National Register Historic District
Prospect Hill was developed between 1880 and 1930 as an upper-income residential neighborhood, representing the taste and ideals of many of New Haven’s most prominent citizens. The Prospect Hill Historic District is roughly bounded by Edwards, Prospect, and Cliff Streets, and Whitney Avenue. The district was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 2, 1979.
The comparative size of the district (its 185 acres represent about 1-1.4% of the total land area of the city) and its location in one of New Haven’s most attractive geographical areas have contributed to its development. The area has remained much the same since its period of peak development, as an elegant residential neighborhood inhabited largely by families whose social and economic status parallels that of the original inhabitants. The schools, colleges and social institutions that entered or expanded in the district since its development have, as a rule, respected its historic residential character. As a result, drastic alterations to the exteriors of the buildings have been generally discouraged, and even the overall landscaping and environmental qualities of the streetscape have been preserved. The major exception is the post-World War II apartments along Prospect Street between Canner and Highland – which are excluded from the present district boundaries.
In the late 18th century, Prospect Hill was purchased by James Hillhouse as part of his extensive real estate speculations in the northern corridor of New Haven (between Prospect and Orange Streets). At this time the area was undeveloped, but Hillhouse encouraged its future as a residential neighborhood by laying out Temple Street (now Hillhouse Avenue) on the southern slope of the hill south of the present district. The northern area, from Edwards Street to the Hamden town line, remained rural until the 1850s when a New York merchant, Charles Elliott, bought land on the west side of Prospect Street (from Highland to Division Streets) where he planned to build a healthful, landscaped residential community called Highland Park. Elliott’s own house, completed in 1859 (later demolished), was the only house build before the project failed. By the 1870s, a number of large and commanding estates and a few smaller houses dotted the hill. Prospect Street, between Edwards and Canner, became a particularly fashionable area and the site of several major estates. Only the Davies, Townshend, Morris and Marsh houses (at 393, 210, 230 and 360 Prospect Street, respectively) remain from this era.
Another important occupant of the district in the 1870s was the St. Francis Roman Catholic Orphanage (c. 1870, later demolished), a grandiose Second Empire building occupying grounds stretching from Prospect Street to Whitney Avenue just north of Highland Street. Edgehill Road, which was not cut through the estate until 1900, still retains the gateposts and stone wall of the orphanage. North of the orphanage, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station erected its first two buildings in the late 19th century (previous buildings on the site, adapted from a former residential estate, are now demolished). Other streets in the district were laid out around the turn of the 20th century. Autumn Street, originally a carriageway accessing St. Ronan Street and Whitney Avenue houses, was laid out by the 1890s and developed as a residential street between 1912 and 1930. Loomis Place, another short street on the opposite side of St. Ronan Street, was laid out in 1914, and quickly became a focus for fine brick Colonial Revival houses. The northern part of Prospect Street, overlooking West Rock, became the site of the most patrician estates in the district. The grandest of these occupied a 19th century recreation spot, Ball Spring, and after 1925 became the main building of Albertus Magnus College (the west side of Prospect Street near the Hamden town line). Almost as fashionable and prestigious, were the houses along Ogden Street, laid out in 1930 from Edgehill Road to Whitney Avenue, representing the final state of the Prospect Hill development.
The businessmen, scientists, scholars, and civic leaders who originally settled on Prospect Hill comprise a group of some importance in New Haven during the period of its emergence as a modern city. The majority of original owners were leaders of industry, finance, commerce, development, and education. Yale deans, professors and staff members occupied many of the homes as well. This mixture of business leaders and educators still characterizes this residential neighborhood.
The idea that education is most successful within an attractive, respectable domestic environment was popular throughout America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, it is not surprising that Prospect Hill became a key area for many of the city’s best private and special schools and small colleges, as well as several Yale University departments. Included in this list are the original Yale Observatory (demolished); observatory officers’ homes (459 & 477 Prospect); Miss Terry’s School (house moved to 310 St. Ronan Street); the St. Frances Orphan Asylum (demolished); the Gateway School (5 St. Ronan Terrace, now a private home); Prospect Hill Day School (demolished) the Culinary Institute of America (demolished); and more recently Albertus Magnus College (700 – 810 Prospect Street); the Yale Divinity School (490 Prospect Street); and the Berkeley Divinity School (363 St. Ronan Street).
The principal historic significance of Prospect Hill today is unquestionably its array of outstanding late 19th- and early 20th-century domestic architecture. Only a few examples remain from the area’s first wave of development (c. 1860-80). These include 210 Prospect Street (1871), 210 St. Ronan Street (1860) and 7-9 Edgehill Road (1860s)—all exceptionally fine and well-preserved versions of the Downing-esque Victorian cottage; and 230 Prospect Street (1872), a fine example of the mature Stick Style.
The most distinguished building from this period, however, is unquestionably the John M. Davies House at 393 Prospect Street. Build in 1868 by New Haven’s most prominent Victorian architect, Henry Austin, in collaboration with David R. Brown, the house is the finest example of the Second Empire style in New Haven and one of the city’s most elegant mansions of the Victorian era. The picturesque composed mass of the house, set well-back from the street on the crest of the hill, is a free-flowing arrangement of large rooms with high ceilings and elegant details, originally including marble floors, elaborate fireplace and overmantle frames, sculpture niches, plasterwork ceilings, and elegant chandeliers. In the 20th century, the house was owned by the Culinary Institute and some of the rooms were renovated as cooking and classroom spaces. Several dormitory blocks were erected on the grounds (now demolished), and the house was surrounded with blacktop driveways and parking areas. Prior to the purchase of the house by Yale University in 1970, it was unoccupied for a short time and vandalized, particularly on the interior. It stood empty for over 25 years, fell into disrepair and was almost lost to fire in 1988. Restored by Yale and renamed Betts House, this prominent building now houses the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, International Affairs, and the Yale World Fellows Program. A partially underground conference facility is currently under construction on the property.
The great majority of houses within the Prospect Hill district date from the period 1880 to 1930. While the Colonial Revival style and its variants constitute its primary architectural expression, a wide range of other late 19th and early 20th century period styles are also represented. The district’s architectural profile is summarized in the following list of stylistic categories and their average to outstanding representatives: Queen Anne, Shingle Style, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Italian Villa Revival, French Renaissance Revival, versions of the Spanish Colonial and Prairie styles, and other interesting interpretations of more traditional period style houses. Further, the high architectural standards set by the earlier estates in the district continued to influence the design quality of much of the district architecture.