and Joseph Shipman started the manufacture of sleigh bells. Thwarted by the town’s location with no navigable rivers and inadequate water power would-be manufacturers had to content themselves with small operations for the peddler trade producing tools and locks and other light metal articles. In 1831, 28-year old Frederick Trent Stanley teamed with his bother William to produce some of the earliest house trimmings and locks in America. This business sputtered along for a time until the Panic of 1837 crippled it fatally.
Frederick Stanley next surfaced in New Britain in 1843 in a nondescript one-story wooden structure that had once stood as an armory during the War of 1812. here Stanley would lay the foundations for the most famous toolworks in America.
The Stanley Bolt Manufactory was one of hundreds of little manufactories struggling to make a go of it, the majority of which were one-man shops. The only thing setting Stanley apart was a single-cylinder, high pressure steam engine shipped up from New York and carted by ox to the little wooden shop. Stanley’s was the only automated shop in the region. Stanley peddled his bolts by horseback and wagon across the back country. His tiny business must have impressed his neighbors because in 1852 five friends pooled the staggering sum of $30,000 to form the Stanley Works that has helped shape the town to this day, not in the least by attracting waves of European immigrant workers to New Britain.
By 1900 the population of the town, incorporated only 50 years earlier, was cresting at 30,000 with half being foreign or of foreign parentage. Our walking tour of the Hardware City will examine buildings from this period almost exclusively, several preserved after glorious restorations...
Sailors and Soldiers Monument
Central Park, Main Street at Bank Street
New Britain’s memory to its veterans of the Civil War was dedicated on September 19, 1900. The 44-foot high monument was designed by Ernest Flagg, an architect responsible for many of the classical buildings at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. It culminates in a dome topped by the gilded allegorical figure representing Victory. The figure was replaced in 2000 as part of a restoration performed for the monument’s 100th anniversary and the original now resides in the rear lobby of City Hall. The monument’s interior is inscribed with the names of local residents who fought in the war.
272 Main Street at Bank Street
The New Britain National Bank was incorporated by an act of the General Assembly in 1860 and moved into this splendid six-story Beaux Arts corner building in 1906. It was designed by the Hartford architectural firm of Davis and Brooks in white brick and given such decorative flourishes as an intricately detailed cornice with deep-paired brackets, rope trim and marble window sills. After the bank moved in the 1930s the building was acquired by Florence Judd Gates whose family made its fortune in barbed wire. After a half-century of retail and office use the building was gutted and restored to house the New Britain Board of Education.
TURN LEFT ON WEST MAIN STREET.
27 West Main Street
Joseph Morrill Wells of America’s most prestigious architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White of New York City, designed this building in 1886. But not as a government building. The five-story Venetian showplace was the elegant Hotel Russwin when it opened. Constructed mostly of red brick, the lower two floors are set off by a five-bay brownstone arcade. The City of New Britain acquired this magnificent structure in 1909 and has done duty as City Hall ever since.
New Britain National Bank
55 West Main Street
The Commercial Trust Company spared no expense in creating its seven-story headquarters in 1927. The building was designed to mimic the Venetian Palazzo themes of City Hall next door. The architects incorporated local and financial details throughout the presentation. So many anvil symbols were used in the brickwork that it became know as the “Anvil Bank.” The bronze doors are decorated with designs of the Buffalo Nickel, the City of New Britain Beehive and the Mercury Dime. The use of bronze and exquisite marble is carried throughout the interior as well. Alas the Commercial Trust Company did not survive the Great Depression and the building was acquired by the New Britain National Bank in the 1930s. All that remains of Continental’s legacy is a “C/T” logo above the building’s front door. After many years of vacancy and neglect the building was converted into residential and commercial space.
67 West Main Street
In the early years of the 20th century it was common for business and civic leaders of medium-sized cities to fret about the need for a first-class downtown hotel. Often the Chamber of Commerce raised the money itself to finance the construction of a magnet-type hotel. in New Britain the result was the Burritt Hotel, which opened with great anticipation on March 5, 1924. The Georgian-Revival brick building featured 130 rooms. Today the one-time hostelry has been converted into apartments for senior citizens.
Old Post Office
114 West Main Street
This Neoclassical Post Office was built of limestone in 1920 and served as the main Post Office for New Britain for over fifty years. Behind the colonnade of engaged fluted Ionic columns the interior greeted patrons with terrazzo floors, marble wainscotting, soaring ceilings, and mahogany trim. The building has been converted into luxury office space. The hand-carved eagle statue over the entrance betrays its earlier life with the postal service.
New Britain Public Library
20 High Street at northwest corner of West Main Street
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie became synonymous with the building of public libraries across America in the early 1900s but this magnificent edifice was endowed by a local philanthropist, Cornelius Erwin. The Russell & Erwin Manufacturing Company originated in 1839 when H.E. Russell, Cornelius B. Erwin, and Frederick T. Stanley formed a partnership to produce locks and builders’ hardware, under the name of Stanley, Russell & Company. The company was best known as the pioneer of the wrought steel lock industry and Erwin served as president of the company from 1851 until his death in 1885. The firm of Davis and Brooks larded the Beaux Arts library with many noteworthy architectural motifs including fluted Ionic columns, arched windows accented by decorative keystones and lion head (symbolic of learning) gargoyles. The names of authors are scattered throughout the facade, scallop shell moldings, and prominent quill pen carvings.
TURN LEFT ON HIGH STREET.
