Essential Architecture- New England

Essex Connecticut


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Essex is a town in Middlesex County, Connecticut, United States. The population was 6,505 at the 2000 census.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 30.6 km² (11.8 mi²). 26.8 km² (10.4 mi²) of it is land and 3.8 km² (1.5 mi²) of it (12.35%) is water.


As of the census2 of 2000, there were 6,505 people, 2,811 households, and 1,776 families residing in the town. The population density was 242.4/km² (627.6/mi²). There were 2,977 housing units at an average density of 110.9/km² (287.2/mi²). There were 2,811 households out of which 27.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 55.6% were married couples living together, 5.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.8% were non-families. 31.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 16.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.27 and the average family size was 2.87.

In the town the population was spread out with 21.9% under the age of 18, 3.6% from 18 to 24, 27.4% from 25 to 44, 27.7% from 45 to 64, and 19.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43 years. For every 100 females there were 89.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 86.9 males.

The median income for a household in the town was $66,746, and the median income for a family was $88,888. Males had a median income of $54,053 versus $38,276 for females. The per capita income for the town was $42,806. About 0.5% of families and 2.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 1.0% of those under age 18 and 3.5% of those age 65 or over.

The town of Essex sponsors an annual Groundhog Day parade. A large papier mache groundhog named "Essex Ed" is carried through town with revelers making noise in order to rouse him from his slumber and bring an end to winter. The town also sponsors a "Loser's Day Parade," which celebrates the 1814 event of having 29 ships burned in Essex harbor during a raid by British marines . [1] Every spring there is a Shad Bake sponsored by the Essex Rotary Club.

The Great Attack
Essex has a unique distinction among United States towns and cities: it is one of the few that was ever attacked by a foreign power. This occurred on April 8, 1814, and the results were disastrous for the American side. The economic losses incurred here were among the largest sustained by the United States during the War of 1812. Twenty eight vessels were burned and destroyed, with a value estimated to be close to $200,000.00. While this figure may seem a pittance by today's standards, it must be noted that a very large two story home in Essex would have been worth no more than $1,000.00 at that time.

It was the English who inflicted this damage. Approximately 136 marines and sailors, under the command of Richard Coote, and apparently guided by an American, rowed past the unmanned fort in Old Saybrook, and arrived at the foot of Main Street in Essex close to 4 A.M. They quickly commandeered the town, getting a promise of no resistance from those in charge in return for promising not to harm the townspeople or burn their homes. Within six hours their mission was accomplished, and the British went downstream with two captured ships in tow, including the famous "Black Prince", a vessel that may well have been primarily responsible for this raid. In fact, Captain Richard Hayden, a prominent shipbuilder, had advertised this ship in a New York newspaper, stating that it was "a 315 ton sharp schooner that would make an ideal privateer." Volunteers from the nearby town of Killingworth fired at the retreating Englishmen from shore positions as they headed back to their main ships, anchored in Long Island Sound. Both the captured ships had to be destroyed by the British, who sustained a loss of two men. [2]
Sip a cup of tea with me and I'll tell you about the best small town in America. The first thing one notices upon entering the township of Essex, Connecticut are the homes lining the road that curves its way into the main street of the village.

They are mostly two-story wood structures that evoke the 18th century and typify the image most Americans have of colonial New England homes. Each is unique though they belong to a similar architectural past that is altogether pleasing and familiar. They are well cared for and beckon the visitor to discover what lies beyond.

The village reveals itself around a bend where a small white pillar surrounded with seasonal flowers marks the entrance to Main Street. The street of shops, restaurants, homes, and the historic Griswold Inn culminate at the end of Main Street at the Connecticut River and the River Museum.

It is a simple white building overlooking the river and it houses artifacts of the historic river and exhibits about the communities that settled along its banks almost four hundred years ago.

From this vantage point, one can see the Connecticut River flow by, its 660 kilometer journey from its source at the Canadian border nearly at its end.

Just eight km to the east, the river's mouth meets Long Island Sound between the colonial era settlements of Old Saybrook and Old Lyme at the shoreline. The impression is of a village that sits snugly by the river, a tea cozy of a town.

