Before moving into their Federal-era home in the river town of Essex, Conn., Pam and Tom Carroll demolished an addition in back and gutted the interior. The three-bedroom house, for which they paid $500,000, fronts Main Street in Essex Village and has backyard views of a cove off the Connecticut River. But it was in “sorry shape” when they bought it, said Ms. Carroll, 57, an interior designer.
The renovation took a year, and the Carrolls frequently drove up from their home in Southport to check on the project. But it wasn’t until after they moved in, in 2017, that they realized their neighbors on and around Main Street had been watching the construction with more than passing interest.
“They say they just hold their breath when any of the historic houses on Main Street change hands, because really there’s nothing on the books that makes it a historic district that says what you can and cannot do,” Ms. Carroll said.
Essex is known for its old New England Main Street, lined with homes dating to the town’s heyday as a bustling center for shipbuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries. The street ends at the town dock on the banks of the Connecticut River, which flows down from Canada, through four states, and into the Long Island Sound.
The Carrolls’ home still fits right in — they kept the original front facade intact. And they’ve quickly found community by joining the Essex Yacht Club, a short walk from Main Street.
“Essex is a really good location for boating: It’s very protected because we’re up the river a little ways from the storms,” Ms. Carroll said. “But it is so easily accessible to zip right down to Long Island Sound, and a super easy run over to Shelter Island, Sag Harbor and the Hamptons. On the river, there’s Hamburg Cove, just opposite Essex. People go in there and drop anchor, hang out and barbecue, paddleboard.”
Nancy Tela is hoping to take crewing lessons now that she owns a home in the village. A real estate broker in Manhattan, Ms. Tela grew up boating and is familiar with much of the Connecticut coastline. But she only recently began exploring Essex as a possible remote-work getaway when a “quirky” three-bedroom house with river views came on the market last winter. She dashed up to the open house.
“It was kind of perfect,” Ms. Tela said. “It just clicked.”
She closed in May for $600,000, in time to enjoy the property’s wildflower gardens in full bloom.
“The area is incredibly bucolic,” she said. “It’s got a little bit of everything. And you get so much bang for your buck.”
What You’ll Find
Covering 12 square miles, the Middlesex County town of Essex is small, with a population of less than 6,700, but encompasses three villages: Essex Village, Centerbrook and Ivoryton, each with its own ZIP code.
Essex Village grew up around the shipbuilding trade — and continues to support a cluster of marinas, yacht services and boating clubs — while the other two villages were fueled by industry along Falls River, which crosses the town from west to east.
Now primarily residential, Essex is “one of the few places where you don’t have a main city at the mouth of the river, so it stays very clean and picturesque,” said Colette Harron, a real estate agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s and a longtime Essex resident.
The town’s population skews older, with a median age of 53, compared with a statewide median of 40, according to census data.
Centerbrook is the more commercial section, with a supermarket, service stations and pizza parlors. The center of Ivoryton, once a hub for the manufacturing of ivory products, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “a well-preserved example of a company town.”
Historic district protections for the town have been discussed in the past, but have never received broad support, said Melissa A. Josefiak, the director of the Essex Historical Society. Yet those who appreciate history often choose to live in Essex because of its historic architecture, and voluntarily “maintain their properties in keeping with the historic character of their neighborhood,” Ms. Josefiak said.
What You’ll Pay
The median single-family home price for the year ending in May was $380,000, roughly the same as the previous year, according to information provided by Ms. Harron.
About 80 single-family homes and 15 condominiums were on the market as of July 7. The least expensive single-family house was a one-bedroom ranch on 1.69 acres for $125,000; the most expensive, at $2.995 million, was a renovated four-bedroom Victorian on Foxboro Point with expansive river views.
Condominium prices ranged from $150,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $539,900 for a new two-bedroom townhouse. One of the more popular developments is Heritage Cove, on River Road, Ms. Harron said. Although it is an older complex, all of the condos and townhouses there have water views. “People buy them and redo them,” she said.
Historic homes with preserved exteriors and fully updated interiors tend to sell quickly, especially if they have water views, said Joel Lucas, an agent with Coldwell Banker.
Buyers from New York City are plentiful, particularly because “the property taxes are practically free,” Mr. Lucas said, compared to what you might pay across the Sound on Long Island.
Essex Station Luxury Rentals, which opened last year, is the only rental complex in town. The 52 one- and two-bedroom apartments there are fully leased, at rents ranging from $1,595 to $1,895 a month, with 40 names on the waiting list, said Penny Parker, an agent who works with the developer.
“It was tough to get through zoning, because Essex isn’t used to apartments,” Ms. Parker said. “But it’s been very well received.”
Essex Village draws tourists to its Main Street shops and restaurants, including the well-known Griswold Inn, which has a Colonial-era tap room with live music and an all-you-can-eat brunch called the Sunday Hunt Breakfast.
Other attractions include the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat in Centerbrook, operated by the Valley Railroad Co., and eagle-watching cruises that depart from the dock at the Connecticut River Museum.
In Essex, most any holiday is an excuse for a parade, including the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day and Groundhog Day. Ms. Carroll recalled wrapping holiday presents at home one day in December when she heard music in the distance and opened her front door to find a fife-and-drum band marching up Main Street playing Christmas carols.
Professional theater productions can be seen year-round at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a 250-seat theater that dates to 1911. A farmers’ market is held on summer Saturdays on the adjacent Ivoryton Green.
Essex is part of a regional school district that includes the towns of Chester and Deep River. Each town has its own elementary school and board of education, and a fourth board oversees the regional district.
There is a regional preschool program for children ages 3 to 5 at Essex Elementary School, which has about 340 students in preschool through sixth grade.
The regional John Winthrop Middle School, in Deep River, serves about 265 students in seventh and eighth grades. Students can learn how to grow and harvest vegetables in an extensive campus garden. Since 2008, the New England League of Middle Schools has recognized Winthrop as a Spotlight School for its record of “effective teaching and learning.”
Valley Regional High School, serving ninth through 12th grade, is also in Deep River.
The Amtrak train from the neighboring town of Old Saybrook to Penn Station in Manhattan takes about two hours and 15 minutes. One-way fares start at $42.
Shore Line East trains run regularly from Old Saybrook and Westbrook to New Haven, where commuters can catch a Metro-North train to Grand Central. The ride takes two to three hours; a one-way ticket ranges from $24 to $30, depending on the time of travel and method of purchase, and a monthly pass is $573 to $589.
Driving the roughly 110 miles to Manhattan on Interstate 95 can take as long as three hours, depending on traffic.
During the War of 1812, Essex shipbuilders specialized in building privateers, privately owned warships used to prey upon British merchant ships. On the night of April 7, 1814, British troops attacked Essex and destroyed 27 of the ships, causing one of the greatest financial losses of the war. The event is commemorated annually with a Burning of the Ships Day, featuring a parade and re-enactments.
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