Suburban Planning

Suburban Planning

Beaver Hills is on a hill, though you won’t find any actual beavers.

This New Haven neighborhood of wide, tree-lined streets and roomy houses with charm is a relative newcomer in an old city. Until the early 20th century, a New Haven Historic Resources Inventory says, it was “dominated by wooded areas, open farm fields and the swamp and meadow land surrounding the two small lakes which New Haven’s seventeenth-century inhabitants had named the ‘Beaver Ponds.’”

Bordered today by Southern Connecticut State University to the north, Whalley Avenue to the south, Fitch Street to the west and Crescent Street/Sherman Avenue to the east, Beaver Hills was one of the nation’s first planned communities. Before then, it was settled first by Seldon Y. Osborn, who built his 19th-century farm on over 100 acres “slightly southwest of the Beaver Ponds,” the inventory reports. The area was a favorite getaway for Yale student George Mead, who loved it so much that he purchased it from Osborn in the late 1850s to preserve its bucolic nature. But not all was peaceful, at least in perception; the inventory says some locals came to call the area around the ponds “Hell’s Alley” because it was “the home of some of the city’s more notorious characters and activities.”

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Easter Sunday at Center Church on the Green

A few years after Mead’s death in 1906, his heirs decided to subdivide the vast acreage and develop it. They formed the Beaver Hills Company and planned the neighborhood for “the business and professional man, where he and his family may live in such surroundings as give to the word ‘home’ its fullest meaning and greatest charm,” a promotional brochure proclaimed.

Streets, sidewalks, curbs and trees all came before the houses, and buyers were offered a list of approved architects in order to ensure quality. Another stipulation was that “the purchaser was required to build a single-family house costing a minimum of $3,500 within two years of the lot purchase date,” the inventory reports. The Beaver Hills Company was in business until 1938, when the last lots were sold, according to the New Haven Preservation Trust. Further development by the family of William Farnham, another early landowner in the area, continued in the northern part of the neighborhood into the mid-1940s.

The Beaver Hills Company built a neighborhood clubhouse at 390 Norton Parkway, designed to serve as its office but also as “a place of meeting and a means of promoting the neighborhood spirit essential to making Beaver Hills not merely a successful real estate development but a charming community,” the promotional brochure says. Once standing alone on its corner, the small structure is now hemmed in by neighboring homes and vegetation.

With its towering oak trees and venerable homes, Beaver Hills feels so established it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t part of the city’s suburbs. On a neighborhood walk with then-45-year Beaver Hills resident Greta Seashore, she pointed out the features of some favorite houses in numerous architectural styles: Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Bungalow, Spanish Colonial Revival, Prairie, Federal and more. “They’re all different,” she noted. “There were several different architects that were involved. There are a few that you can see are really following the same plan, but mostly they’re all different.” It’s one of the features she likes best.

The east part of the neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Beaver Hills Historic District in 1986. The New Haven Preservation Trust calls it “one of New Haven’s most substantially intact collections of suburban residential architecture erected prior to the Second World War” and notes that it includes “one of the city’s best collections of early 20th-century garages, both attached and freestanding.”

Seashore and her late husband, John, both professors at Yale Medical School and practicing physicians, were only the second owners of their 1930s home. They were one of just a few Christian families to live in the area when they moved in, she said. At that time—the mid-1970s—Beaver Hills was predominantly Jewish, and there are still several shuls in the neighborhood, to which Jewish residents can easily walk for services. DataHaven’s 2016 New Haven Neighborhood Estimates counted Beaver Hills’s population at 5,135 and noted that it was 66% black, 15% white, 14% Hispanic or Latino, 5% “other” and 1% Asian.

As for the name Beaver Hills, conjured up by its development company, from any distant vantage point it’s easy to see that the neighborhood actually is built on a hill—more like a tree-covered mound in the middle of the city. That geography was especially evident during a June 1982 flood following several days of heavy rain. “It was like a stream up here,” Seashore said. Water gushed down the hill and flooded Blake Street.

The “Beaver” part of Beaver Hills is more vestigial. At the base of the hill to the north, dividing Crescent Street from the campus of Southern Connecticut State University, are the eponymous beaver ponds, but while the park’s bulletin board counts more than a dozen species of birds as residents, there’s no listing for beavers. According to New Haven’s Department of Parks and Trees, “The ponds here were originally created by the beavers, who dammed portions of Beaver Brook until it overflowed. The vegetation was flooded and much of it died, allowing pioneer plants adapted to aquatic conditions to take over.” The two ponds, the parks department says, are in “different stages of succession” and may eventually fill in and become marshland.

Today the only beavers you’re likely to find are 110 years old and made of ceramic. They grace the original brick pillars that mark the entrance to the neighborhood at Norton and Goffe Terrace, and like so much else in Beaver Hills, they look pretty good for their age.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2 and 3 photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on March 28, 2018.

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