Editor's note: Last year, when Village Creek received a grant to prepare a National Register nomination, (it secured the designation), we learned that its founders were forerunners in obliterating racial and ethnic barriers in the city and that prominent artists left marks there. It prompted us to ask the question for our readers, What do other historic Norwalk neighborhoods look like, up close? We've talked to historians and residents about how these neighborhoods came to be and what makes them special. Take a walk with us as we continue our award-winning Neighborhood Watch series.
The great flood of 1955 brought devastation and loss of life to the entire city of Norwalk, but it changed the face of the Wall Street neighborhood, which had long prospered financially and culturally from a mix of businesses and residences in the years leading up to the catastrophe.
Woodrow Hodges, now 91, moved to the Wall Street neighborhood in 1953 and witnessed firsthand the destruction of the 1955 flood -- an epic event that had, through its unforgettable devastation, a silver lining: It ushered in a new era to that section of Norwalk.
"The first thing is that it started raining, and it rained continuously for about two-and-a-half days," Hodges remembered in an interview with the Citizen. "When you woke up the next morning, the buildings were gone. There were no houses. Everything had washed out into the Sound."
Hodges lost the boiler in his Commerce Street home as the waters rose. Nearby train tracks were washed out or destroyed, he remembered. Traffic was stopped in all directions for days.
"The most damage was around the river," he said. "It was quite a tragedy. But we made it through."
Other Norwalk residents weren't so lucky.
"There was a lot of property lost," Hodges said. "And people were lost."
A modern version of the 1955 flood would cause about $21 million in damage along the Norwalk River, according to a Connecticut study, the findings of which are explained on the Norwalk River Watershed Association's website.
But before the devastation, the Wall Street area was a snapshot of how things used to be in Norwalk, Hodges said; a way of living, working and playing in the same neighborhood that the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the city is beginning to bring back. The Wall Street Historic District is now included on the National Register of Historic Places, a prestigious list that recognizes the historical significance of neighborhoods nationwide.
"When I moved here [to Commerce Street], it was a beautiful neighborhood, and we even had a patrol man," Hodges said. "We had a combination of businesses and residences."
The neighborhood included a grocery store, a meat market and The Hodges Pool Room, a Hodges family business.
"Whoever liked to play billiards, this was the place to come," Hodges said. "We also wanted to give people a chance to earn a job."
The Wall Street Historic District -- which includes Hodges' Commerce Street home -- is roughly bounded by Commerce, Knight and Wall Streets, as well as West and Mott Avenues, according to the registration form for the national register. With 44 structures of historical significance in the district -- some of which survived the brunt of the 1955 flood -- the Wall Street neighborhood features a blend of late Victorian, 20th Century Revival and modern movement architectural styles.
The neighborhood features properties "associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history" and properties that embody "the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction," according to the registration form.
And, as Hodges alluded to, the majority of the historically significant buildings in the neighborhood "were constructed as mixed commercial and multi-unit residential structures," ranging in height from two to five stories.
The buildings that grace the Wall Street area are not only historically significant but also are varied in character, according to Munro Johnson, senior project manager of development for the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.
The Norwalk United Methodist Church, dating back to 1860, is located at 720 West Ave. The church retains many of its original features, including a buttressed tower, round-headed windows and doors under tablet molding.
"Our church has been a part of Wall Street and Norwalk's history for 150 years, and our hope and prayer is to be here for another 150 years, serving the community," said Norwalk United Methodist Church pastor Tisha Jermin at a plaque-hanging ceremony at the church this summer. The ceremony celebrated the church's inclusion on the National Register as an important structure in the district.
Therefore," Jermin went on, "we are encouraged and hopeful that this recognition will raise the profile of the church's history, its ministries within and to the community at large as we commence raising funds for much needed renovations and repairs."
Another historically significant building, The Regent Theater, built in 1915, is located at 71 Wall St. and represents Spanish Revival style. It, too, retains many of its originals features, such as a pent roof with barrel tiles and tri-partite windows on the second floor.
The 1922 Norwalk Savings Society building provides a Classical Revival style building for the historic district, with its rusticated ashlar walls, giant order pilasters flanking round-headed windows and a stepped parapet surmounting an inscribed frieze.
Other structures of interest in the area include the Bishop building and Norwalk and Danbury railroad depot, all on Wall Street, and the McMahon building on Commerce Street.
The registration form explains that the character of the historic district would not be complete without its railroad tunnel and signature bridge -- a single-arch, ashlar cut structure made out of granite blocks
Despite the undeniable impact the flood of 1955 had on the future of Wall Street, Johnson said its character has remained surprisingly consistent over the past century.
"As a planner, I would consider it significant the basic form of Wall Street has remained intact over the years," he said. "The district definitely has its scars as well. I would describe it as always having been a mixed-use district."
Lacking of late in the district, however, is a strong residential component.
"In recent years, the residential piece has dwindled," Johnson said. "The revitalization strategy is to restore a residential component to Wall Street."
Because Wall Street possesses a "historical fabric that is an asset to build upon," Johnson believes revitalization efforts in the neighborhood will enhance its residential component. New developments, like POKO Partners LLC's Wall Street Place, are already in the works. Wall Street Place will eventually extend from Wall and Isaacs Streets to West Avenue and "will be the quintessential modern interpretation of classic living--offering the excitement of a hi-tech, urban development within the context of a historic, ecologically green environment," information from POKO explains.
Johnson believes bringing back a strong residential component to the area will provide a captive market for businesses -- and invigorate the livable, workable atmosphere that was once Wall Street's hallmark.
Tod Bryant, president of the Norwalk Preservation Trust, said the inclusion of the Wall Street Historic District on the National Register will provide benefits to local businesses.
"The real advantage for the business owners is that they become eligible for federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits," he said. "It's such an important part of Norwalk's past. In the 1920s and 1930s it looked like a European city."
"After the flood, everything changed," Bryant added. "Before, it was the heart of the city. It will never be what it was, but we can attempt to bring back the pre-1955 existence."
Adding attractive, affordable residential options to Wall Street will "get people living in the area again," according to Bryant.
Peter Massini, a former Norwalk resident who worked at Fat Cat Pie Co. for eight years, agreed with Bryant's assessment of Norwalk's plans to invigorate Wall Street.
Massini said businesses like Norwalk Luggage and the Garden Cinemas are throwbacks to an age in Norwalk long since passed.
"I think one of the things that has to be done is the businesses have to be publicized," he said. "I think Norwalk needs to continue to promote the area. I think it would be great if there was more housing like the Avalon there. What I like is that it's a working waterfront."
Once the economy comes around, Massini said, the future of the Wall Street Historic District will look even brighter.
"My impression is it just needs revitalization," he said. "But I liked the diversity of the area. It's a great area and has potential to be even greater."