WALL STREET & THE UPPER HARBOR
If you had to describe the next new thing as an area in Norwalk— more so than trendy SoNo, it is the area north of SoNo. Officially known as the Wall Street area, it’s affectionately called NoNo. The Wall Street area is the historic and official downtown. It’s a shout from the town green and City Hall and anchored by the main library, courthouse and post office. This is where the economic hub of Norwalk’s fast-growing creative economy has taken root.
Overall, this is the area where “authentic” rules, starting with the historic park of Mill Hill— where history meets replica in an odd way. The Town Green is authentic, it dates back to colonial times, and served originally as the grazing ground for the townspeople’s livestock. Today a retro-looking gazebo and a recently restored WWI French military cannon adorn the Green.
At the top of Wall Street, just south of the Town Green, lies the Mill Hill Historic Park. The park holds a very old burying ground, and a collection of buildings at the site of the original town meeting hall. This has become a collection of Norwalk’s colonial history, and the buildings here tell that story.
Today, the townhouse is the home of the Norwalk Historical Society. On exhibit are the artifacts and ephemera of Norwalk from its colonial roots to its industrial and maritime progress.
A one-room red wood building exemplifies the type of hardscrabble schoolhouse back in the day, and a yellow wood building represents the Norwalk Law Office of Thomas Fitch. He was Connecticut Colony’s Governor from 1754 to 1766, and the building you see today is somewhat of a recreation. While the original house burned in 1779, the rebuilt kitchen wing is all that we see today. It was restored extensively in the 1970s. Both buildings were moved from their original site, farther down East Avenue, however, the townhouse was always located here.
The burying ground isn’t quite the oldest in Norwalk and many of the people buried there date to the 1800s, but it holds the graves of some prominent Norwalk people of years past. One interesting storyline is that smallpox took the lives of many doctors who were treating people with the illness and thus a high number of medical practitioners rest here.
The layout of Wall Street owes much to its history. From the Post Road to the bridge that crosses the Norwalk River, the original colonists of Norwalk chose the head of the natural harbor as a commercial center. The street curves in a sweeping S, because then, the best way to cross the Norwalk River was at its most narrow point. The Norwalk River divides the city, and so the history of Wall Street reflects that east/west divide.
East of the Norwalk River was known as Lockwood Square, where Norwalk’s 18th-century entrepreneurs, the Lockwood brothers, plied their global trading empire. (In the 19th century it became known as St. John’s Place.) Later, it became the hub of the trolley system at 10 Wall Street. The building you see today was built in 1864 for horse-drawn trolleys which later gave way to electric trolleys that ran until 1935. Today the area is called Landmark square.
As you climb up Wall Street, crossing Smith Street you are officially on East Wall Street.
West of the Norwalk River became known for its dining and shopping which holds true to this day. By the 1950s western Wall Street was the main drag of retail Americana, home to big-time national stores like Sears, and hometown favorites like Kiddie Town, the Norwalk Bookstore and the H.L. Green soda counter.
Tragically in 1955, a great flood took out the last vestiges of 1800s Norwalk when torrents of water destroyed many buildings after a 12 plus inch rainfall. That led to a new strip mall aesthetic which now competes for claim as the architectural vibe of Wall Street. Main Street runs along the eastern shore of the Norwalk River and is home to a park and a somewhat uninspiring 1970s strip mall look. There are some gems from that 1950s era though, the highlight of which is the Family Diner, in a vintage diner car at 71 Main St.
Norwalk is full of revolutionary history, you just need to know where to look. Famous spy Nathan Hale set sail from Norwalk, and so a rock commemorating the spy mission sits in Freese Park at the corner of Main Street and Wall Street. The park is named for one time socialist Mayor Irving Freese, who governed from 1947 to 1953. But back to Hale, he actually set sail under great secrecy on his fateful spy mission aboard the armed sloop Schuyler from Cedar Hammocks Island in September of 1776.
There are two significant churches on The Green that date back to the original founding of Norwalk. One is St. Paul’s On The Green which was established in 1737, but the gothic building you see is the fifth on the site. A burying ground surrounds the church and a labyrinth sits behind.
Facing the middle of the green on Park St. is the First Congregational Church, which also dates back to the original founding of Norwalk, in this case, the oldest congregation in Norwalk dating to 1652. The building you see is also a more recent incarnation.
THE SECRET WALKWAY TO THE GREEN
Lewis Street ends at the back of the First Congregational Church which leads us to Brook Street, the oldest surviving street in Norwalk that has been left at the original colonial width. Not so long ago the street was repaved and dedicated as Lewis Way, according to a plaque from 1980. Since it is closed off to vehicles, it makes for a decent secret passage up to The Green, although it is a short one.
WPA MURALS OF CITY HALL
City Hall isn’t open holidays or weekends but otherwise stays open from 8 am till about 11 weekdays. The building is the former Norwalk High School, which explains the concert hall (once auditorium,) and athletic field andtrack. But that’s not why you’d make a trip to City Hall.
On display is a pretty extensive collection of WPA era murals depicting Norwalk history, bucolic images and the odd historical scene. They’re on all three floors, so as you wander around, try not to stumble on a zoning meeting instead!
The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a Great Depression era job creation program, and Norwalk was one of the epicenters for hiring artists to create works for public buildings. Not just here but in other buildings around town like both Libraries and the Main and South Norwalk Post Offices. Start in the main atrium and head down the first floor corridor on your right.
The works are a tribute to Mark Twain by Justin Gruelle. Gruelle, was the brother of Johnny Gruelle, author and creator of Raggedy Ann. Both lived in the Silvermine area in the early 1900s. The second floor works depict scenes around greater Norwalk. The third floor continues the series from the atrium and in the hallway around the Council Chambers behind the elevators with a fascinating look at oystering. Don’t miss the two murals hanging in the concert hall: one on millinery and one about colonial industry.