A 1960s Vogue magazine photo shoot of a cocktail party in Paul Rudolph’s former New Haven house depicts women wearing pearls and men in tuxedos sipping martinis next to Rudolph’s trademark cantilevered staircase — steps that appear to be floating in the air. Parties are still hosted in that space today, but the current residents of Rudolph’s house on 31 High Street, the Yale chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, have permanently altered, among other things, the signature Rudolph staircase.
Last fall, SigEp completed a $25,000 renovation project because the house — which was designed by and once home to Rudolph, the renowned architect and former chairman of Yale’s Department of Architecture — no longer met safety requirements. But in doing so, the fraternity overhauled one of the last standing homes that Rudolph designed.
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Matt Eisen ’10, the president of SigEp, said many elements of Rudolph’s original design had become safety hazards to the brothers living in the house and the students who flocked to the fraternity’s parties.
“I wish we could make it safe and retain architectural elements, but we had to take cautionary steps before an accident actually happened,” said Eisen, the executive editor for the News, noting that most of the fraternity’s brothers are probably not aware of the house’s significance.
Critics view Rudolph’s former residence in New Haven as an experimental sketch-board for his larger projects such as the Art & Architecture Building, renamed after its architect following major renovations last fall, said Timothy Rohan ’91, associate professor of art and art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
“His house is important as a sensitive insertion into the fabric of New Haven,” Rohan said. “Rudolph liked traditional cities, but thought modernism was not incompatible with tradition. His house reflects this idea: He retained the 19th century façade of the house while experimenting with the interior space.”
Rohan, who curated the “Model City: Buildings and Projects by Paul Rudolph for New Haven and Yale” exhibition displayed in Paul Rudolph Hall, added that this experimental spirit made Rudolph realize that his buildings would not last forever.
“Rudolph understood that architecture changes, that it is ephemeral,” he said.
The renovation project involved setting the stairs in sturdy steel frames with marble inserts, removing the fireplace and a platform on the ground floor — which Eisen described as “a tripping hazard that served no purpose,” — as well as stabilizing the balcony area that was nearly collapsing.
Bob Esposito, the property manager SigEp contracted for the project, reiterated that the main goal of the renovation was to upgrade the house to current design standards.
“Building codes and architectural tastes have changed a lot since Rudolph’s time,” he said. “We wanted to make the house easier to maintain and more user friendly while keeping a great percentage of Rudolph’s original design intact.”
When officials from the Paul Rudolph Foundation — a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering the knowledge, preservation and understanding of Rudolph’s work — discovered his house was going to be renovated, they tried, without success, to contact the brothers, said Sean Khorsandi ARC ’06, who works for the foundation. (Eisen said he e-mailed the foundation, but did not receive a response.)
While house owners are free to renovate the house as they please, Khorsandi said the foundation aimed to spread awareness to SigEp brothers about the history of their house and the importance of preserving it.
Yet despite the preservation goals of the foundation, Khorsandi said Rudolph, who passed away in 1997, may have liked the idea of a fraternity making changes to his house.
“Rudolph himself belonged to the fraternity Kappa Sigma as an undergraduate at the University of Auburn,” Khorsandi said, noting that Rudolph had later designed fraternity houses at various colleges.
SigEp acquired the three-story brick house for roughly one million dollars in 2006, prior to which it was an apartment complex. Its 14 single bedrooms, large common space and central location made the house an ideal investment for the fraternity, Eisen said.
While Rudolph did not host anything as rambunctious as the 500-people parties SigEp throws each semester, he entertained many important figures at his home, including the then University President A. Whitney Griswold ’29 GRD ’33.
“The house was spectacular, innovative, glamorous,” said School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65. “It’s too bad they modified the cantilever steps, but it’s true that there are safety concerns without the railings, and at frat parties — it gets a bit lively, shall we say.”