Oyster Point Historic District

An exceptionally cohesive, well-preserved urban residential neighborhood, the Oyster Point Historic District is historically significant for its maritime associations, specifically the oystering industry that flourished there between 1840 and 1925. The district contains representative examples of vernacular domestic architecture of exceptional quality and variety constructed by carpenter builders. Of particular importance are the oystermen’s houses, a distinctive 19th-century building type, and the many fine Queen Anne-style houses of the later 19th century. The district also contains the Boulevard Sewage Treatment Plant, which is notable as New Haven’s first facility of this type, and significant for the quality of its architecture.

The Oyster Point Historic District is roughly bounded by I-95, South Water Street, Howard Avenue, Sea Street, and Greenwich Avenue. The district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on August 10, 1989.

A microcosm of the oystering industry on Long Island Sound, Oyster Point flourished between 1840 and 1925. Oyster shacks once dotted the waterfront, to be replaced in the early 19th century by oystermen’s houses, each with its own waterlot and pier in front of the house. Oystering remained exclusively a cottage industry until the mid-19th century, when the industry became commercialized and regulated by a number of state statutes, and independent operations with capital were consolidated into major firms. Former independents became employees who continued to live and work at the waterfront, processing oysters in their own houses or in rental houses provided by the companies. By the end of the century, the typical separation of the workplace from the home began to take place, with the owners building larger residences in desirable locations away from the waterfront. Oystering declined in the 20th century. With increasing pollution in the harbor from untreated industrial and domestic sewage, commercial cultivation was substantially over at Oyster Point by 1925. Although oystering continued from Fair Haven through the 1940s, the few remaining productive oysterbeds on the west side of the harbor harvested by Oyster Point men were extensively damaged by the hurricane of 1938, effectively ending the industry in the district.

Three of the independent oyster dealers at Oyster Point were largely responsible for the residential development there in the 19th century. Eber Kelsey, Alexander Foote and Fredrick Lane owned the triangle between South Water Street, the newly laid out Sea Street, and Howard Avenue and developed it for oystermen and their families. Kelsey’s fine Greek Revival house was already in place at 19 Howard Avenue (c. 1840), as were many of the high-basement cottages on the waterfront. Alexander Foote, Keley’s next-door neighbor, probably built his house soon after the informal development partnership began. It is not known if Lane lived in the district.

Richard W. Law was a prominent oysterman of the mid-18th century. His first house in the district is one of the best preserved of the Greek Revival-style oystermen’s houses on South Water Street. Near the end of his career as an oystermen, Law, or a son of the same, built an exceptional Georgian Revival house at 66 Howard Avenue (1915). Jeremiah Smith and Sons, which later became the Smith Brothers Company, was another firm established at this time. In addition to two extant dockside commercial buildings associated with this company later in the century, the Smith family was responsible for at least eight other houses in the district. The prosperity of the firm is demonstrated by the exceptional examples of the Queen Anne built at the entrance to Bayview Park (96 Howard Avenue, c.1890), and an Italianate built by E.H. Smith (76-78 Howard Avenue, c. 1865). Jeremiah and Willis also owned earlier houses on the waterfront, which they may have rented to employees of the firm.

More modest homes were built on side streets for or by employees of the oyster industry and related maritime occupations, especially in the area between South Water and Sea Streets. Bennett Robinson built his high-basement oystermen’s house at 33 South Water Street in 1860. Magnus Manson, described as a shipbuilder or shipmaster, built his house at 57 South Water in the 1860s, and divided the adjoining lot to the west to build two high-basement cottages with Queen Anne porches on speculation. Oyster dealers Howland and Asahel Curtis built Italianate-style houses at 54 and 60 Sea Street, respectively (c. 1875).

With the building of the railroad yards on Lamberton Street just a few blocks north of the neighborhood, a number of railroad workers began making their homes in the district. A streetcar line on Howard Avenue was in place by the late 1860s, making the district more accessible to the downtown. Because of the demand for housing, multi-family residences began to be built in the district to maximize the small building lots. A number of two-family houses were built on the side streets and even on fashionable Howard Avenue at this time.

