National Historic Landmark

James Dwight Dana House

James Dwight Dana House, 24 Hillhouse Avenue. Architect: Henry Austin, 1849.

James Dwight Dana House, 24 Hillhouse Avenue. Architect: Henry Austin, 1849.

When Hillhouse Avenue was first laid out Benjamin Silliman bought a house on the corner of Trumbull Street, and the odd lot next door, called The Triangle, the leftover piece made by the Farmington Canal as it crossed Hillhouse and Trumbull Streets. The Triangle was low marsh land lying along the canal bank and was presumed unbuildable. But soon after Sillman's daughter Henrietta married her father's young assistant, James Dwight Dana, and they began considering a place to live, the railroad bought the old canal and asked permission to deepen the cut and throw the fill up on Professor Silliman's odd lot.

He promptly sold the lot to the Danas, railroad workers pushed dirt up the bank until it was raised four feet, and in a little over a year, in 1849, the Danas moved into their new house. Their architect, Henry Austin, had been Ithiel Town's partner until his death four years before. His drawings for the house may still be seen in the Beinecke Library at Yale, and they show that in spite of wings added later to two sides, the house today retains much of its original character; that of a neat cube with plain walls, a nearly flat roof and symmetrical elements, relieved by the interesting ornament of its cornice and columns.

The drawings suggest that the original colors were more delicate than now. The contrast would probably have been less strong than the present dark chocolate trim against yellow walls. Perhaps the walls were ivory or faint pink, and the trim the color of limestone or of honey-colored marble.

The Dana house was not one of Austin's major designs. In fact, it was probably a stock plan, either his own or borrowed. Many houses much like this must once have existed. The English House on Wooster Square, New Haven, also by Austin, was almost identical, and a country version done in clapboards stands on Boston Street in Guilford.

The HABS report described the house as being composed of three juxtaposed rectangles. That report supplied much of the following descriptive information. The house is stuccoed brick with a wooden porch supported by wooden columns, and a low square cupola in the center of the main block. The overall dimensions are 60 feet wide by 58 feet deep, but the original main block was 30 feet square. The structure is two and one-half stories high, not including the basement which is above grade on the rear. The cellar wall is stone and brick, with a facing of dressed ashlar stone on the exterior of the original block.

The main entrance porch, on the east, has a wooden balustrade with a wide railing and ornamental turned and carved wooden columns. The porch is enclosed with wooden sheathing from deck to grade. There is also a basement porch under the library wing on the south, a wooden stoop on the north leading to the sidewalk, and a modern metal fire escape on the south exterior wall.

There are three rectangular brick chimneys on the main roof and one rectangular brick chimney on the west wing. The east entrance wooden door is set into the masonry wall without ornamental trim. However, two upper panels of the five-paneled door are glazed in decorative etched glass, and a pair of full length louvered shutters frame the doorway. On the west wall there are two round-headed windows, one with leaded glass.

The low-pitched hipped roof is covered with sheet metal painted red. The wide overhanging eaves are decorated with wooden soffit, the cornice is corbeled brick stuccoed with an applied band of wooden pendants shaped to form a trefoil void against the stucco. There is one dormer in the rear and two glazed skylights. A low square cupola is located in the center of the main block. Its flat roof is supported by eight heavy scrolls, two at each corner, and there are ten narrow arched windows on each wall of the cupola.

On the interior, the main entrance on Hillhouse Avenue has a deep vestibule and stair hall on the north side of two main rooms which are connected by a doorway. Double glazed doors lead from the rear room to the library on the west, which leads to another room on the north. There is a pantry between this room and the stair hall. The wing which was added on the north contains two rooms and a rear stairway.

In 1896 and in 1905 additions were made to the house. A library addition replaced the porch on the west side, and a wing was added to the north side which fronts on Trumbull Street. However, the flooring in the library, as well as the glass and ceiling work, indicate an early date for that addition, possibly as early as the house itself, thereby implying a change in the original plans.

The second floor has been adapted to office space and seminar rooms. The attic is reached by a closed stairway leading from the second floor hall. At the top of the attic stairs is an open well to the cupola. The attic over the main portion of the house has been adapted for modern use. The attic over the addition is unfinished so that the exterior of the original north wall of the house is visible, complete with-corbeled cornice. There are traces of ornamental wooden trim at the eaves and indications of an original attic window which was bricked in.

The floors of the main block of the house are one of the nicest features of the interior. Each room has a different pattern of light and dark woods with intricately designed borders. Other floors are oak or modern vinyl tile. Other decorative features include the double doors in the library with a transom light glazed with etched and ruby glass in a pattern of narrow and wide panes. There are silver door knobs and keyhole escutcheons and marble and tile fireplaces of various colors throughout the first floor rooms.

Except for the boarding up of some of the fireplaces and some minor changes made while adapting the building to office use (currently for the Statistics Department), the house is essentially the same as when the Dana family deeded the building and the land to Yale University in January 1962.  The Dana house has been treated quite sympathetically by the university and high-ceilinged, spacious rooms still are furnished with some older furniture and decorative pieces appropriate to the house. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

 

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