2015 New Haven Preservation Trust Awards

Buildings manifest a time and place. Three projects in New Haven are being renovated with a level of care and intelligence that rises to the level of restoration. Beyond style and appearance, history is found in the way historic structures were conceived and crafted. Restorations of the materials, techniques and methods used to build make history present again in the here and now.

A home, a parish hall and a private library do not have common purpose, but in restoration they have a common message: history is well served when it is taken seriously in the renewal of our threatened buildings. Rather than simulate the techniques and effects of 19th-century construction technology these heroic and ongoing efforts often retain their original craft and materials originally implemented in their building.

Taking advantage of technology where it is invisible, the net effect is the salvation of not only the building, but its era’s means and methods of construction. When these buildings were renovated, it took the extreme commitment of their owners to recapture their original craftsmanship and detailing rather than “paper over” history. The New Haven Preservation Trust is privileged to recognize the restoration of three unique parts of our city’s heritage.

New Haven is filled with intact but unrestored vintage homes of enchanting provenance. The Moritz Spier House is one of three houses built next to each other in the mid-1890s designed by architects Brown & Von Beren. This house was purchased in 2005 by Rob and Gina Narracci, two architects who work in the office of Cesar Pelli. Ten years after purchase a meticulous restoration has completely revived the home’s exquisite Georgian Revival exterior – executed as the interior has had many projects reach completion, with many more to come. Personal dedication by devoted homeowners with professional and hands-on expertise has made new what was once threatened by time and neglect.

Center Church on the Green’s Parish Hall, has had its exterior lovingly and gloriously restored to splendor. What began as a daunting, yet vital project to replace their parish hall roof, evolved into the revitalization of an irreplaceable New Haven landmark by a devoted congregation. For a little over 100 years, Center Church on the Green has continued to staff their offices in the original Trowbridge residence and host the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in the basement of the Parish Hall. Yet while the practice has continued from the first day of dedication, the state of the parish hall had slowly been in decline. As with many other 19th-century structures, windows no longer held a sufficient amount of heat, historical elements were replaced for newer versions, and general upgrades were needed. In fact, it was the replacement of the roof that acted as a catalyst for the structure’s sensitive overhaul.

New Haven’s Institute Library, standing quietly at 847 Chapel Street, is a hidden architectural and cultural gem, unusually well-preserved for a building in downtown New Haven in that it is not affiliated with any university, municipal or ecclesiastical institution. Designed by Rufus G. Russell, a student of Henry Austin, this beautiful Victorian building has been continuously occupied by the Library since being built in 1878, and has kept its character through the many economic and cultural changes of the last 140 years. The library’s recent and current executive directors, Will Baker and Natalie Elicker, recognizing the importance of the space, have engaged the members in a unique program of conservation, keeping the feel, function and detail of the space, while updating the infrastructure of the building to meet the needs of a 21st century Library.

THE AWARD WINNERS ARE

NHPT HOUSE PRESERVATION AWARD

“For houses as outstanding representatives of their period. They exhibit much of their original character and condition by virtue of continued appropriate maintenance or sensitive rehabilitation.”

A Home in the City: The Restoration of the Moritz Spier House. (The Moritz Spier House, 678 Orange Street)

Owners and Restoration Architects: Gina and Robert Naracci
Architect: Brown & Von Beren
Date Built: 1895
Exterior Restoration: 2014
Interior Renovation: Ongoing

Two architects, Gina and Rob Narracci lived in the East Rock neighborhood for a decade. Eventually they lived a few houses away from the Moritz Spier House when it came onto the market in 2005. Although the Colonial influenced late Georgian Revival house sat triumphantly on the corner of Orange and Lawrence Streets and was on the National Historic Register, it lingered on the market for some time.

Its interior was largely intact spite the fact that it has served as a de facto frat house for student athletes. The home’s elegant open first floor prevented a quick sale to a developer interested in houses already chopped up into apartments that net the maximum return on investment. Another reason the home sat unpurchased was due to the local residential community of neighbors who actively resisted any change of use from its status as a single family home. This civic resolve manifested itself when an investor unsuccessfully to convert the house into a dentist office and pave over the back yard.

But the bottom line on why the home sat unpurchased for years despite its elegant presence and generous size was its condition. While largely intact, the roof, siding, windows, interior systems and surfaces had been neglected to the point that potential buyers could buy a newer home with the money the sellers were asking for.

Notes Rob Narracci “When the asking price declined to within a cost Gina and I could contemplate, we called Betsy Grauer and asked to do a walk through.”

Rob and Gina discovered that even though the interior had also been neglected, the original plaster was relatively intact and the extraordinary woodwork had been spared from being painted.

Neglect is de facto preservation if the alternative is a gutting rehab or a thoughtless resurfacing. But given the extent and time since the home’s last renewal, this courageous couple knew they had a decade of devotion to apply upon the beautiful, but unloved home.

