Geography has always been a blessing and a curse in the history of Norwich. Norwichtown was founded in 1659 by settlers from Old Saybrook and a wharf was established on Yantic Cove to supply what became a farming community. But a better harbor was downstream at the head of the Thames River where Yantic and Shetucket rivers came together so a public landing was built there in 1694. Now isolated from their shipping dock it was now necessary to build roads to reach the young settlement. One, the East Road is today’s Broadway and another, the West Road, is Washington Street today.
With access to a reliably deep waterway Norwich goods were soon flowing directly to England and the West Indies. When the Revolution came in the 1770s the town’s inland location enabled it to avoid the brunt of English retaliation suffered by the coastal towns. Norwich parlayed this circumstance into a burst of prosperity producing, among other goods, armaments. By the late 1820s and 1830s Norwich industry was in full swing. Steamboats chugged up and down the Thames and there was regular service to New York City. The railroad arrived early with the Norwich-Worcester Railroad building into town in 1832. But the inland location that had brought shelter proved a detriment as the more convenient coastal town attracted more of the industrial concerns over the next 100 years. Most of Norwich’s economic engine would eventually drift away. In the half-century after the Great Depression not even a dozen new buildings were constructed downtown.
The physical topography around Norwich also wielded the proverbial double-edge sword. Hills rise quickly from the rivers forcing the downtown to develop along crowded, crooked streets but the views from the impressive mansions that the wealthy built around the crests of those hills helped Norwich earn the sobriquet, “The Rose of New England.”
Our walking tour will explore the Chelsea District, the downtown that grew up around the public landing built on the Thames River more than 300 years ago and we’ll include a stroll up one of Norwich’s hills through a residential section of stately mansion and leafy streets. But first we’ll start down by the water where abandoned buildings have been cleared, open space has been developed and plentiful parking awaits...
Howard T. Brown Memorial Park
Chelsea Harbor Drive
Near the deepest point of the Thames River harbor the City of Norwich has replaced all vestiges of its commercial past with an expanse of greenspace and a marina. There are walking paths and a gazebo in the park that was named for one of the town’s most active philanthropists.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE THAMES RIVER, TURN RIGHT AND WALK ALONG CHELSEA HARBOR DRIVE TOWARDS MAIN STREET.
Thames National Bank
16-20 Chelsea Harbor Drive
The Thames Bank was incorporated in 1825 as the second such institution in town. The name was more than a nod to the river that was the commercial lifeblood of Norwich - by its charter the bank was obligated to “maintain a depth of at least ten feet of water in the channel of the Thames River at common and ordinary tides.” The charter also permitted the bank to collect tolls from all vessels coming to Norwich. In 1864 the bank organized on Shetucket Street as the Thames National Bank. This two-story granite Neoclassical home, fronted by a quartet of powerful Corinthian columns, was constructed in in 1911.
183 Main Street at southeast corner of Chelsea Harbor Drive
James Bernard Shannon made his fortune in the 1880s wholesaling beer and running three taverns around town after he arrived in 1867. In 1892 “Big Jim” bought up the land here that would be known as “Shannon’s Corner.” He put up a modern five-story building on his property. After it burned in a fire in 1909 he replaced it with a modern high-rise in the Sullivanesque style, designed by Charles H. Preston. In the 1920s Governor John H. Trumbull asked cities to paint their names on the roofs of prominent buildings as a way of helping aviators locate themselves as they flew over the state. As the first in town to honor the request, the word “Norwich” was painted on top of the Shannon Building in letters six feet tall by four feet wide.
Norwich Savings Society Building
161-164 Main Street at Broadway
Norwich Savings Society opened in 1824 as the second oldest savings bank in Connecticut and managed to remain independent for the better part of 175 years. They moved into this eye-catching Chateauesque headquarters of gray stone in 1895. The building was designed to curve around the intersection to connect with buildings on Broadway that are no longer standing, creating an odd impression.
CONTINUE WALKING STRAIGHT ONTO BROADWAY.
The Wauregan House opened in 1855 and quickly earned a reputation as the finest hotel between New York and Boston. Abraham Lincoln signed the guest register during a campaign stop in 1860. In its glory years in the 1890s the Wauregan swallowed the Clarendon building next door for an additional dining room and ballroom. Things were not so jolly by the middle of the 20th century as Norwich no longer needed a first class downtown hotel. All of the building’s cast iron Italianate ornamentation had been removed from the exterior. A preservation rally saved it from demolition and it has recently been restored to its mid-19th century appearance and converted into luxury apartments.
Dime Savings Bank
The Dime Savings Bank took its first deposit on Monday, September 27, 1869 - the previous Friday, September 24th, the stock market crashed and a financial panic had set in the banking industry. From that inauspicious beginning, the bank has served the community for more than 140 years. The bank moved into this Neoclassical vault, fronted by an Ionic pilaster, in 1927.
