David Phelps House, Simsbury, Connecticut

The house at 2 East Weatogue Street, at the corner of Hartford Road in Simsbury, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

This elegant Federal-style home was built around 1800, and in the early 19th century it served as a tavern along the stagecoach route to Hartford. Located in the village of East Weatogue in Simsbury, it is in the narrow area of land between the Farmington River to the west and the Metacomet Ridge to the east, at the foot of one of the few passes through the long, narrow mountain ridge. It was an ideal spot for a tavern, because nearly all traffic between Hartford and Simsbury would have passed by the front door. Originally owned by David Phelps, the tavern is not to be confused with another Phelps Tavern, which was located in the center of town and was operated by Noah Phelps around the same time as this one.

The architecture of the house reflects the Federal style of the era, with distinct features such as a symmetrical front facade, a Palladian window on the second floor, and a front door flanked with sidelights and a fanlight above it. The main section of the house has two chimneys, and when the first photo was taken the house had a total of 11 fireplaces. The wraparound porch, which extends the length of the front and the right side of the house in the first photo, was not original to the house, and was added around the turn of the 20th century.

About 80 years after the first photo was taken, the house has seen some significant changes, most notably the removal of the large porch. Today, it looks much more historically accurate than it did in the early 20th century, and it still stands at an important intersection along the main route from Simsbury to Hartford. Despite its proximity to the state capital, though, the village of East Weatogue has retained much of its original agrarian appearance, and this house now forms part of the East Weatogue Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

James Cornish House, Simsbury, Connecticut

The house at 26 East Weatogue Street in Simsbury, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, WPA Architectural Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:

The town of Simsbury is situated along the banks of the Farmington River, with most of the town to the west of the river. On the east side, though, is the village of East Weatogue, which is located between the river to the west and the Metacomet Ridge to the east, near the corner of Hartford Road and East Weatogue Street. This area was first settled by Europeans in the 17th century, but it was destroyed by Indians in 1676 during King Philip’s War. It was subsequently rebuilt, though, and this house is one of the oldest existing homes in the village, dating back to around 1720.

Like many other New England homes of the early 18th century, the house has a distinctive saltbox-style design, with two full stories in the front, one story in the back, and a large chimney in the center of the house. The original owner was Captain James Cornish, a farmer who was about 26 years old when he moved in here with his newlywed wife, Amy Butler. He and Amy had ten children, who were born between 1720 and 1740, and he became a prominent citizen in colonial Simsbury, earning the rank of captain in the town militia in 1736. After Amy’s death in 1763, James remarried to Hannah Hickox, who died in 1779. James himself lived long enough to see the end of the American Revolution, and he died in 1784, a few months shy of his 90th birthday.

Over the years, East Weatogue remained a small farming village, and many of the colonial-era homes in the area have been preserved. The first photo was taken around the late 1930s or early 1940s, as part of a WPA architectural survey to document the historic homes in the state, and this was among several homes in the area that were included in the project. At the time, the exterior of the house had been somewhat altered by the addition of porches on the front and right side, but overall its saltbox-style architecture was still readily apparent, and the survey listed the house as being in “good” physical condition.

In the nearly 80 years since the first photo was taken, the house has been expanded with a large addition on the back, and the front of the house has been restored to its original colonial-era appearance, without the porches. Although not visible in this scene, the property also includes James Cornish’s original 1720 barn, and both it and the house are now part of the East Weatogue Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

Jonathan Cogswell House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1748 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Jonathan Cogswell was born in 1782 in Rowley, Massachusetts, and was the son of Dr. Nathaniel Cogswell, a local physician. He graduated from Harvard in 1806, followed by Andover Theological Seminary, and in 1810 he was ordained as pastor of the Congregational church in Saco, Maine. A year later, he married Elizabeth Abbott, whose uncle, Samuel Abbott, was a wealthy merchant who had been one of the founders of the Andover Theological Seminary.

The Cogswells lived in Saco for 18 years, until Jonathan resigned in 1828 because of the mental and physical strain of the ministry. He and Elizabeth moved to New York City with their four daughters, but the following year he accepted a position as pastor in New Britain, Connecticut, where he remained until 1834, when he left to join the faculty of the newly-established Theological Institute of Connecticut.

The school was located in what was, at the time, part of East Windsor, and in 1834 Cogswell built this elaborate Greek Revival-style mansion directly across the street from the school. With its massive columned portico, it stands out among the mostly Colonial and Federal-style homes in the village of East Windsor Hill, and reflected his wealth and social standing. He taught church history at the school, and served as the chair of the ecclesiastical history department for the next 10 years.

In 1837, a few years after moving to East Windsor, Elizabeth died, and later in the year Jonathan remarried to Jane Kirkpatrick, the daughter of the late Andrew Kirkpatrick, who had served for many years as the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. They had two children together, and during their time in East Windsor his daughter Elizabeth was also married, to James Dixon, a lawyer from Enfield who went on to serve as a U.S. Representative and Senator.

Jonathan Cogswell remained in East Windsor until 1844, when he retired from teaching and moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey. He sold his mansion to the school, and it became the home of the president, Dr. Bennet Tyler. A year younger than Cogswell, he had graduated from Yale and served as a pastor in Connecticut before becoming president of Dartmouth College from 1822 to 1828. He subsequently returned to Connecticut, where he was one of the founders of the Theological Institute a few years later.

