Wesleyan in the 1830s: Historic Preservation and the Stories We Choose to Tell

Wesleyan was founded in 1831 by Methodist church leaders and prominent residents of Middletown. In addition to the handsome College Row (Brownstone Row) buildings that constitute its historic core, the campus features many distinctive domestic structures which the school gradually acquired as its student body and curriculum expanded.

Our symposium focuses on the domestic structures built in the 1830s and interrogates the relationship between high and vernacular building styles and the oppositional ideologies underlying the Triangular and opium trades, the Colonization movement, Abolitionism, and free Black community formation which they once served. Consisting of an evening keynote lecture, three papers, site visits, and a roundtable discussion, our symposium surveys the histories of these structures as well as the ways these histories have been preserved or erased. We invite consideration of how these properties and histories might be better preserved, represented, and integrated into the cityscape of Middletown and the campus of Wesleyan today.

Our symposium examines significant and representative domestic sites on either side of Foss Hill which afforded connections between Wesleyan and the world: three elegant houses along High Street which were built by the families of prominent white merchants and ministers; and the Leverett Beman Historic District (or Beman Triangle), home to some twelve enterprising Black property-owning families grouped around the African Methodist Episcopal church. Together, these four sites, all created around 1830, provide a lens onto some of the most influential and controversial developments in early nineteenth-century America and lend insight into the university’s founding decade. These properties exist in varied states of preservation today and only two of the elegant houses have achieved National Historic Landmark status.

These properties are concentrated in a relatively small urban area but have been rarely brought into dialogue. Doing so prompts questions about whose histories have been valued and preserved, for what reasons, and how one might meaningfully formulate new, more integrated histories of Middletown in ways that connect with Wesleyan’s ongoing efforts to provide a diverse, equitable, and inclusive education. Our efforts engage with a growing movement in historic preservation to conserve and document the spaces and structures of laborers, immigrants, and people of color who contributed to the history, wealth, and intellectual and spiritual development of our country. This symposium takes place amidst ongoing movements on college and university campuses nationally to reckon with institutions’ pasts, including the historical sources of their wealth and property. The unique contribution of our symposium is to examine the role that historic preservation has played in reinforcing class and racial hierarchies at Wesleyan, and how preservation could be re-envisioned today to advance Wesleyan’s core curricular mission as well as enhance its community partnership with Middletown.

The four sites and the ideologies with which they were associated are as follows:

