Preserving the Past
In 1982, one house stood out among all the others on Orchard Street in New Haven. 385 Orchard Street was a late Greek Revival style frame house constructed in 1866 for William H. Barton who was a melodeon maker and piano tuner, employed by B. Shoninger Company. This house had fallen into such a state of disrepair that neighborhood residents felt that it was about to collapse. In short, it was the most dilapidated structure in the entire Dwight/Edgewood area.
Because of its historical significance, however, NHS Executive Director Jim Paley was determined to preserve this property and transform it into a meticulously restored residence for a new homeowner. Amid much skepticism from area residents, NHS identified a prospective homebuyer and provided a vision of what the house would look like when the work was completed.
David and Frankie White became the proud owners of 385 Orchard Street in January, 1984, and the restoration was completed in June of that year.
Mr. and Mrs. White have now lived in their home for the past 31 years. David has served as a member and past President of the NHS of New Haven board of directors. Frankie has always worked in the social services field and is currently the executive director of the St. Mark’s Day Care Center in Bridgeport.
Please enjoy this retrospective of David and Frankie White’s wonderful home.
In the past three decades, few properties NHS has rehabbed have seen such a dramatic transformation as 43 Beers Street, from a regal house to a dilapidated hulk to a handsome home once again.
The story begins in September 1867, when a carriage-maker named Charles A. Gulliver borrowed $1,600 (a sizable sum in those days) to construct his residence on what is now Beers Street in the Dwight/Edgewood neighborhood. Starting out as a relatively modest home in the Gothic Revival-style, the house acquired grand features over the years, such as a stately tower, a bay window, and roomier additions, all of which combined to give the house a more complex shape.
As the years passed, 43 Beers Street suffered neglect, and its elegance slowly eroded. NHS executive director Jim Paley recalls canvassing on Beers Street in 1980 with then-alderman Tony Williams (Williams went on to become a two-term mayor of Washington, DC). When invited into 43 Beers Street by occupants who dreamed of one day purchasing the home, both men were struck by its decrepit appearance; it was one of the most rundown houses that either Jim or Tony had ever visited in New Haven. Yet an exquisite ceramic tile mosaic fireplace stood as a testament to the house’s former glory.
Years later, 43 Beers Street endured another tragedy when a fire rendered the house practically unsalvageable. Its porch could barely stand; its roof had been lost to the flames; and not a trace of the beautiful ceramic hearth and mantle remained. The owner’s plan was to demolish the house and create a mid-block parking lot. Eager to avert the total loss of a historic property, NHS acquired the house in 1995.
Rehabilitating 43 Beers Street proved to be a challenge. Project manager Henry Dynia recalls the sorry shape of the house’s original clapboard siding once its faux brick asphaltic exterior was removed. The siding had been nailed directly into the original clapboards, leaving the house riddled with puncture holes. From the inside, one could see thousands of beams of light streaming in through the holes! Because the house was so ravaged, it became one of the very few properties NHS rehabilitated with vinyl siding. Using vinyl allowed NHS to recreate the house’s proper look and aesthetic, right down to adding fish-scale shingles to its front gable.
As a finishing touch, NHS hung a graceful chandelier in the tower space. After a long journey, 43 Beers Street had finally recovered its splendor.
On a street endowed with a surprising number of stately houses, 250 Sherman Avenue stands out as a notable example of early Colonial Revival architecture. Built between March and July of 1901, 250 Sherman Avenue was the grand home of William T. Barnum and his family. Barnum owned William T. Barnum & Co., which specialized in electrotyping, a method of producing metal plates used in letterpress printing. Prominent Bridgeport architect Frederick A. Cooper designed the house with unique details and a welcoming dignity to its appearance. After the construction of his Sherman Avenue mansion, Barnum lived there with his sons, who played a role in running the electrotyping business.
By the late 1920s, Barnum and his family had relocated to Prospect Street and left 250 Sherman Avenue to its fate. In time, the mansion became a boarding house for numerous temporary occupants. Its fine details faded and sagged, chipped and rotted, and eventually the house stood empty, a shell of what it once had been.
When NHS moved to its present location at 333 Sherman Avenue in 1986, no one could ignore the sadly neglected property just down the street. 250 Sherman Avenue loomed as the most dilapidated property in the area, the epitome of just how decayed a formerly gracious mansion could become. During the 1990s, the City of New Haven sold its many tax liens on the house to Breen Capital, a New Jersey investment company that hoped to foreclose on the liens and sell the house. However, New Haven’s severely depressed housing market at the time produced no buyers. NHS worked with Elaine Braffman, neighborhood specialist for the City of New Haven’s Livable City Initiative, to put intense pressure on the investors to maintain the derelict house, right down to pointing out the candy wrappers strewn about the front lawn. Finally, in 1998, NHS was able to acquire the 4,069 square foot house for $5,000.
With some love and hard work, NHS restored 250 Sherman, giving it back the elegance and grandeur it had once possessed at the turn of a prior century.
Though several unique houses are located on Beers Street, 33 Beers Street is perhaps the most unusual of all.
