Living History Tours
More Mad Men Modern: A Second Look at Norwalk’s Mid-Century Modern Architecture
More Mad Men Modern, the ninth annual Living History Tour conducted by the Norwalk Preservation Trust, took place on Sunday, September 22, 2019. The year before, our Mad Men Modern tour gave its participants an inside look at the Modernist movement in architecture as it played out in Norwalk. The event was such a success that we decided to continue the theme with the all-new More Mad Men Modern, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus School of Design by Walter Gropius. Gropius left Germany in 1934, and led the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1938 to 1952.
In 2019, we looked even more closely at the architectural movement that launched a new, forward-looking aesthetic. It included a house (seen above) in Village Creek by Edgar Tafel, an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright who worked on Fallingwater, Wingspread, and other monuments. The owners shared some of Tafel’s original drawings of their home. The itinerary also featured Norwalk projects designed by Eliot Noyes and John M. Johansen, members of the “Harvard Five” group of modernist architects. Once again, NPT’s friend, artist and photographer Bob Gregson, has generously provided us with splendid views of all the houses we visited: Norwalk Modern Tour 2019 (e).pdf
Photo courtesy of Bob Gregson.
Mad Men Modern: Touring Norwalk’s Contemporary Architecture
The eighth Living History Tour, Mad Men Modern took place on Sunday, September 16, 2018. Norwalk Preservation Trust’s largest tour ever, more than eighty participants joined us in examining radical change in architectural history, as we took a close look at the history of Modernism in Norwalk. The tour ended with a reception at the majestic sanctuary (seen above) dedicated in 1962 and designed by Joseph Salerno for the United Church of Rowayton.
Tour-goers visited examples of the influence of the architects of the Modern, both direct and indirect — the visionaries who simplified and reshaped the traditional to launch a new aesthetic. The itinerary included the history and local significance of four architectural gems influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and the German Bauhaus style. Thanks to the efforts of artist and photographer Bob Gregson, you can view and download a remarkable visual record of our stops on the tour: Modern in Norwalk 2018.pdf
Photo courtesy of Bob Gregson.
Over Here: Norwalk in the First World War
On September 17, 2017, Norwalk Preservation Trust’s seventh Living History Tour looked at how the “War to End War” reshaped the world. Norwalk was no exception. While Europe took the brunt of the horrific battles, the American home front was also irrevocably changed. What did that mean in Norwalk?
Tour participants explored the social, artistic and architectural heritage from that tumultuous time period. They visited the homes, monuments, and memorials that tell the story of Norwalk during the Great War and its participation in the expansive industrialization that fueled America’s growth as a world power. We discussed the impact of European architectural themes and the emergence of a true American architecture, and learned about the WWI cannon on the Green, given to Norwalk by France after the war. We also visited the graves of Norwalk’s fallen soldiers in the Great War. The afternoon ended with a reception at the restored Wall Street Theater (opened 1914), featuring footage from the war and films from that era, all on the big screen.
Victorian Splendor: The Homes, Churches and Monuments of Norwalk's Gilded Age
The sixth Living History Tour, Victorian Splendor took place on Sunday, September 25, 2016. Participants were enchanted by the splendor of the Gilded Age on a tour of some of Norwalk’s finest Victorian homes, churches and monuments. There were four stops along the way, with expert commentary and actors who will revive the late 19th-century atmosphere.
The tour began at the Lockwood Mathews Mansion Museum (1868), which has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It continued on to a Queen Anne home (1889) in Golden Hill and a Second Empire house (1870) in Cranbury. The Victorian obsession with death was explored in a visit to Union Cemetery, and the era’s love of Gothic Revival architecture was honored with a tour of St. Mary’s church. On the way, the tour viewed some of Norwalk’s factories and neighborhoods of workers’ houses from the Victorian era, as well as the commercial district on Washington Street. Refreshments were served at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum at the end of the tour.
Photo by Steve Turner, courtesy of David Scott Parker Architects.
Hidden In Plain Sight: Norwalk in the National Register of Historic Places
On October 18, 2015, the fifth Living History Tour featured properties and districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places, spanning Norwalk’s development from an 18th-century farming community, to post-Civil War opulence, to industrial prosperity in the early 19th-century, to expansion and forward-thinking community organization after 1945.
Norwalk’s 25 National-Register districts and properties trace the dynamic evolution of a community. The tour covered the Silvermine Historic District, SoNo’s Haviland, Elizabeth, and Hanford Streets, the newly designated historic district along Lexington Avenue (commonly known as “Whistleville”), Oysterman’s Row, the Depot District in Rowayton, the Norwalk Green Historic District including Morgan Avenue, and the mid-20th century planned community of Village Creek. Stops included the 1724 Jacob St. John house in Silvermine (seen above), a behind-the-scenes tour of the renovations at the early 20th-century Globe Theater on Wall Street, an inside look at a mid-century modern home in Village Creek, and a tour of the 1930s splendors of the Gallaher Mansion in Cranbury. Costumed actors brought each historic period to vibrant life at key stops along the route. Narrated by architectural historians, the tour shed light on Norwalk’s growth and its historic architectural gems that are “hidden in plain sight.”
