Elm Street Historic District photo gallery

The Elm Street Historic District illustrates the development of the area adjacent to the New Haven Green. The buildings in the district show the evolution of the area from one that was largely residential, to one which served as part of the religious, political and financial center of New Haven. The architectural significance of its buildings embody the distinguishing characteristics of 18th-century Federal and Greek Revival domestic architecture; late 19th-century institutional architecture; and the Neo-Classical, Colonial Revival, Neo-Gothic and modernistic styles of the early 20th century. The buildings represent the work of architects who achieved both local and national prominence, including Ithiel Town, Henry Austin, Cass Gilbert, Grosvenor Atterbury and Douglas Orr. The Elm Street Historic District is roughly bounded by Elm, College, Wall and Church Streets. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 4, 1986.

When New Haven was first settled in 1637, the town was divided into nine squares, the center of which was reserved for public use and eventually became the New Haven Green. In the 18th century, the city’s activities centered more on the mercantile waterfront, which was located some distance from the center square. Although there were some houses along the bordering streets, the center square itself was undeveloped.

In the early 19th century, the center square began to take on a more formal aspect. It was fenced off, graded and planted as a park. Three of the city’s leading churches built new stylish meetinghouses on the Green; a fourth, the Methodist church, was compelled to accept a site facing the Green on Elm Street, where in 1849 they built the present church. A new State Capital building in the form of a Greek temple (demolished in the late 19th century) was erected on the upper Green, and in 1861 the Henry Austin-designed Gothic Revival City Hall was erected on Church Street facing the Green. Because of the park-like character of the Green and the proximity of important government buildings, the adjacent streets became prestigious residential addresses. Several elaborate houses were built here as the homes of leading New Haven citizens, including those of spring manufacturer Jonathan Mix, merchant E.H. Trowbridge and lawyer Ralph Ingersoll. The city’s pattern of one and two-family residences was supplemented by row housing in core areas to shelter a growing population.

By the early 20th century, the city had grown to the point that its public and institutional facilities were inadequate. At the same time, civic pride and the impulse toward progressive reform prompted a comprehensive planning effort that brought together public and private interests in a program to beautify the city. Among the new public buildings associated with this effort were the 1908 New Haven Free Public Library at 133 Elm Street, and the 1914 New Haven County Courthouse at 121 Elm Street. These were large, monumental structures, which were regarded as signs of New Haven’s vitality and progressiveness. Nearly all the city’s banks built new and larger headquarters in the first two decades of the 20th century, and the district includes three of the most stylish.

No account of the growth of New Haven can omit mention of Yale University, the expansion of which affected all of the area around the Green. Located principally to the west and north, Yale spread over into the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, building Hendrie Hall as its Law School in 1895. In 1930, the University built its Health Building at 435 College Street, employing the stone Neo-Gothic style which was carried out with unprecedented single-mindedness throughout the Yale campus. Although the historic district was not delineated to include Yale’s buildings or in any way document the growth of Yale, the presence of the university reflects one aspect of the city’s historical development.

Several homes in the Elm Street Historic District have significance as examples of 18th- and early 19th-century domestic architecture. The earliest houses have the five-bay, gable-roofed form and clapboard exteriors, the key characteristics of the architecture of the period. The 1767 John Pierpont House (149 Elm Street) is especially notable, for it has escaped the Colonial Revival additions applied to the others, and it retains its central chimney and some interior paneling. Its doorway is a rare example of the early Georgian classicism found in colonial houses. This house was restored in the early 20th century by J. Frederick Kelly, the period’s leading scholar on Connecticut’s 18th century architecture. Thus, while all the material evident in this house appears correct, much of it may represent details that Kelly added in his restoration.

The Federal period is well represented by the Leverett Griswold House at 459 College Street (c. 1815). In addition to the temple-like orientation of the house, the Federal aesthetic of elegant, freely interpreted ornament is embodied in the house’s portico, Palladian window and cornice elaboration. The John A. Lynde House at 328 Temple Street (1806) may have been similar before having its entrance re-located and fitted with a portico by J. Frederick Kelly in the early 20th century. Only a small number of Federal houses remain standing in downtown New Haven, and these houses are among the best preserved.

Greek Revival architecture is represented by an early work of a nationally influential practitioner of the style, Ithiel Town, who with his partner A.J. Davis did extensive work both in New Haven and New York City. The 1829 Ralph Ingersoll House at 143 Elm Street typifies, in its large-scale entry surround and cornice detailing, the bolder proportions of the Greek Revival, replacing the more delicate and eclectic detailing found in the Federal period. Town was influential in promoting the Greek Revival style through the designs of his many famous buildings; through his extensive architecture library; through his founding of the National Academy of Design; and through his training of other architects, including Henry Austin, New Haven’s leading architect of the mid- 19th century.