130 West Main Street
William Cadwell was New Britain’s most prominent architect during America’s Gilded Age of the 1890s and early 1900s. He saved some of his best tricks for this house, which was a wedding gift to his wife in 1891. He used yellow brick, limestone and Portland brownstone to create one of downtown’s more prominent Victorian landmarks. Your eye is drawn to the massive corner turret but notice also the intricate keystones, steeply vaulted slate roof and granite cornerstones.
33-35 South High Street at the head of Court Street
This house was built for Mary Eastman in 1878 but its current appearance dates to 1935 when the English Tudor influenced brick and brownstone covering was added by B.C. Peck. Peck was a physician and you can still see the symbol of the American Medical Association set in stone in the main gable. The building is recognized for its bright red doors and windows that contrast with the dark brownstone moldings.
BEAR RIGHT AND WALK UPHILL ON THE SHORT HILLSIDE PLACE.
Timothy Wadsworth Stanley, along with three brothers, founded the Stanley Rule and Level Manufacturing Company that would one day become part of the Stanley Works, founded by another branch of the family. In the middle of the 19th century Stanley was considered the wealthiest man in New Britain. Most of the property the family owned here became Walnut Hill Park, created with the help of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park. Near the bottom of the slope Stanley built his home in 1859. To site the Gothic Revival mansion upon a solid brownstone foundation on level ground, considerable grading was required. The house is of brick and post and beam construction, sided in cedar and resplendent in delicate gingerbread millwork on the exterior.
State Normal School
27 Hillside Place
The New Britain Normal School, the forerunner of today’s Central Connecticut College, was founded in 1849 as a school to train teachers. It is the oldest public institution of higher education in Connecticut and the sixth normal school in the United States. In 1882 the school moved into this high-style Gothic Victorian building, as dramatic visually as its hillside location. Rendered in red brick, white sandstone and brownstone, the school is anchored by a 120-foot corner bell tower. The classrooms were entered under huge vaulted arches. The college departed for its current location in 1922 and the New Britain Board of Education moved in. Today the striking building lives on as upscale condominiums, retaining its educational trappings inside.
WALK BACK DOWN THE HILL AND TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET. TURN RIGHT ON ARCH STREET.
57-61 Arch Street
This light-colored building of yellow brick and terra cotta is the former headquarters of the Vega Benefit Society, a centralized hub where Swedish immigrants could connect with established countrymen and ease their transition into life in New Britain. This is another downtown design by William Cadwell, completed in 1897. Although the ground floor has been compromised for retail use you can still look up and see the architectural adornments Cadwell added, including a steamship symbolizing the immigrant experience.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO THE MAJOR INTERSECTION OF ARCH, WALNUT, CHESTNUT AND MAIN STREETS.
South Congregational - First Baptist Church
90 Main Street
South Congregational Church was founded in 1842 by some of the leading citizens of New Britain. By the time this New England Gothic brownstone church was constructed in 1865 New England was experiencing an influx of non-English speaking factory workers. South Congregational began ministering to Armenian, Assyrian, and Italian immigrants. German and Swedish newcomers migrated to First Baptist Church, founded in 1808, at the other end of Main Street. In 1974 the two complimentary congregations began worshipping together. South Church, designed by George F. Meecham with a 170-foot tower, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
69 Main Street at Chestnut Street
Today a space for “arts, community and culture,” Trinity-On-Main was originally built in 1891 as Trinity United Methodist Church, serving a parish that traces its roots back to 1815 for more than 100 years. The building of rough-cut gray granite is the handiwork of Amos P. Cutting, one of New England’s most prestigious 19th century architects with some 75 churches on his resume. Accents are provided by lighter-colored granite to produce and intricate checkerboard design under the eaves. A 108-foot tower, rising from a large arched entrance to a pyramidal roof and four small turrets, dominates the façade. In 2000, the congregation of Trinity United Methodist Church, unable to meet the expense of repairing the building, reluctantly voted to demolish the Church prompting a grass-roots movement to save the long-time New Britain landmark.
TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET.
136 Main Street
Yet another creation by New Britain architect William Cadwell, here he turned to the Beaux Arts style for the home of the John Andrews Furniture store in 1903. The wealth of architectural detail - decorative cornice, keystones, medallions and dentils - was appropriate for the purveyor of some of the finest home furnishings in New England. Andrews sold furniture for more than 75 years but the building is perhaps best remembered for a day in the 1920s when the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini performed one of his remarkable stunts off its roof.
TURN LEFT ON COURT STREET AND WALK A FEW STEPS UP THE STREET.
25 Court Street
By the time he died in 1932 at the age of 84, Frederick G. Platt had established a lumber company (New Britain Lumber & Coal), organized a street railway and helmed the reins of the New Britain Machine Company. He commissioned the building of this High Victorian Gothic mansion, an outstanding example of the form, in 1886. Constructed of red brick, terra cotta and Portland brownstone, the house sports a dominating, intricately decorated four-story central tower. A dedicated follower of fashion, Platt remained in the house less than a decade to build a new one in the newly popular Colonial Revival style. A century later when the Platt Mansion was restored for commercial space in 1987 it won the Hartford Architectural Conservancy award.
RETURN TO MAIN STREET AND TURN LEFT.
236-246 Main Street
D.C. Judd built this pair of buildings for his grocery business in 1888. These examples of Victorian commercial architecture are notable on their upper floors for their detailed terra cotta panels, marble window sills and pressed copper window bays.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO CENTRAL PARK AND THE BEGINNING OF THE TOUR.