St . Mary’s Total Abstinence and Benevolence
James A. Hiscox, a local architect, delivered a Romanesque style for the three-story headquarters of the St . Mary’s Total Abstinence and Benevolence in 1891. Today it is the home of the Norwich Arts Council.
Union Square at Broadway and Church Street, opposite City Hall
Joseph Otis was born in Taftville but left to make his fortune in the mercantile trade in South Carolina and New York. But he chose to retire back to Norwich in 1838. A few years before his death in 1854, Otis donated the first installment of what would eventually total almost $18,000 for the construction of the Greek Revival-styled town library. That library served Norwich until 1962 when it moved into an expanded facility on Main Street. And quite an expansion - when the Otis Library departed its original home one librarian went with the collection. By the year 2000 there was a staff of 30.
Norwich City Hall
100 Broadway at Union Street
In the nearly 140 years since City Hall opened the exuberant Second Empire building is largely unaltered. Local architect Evan Burdick provided the dramatic design with red bricks on a cut granite base; he was also the designer of the Broadway Congregational Church, the Wauregan Hotel and several other town structures. The final price tag for City Hall, completed after three years of construction in 1873, was $250,000. The four-sided clock tower was added in 1909. In the basement are dreary dungeon-like cells, harkening back to the days when the police department was located there.
Central Baptist Church
2 Union Street
The first building on this site for the Central Baptist Church was erected in 1840. In 1891, a thousand people are said to have gathered in Union Square for the ceremony to lay the cornerstone for a replacement church. The Bushnell Chapel followed in 1899 and the Noyes Parish House in 1927. The Great Hurricane of 1938 destroyed the sanctuary and a Colonial-inspired reconstruction followed in 1939.
CONTINUE WALKING UPHILL ON BROADWAY INTO A NEIGHBORHOOD OF EXPANSIVE HOMES REACHING BACK INTO THE 19TH CENTURY. MANY OF THESE PICTURESQUE HOMES HAVE BEEN CONVERTED INTO APARTMENTS.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Ground was broken for St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Good Friday 1871 to be built on designs from James Murphy. Largely constructed by Norwich’s Irish residents, the church was dedicated on St. Patrick's Day 1879. Both the pointed arches of the doors and windows and uses bands of blue and white granite to create its distinctive Victorian Gothic style.
TURN AND WALK DOWN UNION STREET, WHICH JOINS BROADWAY AT THE CATHEDRAL. WHEN YOU GET BACK TO UNION SQUARE AT CITY HALL WALK AROUND IT TO THE LEFT, ONTO CHESTNUT STREET.
The Spirit of Broadway Theater
24 Chestnut Street
Founded in 1998, the 74-seat theater offers first class productions of off broadway shows as well as regional theater scripts.
TURN RIGHT ON WILLOW STREET. TURN RIGHT ON FRANKLIN STREET.
66 Franklin Street
Newspapering in Norwich began in 1791 when Ebenezer Bushnell put out the first issue of a 12-column, four page Weekly Register on November 29. A few years later, on November 30, 1796, the Chelsea Courier, the paper that would become the Bulletin, began publishing on Wednesdays. The Norwich Morning Bulletin first published under that masthead on December 15, 1858 and moved into a building on Main Street in 1867. The Bulletin moved over to this early 20th century commercial building in 1918.
TURN LEFT ON MEYERS PLACE AND CONTINUE TO MAIN STREET WHERE CLIFF STREET JOINS THE STAR-SHAPED INTERSECTION. TURN RIGHT.
Chelsea Savings Bank
300 Main Street at Cliff Street
The Neoclassical-style Chelsea Savings Bank was designed by the firm of Cudworth & Woodworth and constructed between 1909 and 1911. The bank formed in 1858 and consolidated with the Groton Savings Bank in 1982.
261 Main Street
The State building is the new location of the original Otis Library; well, new since 1962.
276 Main Street
Edward Lord lived almost 100 years in Norwich, save for some schooling in Minnesota, before he died in 2009. In 1945 he purchased the condemned Strand Theater on Water Street, tore it down and built a new Yale Theater in its place, launching a 40-year career in motion picture exhibition including downtown theaters and drive-ins. This was the Midtown Theater; The marquee and the ornate entrance door remain.
257 Main Street
The Disco Brothers opened their first emporium on Main Street in Norwich in 1898, offering fine china and kitchen furnishings at “reliable prices.” This Neoclassical, five-story building was opened in 1923. It utilizes the Greek key motif in decorative bands of concrete. For many years a branch of the Eastern Savings Bank has operated here.
CONTINUE ONE MORE BLOCK TO CHELSEA HARBOR DRIVE AND TURN LEFT TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE THAMES RIVER.