The Ezekiel Hayes Trowbridge House (311 Temple Street, 1852) ranks among the finest Italian Villas in the New Haven, notable not only for the characteristic flat roof, boxy form, arched windows and bracketed eaves, but also for the extraordinary detailing in the entrance portico and window. The architect, Sidney Mason Stone, shared with Henry Austin pre-eminence among mid-19th century builders, and together their finely detailed examples promoted the Italian Villa style throughout New Haven and environs.

The governmental, financial, educational and religious buildings which make up the majority of the district’s structures are all notable examples of the stylish, monumental architecture typical of institutional buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although several styles can be demarcated — Second Renaissance Revival, Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical — all share the large proportions, expensive materials, classical details and other elaborate ornament that characterized the period. So high-style are these buildings, so encrusted with columns, details and entablatures, that the stylistic intent in some cases appears to be a mixture of the Neo-Classical and Georgian (for example, the Charles Scranton Building at 209 Church Street, built in 1928). These buildings have additional significance because they represent large and important works by noted New Haven and New York City architects and illustrate what was considered the best and most elaborate designs available.

The earliest institutional buildings in the district have a Renaissance flavor. Hendrie Hall, at 165 Elm Street, was apparently intended to be part of a row of large structures, though it alone was built (1895-1900). With its rusticated ground floor, reduced-height third story, prominent cornice and arched detailing, it is a good representative of its type. The 1897 York Hall (96 Wall Street), with its exceptional detailing, recalls the architecture of Venice. The degree of elaboration was no doubt intended to make an architectural statement on behalf of its first owners, the Chi Phi society of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. The architect for York Hall was Grosvenor Atterbury, a prominent New York architect with an extensive practice among the elite of the city. Among his other works are the New Haven Country Club in Hamden (designed before 1900), several large Prospect Street mansions in New Haven, and New York’s Russell Sage Foundation. His greatest monument is New York’s Forest Hills Gardens (started 1913), one of the country’s earliest and most beautiful planned garden suburbs.

The Colonial Revival movement substantially influenced this section of New Haven. Cass Gilbert and Frederick L. Olmsted Jr., who prepared the plan for the city in 1910, stressed the colonial character of the Green, especially its old churches. Thus, it is not surprising that the district’s early 20th century structures were built to emulate colonial architecture. The Colonial Revival was thought appropriate to institutional buildings because it carried with it connotations of tradition, patriotism and serious purpose. Cass Gilbert’s New Haven Free Public Library (1908) must be considered a model of what the civic improvement movement had in mind: it combines allusions to New Haven’s older architecture (red-brick, round-arched windows, balustrades) with monumental columns and a formal setting created by its setback and flights of broad steps. The colonial motif was reinforced by the Theta Xi fraternity building of the Sheffield Scientific School when it built Franklin Hall at 451 College in 1911. At that time there were no Colonial Revival buildings on the Yale campus, it was apparently intended to relate to other nearby structures such the Public Library and the churches on the Green. Even in the 1920s the high style, Georgian mode of the Colonial Revival had a major influence on downtown, with the erection of three major new bank buildings.

The buildings that were restored or re-colonialized during the period illustrate another facet of the Colonial Revival Style. The First United Methodist Church was designed by Henry Austin in 1849. In 1905, the congregation undertook to make it similar the existing Federal period churches on the Green. The architect for the recreation was Charles C. Haight of New York. When a parish house was added to the rear, it too reinforced the increasingly Colonial character of the area. A similar transformation occurred when the United Church altered what had originally been built as a residence into a Colonial Revival style chapel (302 Temple Street). The Federal style porches and the Palladian window on the houses on Elm Street are also believed to be Colonial Revival additions, using authentic building elements.

Although the Colonial Revival buildings set the tone for the district, the area’s Neo-Classical structures do not seem out of place, for they are derived from a similar quest for monumentality, tradition and solemnity. The New Haven County Courthouse at 121 Elm Street (1909) embodies the simple, solid, classical form, which is at the heart of the Neo-Classical movement.

The 1937 Southern Connecticut Telephone Building, at 227 Church Street, is New Haven’s best example of modernistic architecture. Notable for its skyscraper construction, the building embodies the style’s distinctive characteristics in its highly stylized geometric, classical and allegorical ornament. Moreover, its materials — smooth masonry exterior and bright metal interior surfaces — are typical of the1930s “futuristic” style. The style is closely associated with utility buildings, partly because only utilities (and government) could afford massive new construction in the 1930s, and partly because of the iconographic potential of the style. The building was a collaboration between R.W. Foote and Douglas Orr, two locally prominent architects. Orr, the younger man at the time, went on to national prominence as the designer of renovations to the White House and president of the American Institute of Architects.