For six decades New Haven Preservation Trust has been championing and celebrating the city’s architectural heritage.
The origins of the New Haven Preservation Trust lie in a rescue mission. Its focus was an Italianate residence on Hillhouse Avenue designed by Henry Austin, one of New Haven’s most famous architects, and built in 1849 as the home of Yale’s pioneering geologist James Dwight Dana. In 1961, upon the death of Dana’s daughter Maria, the property was to be sold. While Yale University had plans to buy it, the house was then to be demolished and replaced with a new mathematics building. A small group of New Haven residents came together in its defense. The New Haven Preservation Trust was incorporated, and the Directors notified the executors of the estate that they intended to bid on the Dana house and would raise whatever funds were needed to secure it. Their offer produced results. The Treasurer of Yale contacted the Trust to propose an agreement: if the Trust did not challenge Yale for the purchase, the University would preserve the building. The James Dwight Dana House, today home of Yale’s Department of Statistics and Data Science, was designated a National Historic Landmark the following year.
The Trust was formed at the peak of an era of massive redevelopment in New Haven. That trend had begun in the mid-1950s in parallel with a nationwide turn towards urban renewal after World War II. Aging structures were regularly viewed as a symptom of blight. They were to be cleared out and replaced with new, modern buildings to restore a city’s health. The founders of the Trust were among a small but energetic minority arguing for the value of historic buildings that linked their city’s present to its past. The oldest local preservation group in Connecticut, the New Haven Preservation Trust was formed even before the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966.
The first decade of the Trust’s existence, dubbed the “Ten Years’ War” by founder Peggy Flint, saw the members struggling against the tide of renewal. They began by awarding Landmark plaques to historic buildings in order to draw the public’s attention to their significance, and sometimes to rally the community to stand against their destruction. (Today the Trust continues to honor remarkable preservation achievements in the city with its annual awards.) The organization’s early successes included saving major New Haven landmarks—the façade and part of the bell tower of City Hall and also the Federal Courthouse, for example—from imminent destruction.
The Trust’s concern was not only for individual landmarks, however, but also for the character of New Haven communities. From the very beginning, one of its missions was to educate the public about the city’s historic districts, and to motivate residents to become invested in preserving their neighborhoods. In the 1960s, members of the Trust conducted research on Wooster Square, which still retained many of its houses built for wealthy industrialists during the mid-1800s. This project culminated in the Trust publishing two books on Wooster Square, and in the neighborhood’s residents voting in 1970 to make it New Haven’s first local historic district. The establishment of a local historic district required in turn that the City establish a Historic District Commission. Preservation was becoming increasingly entrenched in New Haven. Since that time, with the Trust’s help, two more local historic districts have been established in New Haven: Quinnipiac River Historic District in 1977 and City Point Historic District in 2001. The Trust’s role in such instances is as eager advocate and informed advisor to local groups.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Trust was a strong and persistent voice for historic preservation in the city. New Haven’s City government, Yale University, and individual property owners sought the Trust’s advice and assistance in matters of planning and rehabilitation. Preservation was becoming an increasingly popular choice for homeowners, business owners, and developers alike. That enthusiasm reflected a broad national turn towards appreciation of vernacular architecture, which raised up the local and nominally ‘ordinary’ structures that were often so integral to the distinctive character of each community. The Trust’s efforts were buoyed by a 1981 Federal act that gave tax credits for the rehabilitation of commercial structures older than thirty years, and of any income-producing structure listed on the National Register. Such financial incentives have been vital to encouraging preservation. Today the Trust sponsors a series of workshops to highlight the economic advantages of Connecticut’s Historic Homes Rehabilitation Tax Credit program.
Against this background of a new popular commitment to historic preservation, the Preservation Trust took on its most ambitious project, a survey of 4,600 New Haven buildings, with information on their style and date and suggestions for rehabilitation. The Historic Resources Inventory survey was completed in 1984 and is a remarkably useful resource, still drawn on by the City in planning the development of neighborhoods and referenced frequently by the Trust to help owners understand their historic properties and also to prepare National Registry applications. This was a golden age for the preservation movement: the number of National Register Historic Districts in New Haven had jumped from three to eighteen by the end of the 1980s, and major development projects, such as the rehabilitation of storefronts along Chapel Street by a local realtor, helped revitalize the downtown. It was also a golden age for the Trust itself: until 1980, the Trust had been run entirely by volunteers, but now it could afford to employ a six-person staff.
The Trust used this time of prosperity to produce educational programs and participate in city planning for low-income neighborhoods, and to provide grants to homeowners. Preservation, often accused of being a prerogative of the wealthy and elite, had instead become an issue of quality of life and of cultural heritage. In the mid-1980s, the Trust produced a series of educational videos for high schools on buildings associated with the history of African Americans in New Haven. It also began the New Haven Heritage Workshops, which included walking tours and lectures for the residents of neighborhoods including Fair Haven, Dwight, and Westville.
By the end of the 1980s, however, the nationwide passion for preservation had begun to die down. In New Haven, projects like the Ninth Square rehabilitation ran on much longer than expected and faced difficulties with uncooperative property owners and setbacks in funding. The Trust persevered, however, speaking out against the trend of “demolition by neglect,” and identifying endangered buildings and neighborhoods. Some great successes of the 1990s were tempered by painful losses: for example, while the Ninth Square project was finally completed in 1995, the nearby Phoenix Building, designed by Henry Austin, could not be saved from demolition.
The new century brought new ventures and new opportunities. In 2002, the John M. Davies mansion’s renovation was completed in accordance with the landmark 1998 agreement between Yale and the Trust, signed nearly thirty years after the Trust had begun lobbying Yale to preserve the building. The book Carriages and Clocks, Corsets and Locks was published by the Trust in 2004. This major educational project, completed after a decade of research, draws attention to New Haven’s remarkable industrial heritage, its buildings so frequently now under threat but prime candidates for the “adaptive reuse” that can give them new life. The Trust also continued to involve itself in projects like the City’s School Construction Program, advocating for the retention of existing buildings where feasible. With help from the Trust, four historic districts were added to the State Register during this period.
In 2011 the Preservation Trust celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. At fifty, a building is designated “historic”. The now-historic Trust continues to have an active presence in New Haven, just as it seeks to ensure the historic buildings of the City also thrive in present-day New Haven. Its mission statement records the Trust’s commitment to “advocacy, education, and collaboration.” Its role in advocacy has been played out in recent years in its support for the establishment of the Morris Cove Historic District in 2018, and for the expansion of the Winchester and Orange Street Historic Districts, and in the defense of the historic integrity of Grove Street Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark. Its education endeavors have focused on the Trust’s newsletter, regular lectures, and monthly tours of buildings and neighborhoods. And the Trust aims to collaborate at every turn: with homeowners, developers, and architects, with the City, and with other organizations—New Haven Free Public Library and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, for example—that seek to foster and celebrate community within New Haven.