Over on Trumbull Street, south of the Peabody Museum and northwest of Timothy Dwight, lies the stoic John Slade Ely House. It boasts a proud facade of brick and stone, with tall windows and an arching entryway. Inside, a wide wooden stairway welcomes guests and escorts them up to dark wood molding and whitewashed rooms, bright with sun.
Built in 1905 for Yale School of Medicine professor John Ely, the house was left in a trust by his wife, Grace, as an art space in 1961 — the first in New Haven to showcase mostly local works. It served as a home for local arts groups, including the Brush and Palette as well as the New Haven Paint & Clay Club, both among the oldest active arts organizations in New England. The house also ran exhibitions, featuring mostly contemporary artwork, always with the local arts community in mind. For over 50 years, the property stood as an integral part of the New Haven creative scene.
But I didn’t visit that Ely House.
The Ely House I came across on a brisk fall afternoon was drowning. At least, it was, just last month, as Olivia Creser tells me. “During the heavy rains, it was raining in here,” Creser said. “The building isn’t sound. Who knows what will happen when winter comes.”
Creser’s mother, Jeanne Criscola, was a curator for the house in the 1980s, and today, Criscola sits on the executive board of the Friends of John Slade Ely House — a small, dedicated group of local artists and enthusiasts working to save the house. From her design studio in North Haven, Criscola tells me of the house and its struggles.
“It was just a nuisance to them”
In her will, when Grace Ely left her home to trustees, they included the Union and New Haven Trust, a local bank once headquartered in a building on the New Haven Green. Over the years, as the bank merged and split, the house ended up in the hands of Wells Fargo, a national bank without a personal interest in maintaining it.
“In 2008, Wells Fargo became the trustee,” Criscola says. “We were in the middle of a real estate crisis, among other things, and once Wells Fargo took over, they were less stewards than they should ever have been.”
The prior role of Union and New Haven Trust had been to support the house and promote its community outreach and exhibits, but Wells Fargo showed no interest in sustaining this tradition.
“Wells Fargo just wasn’t interested in this gem,” Criscola says. “It was just a nuisance to them.”
In 2015, Wells Fargo announced they’d be selling the property and closing the Ely House, much to the shock and dismay of the New Haven arts community. Up until then, the Ely House had played a unique and fundamental role in the local art scene, Creser said. The Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery receive far more publicity and funding than the rest of New Haven’s galleries. As a result, they tend to overshadow local art spaces, making it difficult for them to gain prominence. The Ely House is one of the last locations where New Haven artists are promoted and supported.
“The closing of the Ely House was a traumatic event for many local artists,” said North Haven-based sculptor Adam Niklewicz. “We were all trying to come to terms with it.”
As a result, many distraught artists and friends, like Niklewicz, came together to try and save the house, forming a petition in that garnered almost 1,250 signatures. Soon after, the case was resolved: the house’s mission to provide for the arts community would continue.
“The artists came together to petition, and without them, we wouldn’t be here,” Creser said.
But the troubles for the Ely House were far from over. ACES, a regional educational center, purchased the property as a campus extension for the Educational Center for the Arts, a public magnet high school on Audubon Street. ACES plans to renovate the mansion extensively, a deep concern for Friends executive board member Deb Hesse.
“Right now we’re looking at doing a ‘home’ show, introducing the mansion architecture as a starting point to talk about ideas about home and the meaning of home in light of the fact that it will be changing,” Hesse says. “The building will be renovated and will never be an intact mansion the way John and Grace built it and lived in it. But it is right now, and to use that metaphor of this house as a home, and to have artists do more site-specific work in response to that theme … it’s something we have to do.”
“Since the water … ”
But today, before any renovations and alterations, the house’s most pressing concern is by far the water.
During the trial, the house was closed and neglected. As a result, the ceiling developed extensive leakage, threatening the artwork within. The house is now restricted from displaying long-term exhibits.
“Since the water, we’re back to trying to figure out how we’re going to continue the program,” Criscola said. “We’re not confident we can actually, in good faith, put artwork here, at this point, with the threat of deterioration.”
With this uncertain future for the house and its art community, Criscola began to slow, her voice breaking.
“I’m a native New Havenite; I know what the house has meant to me, growing up here, and having something like that here … ” Criscola trailed off. “It’s a place where all the artists in New Haven can come together and take part in celebration.”
”Tell your friends … ”
And so, the fate of the Ely House lies with its few but passionate Friends. As Hesse tells me, the members are those who have formed a strong bond to the space; those who have felt ownership of the house.
Despite the struggles looming ahead, Hesse remains steadfast — uncertain yet undeterred. Exhibitions and pop-ups continue to cycle through the space, the most recent of which was ‘Winners are Losers,’ a political commentary from local artist John O’Donnell. The event’s Facebook description cheerfully confronts the house’s murky future:
“This may be the very last show at the John Slade Ely house, come make it a great party. Tell your friends you were invited, so they will know how popular you are!!!!”
Criscola is more pragmatic and reflective, still searching for a solution to keep the house alive.
“Everybody’s sort of looking for a new way,” she says. “A hybrid business plan or another way to move forward—looking for a way to hold on to what they’ve always done.”