On Sunday mornings, I often take walks around Norwich, the city where our boat is docked during the summer. Several weeks ago, I walked down McKinley Avenue and imagined, as I looked at the old houses, that the street was probably named for President William McKinley. It was not uncommon to have streets and schools named after admired presidents and 110 or more years ago, McKinley was certainly admired, particularly for his successful leadership during the Spanish American War.
McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901 by anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosa during a visit to the Pan American Exposition in Chicago. The president survived for more than a week but died on September 14, making the date of this blog the 110th anniversary of his death.
My guess is that by the time of McKinley's death, there were already many houses on what is now McKinley Avenue, which begins a little north of Rockwell Street and ends at the intersection of Franklin and Grove Streets. The houses are almost all constructed of wood and I find the detail in the architecture fascinating, especially given the fact that before the turn of the 20th century, there was no electricity, no cars and trucks, no inside plumbing and little or no piped water.
It's easy to look at this photo and write it off as just another old street in an old New England city. That's certainly true, but a closer look shows much of the craftsmanship that was typical of that period, although time has taken its toll.
This is a dormer on one of the oldest houses on the street. My guess is that the house was built before or around the time of the Civil War and today is deteriorating. A dormer like this could have been plain but someone took the time to embellish it with two dozen or so carefully carved little brackets. There is also that little inset panel above the windows and the subtle curve of the tops of the windows. Someone way back then knew how to make a common dormer more interesting.
Another house, stripped of much of its paint but with the original window sashes still in place, shows the remarkable detail that someone, probably not an architect, designed for the tops of what otherwise would be plain windows.
The beautiful detail shown on these houses is probably European in its origin. Norwich was a thriving city in those days and had been since the turn of the 19th century, exporting produce, textiles and other goods manufactured at the water-powered mills in eastern Connecticut. Successful men and their families went to Europe and came back with ideas of what a great home should look like. No more plain, drab New England houses. America was taking its place in the world and our homes began to reflect that. That time also saw the arrival of craftsmen from Europe who knew how to build houses that spoke to the owner's sense of importance. Soon, the idea of building a beautiful house, at least from the street-side perspective, was available to those who were merely successful, if not truly wealthy.
A number of the houses on McKinley Avenue have been restored, as the one has. Perhaps the owner researched the original design to discover these colors. I didn't have the nerve to knock on the door early on a Sunday morning and ask. The detail above the windows and across the porch are beautiful. The shutters are new, as you can see by the way they fit on the attic window.
There are very few trees on McKinley Avenue and the side yards between the houses are sometimes small. In this case, almost non existent.
Here's another house that has been maintained to look much the way it did in the late 1900s. There is so much fascinating detail, all leading the eye up to the pointed roof with the whimsical circular window. And note side porch. No air conditioning in those days, so porches were important.
Speaking of porches, here's an interesting one, although it was enclosed long ago.
That now enclosed second floor porch is probably what was called a "sleeping porch" and it was actually used for sleeping. Respiratory illness, primarily influenza, was rampant in America back then and many doctors recommended sleeping outside as a health benefit.
If you were invited to a house with a front porch like this, you must have known you were entering the home of someone with means. The detail is almost overwhelming and even with water powered saws and lathes, it must have taken a long time to build. It is, by the way beautifully maintained. Those horizontal wood beams running between the columns probably aren't original, since the spoil the proportion of the design. My guess? They were added as a place to put hanging plants.
Most of the houses along McKinley Avenue were probably built as single family homes and since large families were common, big houses were necessary. Over the years, many were converted to multi-family use and that meant escapes had to be added. Here's what was originally a two-family house that eventually needed a fire escape to another small apartment on the third floor. Nothing like building something elaborate - very elaborate - right across the front of the house.
It was more common to add fire escapes at the side and some of the very big houses have truly massive ones. Here's one that even has a roof. Note that if visitors didn't mind the climb, this top floor apartment had its own private entrance. There is also a lovely porch that was probably even more inviting before the addition of the fire escape.
As I ended my last tour of McKinley Avenue, I came across a patch in the sidewalk. It's not old like the houses on the street but it does contain the names of all the kids who were lucky enough to be around after the contractor left and before the concrete hardened.
Which former city kids among us didn't have great fun scratching his or her name for posterity?