Close your eyes and be patient with me while I draw you a picture …
It’s 1860, in an old, established residential neighborhood built by, and lived in, by descendants of the earliest settlers who came in 1620. The majority of them are Bacons, a well-known and respected family in town. They’ve lived in this neighborhood for generations, but have no airs or pretense.
Their neighbor across the dirt street, on the river side, is high society. Captain William G. Hackstaff, whose daughter married the son of local hero Commodore Thomas McDonough, owns a stately piece of land valued at more than $30,000.
His days as a sea captain were lucrative, but his smartest move was to marry well. For a wedding present, his father-in-law bought them one of the most enviable properties in town, which had previously belonged to Philip Mortimer. The house sits down a lovely lane, overlooking the river, with extensive gardens stretching eastward.
The old settler families on the west side are tradesmen — cabinetmakers and sailmakers. Many cultivate the land behind their properties that extend to the west. Their sons went to work after they finished local school and set out to learn a trade. Daughters stay home to learn the womanly arts. None of them can afford servants, like Hackstaff, but they have their houses and lands to pass on to their children.
This “ye old street” scene is obviously Middletown, but surprisingly it is in the North End, on Main Street, around St. John’s Square. The area was residential, and this end of town hadn’t seen much of the commercial development happening to the south.
But their world was rapidly changing in 1860. Chase Avenue had been partially laid out (now Grand Street) and eight new two-family houses were up and occupied, erected by D. H. Chase to meet the growing demand for housing in the downtown area. The same was happening on Spring and Liberty streets.
In 10 years time, by 1870, a handful of those old families remained. Land behind their house had shrunk and most of it sold for development. Captain Hackstaff had died and his property had been hacked apart. The river view was now partially blocked by the new train station and the railroad ran through the former property.
The house was still a desirable one, back on what is today Rapallo Avenue, but the frontage on Main Street was sold and developed. O'Rourke's Diner currently occupies the northeast corner of the former hackstaff estate.
What of this bucolic scene remains? Not much. Actually one building. Tucked away on Kings Avenue is a small, three-bay, wood-frame green house. Its side–hall configuration and its massing and proportions are characteristic of houses from the Federal period, built between 1800 and 1840. Although it doesn’t appear in its current location on the 1859 map, it is one of three houses on King’s Avenue in 1874.
I suspect it was a Bacon house that formerly faced Main Street and was moved by Norman S. Smith when he bought the property in the early 1870s. Smith never lived here — he was a blacksmith in Haddam — but he used the house as a rental property, along with a few others that he built along the alley that became Kings Avenue.
After 1870, commercial development happened rapidly. The trolley company built their barn on the north side of the road and a gas station went in on the opposite side. The old timers would never recognize the neighborhood today … but they would recognize this house under the green asphalt shingles that hide any remaining details.
Today this lone wood-frame house, in a sea of asphalt and brick, is in danger. The Common Council gave the Economic Development Committee the “green light” to purchase three properties for $440,000: Midstate Auto Body, an empty lot along Clinton Avenue, and the little green house at 3 Kings Avenue.
The buildings will be razed for a 60-car parking lot to meet the needs of neighboring businesses. Bob’s Automotive and the old EIS warehouse (trolley barn) stay. Access to the parking lot will be from Grand Street and the new lot will augment the 25-car lot being added for the new Community Health Center.
Diana and Theodore Tine have owned it since 1970. They are about as well-known as the Bacons were in their day. Diana ran a hair salon downtown since I can remember (my mom was a regular throughout my childhood and Diana’s gave me my first hair cut). Her husband, Ted, who passed away in 2010, was owner of Middletown’s earliest gas station at the corner of Liberty and Main with his brother. Later he bought Midstate Auto Body on Kings Avenue and the adjacent properties.
This gateway at St. John’s Square is pretty important. It is the first thing visitors see when they come from Route 9 or from over the bridge. I agree that improvement of this area is essential. According to Michael Wackers, Deputy Planning Director for the city, demolishing the buildings is needed not only for the parking lot, but also for access to the old EIS warehouse/trolley barn, which the city may develop in the future to provide that sexy gateway into the city.
I understand the city needs more parking. I am thrilled that the city finally gets it that parking goes in back and buildings are in front. It might even be worth the additional estimated cost of $400,000 in federal grants needed to for the environmental assessment. But that little green house built by the Bacon family has weathered so much.
I am not saying the answer is easy. We cannot recreate 1860 in the North End. But we are erasing our past — one building at a time — because one little building isn’t important.
Why not move and rehabilitate it and put it back where it belongs, front and center at the gateway? (There are several similar houses around town. I’ve included pictures of what the house originally may have looked like.) More dollars. I understand.
It is way too late in the project (that just became public knowledge) to change the plans. I understand. Too late for creativity. Too late for preservationist points of view. What a shame.
The Common Council will vote on the North End Parking Improvement Plan Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.
Help Middletown Patch continue to cover stories like these. Tell your family and friends to like us on Facebook. And don't be shy about making a comment or suggesting a story idea. We'd love to hear from you.