The chimney and roof needed attention first. The roof had three layers of severely degraded asphalt shingles over the salvageable original slate. The extreme cost of a new slate roof was avoided, but the bedrock respect for the essential characteristics of the homes craftsmanship lead to a synthetic slate that had a 50 year warranty. Given the cost of the new roof and copper flashing the Narraccis opted to apply for Connecticut Historic Homes Rehabilitation Tax Credit that reduced their cost by approximately 20%.

The resourcefulness and care taken to make their roof watertight over two years was reflected in the next eight years of thoughtful exterior restoration. Great pains were made to research historic house colors, and to determine what the original character and colors of the home. Next, reproduction column capitals were custom crafted to achieve the correct proportion, and they did significant storm window research to try and recapture the spirit for the original design. The storm window design became pivotal detail that forced Rob to construct all 40 of them himself, taking three hundred man-hours to make authentically detailed and perfectly fit custom units.

The entire exterior restoration was led by Oscar Matamoros who worked directly with the owner. Using extreme care, he and his crew tirelessly removed decades’ worth of lead paint, repaired rotten woodwork, and rehung and tightened up windows – all to EPA regulations. Once again the couple took advantage of Connecticut’s historic rehabilitation tax credit program to provide enough assistance to do a completely authentic restoration.

Many interior projects will fill the next decades occupancy of the home, but the luster and legitimacy of a full on restoration have rewards that go beyond one particular home. “It is a privilege to be the caretakers of this place while we are here, and we encourage New Haveners to be proud of their city and neighborhoods and to show pride by investing in the care of their houses,” says Rob Narracci.

NHPT MERIT PLAQUE

“For historic buildings that have been authentically restored, or sensitively rehabilitated for adaptive use.”

Preserving an Historic Place of Service: Renewing Center Church’s Parish Hall. (Center Church Parish Hall, 311 Temple Street)

Owners: First Church of Christ/Center-Church-on-the-Green
Exterior Preservation: 2014 (exterior ongoing)
Architects: Gregg Wies & Gardner Architects, LLC

As a West Indian shipping merchant and local banker, it was only logical that the successful Ezekiel Hayes Trowbridge would commission one of the region’s most eminent architects – Sidney Mason Stone – to design his home in the most fashionable area of town. Less than a block from New Haven’s central green, the Trowbridge residence would be a short walk from the family’s place of worship, the First Church of Christ (Center Church), as well as other municipal buildings. When the Trowbridge house was completed in 1852, it was seen as a unique structure in the fabric of New Haven. With an obvious embrace of the emerging Italianate style, the residence was a luxurious stranger amongst its Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival neighbors. An elaborately carved porch, jutting brownstone hood moldings, and a façade made entirely of brick marked a departure from the more restrained older styles, and signaled the beginning of the Renaissance Revival’s hold on New Haven.

The Trowbridge family would inhabit the house more than forty years, until Ezekiel passed away in 1893 and his wife moved out in 1909. In that year, the residence was sold to the Center Church congregation to be used permanently as a parish hall and soup kitchen. Around the same time, a colonial-revival addition – known as Pratt Hall – was erected behind the former residence. A near-replica of the Center Church’s Meeting House, this space was meant to accommodate the expansion of worship services and outreach. The church’s parish hall was dedicated in 1912.

For a little over 100 years, Center-Church-on-the-Green has continued to staff their offices in the original Trowbridge residence and host the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in the basement of Pratt Hall. Yet while the practice has continued as it had from the first day of dedication, the state of the parish hall has slowly been in decline. Like many other 19th-century structures, windows no longer held a sufficient amount of heat, historical glazing was replaced for greater efficiency, and general upgrades were needed. In fact, it was the replacement of the roof that acted as a catalyst for the structure’s sensitive overhaul.

In late 2013, the decision was made to replace the slate roof above Pratt Hall and the Trowbridge House. As F. J. Dahill Company began to restore the roof, an urgent structural issue became known: the support beams required replacement. This discovery lead to a top-down, systematic rehabilitation of the entire structure. Over the course of 2014, Gregg Wies & Gardner Architects would lead an interior and exterior renovation with the construction management firm Leland Torrence Enterprises, which not only brought both structures to their former glory, but also ushered each into the 21st century.

As the project commenced in 2014, congregants and the public alike began to notice major changes. Outside, the brick and brownstone were restored and signs were replaced. Each of the historic windows was restored rather than replaced, solving the perennial issue of escaping heat. Careful attention was paid to the woodwork – especially that of the front portico. In some places more than 20 layers of paint were removed from the columns, revealing the elegant and graceful forms once seen vividly by passersby. After cleaning, the exterior woodwork was painted a historic white. Construction crews were also able to salvage about two-thirds of the original slate on the roof, in addition to replacing all flashings, gutters, and downspouts.

