I t’s always good to have an ally in your corner. But if you’re an inanimate object and can’t argue for your own best interests? Then it’s really good. Especially if you have actual corners.
New Haven’s buildings are lucky to have the non-profit New Haven Preservation Trust, which looks after the city’s cultural and architectural heritage through “advocacy, education and collaboration” (according to its mission statement). It lobbies for the city’s historic and notable structures, homes and neighborhoods, and communicates to the public what makes those sites so special.
Made up of a small staff and a board of directors, the group somehow manages to be tour guides to an entire city. Some of those tours occur each summer during the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, but they happen year-round. Upcoming adventures, which are well-publicized on the organization’s website and newsletter, include a Docomomo (a national group dedicated to preserving buildings) Tour Day on October 5. This year the national event’s theme is “threatened or altered modern sites,” explains John Herzan, the Trust’s Preservation Services Officer. So the NHPT tour will visit Dixwell-area urban renewal areas that fit the category, such as the Goffe Street townhouses and the Helene W. Grant School.
Like many of the entities it seeks to protect, the NHPT has been around the block. The group’s 52nd annual meeting is coming up on the evening of September 24 at the Masonic Temple on Whitney Avenue. The event, featuring talks, a reception and silent auction, is open to the public. Becoming a member of the NHPT is pretty affordable (at $35 for an individual, $50 for a family, and up) for the immediate benefits, including “members only” events held at sites not generally open to the public. Members are scheduled to explore a private “Tudor Revival” house in Beaver Hills on November 8, for example. Before that, they’ll be resurrecting their Halloween day tours of the famed Grove Street Cemetery, tying a whole lot of history together with a little bit of spook.
But the NHPT isn’t all fun and games. In 52 years, the group has saved countless buildings from the wrecking ball. Take the incredible story of the 200-year-old Woodward House in Fair Haven, purchased by the Trust for a mere $1 in 1964 after developers announced plans to build a gas station on the plot. The developers still got their gas station, but the NHPT painstakingly dismantled the house piece by piece so that it could be put back together one day. Another developer eventually reconstructed the Woodward House in Killingsworth, CT, as part of a group of historic homes.
In 2009, a Grove Street Cemetery proprietor wished to replace portions of the wall at the historic cemetery with iron fences, initiating a much-publicized debate. Uniting preservationists, the NHPT led the charge against the effort, which they felt would upend what had been a peaceful spot. The plan was withdrawn.
“Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose,” says Anita Buckmaster, Operations Officer for the Trust. She adds that there’s “a lot of diplomacy” in their kind of work, often conducted behind the scenes. Media coverage isn’t ever the aim when they speak up against developers or building owners considering demolishing a site. Herzan says he calls the demolition officer about once a week to stay in the know; “anonymous tips” help him stay aware, as well.
It’s worth noting that taking action doesn’t always entail taking sides. For example, the NHPT works to inform building owners of the tax credits involved in preserving, instead of demolishing, an old building. On October 19, the organization will host a Historic Homes Tax Credit Workshop telling participants how to take advantage of rehabilitation incentive programs.
Another project aims to let deed holders themselves tell the community a little something about the property they own. For $55, the Trust’s new Community Heritage Date Plaque program offers a plaque (like the one pictured above) to commemorate the date of just about any building in town. Buildings built in 2012 are just as eligible as those built in 1812.
“We don’t judge,” says Herzan with a smile. “Every building has its own history.”
The New Haven Preservation Trust
922 State Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.