Essex has a population of 6,500. More than half have roots in England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was first settled in 1637 as part of the Saybrook Colony, referred to then as Potapoug Quarter.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, it was a shipbuilding center and played a role in the American Revolution when the colony's first battleship, the Oliver Cromwell, was constructed there in 1775. The history of the village is a suitable reference for students of colonial and early American history.

Today, Essex is a popular tourist attraction, although it manages to maintain an air of undisturbed decorum. American author of "The 100 Best Small Towns in America," Norman Cramptom, declared Essex the best of all based on statistical indices.

To my mind, he is correct; in all my travels I have never visited a town that outshines it, but for other reasons that statistics do not reveal. Nevertheless, I owe Mr. Crampton a debt of gratitude, for his finding is what drew me to visit Essex in the first place. That visit marks the origin of my infatuation and why I have a home there now.

In the summer of 2001, my daughter wanted to tour the campuses of several colleges on the east coast. It is a time-honored tradition in the U.S. for high school students to visit colleges before they make their decision to apply for admission.

With a map and a list in hand, we flew from California to Boston, Massachusetts and began a driving tour of east coast colleges in New England. Accompanying us was my cousin from Switzerland, where my family is from.

Our trip was intended to be a holiday as well, and we spent several days along the Connecticut shoreline between visits to the schools. I have traveled many times over the years to New England and have family members in Rhode Island and New York.

Yet I am devoted to the latest guidebooks and dutifully take note of new information and historical sights to see in areas I will be visiting. And so I came across the reference to Essex, Connecticut in a guidebook and its claim to fame.

How could I not visit the best small town in America? It lies just a few kilometers off Route 1, the Boston Post Road. This historic road was mapped out by order of King Charles II to promote communication among his colonial governors from Boston to New York.

And there we were, minutes away from Essex on our map, but with only a half hour to spare to get to the airport on time for our flight. In the face of my daughter's exasperation--knowing all too well her mother was not capable of making any visits to famous sites in under an hour's time-- I determinedly turned the car in the direction of Essex. Little did I know I was about to fall in love.

I recall as if it was yesterday the sensation I felt as we drove along the road into Essex, past original and latter day replicas of colonial and early American homes. I gasped in admiration.

And as I have often discovered since, it was as much for the individual charm of the houses as it was for the overall impression they create that gives Essex its special appeal and draws the casual visitor in for a closer look.

It is a short but seductive scene that promises even more to come. The road moves up over a hill and curves downward toward the village and the river's shore, only to be revealed as one approaches, which enhances the delight and surprise awaiting the first-time visitor.

Even now after I've made my way hundreds of times on that road, I still feel a surge of joy when I make the last turn that opens to the small square at the head of Main Street and I behold the heart of the village.
There are dozens of business establishments listed for the township of Essex, which includes the adjacent communities of Centerbrook and Ivoryton nearby.

In the village proper, the several blocks down to the water and side lanes are chock full of establishments from clothing and gift shops, a bookstore, churches, the town post office, banks, restaurants, services, art galleries, an inn and tavern, and realty offices. Elegant Georgian and federal style homes line the streets along the commercial district, adding to the atmosphere of this residential village.

On that day we arrived in Essex, the tourist season was in full swing and a convenient parking spot was not to be found. Nearly four years later, I have learned that even during the winter months, Essex is increasingly a popular year-round destination, as there are a host of festivals and special events celebrating the arrival of autumn, the Christmas season, eagle watch season, the town's historic steam train, and many other holidays throughout the year.

With time of the essence, my first encounter was, alas, through the open window of our rental car. But it was enough to hook me back for a second, and longer visit.

That came the next year, in August of 2002, after my daughter was safely delivered to her dorm room to begin her college life. As any parent who has endured the trials and tribulations of preparing for the departure of their teenager for college will understand, I was sorely in need of some rest and recreation.

I made a beeline for the Connecticut shoreline and Essex. With assorted family members who reside in adjacent states in tow, we ventured to Essex for a real excursion.

We were not disappointed. The summer was at its peak, the garden flowers in full bloom, the foliage providing full shade and a cool refuge from the hot sun and humid weather. We walked the length of the village, which without stopping would take about five minutes from one end of Main to the other.

But with stops to browse the shops, tour the galleries, and enjoy a cool drink, our walk took a couple hours to complete. I was heady with excitement by the time we left.

