Preservation in New Haven

In 1961, a small group of New Haven citizens banded together to save a 113-year-old house from destruction. The residence had been designed by Henry Austin, one of New Haven’s most famous architects, and built in 1849 as the home of Yale’s pioneering geologist James Dwight Dana. Now, upon the death of Dana’s daughter, Maria, the property was to be sold, and it was discovered that Yale University intended to buy it and replace the house with a new mathematics building. Within months the New Haven Preservation Trust was incorporated, and the Directors took their first action, notifying the executors of the estate that they intended to bid on the Dana house, and would raise whatever funds were needed to secure it. Their offer produced results: the Treasurer of Yale soon contacted the Trust to propose an agreement: the University would preserve the building, if the Trust would not challenge Yale for the purchase. The James Dwight Dana House, today the home of Yale’s Department of Statistics, was designated a National Historic Landmark the following year, and the New Haven Preservation Trust’s first mission was a success.

The Trust was formed at the peak of an era of massive redevelopment in New Haven, which had begun in the mid-1950s in parallel with a nationwide turn towards urban renewal after World War II. At that time, the consensus was that aging structures were a symptom of blight and that they should be cleared out and replaced with new, modern buildings to restore a city’s health. The founders of the New Haven Preservation Trust were among a small but energetic minority arguing the value of historic buildings that linked their city’s present to its past.

The first decade of the Trust’s existence, dubbed the “Ten Years’ War” by founder Peggy Flint, saw the members struggling against the tide of renewal. They began by awarding Landmark plaques to historic buildings in order to draw the public’s attention to their significance, and sometimes to rally the community to stand against their destruction. The Trust’s early successes included saving major New Haven landmarks—including the façade and part of the bell tower of City Hall, and the Federal Courthouse—from imminent destruction.

The Trust was concerned not only for individual landmarks, however, but also for the character of New Haven communities. From the very beginning, one of its missions was to educate the public about the city’s historic districts, and to motivate residents to become invested in preserving their neighborhoods. In the 1960s, members of the Trust conducted research on Wooster Square, which still retained many of its houses built for wealthy industrialists during the mid-1800s. This project culminated in the Trust publishing a pair of books on Wooster Square, and in the neighborhood’s residents voting to make it New Haven’s first local historic district in 1970. This was an important step: it meant a Historic District Commission needed to be set up by the City. Since that time, with the Trust’s help, two more local historic districts have been established in New Haven: Quinnipiac River Historic District in 1977, and City Point Historic District in 2001.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Trust had become an accepted authority, and the city government, Yale, and individual property owners were seeking the Trust’s advice and assistance in matters of planning and rehabilitation. A national turn towards appreciating vernacular architecture and a 1981 Federal act that gave tax credits for the rehabilitation of commercial structures older than 30 years, and of any structure listed on the National Register, helped make preservation a popular choice for homeowners, business owners and developers alike. It was at this time that the Trust took on its most ambitious project, a survey of 4,600 New Haven buildings, with information on their style and date, and suggestions for rehabilitation. The Historic Resources Inventory survey was completed in 1984 and was used by the City to plan the development of neighborhoods, and by the Trust to help property owners prepare National Registry applications. This was a golden age for the preservation movement: the number of National Register Historic Districts in New Haven jumped from three to 18 by the end of the 1980s, and major development projects, such as the rehabilitation of storefronts along Chapel Street by a local realtor, helped revitalize the downtown. It was also a golden age for the Trust itself: until 1980, the Trust had been run entirely by volunteers, but now it could afford to employ a six-person staff.

The Trust used this time of prosperity to produce educational programs and participate in city planning for low-income neighborhoods, and to provide grants to homeowners. Preservation, often accused of being a prerogative of the wealthy and elite, had instead become an issue of quality of life and of cultural heritage. In the mid-1980s, the Trust produced a series of educational videos for high schools on buildings associated with the history of African-Americans in New Haven. It also began the New Haven Heritage Workshops, which included walking tours and lectures for the residents of neighborhoods including Fair Haven, Dwight and Westville.

Times continued to change, however, and by the end of the 1980s the nationwide passion for preservation had begun to die down. In New Haven, projects like the Ninth Square rehabilitation ran on much longer than expected, and faced difficulties with uncooperative property owners and setbacks in funding. The Trust persevered, however, speaking out against the trend of “demolition by neglect”, and identifying endangered buildings and neighborhoods. Some great successes of the 90s were tempered by painful losses: for example, while the Ninth Square project was finally completed in 1995, the nearby Phoenix Building, designed by Henry Austin, could not be saved from demolition.

This past decade saw the fruits of some of the Trust’s long-running labors. In 2002, the John M. Davies mansion’s renovation was completed in accordance with the landmark 1998 agreement between Yale and the Trust, signed nearly 30 years after the Trust had begun lobbying Yale to preserve the building. 2004 saw the publication of the Trust’s book on New Haven’s industrial heritage, “Carriages and Clocks, Corsets and Locks”, a major education project completed after a decade of research and work. The Trust also continued to involve itself in projects like the City’s School Construction Program, to advocate plans that retained existing buildings. With help from the Trust, four historic districts were added to the State Register, and a new local district, City Point, was established in 2001.

Today, 50 years after the James Dwight Dana House was saved, the New Haven Preservation Trust has not run out of work. New Haven is a living, changing city, but its distinction lies in its wealth of history. As the Trust enters its next 50 years, its members will continue to be an active force, defending and promoting the valuable architectural heritage that defines our community.