Old-Timers

A time traveler from New Haven’s colonial days would barely recognize it today. Perhaps the Green would look vaguely familiar. Otherwise, there are few remnants of the city that once was.

But there are a few. Among them are two buildings on Elm Street at the north end of the Green. Both are white wood frame houses with spruce green shutters open and nearly touching. Both are fronted by white picket fences. Dwarfed by buildings like First and Summerfield United Methodist Church and Yale’s Hendrie Hall, which are more in scale with today’s downtown, these two old-timers give us a window into what much of the city would have looked like in the 1760s, says Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and author of Connecticut Architecture: Stories of 100 Places (2018). “It gives you that little bit of vision of the different size and scale that the Green would have had at one time, with the smaller buildings,” he says. Indeed, it’s possible to stand on the sidewalk across the street at the Green’s edge and—if you can ignore the buses pulling in and out—imagine the streets of an earlier time.

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Today, 149 Elm Street, known as the John Pierpont House (dating to 1767), serves as Yale’s visitor center. At 175 Elm, the Nicholas Callahan House (circa 1762-1776) is the home of the Elihu Club, one of Yale’s senior societies. Additions and modifications have been made to both structures over time, but their colonial bones are still visible. Taken as a visual set with the later Jonathan Mix House (1799), now The Graduate Clubhouse, which stands between them along with Hendrie, they “give a handy guide to the change from the Colonial to the Federal style,” writes Elizabeth Mills Brown in her seminal book New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design (1976). Mills points out “the greater depth of the later Mix house, the more generously spaced windows, the higher foundation, and the lower pitch of the roof.”

As with the Pierpont and Callahan houses, Yale is home to another downtown colonial survivor, Connecticut Hall, whose continued existence required a stroke of luck. Built between 1750 and 1752, it was originally part of what became known as “Old Brick Row,” a wall of brick buildings set back from College Street that faced the Green. First constructed as a dormitory and later used as a meeting hall and office space, according to the Yale Visitor Center website, Connecticut Hall was nearly demolished. It was “described as ‘scabby and malodorous,’” Brown writes, “and slated for destruction with the rest of the Brick Row. But before demolition actually began, the pendulum swung once more, and a wave of Colonial Revival sentiment arose just on time…” The building—which had until recently been wrapped in blue construction netting—floats at the southern end of the grassy quad now known as Old Campus.

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These three buildings are the only remains of colonial New Haven still extant in the heart of New Haven, “where things were repeatedly torn down,” Wigren notes. But some other structures of the same vintage can be seen in farther-flung reaches, where development pressure wasn’t as great. Morris Cove’s Pardee-Morris House, which was first constructed circa 1680, then burned by the British in 1779 and later rebuilt on a 1750s foundation, is now a historic site held by the New Haven Museum. The property was preserved by dint of remaining in the same family for another 139 years before its last private owner, William Pardee, donated it to the museum. Brown’s book doesn’t acknowledge any other colonial era homes in Morris Cove, but three others on Townsend Avenue appear to be of a similar vintage, two of them belonging to other Pardees, including a pretty little pale yellow house with a blue door, constructed on the leeward side of a bluff overlooking Morris Cove at the edge of the sea wall.

A couple of similarly dated structures remain in Fair Haven Heights, where 1706 Quinnipiac Avenue, according to Brown, “is a sole survivor of the large farms which in Colonial times filled the river plain. If the attributed date of 1771 is correct”—other lists date it to the 1790s—“this is one of New Haven’s best remaining Colonial houses, with arched windows on the first floor and molded brick watertable.” A more humble example from the same period survives just off Quinnipiac at 12 Clifton Street, identified as the home of Ezra Rowe (1774), who “began one of the largest oyster businesses in the state,” according to local historian Colin Caplan in his book A Guide to Historic New Haven, Connecticut (2007).

Perhaps most unusual yet least conspicuous of all is a colonial house on Forbes Avenue built in 1767 of sandstone, an unlikely material for the day. If you’ve noticed it at all, it’s probably because the Pentecostal church next door, Iglesia de Dios-La Nueva Jerusalen, is flanked by an electronic billboard that can be seen from I-95 as you cross the Q Bridge. The church was built of the same dark stone but much later, in 1904, and the house—old even then—became its rectory. Unlike its Elm Street cousins, this colonial home, now located in an industrial zone of parking lots and chain link fences, is almost impossible to imagine in its original element.

In her book, Brown identifies no other colonial structures, though Caplan mentions a few that originated in the colonial period but have been altered and no longer resemble their former selves—for example, the Samuel Miles Brown home at 715 Quinnipiac Avenue, which dates back to 1765 but “was remodeled in the Italianate style in 1856” and looks every bit an artifact of the 19th century. A more recognizable colonial artifact flagged by Caplan sits at the corner of Forest Road and West Elm Street in Westville. The unobtrusive 1779 home of Deacon Isaac Dickerman, Jr. was built the same year as the British invasion, a battle in which Caplan says Dickerman took part.

Then as now, home is worth fighting for.

Photo Key:

1. The Elihu Club.
2. 1706 Quinnipiac Avenue.
3. Connecticut Hall.
4. Rectory of Iglesia de Dios-La Nueva Jerusalen.
5. On Townsend Avenue.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 4 and 5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 derived from Google Maps. Image 3 photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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