Finally, the building of Bayview Park on the last open land in the district made Oyster Point an even more desirable residential area. Although small in size, this park with its artificial pond and harbor drive was popular with New Haven residents. It was design by Donald Grant Mitchell, a nationally known New Haven-based landscape designer. The impact of the park on residential development in the district was predictable. Houselots near the park were first developed for the wealthy owners of the oyster firms, but newcomers to the district soon followed, many of whom commuted by streetcar to work in New Haven’s industries.

By World War I, the influence of the automobile became evident as residents began to build small garages behind their houses. Because of the common perception at the time that automobiles were a fire hazard, these garages were often built of rusticated cement block and placed at the very rear of the lot.

Despite the encroachment of modern development on the waterfront and the construction of Interstate 95, the Oyster Point Historic District has retained its historic architectural integrity. In fact, the highway construction which isolated the district from the rest of the city, helped to produce an undisturbed and cohesive residential enclave, which has a readily identifiable historic character. The streetscape appears today much as it did at the turn of the 20th century. Modern infill is virtually nonexistent. The distinguishing characteristics of this historic neighborhood—the small deep lots, uniform setbacks and the use of similar plan and form for the houses—have all been retained. All but one of the houses contributes to the historic character of one district. Although some of the homes have been sheathed with modern siding, a remarkable number have retained their original siding and distinctive architectural detail. Of particular note is the waterfront streetscape of South Water Street, which contains the oldest houses in the district and vividly recalls the maritime associations of the neighborhood.

Of particular architectural significances are the high-basement oystermen’s houses, which were constructed between 1840 and 1880. Although some of these valuable historic artifacts from the early oystering industry have lost their architectural detail, all of them have retained their original definitive form. Of particular interest are the later Queen Anne versions of this type. The adaptation of the high-basement form to the more fashionable Queen Anne style indicated that the original function of these buildings remained important to the industry. In addition to the convenience of the waterfront location, the cool darkness of the windowless basement rooms helped preserve the oysters until they could be processed and shipped in wooden kegs.

The district also contains a significant body of domestic architectural. The quantity and diversity of these houses is one of the most outstanding features of the district. Among the number of distinguished examples are the several houses built by the Smith family on Howard Avenue. Because of their excellent state of preservation, the wealth of applied architectural detail lavished on these houses can still be appreciated. The premier examples include the Willis Smith House, a handsome Stick-style house that has retained its decorative trusswork, open porch and iron cresting (44 Sea Street, c. 1890). The towered William H. Smith House is also well preserved and features a classic pediment wrap-around porch (95 Howard Avenue, 1901). Among the Queen Anne/Colonial Revival-style houses in the district, the double house at 79-81 Howard Avenue (c. 1900) is one of the most detailed and best-preserved. Its distinguishing characteristics, the Palladian window in the overhanging gables, the exposed rafter ends and the Colonial Revival open porch, set the tone for the many more modest but well-preserved examples of this hybrid style in the district.

The Boulevard Sewage Treatment Plant

Although important as the first sewage treatment plant in New Haven, the Boulevard Sewage Treatment Plant at 5 Sea Street is primarily significant for its level of architectural style (1939, additions: 1957, 1958). Working within the requirements imposed by the treatment process selected by the sanitary engineers, the New Haven Engineering Department produced an exceptionally stylish group of buildings. The main building set the pattern for the architectural design of the complex, one that works equally well for the curved wall surfaces of the tanks. A fine example of Art Deco, it combines a boldly conceived design of horizontal and vertical elements with a more subtle interplay of scale and pattern. The heavy cast concrete designed features are played off against the more delicate geometry of the brickwork. The concrete chevrons, elements which accentuate the verticality of the classically inspired projecting pavilion, evolve into a stylized bird form over the entrance and add emphasis to the strong horizontal of the concrete belt course at the first-story lintel.

The historical significance of the plant is limited. Many coastal cities had begun treating raw sewage much earlier than New Haven, some as early as the 19th century. Although the three key structures remain to illustrate the type of sewage treatment process, the “activated sludge” process used there was typical for the period. The Sludge Digester Tank (1939) was the key to this process. Mixing sewage with compressed air, essentially a biological process that replaced the earlier chemical treatment about 1930, oxidized organic matter. A portion of the so-called activated sludge is returned to the digester tank to keep the process going and the remainder of the treated sludge is dewatered and removed for disposal.