Tyler served as president of the school until his retirement in 1857, and he died a year later. Then, in 1865, the school moved to Hartford, where it eventually became the modern-day Hartford Seminary. The original campus here in East Windsor Hill has since been demolished, and today this house is the only surviving building from the school. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, it is now part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Captain May House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1732 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Like the neighboring Moses Wells House, this house dates back to the 1700s, although the exact date of construction seems unclear. Various sources indicate that it was built in 1700, 1740, 1750, and 1780, with perhaps the most authoritative of these sources, National Register of Historic Places inventory, dating it to 1700. This date is certainly plausible, as its saltbox-style design was common in New England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and if accurate it would make this house one of the oldest in South Windsor.

The original owner is identified as a Captain May, who was apparently involved in trade with the West Indies. Such merchants were not uncommon in 18th century East Windsor, which at the time included modern-day South Windsor. The town is about as far upstream as ocean-going ships can travel on the Connecticut River, and the trade helped to bring prosperity to the village of East Windsor Hill. The result was a number of fine 18th century homes along Main Street, many of which were far more elegant than this relatively modest saltbox home.

By the time the first photo was taken, the house was in somewhat rough condition. On the interior, much of the paneling was original to the house, but by the 1930s it was not well-maintained. The exterior of the house also showed its age, as seen with the deteriorating and missing shutters, as well as the suspiciously warped roof. However, the house has since been restored, and now stands as an excellent example of an 18th century saltbox home. Along with the other homes in the village, it is part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Moses Wells House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1712 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

The exact date of construction for this house seems somewhat uncertain, with different sources providing widely varying dates. The National Register of Historic Places inventory lists it as having been built in 1735 and the first owner as Nathan Day, but the WPA survey, done when the first photo was taken, lists three possible years, including 1780, 1680, and the impossibly early date of 1635. According to this survey, an ell likely dates back to the 17th century, while the main portion of the house was built later.

The 1735 date also seems too early for this style of house, which closely resembles the 1784 Jonathan Ellsworth House on the other side of the Connecticut River. Because of this, the 1780 date seems the most likely, and it appears to have been built for Moses Wells, a local hat merchant. At the time, the house was in the town of East Windsor, but in 1845 it became part of South Windsor when the new town was created.

The subsequent ownership of the house seems unclear, but by the time the first photo was taken it had seen some changes to the exterior, including the small front porch, the side porch, and a new front door. About 80 years later, however, much of the exterior has been restored, including removing the porches, adding Georgian-style window lintels, and installing historically appropriate doors and windows. Along with the other houses in the neighborhood, it now forms part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

John Watson House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1876 Main Street, at the corner of Sullivan Avenue in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many wealthy New Englanders built large, ornate, three-story mansions such as these, usually with symmetrical facades, hip roofs, Palladian windows, and other Federal-style architectural features. However, most of these mansions were built in prosperous coastal seaports, such as Salem, Providence, and Portsmouth, and they were rarely seen in inland towns. This house in South Windsor, though, is a rare exception, and it stands out among the otherwise more conservatively-designed homes in the village of East Windsor Hill.

The house was built between 1788 and 1790 for John Watson, a prominent local merchant and farmer. Although he did not live in one of the major seacoast ports, he nonetheless styled his home after the leading merchants in those places, and hired architect and builder Thomas Hayden to design it. The result was one of the finest late 18th century homes in the area, with an elegant exterior and interior that reflected Watson’s wealth and his standing in the town. The house even included such luxuries as a four-hole outhouse, which is still standing in the backyard.

A Yale graduate of 1764, John Watson married his wife Anne Bliss three years later, and they had eight children. Around the same time that he built his house, he was serving as a delegate to the state’s U.S. Constitution ratification convention, voting yes in favor of ratifying the new national constitution. He was in his mid-40s at the time, and John went on to live here for the rest of his life, until his death in 1824. Anne died three years later, and their son Henry inherited the property. Born in 1781, he married Julia Reed in 1809, and they had 13 children, who were born between 1810 and 1833.

Several of Henry and Julia’s children would go on to become prominent individuals, in widely varying fields. Their oldest, Henry Jr., graduated from Harvard, but moved to Alabama in the early 1830s and became a lawyer. He became wealthy through his law practice and several business ventures, and he went on to purchase a plantation, becoming one of the largest slaveowners in the state. In the meantime, his younger brother Louis graduated from Yale Medical School and became a successful surgeon, with a career that included serving as a medical director in the Union Army during the Civil War. Yet another Watson brother, Sereno, also graduated from Yale, with a degree in biology. He went on to become a prominent botanist, and served as the curator of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard.

Despite having so many heirs, the house did not remain in the Watson family after Henry’s death in 1848. Instead, it was sold to Theodore E. Bancroft, who probably moved in around the same time as 1853 marriage to Elizabeth Moore. During the 1860 census, he was 32 years old, and was already a moderately wealthy farmer, with real estate valued at $8,000 and a personal estate of $3,815, for a combined net worth equal to over $300,000 today. He and Elizabeth had two children at this point, and he also employed two farm hands who lived here.

By the 1870 census, Bancroft’s net worth had increased to $37,000, or over $700,000 today, and he and Elizabeth had a total of six children. He lived here until his death in 1903, and Elizabeth remained here with her son Frank until her death in 1923, when she was over 90 years old. By this point, the house had already become a prominent landmark because of its seemingly out-of-place architecture, and the first photo was taken only about a decade later, as part of a project to document the state’s historic buildings.

About 80 years have passed since the first photo was taken, but the exterior of the house has not changed much. It was restored in the late 1990s and converted into a bed and breakfast, the Watson House, which has since closed. The house is again in need of some rehabilitation, but it still stands as a rare example of a three-story 18th century mansion in the region, and it is one of the contributing properties in the East Windsor Hill Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.