The remarkable care shown to the exterior of the parish house also manifested through the interior of the space. Non-historic fixtures were removed, and original elements – such as lighting – were meticulously polished and returned to their former vibrancy. Utilities were upgraded and central air conditioning was added to the whole.

Perhaps the greatest interior transformation can be seen within the space of Pratt Hall. The basement-level, where nightly soup kitchens are held (and continued to be held, despite the ongoing construction), experienced a complete restoration. Heavily-used bathrooms were upgraded, the bright blue wall paint was replaced for a more historically-accurate color, and accessibility enhancements were installed. The congregation also elected more state-of-the-art technological improvements, such as acoustic treatments, audiovisual, and new video security systems.

Future plans for Pratt Hall included an interior stair-lift and wheelchair ramp replacement. The grounds too will be landscaped: an outdoor rear second courtyard will be created for special events, and boxwood hedges will be planted out front. New Haven residents will have much to look forward to over the course of 2015, and also much to relish as it is lovingly restored as one of New Haven’s finest treasures.

NHPT LANDMARK PLAQUE FOR EXTRAORDINARY DEVOTION TO PRESERVATION

“For buildings or sites of outstanding and enduring architectural and historical significance.”

Commitment to Continuum as a Portal to the Past: Reviving a building and an institution. (The Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street)

Owner: Institute Library
Architect: Rufus G. Russell
Complete Restoration, ongoing

New Haven’s Institute Library, standing quietly at 847 Chapel Street as it has for nearly 140 years, is unusual in a city known for beautifully preserved university, ecclesiastical and municipal buildings, because it was built and funded by an organization of eight working tradesmen who met one night in 1826, and dedicated to “the mutual assistance in attainment of useful knowledge.” The library’s building, designed by Rufus G. Russell, a student of Henry Austin, this beautiful Victorian building has been continuously occupied by the Library since being built in 1878, and has kept its character through the many economic and cultural changes. At times, the Library has been at the forefront of intellectual and civil discourse, at others, it has receded from the public eye. In recent years the library was in a receding period, until a recent surge in membership and leadership has helped propel it back on a path of re-engagement with the New Haven community and renewed care for its historic building.

Sometimes, everything begins with a single phone call. One afternoon in 2012, Will Baker, the newly minted executive director of the Institute Library, called a local architect friend who worked nearby with a note of urgency in his voice. The third floor windows that faced out onto Chapel Street had become so loose that Will was worried that the glass might fall out and hurt someone on the street below. The third floor, which had combined a smoking lounge with a children’s area in the 1950s, was now completely out of use, occupied only by refuse and half-empty metal shelves with disorganized, forgotten books of dubious value. Looking at the dingy, cramped space, Will wondered whether it would be possible to turn this area into a flexible event space.

Several months later, volunteers were removing an awkward partition wall, cleaning and patching the original lath and plaster ceilings, and restoring the lower sashes of those dangerous windows. Floors were scrubbed, moldings were repaired, electrical power outlets were activated, and modern gallery lighting was sensitively installed alongside the original milk-glass globes that had lit the space for over a century. Will and Stephen Kobasa, well-known local art curators, set up a series of sought-after guest curator gallery exhibits in the space.

More of the third floor was restored through the efforts of Library member and conservator Michael Klem. Michael immediately understood the Library’s mission, its origin in the craft trades, and how important the building and its contents were. Over a period of several years, doors were re-fit, hardware cleaned, patched, and even re-cast or refabricated by hand when necessary. Transoms that had not operated in 50 years now opened gracefully, and original Sheffield glass lamp shades were restored to everyday use. The library moved the director’s office to the third floor, added spaces for the use of community groups, and added cabinets and work surfaces for conserving library material.

Windows had seals replaced, weights re-hung, hardware repaired. Brass pressure gauges for the ancient steam radiators were repaired and reinstalled, operable skylight motors were repaired, even the original brass thumb-pegs that held the library’s many bookshelves were cleaned, holes refinished. A swinging door to the office area was restored, including its spring-activated closer, a third floor bathroom was restored to functional use.

This steady conservation continues even now. Additional efforts led by current Executive Director Natalie Elicker will be addressing how to improve the energy efficiency, accessibility, and deferred maintenance issues the library is facing, as well as identifying grant and donor sources to support the project. But all this work is not intended to create a static museum of a building. Instead, the intention and effect is to create Library as Place of Activity, rather than Library as Repository of information and this requires an ongoing reverence for the many layers of history still embodied by the Library, its collections and patrons. Moreover, the approach to this conservation, a ground-up, craftsmanship-based, largely volunteer effort are completely consistent with the spirit and history of this unusual gem of an institution.

- written by Duo Dickinson with the NHPT Preservation Awards sub-committee