New England would look a lot different today if Ithiel Town hadn’t created covered truss bridges and Greek Revival architecture.
An architect as well as a builder, he popularized the Greek Revival style in the early 19th century, though he also worked in the Federalist and Gothic styles.
He was born in Thompson, Conn., on Oct. 3, 1784, to Archelaus and Martha Johnson Town. He studied with Asher Benjamin in Boston. His first known commission was the Asa Gray House in 1810.The Federal style house was built in Cambridge, Mass., for the first head of the Harvard botanic garden. Asa Gray, the most important American botanist of the 19th century, lived in the house later on. So did English ornithologist Thomas Nuttall. The National Register of Historic Places lists the house, also a National Historic Landmark.
In 1828, he designed the Samuel Wadsworth Russell House in Middletown, Conn., for Samuel Russell, founder of the largest American trading house in China. The house set a new standard for luxury and grandeur and also helped launch the Greek Revival style of architecture in the United States.
Mansions, Churches, Public Buildings
The next year, Ithiel Town and Andrew Jackson Davis formed one of the country’s first architectural firms. They designed the state capitol in New Haven and, in Hartford, City Hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum.
One of Town’s most important early works was Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, Conn. Built from 1814-16, it was one of the first Gothic Revival churches in the United States.
Town built a number of mansions, including his own, on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven. Charles Dickens called it ‘the most beautiful street in America,’ and the two George Bushes lived on it for a time. It was part of a development by James Hillhouse, a congressman and Yale’s treasurer for 50 years. . He laid out a road and then planted elm trees along it. Houses had to be set back 50 feet from the street and homeowners had to hire a leading architect to design their homes. So Aaron Skinner commissioned Town to build the house above. Yale bought it in 1978 and restored it for the International Center for Finance.
Ithiel Town’s Lattice Truss
Ithiel Town was an engineer as well as an architect. In 1820 he received the patent for a wooden truss bridge known as Town’s Lattice Truss. It used criss-crossing diagonal planks fastened to the top and the bottom of the structure, which eliminated the need for large, expensive timbers.
The Bath-Haverhill Bridge is the oldest existing Town lattice truss, and one of the oldest covered bridges in the country. It was in service for 170 years until it was bypassed in 1999.
Ithiel Town died on June 13, 1844.
This story was updated in 2022.