The next day, I returned. My family having departed for home, I was dangerously alone with ample time for mischief. On this occasion, I headed for Mitchel Realty on Main Street, where I met Mr. Richard Horan, a knowledgeable and affable gentleman.

He was to become my accomplice. My goal was clear-to buy a second home in Essex. I had arrived at the decision as quickly as I could say the words to myself, "I want to live here." It was one of the biggest decisions I have made in my life and it took me all of a second. I knew it was my destiny from the moment I had set eyes on Essex.

Essex, Connecticut lies 182 km north of New York and 206 south of Boston. It is approximately 5,500 km from Chelmsford and 4,715 km from Sacramento, California where I live three quarters of the year.

New Yorkers escaping the city on weekends or looking for what lies outside of the Hamptons on Long Island are finding Essex in greater numbers.

Bostonians head to Cape Cod or Newport, Rhode Island, which Hollywood hasn't invaded yet, so the influx of part-time residents comes from a southwesterly direction.

I just happen to come from a place a bit farther south and west. I consider that to be an accident of circumstance. I am quite certain my soul is native to New England and its Puritan past.

My frugality, study habits, and attention to duty were disciplined and legendary by the time I was 20. My college roommate even pronounced me surely to be a descendent of Cotton Mather, grandson and minister of Richard who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Lowtown near Liverpool in the 17th century. However I come by it, I have long felt an affinity with New Englanders and I believe that my arrival in Essex was inevitable.

My realtor and now friend, Rich Horan, has said on more than one occasion in my presence, that I was the was the easiest client he ever had because I made up my mind to buy my house within fifteen minutes of seeing it.

It is a fact. I had no time to lose; I was heading back to California in a few days and I had a mission to accomplish. My hope and objective were to find a house and a lot that were not too large for a part-time resident to maintain. Over the next two days he showed me several homes in the vicinity.

Then he took me to THE HOUSE. I might as well have been sporting rose-colored sunglasses. It pulsed yellow paint on the exterior, but it was a Cape Cod box style with louvered shutters and sat on a sloped lot facing a pond. The interior cried out for repainting, but the second floor bedrooms sported angled ceilings and there was moulding everywhere.

The lawn was ragged, but two sugar maple trees blessed the property. It had a real basement. Basements are unheard of to most Californians. The garage was sized just to fit a MINICooper, but I didn't have a car, so who cared? It was, in short, perfect! And in less than two months, before the leaves fell from the maple trees, it was all mine as long as I paid the bank for the mortgage.

From then until now, I have made the trip back to Essex from California at least a dozen times. I've had the house restored inside and out by a master painter who lives up the street from me.

A descendent of the inventor of Dickinson's Witch Hazel, an astringent for almost any skin ailment my mother always kept in the medicine cabinet, designed and constructed the deck for my house.

These local treasures have introduced me to many of the tradesmen I patronize. I found second-hand furniture and decorative accessories for every nook and cranny of the house that I treat as fine antiques. I shipped off boxes of books and household items from California that I could live without there but I couldn't live without in Essex.

Although I may never be a full-time resident, I have come to feel as if I am. Each time I open the front door having just arrived from California, it is as if I had departed the house only that morning, just to be returning at the end of a day.

I have made new friends. I am acquainted with some of the shopkeepers, the postman knows who I am, and I know where the best delis can be found and which cafés make the best coffee. I am a supporter of our public library, the volunteer fire department and the fraternal order of police.

I am a member of the river museum association, the land conservation trust, and I attend plays at the local theatre where Connecticut native Katherine Hepburn performed at the start of her career. My guests tease me that I should register as a tour guide. I proudly escort them to see the sights and unabashedly enthuse over each highlight on my tours.

I wake up with the sun in my eyes or the snow falling on the skylight above my bed and smile at my good fortune.

Sunset pond, photo Austin J. Freeman
The pond near my home sparkles brightly in the morning sun as a group of men race their model sailboats and artists sketch or paint landscapes at the water's edge.

In the winter, the pond becomes the town's ice rink and children skate or play ice hockey. It is a simple pleasure to sit in my dining room or on my deck outside with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and watch the people in cars drive by my house on their way in to the village. Some of them are seeing Essex for the first time, and I smile, knowing what lies ahead of them a minute's ride away.

Linda Brughelli