Through Artists' Eyes: Norwalk People and Places in the WPA Murals
On September 28, 2014, the fourth Living History Tour partnered with the Norwalk Arts Commission to create an insider’s tour of Norwalk’s collection of Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals. The tour began with a docent-led look at the paintings in City Hall, including the rarely seen source photographs used by the artists. This was followed by a bus tour around Norwalk to view the settings as they appear today.
Many of the artists were Norwalk residents themselves, not to mention the people they used as models and painted into the pictures. Actors joined the tour en route to bring to life the people, scenes and events portrayed in the paintings.
WPA artists created more than 50 works of art for Norwalk’s public schools, libraries and post offices from 1935 to 1941. While much of the WPA art nationally has been lost or destroyed, especially paintings, most of Norwalk’s collection has been rescued and restored. The Norwalk municipal collections include 45 WPA murals, 31 of which are on display at City Hall.
Images courtesy Norwalk Transit District.
Lost Tracks: Norwalk's Historic Trolley Tour
On September 15, 2013, Norwalk Preservation Trust led the third Living History tour, traveling back in time along Norwalk’s trolley routes in existence from the 1860s to the 1930s. The tour explored various historic sites on the routes, including buildings in SoNo and Rowayton. Trolleys were the main means of transportation for most people from the end of the 19th century through the rise of the automobile in the 1920s. Norwalkers took the trolley to school, to work, to the beach and to the store.
Lost Tracks was based on a similar tour presented by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1901. That tour is documented in the book Norwalk After 250 Years, which describes the week-long celebration of the city’s sesquicentennial. Many of the places visited in 1901 are gone, but photographs of some of that lost history appeared in Lost Tracks: Norwalk’s Historic Trolley Tour, the booklet produced for the event, provided for all participants.
Former City Historian Ralph Bloom, along with NPT president and architectural historian Tod Bryant, guided the tour, providing commentary on our lost and existing architectural heritage. Actors in period costumes brought the history of Norwalk in the streetcar era to life. Afterward, everyone joined a reception in the old Trolley Barn building at 10 Wall Street.
Norwalk's 19th Century Rural Communities
On September 30, 2012, NPT’s “Hamlet Hop” tour visited the 19th-century rural hamlets embedded in our current neighborhoods of Brookside, Broad River, Cranbury, and West Norwalk, stopping at the chapels, schools, and stores that defined these early communities — some remarkably intact and some quite visibly changed. These four neighborhoods were once much more remote than they are today. The farmers, homesteaders, and mill owners were miles away from the center of Norwalk. Getting to church, schools, or shops required bone-rattling travel in carts over roads that were little more than wagon ruts.
As these communities grew and prospered, the residents began to yearn for a place to worship in their own community—one where they would not be considered “outlivers” as they were in the Norwalk and Darien parishes. Starting in the early 1800s, these communities began to establish themselves as separate “hamlets” within Norwalk. They began to organize as citizens of that community and created community centers that included a chapel that also served as a meeting house, a small school for local children, and a store to provide basic provisions. The tour took participants to all four hamlets with a stop in each to visit the surviving buildings—the chapel, the schoolhouse, or the store. Architectural historians, current owners, and costumed actors provided insight into the history of the buildings and the area and address how the buildings have been changed and modified over the years. We now know these as Norwalk’s neighborhoods but the roots of our neighborhoods stretch back to the earliest residents who gathered together to create the buildings that provided a service to the community and served to give the area its unique identity.
A reception at the Cranbury Chapel followed the tour. Awards were presented to the individuals and organizations that have preserved and maintained these important elements of Norwalk’s history, including Fairfield County Bank, who have preserved the Broad River School House, built 1861, shown above.
Norwalk’s Living History: Historic Homes from 1675 to 1830
On September 18th, 2011, Norwalk house experts gave a behind-the-scenes bus tour of homes built in Norwalk’s early days. The tour was a trip through the town’s early history, with a rare treat—Norwalk’s two oldest houses, both of which date from about 1675, were open for participants. An exceptionally well-restored home from 1784 was also open, along with a beautiful Federal-era house from about 1810. The tour route led past twenty other historic homes from these early periods. Experts spoke about their architectural styles and their place in local history. Norwalkers in period costumes boarded the bus from time to time to talk about the town as they knew it and what it was like to live there.
This inaugural Living History tour was organized by NPT board member Georgette Blau, founder of On Location Tours, the world’s largest TV and movie tour company. “I am a native Norwalker,” she said, “and I’ve always been interested in historic homes and the stories they can tell.” The tour also featured an introduction to early Norwalk architecture by NPT president and architectural historian, Tod Bryant.
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Norwalk Preservation Trust
P.O. Box 874
Norwalk, CT 06852