Commodore Perry Lines built this house in 1862 as his personal residence. At the time, Lines was a carpenter by trade, and he built this simple but astoundingly memorable Gothic Revival-style house himself. Lines and his wife lived in this house for many years. Eventually, during the 1870s, Lines started a vineyard on his property. The hobby flourished and later led him to establish the Elm City Nursery Company on Edgewood Avenue, which specialized in landscape gardening.
When NHS acquired the abandoned and boarded-up home in the 1990s, the house’s stately past still lingered in its faded appearance. Many people familiar with the neighborhood considered the house a church, since its architectural features were so elegant and pronounced, even in their neglected state. NHS uncovered two major treasures during the renovation of this house. First, hidden in the walls of the house was Commodore Perry Lines’ 1878 journal, which contained an entry for every day of the year. In the daybook, Lines writes of his work as a carpenter and landscaper, as well as weather bulletins and activities with his neighbors. It’s a mesmerizing look into the life of the house’s original owner. NHS’ second discovery came when we removed the 1950s transite siding from the house and realized that the house’s original wooden board and batten siding was in perfect condition. Not only that, the original siding was vertical, not horizontal, giving this house just one more fascinating detail in its intriguing appearance.
The preservation of this property saved a one-of-a-kind residence in the Dwight neighborhood and provided a first-time homebuyer with a unique homeownership experience. This house has been occupied by the same homeowner since 1998.
On March1, 1995, Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven entered into a joint effort with several banks, Yale University, St. Raphael’s Hospital, two other nonprofit housing developers, and what was then called the City’s Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development to address the problem of blighted buildings on Kensington Street in the Dwight neighborhood. The Partnership to Enhance Neighborhoods (PEN), as the effort was called, focused on Kensington Street because its name was synonymous with crime, drugs, and gangs. Indeed, Kensington Street had the worst reputation of any street in New Haven at the time. NHS executive director, Jim Paley, recalls that at the first PEN meeting one of the suggestions was to change the name of the street because the negative connotation was so entrenched in people’s minds.
83 and 103 Kensington Street were two of the three houses that NHS rehabilitated on this short, two-block-long street. Built in the mid-1870s by contractor Theodore N. Hotchkiss, the two stucco houses had suffered decades of neglect. Despite this, NHS could still see the charm hidden behind the deteriorated facades. Indeed, the builder of these two Italianate villas had also built the Cutler building in downtown New Haven, on the corner of Church Street and Chapel Street. The signature traces of the Cutler Building can also be found on 83 and 103 Kensington Street – the grand cornice work was scaled down to suit these residences, but still, one can see the stylistic similarities.
NHS acquired 83 Kensington Street on March 30, 1995, from New Haven Savings Bank and 103 Kensington Street on July 1, 1996, from Hudson United Bank. 83 Kensington had been so devastated by termites that Director of Design and Construction Henry Dynia called it “a formidable restoration.” Though the floor joists and internal woodwork were destroyed, the walls of the house were still solid, meaning that the resilient house could be re-designed to accommodate a more modern layout on the inside. In the case of 103 Kensington Street, the bank had planned to demolish the building and sell NHS the vacant lot. The bank had gone so far as to cut the utility lines and obtain a demolition permit. NHS intervened literally days before the proposed demolition to rescue the fire-ravaged building.
Kensington Street has slowly stabilized into a safer, more livable neighborhood.
As New Haven expanded in the mid-1870s due to its burgeoning industries, the city forced its Alms House further and further west of the most densely populated areas of town. The 200 acres of the Alms House Farm, located in the current Edgewood neighborhood, slowly dwindled as the Trustees sold off more and more parcels of land to a city in need of housing. The Trustees placed stipulations in their deeds, however, that required houses to be built at a certain (steep) price. This led the Edgewood district to gradually fill with two- and three-family homes, as only income-producing properties could defray the initial build costs.
345 Winthrop Avenue was one such property. The Trustees of the Old Alms House Farm sold a generous corner lot to John C. Tracy, under conditions that the house he built cost no less than $3,500 and house “no more than two families.” The Trustees also required that Tracy not oppose any “improvements” to Edgewood Avenue or to Winthrop Avenue, including any beautification projects. The improvements in question refer to New Haven’s desire to integrate more of the natural environment into its urban designs as part of the “City Beautiful” project.
Tracy, a civil engineering professor at Yale University, lived up to his end of the deal. Between November 1900 and May 1901, he built 345 Winthrop Avenue for $6,500. The house is an opulent example of early Colonial Revival-style architecture, with its stately windows, Doric columns, and perfectly-balanced curves. During the 1910s, the house was featured multiple times in issues of Connecticut’s Sunday Chronicle, as one of “Connecticut’s Attractive Homes.”
As horse trolley lines gave way to cars over the years, 345 Winthrop slowly decayed. Its fine features splintered; its lovely windows were boarded up; and its lush yard, once so essential to the “City Beautiful” initiative at the turn of a prior century, shriveled from neglect. Its highly visible location meant that anyone driving downtown on Edgewood Avenue was a passing witness to its wilting splendor.
After years of vacancy, the house was finally acquired by NHS in 1997. Rehabilitated to historic standards, the house now fully resembles the home featured on the pages of the Sunday Chronicle. With a new lease on life, 345 Winthrop Avenue can once again be called one of Connecticut’s most attractive homes.