On April 3, city officials, allied with city planners and property owners, dealt a blow to New Haven lawyer Frederick Leaf’s ambitions to demolish the 90-year-old Rundbaker Engraving Company building.
The Connecticut Historical Commission heard a claim brought by the New Haven Preservation Trust to save the structure in question, located at 11 Orange St., and decided to delay its decision until June 6 pending further investigation.
The city was attempting to get the commission to ask state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to sue Leaf in order to prevent him from destroying the building. Blumenthal has this power under the state’s Environmental Protection Act because the building is in a National Register Historic District.
At the hearing, Leaf argued that the building is architecturally insignificant and beyond reasonable repair.
But Scott Healy, executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, disagreed with Leaf.
“The commission looked unkindly [on Leaf’s proposal] because he did not prove that he had researched any alternatives to demolition,” Healy said.
Healy added that Leaf’s own structural engineer was not able to prove the building is beyond repair and that Leaf’s architect was overly dismissive about the building’s historical significance.
“His judgment fails to acknowledge that many of the buildings in the Ninth Square are not important because they’re built like the Taj Mahal, but because they represent the evolution of New Haven’s history in this neighborhood,” he said.
Looking at the dilapidated structure, it is easy to see why Leaf might want it demolished. The beige brick exterior has neither been well maintained nor fits romantic ideals of early 20th century architecture. The doors are boarded up, and in the middle, a non-descript sign proclaims succinctly, “This building proposed to be demolished.”
But Mary Dunne, the preservation services officer for the Preservation Trust, and others have actively tried to save the structure.
“It’s representative of an early 20th century trend and architecturally significant,” Dunne said.
Healy added that the building is, according to the National Historic Register, a “Contributing Building,” to the character of the neighborhood. The Register notes the building’s Classical, pressed-metal cornice, as well as its arched windows and brownstone trim.
“[The building is significant] because of what it represents to the city,” Healy said. “It was a moment when the whole area was a bustling storefront business community.”
Both Healy and Dunne said there are potential owners who would not destroy the building. Dunne said she has received interest from three people, and Healy cited interest from a baker, a glassblower, an antique dealer, and a potential restaurant owner.
Leaf, who is a board member of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, has not yet budged from his plans to demolish the building and has kept quiet with regard to the media and city officials. He could not be reached for comment.
Though it is possible that Leaf could demolish the building even if the commission were to rule against him, Healy stressed the importance of the June 6 decision.
“This could set a bad precedent,” Healy said. “It’s a small, relatively unassuming building, but once its gone, its gone.”