It is often easy for Yale students to lose themselves in the James Gamble Rogers-designed bubble that is the Yale campus, while the shadow of Harkness Tower and its ilk obscure the architectural brilliance of the city at large.
But New Haven’s architecture offers facades that deserve more attention than a casual glance. In terms of its architecture and urban planning, New Haven is both a marvel and a cautionary tale – an archetype of New England city charm and a textbook definition of post-industrial doldrums. A mere stroll through New Haven’s concrete-laden streets narrates much of its history and reveals its pressing dichotomy – that is, New Haven as a model of simultaneous traditionalism and modernity in design.
The first planned city of British North America, New Haven was originally designed using a nine square grid, with the New Haven Green occupying the central square.
“The New Haven Green is distinctive,” Yale architecture professor Alexander Garvin ’62 ARC ’67 said with a musing smile. “I don’t know of any other city with a space like the Green that has a comparable quality or personality.”
Now boasting an architectural mélange as theatrically diverse as the cast of “The Real World,” this distinctive personality began with the construction of its central churches. New Haven architect Harold Roth, whose firm Roth and Moore has been practicing since 1965 and designed such Yale buildings as the Slifka Center and Watson Hall, described the Green churches as “absolutely exquisite.”
Clawing above the lush elm canopy, the white spire of the First Congregational Church is an elegant epitome of the New England church. With its warm brick facade and striking Federalist pediment/column construction, it possesses a sense of authority.
The churches that flank the central First Church borrow from its traditional design but employ more daring stylistic innovations. The northern most church – United Congregational Church – uses the Federalist details of First Church and romanticizes them with its masterful domed steeple, a more modern statement. Wielding even more bravado is the picturesque Trinity Church, by architect Ethiel Town. Begrudgingly known to most Bingham Hall students as the droning bell tower that maddens late night insomniacs, Trinity Church is a stunning artifact of early 19th Century Gothic Revival and one of the finest of its day.
While these towering stalagmites are integral to the Green’s architectural landscape, the Green owes much of its irregular pulse to the variegated facades that surround the churches. From the whimsy of City Hall to the brutish angularity of the Chapel Square Mall, each building is like a chapter in New Haven’s historical narrative.
“I think that the architecture around the Green is a pretty good snapshot of New Haven,” said Alan Plattus, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture and director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop. “The Green represents facets of civic, commercial and academic life. It truly reflects different periods of development from the 18th century on.”
The first chapter in the historic journey is City Hall, designed in 1861 by Henry Austin — not only a bastion of history and architectural splendor, but also a defining structure that sets the tone for the entire street. Watching over the Green with a wisdom gained from age, City Hall boasts a rich neo-Gothic stone façade that is both elegant and inviting, channeling the noble glamour of Venetian architecture, with the clock perched atop the building’s spire giving it significance and authority.
City Hall is a visual example of New Haven’s tumultuous affair with both tradition and modernity. While the enchanting main structure remains intact, the redesigned addition excises much of the original building’s elaborate decoration. But despite these changes, the façade maintains harmony with its older sibling through use of similar materials and ornamental motifs
The success of the addition lies in the careful attention paid to context — something most New Haven designers keep in mind, Roth said.
From its deep rooting in New Haven’s history to its modern renovation, City Hall nearly captures the city’s narrative. But, when considered in its wildly diverse surroundings — which include gleaming skyscrapers, the Georgian brick and stone Free Library and the bold neo-classic courthouse — it becomes obvious that not even this dramatic architectural wunderkind can attain the status of New Haven’s poster child. Essentially, no single building can capture the myriad of styles that constitute the New Haven palette.
“I think it would be both impossible and not desirable to have a single definable building for New Haven,” Plattus said. “What dominates is the Green … I think that’s quite wonderful. New Haven doesn’t need a Guggenheim Bilbao. The city has diverse buildings because the city had diverse periods.”
After its time as an idyllic Puritan haven, the city entered a period of industrial expansion. With a corresponding population boom, the city expanded itself radially into surrounding territory, disrupting the pristine grid to create diagonal boulevards and, later, veins of freeways.
Now a veritable graveyard of factories, New Haven’s former industrial boom haunts the city to this day. But while a drive down the I-91 might showcase ghosts of the city’s industrial past, the inner city’s vivacity articulates a renewed architectural present.
Beyond the Green and its commanding traditional facades, New Haven also features several opuses of epic modernity. Perhaps the most mammoth is the Knights of Columbus Building, designed in 1967 by Kevin Roche, a solid signpost for the city of New Haven.
“It’s a great marker as an entrance to the city,” Roth commented. “A very strong emphatic statement at New Haven’s vehicular entrance.”
The building exploits its own simplicity by focusing on its massive round brick columns, masking the inner network of office floors under the guise of a single sleek black plane. A primitive arrangement of shapes, the building acts as more as a monument than as an elaborate façade.
Similarly, the New Haven Coliseum, designed in 1969 by Roche, and Temple Street Parking Garage, designed in 1961 by Paul Rudolph, who also made the blueprints for Yale’s controversial Art and Architecture tower, employ leviathan scales that engulf onlookers and inhabitants. The Coliseum’s unthinkable size dwarfs the pedestrian, while the Temple Street Parking Garage’s rippling facade absorbs the rhythm of the bustling street and diverts it vertically. Both structures, while overwhelmingly different from the intricate facades of New Haven’s more traditional buildings, are equally important and vital to the cityscape.
Ultimately, the heart of city is inarguably the Green — a gorgeous relic of New Haven’s Puritan past and an illustration of its cosmopolitan present. But from the charming brownstone village of Wooster Square to the renewing urban cavities of Dixwell, the city has a surprising wealth of profoundly fascinating buildings apart from those that grace the pages of the Yale viewbook.