Old West

T he small business district of Westville Village, which came of age in the second half of the 19th century, is special in part because its long history as a center of industry and commerce is still visible today—a fact that earned it a designation from the National Register of Historic Places back in 2003. “… [I]ts buildings provide a tangible reflection of the area’s historic development from an early mill village to a small but active industrial and commercial center,” reads the National Register application. “Although the buildings have evolved in use, the extant architecture provides a clear visual representation of how the district looked during its period of significance.”

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To see it for yourself, park near the village’s south end on Whalley Avenue. Originally called Main Street, this route through the village took on its current name in 1897, when Westville became a city ward “under special conditions regarding taxes and benefits,” according to historian Rollin G. Osterweis. Those “special conditions” were presumably concessions given to Westville residents who had previously refused annexation by New Haven “on the grounds that it would result in higher taxes.” In the mid-19th century, horse-drawn cars served as public transportation on Whalley Avenue, shifting to electric streetcars before the turn of the century.

The first stop on the tour is Lyric Hall, an early 20th-century vaudeville and silent movie theater lovingly refurbished over the past 15 years by owner and antique restorer John Cavaliere. You can’t go inside right now to see the full measure of that restoration, but you may be able to peek in the front window, and you can surely check out the front door’s stained glass panel by Cavaliere’s friend Peter Wickendon, which, while not an antique itself, evokes some symbols of an earlier time, including the 17th-century “phantom shippe.”

Just up the street, a curious structure at 859-61 Whalley Avenue is a circa 1845 Greek Revival house, though you’d hardly guess it from how it looks today, which includes a street-level storefront currently under renovation. The home was moved to this corner from its original location in 1905 and “placed on a raised brick foundation to add an extra story of living space,” the National Register says. Standing on the opposite corner of Whalley and Tour Avenue, you can see the full-story brick base, painted mustard yellow.

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On the other side of Whalley Avenue, just past Dunkin’ Donuts, is a grassy vacant lot that most recently was home to Delaney’s Pub, a neighborhood haunt that burned to the ground in a 2014 fire. But before it was Delaney’s—which is “coming [back] soon” at 883 Whalley—it was the Hotel Edgewood, a rambling, two-story structure with a pair of bay windows and a handsome cornice trimming its roof like the icing on a wedding cake. The hotel was created in 1913 from two separate buildings: an 1830 schoolhouse that was moved from Harrison Street to Fountain Street and then to its final location, where it was matched with a large house of about the same vintage to create the hotel.

A bit farther up the street, at 900-902 Whalley, Authentic Beauty Salon and Spa boasts second-floor wrought iron railings and a facade vaguely reminiscent of a western movie set. Built around 1910, it was originally a tailor’s shop. It stands beside the block’s tallest building, a quirky Queen Anne garnished with 16- and 20-pane windows. Home to the Mew Haven Cat Cafe and artist studios, it was originally built in 1880 for Frederick Roth to serve as a shoe store with a residence above.

The street’s oldest building is perhaps its most evasive. Hidden behind the modern storefront of Soho Hair and Day Spa, the only visible hint of the old house is a pair of six-over-six-paned windows high up in the gable, punctuated by a stovepipe. Built circa 1795, this dwelling would have stood near a West River mill on a dirt road that served mostly as an access to and a boundary between large parcels of land. Two years after its construction, the Litchfield Turnpike (Route 69) was chartered, and a subsequent new bridge over the river created “access to [what is now] Whalley Avenue and a more direct route out of [New Haven].”

Across the street, on the corner of Whalley and Blake Street, a two-story brick building that today is home to Lotta Studio as well as the studios and galleries of West River Arts more readily discloses its origins—which is ironic, because they involve a secret society. Built in 1912, the brick building boasts a second-story colonnade and an entablature bearing the words “Masonic Temple,” topped by a pediment with a Masonic symbol.

A memorial to Civil War soldiers erected in 1915 stands at the former entrance to Blondstone, the estate of Ebenezer Beecher, now the site of Mitchell Library. Mounted on a pair of stone towers at the corner of Whalley and Philip Street, two plaques list the names of 65 soldiers “who enlisted from this place in the War of 1861-1865.” Many surnames come in multiples, emphasizing the heavy burden carried by some local families who sent several young men off to fight.

Double back a bit and cross Whalley for a short trip down Blake Street, once used as the original route from downtown to Westville. A large brick complex at 495 Blake Street was first established as an industrial site in the late 1700s and is the former home of businesses such as the Diamond Match Company and the Geometric Tool Company, which made machinery to produce threaded components. Currently housing the Elm City Montessori School, the former factory boasts an impressive smokestack, now detached and bearing the name “Blake St. Center.”

A bridge across the West River here is decorated with mosaic tiles by New Haven artist Beth Klingher, depicting local flora and fauna interspersed with flowing images of the river itself. Across it, you’ll find the village’s other large factory complex at 446 Blake—a sprawling brick building with a banded tan smokestack, built between 1906 and 1948. It was home to the Greist Manufacturing Company, which made sewing machine attachments, and today counts A Broken Umbrella Theatre and two healthcare businesses among its tenants.

Perhaps the quietest stretch in the village center, with an entrance just before the bridge, is a breezy, increasingly bucolic walkway along the West River, where spring vines climb and curl and birds sing to each other in branches above. Along here, the Wintergreen Brook meanders in from its Hamden source to meet the West River before it runs under Whalley Avenue into Edgewood Park.

Emerging from the other end of the walkway, you can run (carefully) across Whalley into the park yourself, or hang a right on the sidewalk and head back to your car. This historic loop doesn’t take long to walk, but it does travel through time from the village’s rural past to its industrial boom to a present filled with galleries, restaurants, shops and other 21st-century stories still being written.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-3 and 5-7 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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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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