Vital Piece of Middletown History is on the Auction Block

Two houses were not included in the Greater Middletown Preservation Trust’s 1975 survey of historic buildings.

A piece of Middletown's past will be auctioned off today at 9:45 a.m. in Waterbury at 17 Red Maple Lane. The property in Middletown's North End at 31 Green Street contains two residences that were built in the 19th century and is currently in foreclosure.

The main house, closest to the road, was used as a rental property for most of its life. The building behind it appears  to have been a wagon shed or carriage house that was later converted to a dwelling.

Unfortunately, the two houses were not included in the Greater Middletown Preservation Trust’s 1975 survey of historic buildings.  However, they are important structures, which help illustrate Middletown’s glorious days as a riverfront port.

A sketch of the property’s history can be ascertained by reviewing available 19th-century maps. The earliest map that depicts buildings in the Main Street area was produced in 1825 by H. L. Barnum, and shown here. At that time there were only six buildings on the street, which at that time was known as Bull Lane, and 31 Green Street is not among them.

The residences of the lane were primarily employed at the riverfront as sea captains or merchant investors in trade with the West Indies. Samuel Bull, who lived at the corner on Main and for whom the lane was named, was a merchant, selling goods imported from throughout the world.

The next map, published by H. F. Walling in 1859, shows that there was significant development on the street (and everwhere else downtown, for that matter) in the intervening 34 years. Johnson School had been built and four houses to the east stands 31 Green Street adjacent to the road and the structure that still stands behind it.

With this evidence, we can conclude that the main house and its associated rear building were built between 1825 and 1859, and architectual evidence suggests that circa 1850 is a realistic date.

The alterations to both structures are extensive and hides most of the clues needed to date the house effectively. The remaining evidence is the massing and rubble brownstone foundation. The rear structure, particularly, provides it best clue from its side profile. Although one might think it is a Colonial-era saltbox, the proportions are wrong for an 18th-century house of that type. Its steep roof line is characteristic of outbuildings constructed in the mid-19th century to house wagons and carriages.

The Beer's Atlas of 1874 map also shows the two buildings at 31 Green Street. The same name appears as the owner on both maps — "Fitzgerald." The Beers map goes a step further and identifies the owner of this house as "W. Fitzgerald" and indicates that he also owns the three other houses to the west.

A search of the federal census in 1860 and 1870 turns up several "Fitzgeralds."  None of them seemed to be someone who would own four houses and live on rental income.

So a search of neighbors, as seem on the 1874 map, provided some clues. A Capt. Frayne is identified as living to the west. The census revealed that Captain David Frayne, a 37-year-old sea captain in 1870, lived with his wife Honora and their three small children only two houses away from a William Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald shared a house with another family and worked as a grocery clerk.

Unlike most of his Irish neighbors, including Capt. Frayne, William Fitzgerald was born in the United States. It is safe to say that he was doing very well as a grocery clerk, property owner and landlord.

In 1860, the census shows Widow Bull still living on the corner, Captain Hackstaff residing across the street from 31 Green, and Samuel Butler, another sea captain, in a house to the west.  There is no Fitzgerald living in the area, so the houses were rental property even then. The only Fitzgerald in Middletown of any means was Thomas Fitzgerald, a farmer living in an outlying district who owned $1,600 worth of property. Might be him....  

I would like to see someone buy 31 Green Street who respects and appreciates Middletown's past and the role of each property that contributed to its early development. It would be great if the new owner elected to restore the buildings and reveal any remaing historic architectural fabric. I guess I should just be content if it is purchased and not torn down.

If you are interested, bidding starts at $65,000 (for two houses? Wow). More information can be found here.  Or head to Waterbury and bring some cash. Keep me posted!

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Myra Aronow August 18, 2011 at 01:43 PM
As always from you, a very interesting article
John Brush August 21, 2011 at 09:31 PM
I have added a photo/map that shows the Green Street neighborhood from a different aerial perspective. Dated 1915


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