  1. Samuel Russell House, 350 High St., built in 1828–30 by Ithiel Town in the Greek Revival. The house’s commissioner was the founder of Russell & Co., the largest and most important 19th-century American firm to do business with China. Samuel Russell earned his fortune by smuggling opium into China. His house, widely considered to be one of the finest examples of Greek Revival mansions in the Northeast, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001. Wesleyan acquired the property in 1937 and it houses the Department of Philosophy, along with a lecture room for university and public programs. There is currently no signage that tells the history of the house nor of the fortune of its commissioner.
  2. Richard Alsop IV House, 301 High St., completed in 1839 as an Italianate villa with elements of the Greek Revival. The house is nationally significant for the well-preserved frescoes on its interior walls, which obtained National Historic Landmark status in 2009. The founder of Middletown’s Alsop dynasty was Richard Alsop (1726-1776), a slave owner who made the family’s fortune as a merchant in the Triangular trade that brought sugar and molasses cultivated on slave plantations in the Caribbean to New England. After the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, subsequent generations of Alsops manumitted their slaves and distinguished themselves as writers and politicians. The High St. house was commissioned by Richard Alsop IV (1789–1842), a successful merchant based in Philadelphia, for his mother Maria Alsop Dana. After being occupied by the Alsop family for over a century, the house was purchased by Wesleyan University in 1948 with funds provided by alumnus George W. Davison and his wife Harriet, to house the Davisons’ print collection, which they had donated to the university. For this purpose, the Davisons undertook a full restoration of the historic house. The print collection was located in the Alsop House until 2022, when it was moved to Olin Library; the historic portion of the house is now undergoing partial restoration so that two of its rooms may reopen to the public. Its carriage house and later addition now harbor Wesleyan’s Digital Design Studio. There is currently no signage that tells the history of the house nor of the Alsop family, and the exterior and much of the interior spaces of the historic home are in poor physical condition.
  3. Wilbur Fisk’s House, 255 High St., built in the 1830s in the Federal style. A prominent Methodist minister, theologian, and the first president of Wesleyan University, Fisk conceived of a Wesleyan education as effecting “the political, intellectual, and spiritual regeneration of the world.” Progressive in his non-sectarian approach to education and embrace of modern languages and the natural sciences, Fisk was also a leading member of the American Colonization Society formed to repatriate American slaves to Africa. He opposed the abolitionists within the Methodist church who sought to deny membership to any slaveholder or supporter of slavery, as he saw abolitionism as potentially dividing the Methodist church. Constructed with funds provided by Fisk to serve as the President’s house, the structure served this function until 1904 before serving as the Alumni and Development Office. Today it houses the Department of American Studies (formerly the Center for the Americas). There is currently no signage that tells the history of the house nor the biography of its first resident and commissioner.
  4. The Leverett Beman Historic District, commonly known as the Beman Triangle, is the site of a property-owning, free Black community that emerged during the 1820s. Bounded by Cross Street, Vine Street, and Knowles Avenue, this triangular piece of land is home to six of the original ten houses which were built and owned by free African Americans affiliated with the original Cross Street A.M.E. Zion church. The African Methodist Episcopal church was created in the late 18th century by Black Methodists in Philadelphia and New York City who sought to overcome racial segregation and discrimination within the Methodist church. The original Cross St. A.M.E. Zion church was one of the earliest in Connecticut, with its building reaching completion in 1829. The Reverend Jehiel Beman, first regular pastor of Middletown’s A.M.E. Zion Church and a prominent abolitionist, moved to Middletown in 1830, where African Americans had already begun to purchase land on the Triangle, just up the street from the new church. In 1846 his son, Leverett Beman, purchased the remainder of the four-acre triangle, divided it into eleven lots, and sold these properties to free African Americans. In the early years of both the church and university, Wesleyan students, many of whom were already experienced ministers, often preached or led Sunday school at the Cross Street church, without necessarily challenging the university’s policy of whites-only enrollment or supporting the abolitionist movement. Furthermore, Rev. Beman’s efforts to establish a black college in New Haven were foiled by resistance from white residents. By the 1920s, most of the Black property owners on the Beman Triangle had been displaced by working-class whites, who modified the interiors of these modest, vernacular structures. Wesleyan acquired all but one of the Beman Triangle properties during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and the six original, extant houses today house undergraduate students. The Leverett Beman Historic District has been on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places and the Connecticut Freedom Trail for over two decades. The Middlesex County Historical Society is now working to add the Triangle to the National Register of Historic Places. The houses are maintained as undergraduate residences.

Taking these sites into consideration, our symposium poses the following questions:

  • How can historic preservation invite a critical and constructive engagement with the past and provide a framework for community and campus engagement?
  • What responsibility does Wesleyan bear to maintain and preserve the historic value of domestic structures that have or potentially have National Historic Landmark status?
  • How can these sites be maintained in ways that advance the university’s core educational mission? How does one balance preservation versus adaptive re-use?
  • To what extent have past conservation efforts depended on the artistic and architectural significance of structures? From today’s preservation standpoint, is not the spatial location and configuration of a neighborhood of equal significance to grand architectural styles?

While the Russell House and Fisk’s house are well-preserved and vital components of Wesleyan’s campus today, the historic portions of the Alsop House and the Beman Triangle need preservation in ways that will mark their histories related to emancipation and segregation in New England and make them vital components of campus life. Whereas the High Street mansions are very visible, perched atop a ridge overlooking the Connecticut River at the heart of Wesleyan’s campus, the Beman Triangle is much less so, as it was built on former swampland. Yet the properties on the Beman Triangle are one of the few intentional communities built by African Americans in the mid-19th century that still stand. What would be an appropriate use for the properties at Beman, which have been the subject of archaeological investigations and public history initiatives? How might the pioneering history of the Beman Triangle be integrated into the presentation of the very public buildings along High Street? Might some of the historic spaces of the Alsop House provide a site for reflection on these overlapping and conflicting domestic, economic, and political histories that coincided with Wesleyan’s founding? Such questions lie at the core of this symposium, which explores the potential for historic preservation to play a vital role in fostering an inclusive, critical, and diverse educational environment, as Wesleyan prepares to celebrate its bicentennial.

Sponsored by Wesleyan’s Departments of Art and Art History and the Samuel C. Silipo ’85 Distinguished Visitors Fund, African American Studies Program, Department of American Studies, Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and the Virgil and Juwil Topazio Fund.


To locate these properties, view the Wesleyan campus map.

Read more about the Alsop House.

Read more about the Russell House.

Read more about the First President’s House.

Read more about the Leverett Beman Historic District.