National Register/Local Historic District
The Wooster Square Historic District is an architecturally distinguished neighborhood located east of downtown New Haven. During the mid-19th century, it was a fashionable residential area which ship captains and wholesale grocers found convenient to their places of business.
Wooster Square received its name from Major-General David Wooster, who maintained a warehouse on Wooster Street prior to the American Revolution, and who lost his life in 1777 in Fairfield, CT while leading his troops against the British. Until 1825, the square was a field used for ploughing contests. By the 1840s, the neighborhood was a fashionable residential area which attracted many of the prominent citizens of the town.
The development of the square occurred primarily between the years 1830 and 1870. Some of the most notable buildings in the area are the work of the well-known New Haven architect Henry Austin. The district includes a concentration of distinctive 19th-century residential architecture, with fine examples of the Federal. Greek Revival, Islamic Revival, and Italian Villa styles, as we as Late Victorian Italianate row houses and Second Empire and Queen Anne residences.
Though now partially altered, the following homes are representative of the historic character of the Wooster Square neighborhood:
The Robinson House (c. 1810; 601 Chapel Street), Federal Style
The Lucius Hotchkiss House (1835; 2 Academy Street), Greek Revival
The Matthew Elliott House (c. 1835; 541 Chapel Street), Greek Revival
The Willis Bristol House (c. 1845; 584 Chapel Street), Islamic Revival designed by Henry Austin
The Oliver North House (c. 1865; 604 Chapel Street), Italian Villa designed by Henry Austin
Brownstone Row (c. 1870; 552-562 Chapel Street), Italianate
The Reverence Jewett House (1833, altered c. 1875; 9 Wooster Place), Second Empire
The Max Adler House (c. 1880, 311 Greene Street), Queen Anne
By the turn of the 20th century, the growth of industry around the square made it an increasingly less attractive neighborhood for the socially prominent. Many homes were purchased by Italian-American families, a number of whom were able to make a living by using their homes as stores. Adaptation to commercial uses and the lower incomes of the new owners downgraded social prominence of the neighborhood significantly. By the 1930s, urban renewal plans called for total clearance; later plans for the new Interstate 91 would have routed the highway through Wooster Square Park.
None of these things happened, however, due to a fortunate series of circumstances in the 1950s which permitted the beginnings of neighborhood renewal. The Wooster Square Project emerged in 1958-60 as a major focus of the New Haven urban rehabilitation program, at a moment when external events combined to spark a community-wide conviction that the neighborhood was worth saving. Some of the events and trends which contributed to this undertaking were projects by architectural students at Yale who created models for a restored Wooster Square; relatively high earnings during World War II which had permitted savings, and therefore possible homeownership by motivated residents; and the public endorsement of the architectural potential of the neighborhood by the New Haven Preservation Trust. These factors provided vital impetus in a period when low-interest rehabilitation loans and grants were not available to help the homeowners. Two of the most important early projects were the construction of the Conti Community School—a first of its kind when it was completed in 1965—and the rehabilitation of the Court Street tenements, which comprised some of the worst housing in the area.
In the process of the celebration and encouragement of the area, The New Haven Preservation Trust published two volumes dealing with the history of Wooster Square and its architecture. These were circulated to residents and to city officials. The appointment of a Historic District Study Committee followed, and after other legal requirements had been met, a mail ballot revealed that the historic district had the support of a great majority of neighborhood residents. The Wooster Square Area project was an effort of national importance. Though possibly atypical because of its valuable architecture, the mores of the Italian American community, and the vitality of Mayor Lee’s urban renewal administration, it nonetheless demonstrated to the nation’s city planner a new potential for the rehabilitation of deteriorated neighborhoods.
Wooster Square became a local historic district on June 11, 1970. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 5, 1971.