Randall Beach: Much has been saved, not lost, in New Haven

When the New Haven Preservation Trust announced its presentation of “Lost New Haven: Traveling Through Time,” it figured to be yet another hand-wringing over the vibrant neighborhoods and historic buildings we’ve seen bulldozed into oblivion by thoughtless city planners (paging Mayor Richard C. Lee, circa the 1950s).

But architect and writer Duo Dickinson, a member of the Trust’s board of directors, decided to take a different approach with his slideshow last Wednesday night.

“This isn’t going to be a bunch of people worshiping demolished buildings,” he told me before the event. “Rather than mourn the tragedy of removed buildings,” he said, he wanted to focus on “what is around us.” He’s upbeat about those attractive, distinguished structures now being revived for new uses.

The folks at the Trust also came up with the novel idea of staging their event at BAR, downtown New Haven’s popular pizza-and-beer place. Guess what, preservationists like to drink, too!

Indeed, when Dickinson began his talk Wednesday night, he told us we didn’t have to sit during his slideshow. “Think of this as a place where you should get up and buy drinks and eat pizza.”

Dickinson alluded to the “Lost New Haven” title, saying, “The word ‘loss’ has an enormous weight. But this talk will take an approach not typical for a preservation meeting.”

However, attention had to be paid to Lee and his infamous “urban renewal” program. And so we were shown one of those bulldozer shots as Dickinson talked about Lee’s “clear-cutting neighborhoods,” including the diverse and thriving Legion Avenue.

Out of those ashes rose architecturally-striking structures such as Kevin Roche’s New Haven Coliseum. But Dickinson noted Roche had an odd idea: “Let’s put the parking area on top!” Dickinson, who like many of us experienced navigating the mounting circular ride to that summit, described it as “terrifying.” He also called the bathrooms “horrific.”

“The Coliseum was supposed to be a huge welcoming thing to New Haven,” Dickinson recalled. “It simply did not work. It was doomed.” He showed us a photo of the gigantic arena being exploded in 2007.

Then Dickinson took us through a happier narrative, the revitalization of Union Station. After architect Cass Gilbert completed his magnificent train station in 1920, it deteriorated to the point where the main portion was shut and passengers were forced to use a grim, narrow tunnel. But architect Herb Newman restored it in the early 1980s. Now it’s again a proud entryway to the Elm City.

Meanwhile, as always, the Trust people are involved in ongoing discussions about buildings whose fates hang in the balance. Dickinson showed us slides of the old Webster Bank on Elm Street, an elegant art deco building vacated by the bank a couple of years ago.

Dickinson told us it was originally St. Thomas Church (1848) and remnants of the church are still in the building. “It’s now slated for demolition. It’s a zombie, a walking dead building. Supposedly it’s going to be a boutique hotel. Wouldn’t it be great it they used the original lobby?”

Yes, as the evening began, I spoke with Robert Grzywacz, another member of the Trust’s board, about the fate of the Webster building. “We’ve been trying to save it,” he said. “We’ve been working with the city. The new owner (Spinnaker Real Estate Investments) should save that lobby and facade. What an entryway for a hotel!”

Dickinson got worked up as he showed slides of Robert A.M. Stern’s new Yale residential colleges on Prospect Street. Dickinson called the project “collegiate Gothic” and an example of “worshiping the past” as well as attempting to “fabricate history.”

“We’re better than that,” he said. “We don’t have to make fake fireplaces,” He showed us a photo of the residential colleges’ rooftops. And he noted, “Twenty-three buildings were demolished to make way for those residential colleges. Yale decided the Seeley G. Mudd Library (designed by Harold Roth and William Moore) should go away. ‘It’s in the way! Let’s get rid of it.’”

The result, Dickinson said, was “a place that looks just like Hogwarts.”

When Dickinson sat down to take a breather, architect Channing Harris, also on the Trust’s board, provided an overview on the preservation of Hillhouse Avenue. He reminded us that when Charles Dickens visited New Haven in 1868, he called it “the most beautiful street in America.”

Harris noted 15 of the original Hillhouse Avenue mansions have survived as part of a historic district. “The New Haven Preservation Trust advocated for it and negotiated an agreement with Yale. Credit Yale for finding new uses for old buildings.”

When Dickinson stood up again, he regaled us with tales and slides of recently successful savings and revitalizations. He cited “the fusion of the old and the new” in Trinity Church Home Chapel at 301 George St.

“We told the developer, ‘You might want to think about using the old chapel as the focal point of your design,’” Dickinson recalled. “And they did.”

According to a Trust newsletter, those undertaking the project, Robert Smith of Metro Star Properties and Sam Gardner of Gregg Wies & Gardner Architects, themselves called the Trust office to ask if the old chapel was architecturally significant and worth saving as the centerpiece of a new apartment complex. The chapel’s exterior was restored and the result is evident to anybody passing it today. The residents there benefit, as well.

Dickinson also credited the developer of the new Corsair apartment complex on State Street (Andy Montelli of Post Road Residential) for preserving instead of demolishing some of the original factory.

Another new upbeat story, Dickinson told us, is the anticipated re-use of what is called “the Pirelli Building” next to the Ikea store. Dickinson noted architect Marcel Breuer’s 1968 tower was bought by Ikea many years ago and “It became a thing. A demolition by neglect thing.” (In a Trust newsletter last year, Dickinson described it as “a truncated and derelict carcass that functions as an Ikea billboard.”

But with city officials such as Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson and Trust representatives working together, Dickinson said last Wednesday, that iconic structure is on its way to becoming a 165-room hotel. Last Wednesday the City Plan Commission voted in favor of the new use.

Dickinson concluded his talk by saying: “There’s something more important than money. It’s called value. History is about value. It’s that spirit of the past, present and future.”

There was fresh news about another endangered historic building provided at the end of the gathering by Elizabeth Holt, the Trust’s director of preservation services. She announced city officials might be considering demolishing the Brewery Gatehouse, part of Brewery Square at the corner of Ferry and River streets.

Holt called it “a demolition by neglect case. We don’t want to see the gatehouse become another piece of lost New Haven.”

And so Holt began circulating a petition opposing its demolition and advocating reuse for housing or commercial purposes. (Representatives of the gatehouse’s owner, Brewery Square Gatehouse Ltd. Partnership, could not be reached for comment but Building Official Jim Turcio told me the owner has been told to either demolish it or “shore it up, if possible.”)

While driving back home Wednesday night, passing the New Haven Green and the old courthouse at the corner of Elm and Church streets, I was reminded how historic and special this city is and why I have remained here.

Contact Randall Beach at 203-680-9345 or randall.beach@hearstmediact.com.