Historic Taft builds for future

The Taft Apartments on College Street may no longer be home to the rich and famous celebrity clientele who used to traipse under its Tiffany-stained glass dome, raised 70 feet above the lobby floor. But the building, which turned 100 years old on Jan. 1, is by no means a symbol of faded glory — it continues to develop as a New Haven icon while keeping an eye to preserving its century-long history.

In celebration of the building’s centennial, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. issued an official proclamation New Year’s Day in which he declared the day to be “The Taft Apartments Day” within the city. But the building is not dwelling solely in the past. The Taft’s 100th year will see the opening of a new restaurant and the re-establishment of a classic New Haven tavern, both on the building’s main floor.

Taft property manager Scott Ferguson said that the management team is excited about the centennial.

“There is a strong feeling that there is no apartment community as rich in history as The Taft — we seek to honor and appreciate that,” he said. “However, we have a company philosophy of not sitting on yesterday’s laurels … Our centennial is not a pat on the back, but a reminder to accept constant change in order to stay successful and relevant.”

Originally built as the Taft Hotel, the 12-story, 450-room building was a popular destination during the first half of the 20th century — up to one million visitors, according to the complex’s website, passed through its doors every year, including Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein. As railway travel declined and more hotels were established in the area, the Taft began to struggle and eventually closed its doors in 1973. The building was converted to an apartment building in 1981, and it has remained one ever since.

On Tuesday afternoon, the management team hosted a party in the lobby for residents, but Ferguson said he would announce more public events in celebration of the anniversary later this year. In addition to these festivities, the Taft will also be welcoming a new restaurant and a rejuvenated bar to the building.

The last restaurant in the Taft was Downtown at the Taft (later renamed Baccus Enoteca), but it closed early last year, leaving the space vacant. The owner of the restaurant that will be occupying the space declined to comment, as development is still in the preliminary stages, but lease and service coordinator Jason Tavalozzi said that the restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and will be located on the main floor with a street entrance as well as an entrance through the Taft lobby.

Richter’s, a pub opened in 1983 by Richter Elser ’81 in the Taft building, will reopen this year under the direction of John Ginetti, who co-owns the bar 116 Crown. The tavern’s storefront, at 990 Chapel St., was first the bar for the Taft Hotel, and functioned as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Elser owned Richter’s until 2002, when he sold it to his manager, Dieter von Rabenstein, who closed the bar in June 2011.

Elser said in an email to the News that he is pleased with the reopening of Richter’s, but that he is not involved in the project beyond transferring the rights to reuse the name and redisplay the artwork and memorabilia.

The Taft’s Ferguson said that there is no official time frame for the restaurant’s opening, but he expects it to open this summer. Ginetti announced his plans to reopen the pub in August 2011 and told the New Haven Independent that he hopes to open in the first few months of this year.

“The economy hasn’t really slowed us down much,” he said. “New Haven is a niche market due to Yale.”

According to Ferguson, approximately 70 percent of the apartment residents are affiliated with Yale, with even portions of students and professionals. The Taft’s relationship with the University has existed since the complex’s inception — for eight years following his presidency, William Howard Taft lived in the hotel while teaching law at the University, according to the Taft website.

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