Town and City

Town and City

The character of the New Haven Green, and therefore New Haven itself, owes much to Ithiel Town, by some accounts the city’s first professional architect.

But Town’s New Haven career had a dubious start. His first project here was Center Church on the Green, though the extent of his influence on the project is a source of debate. Built from 1812 to 1815, the church was initially designed from a “mail-order plan from Asher Benjamin of Boston,” writes Elizabeth Mills Brown in New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design (1976). A protégé of Benjamin’s was hired as the builder, “but he, being apparently occupied with other work, quietly slipped a fellow-Benjamin apprentice into his place, one Ithiel Town—a man about whom, the indignant Building Committee said, they knew nothing.” Nevertheless, Brown writes that Town managed to keep the job, “and thus inadvertently began one of the most important chapters in New Haven’s architectural history… Town supporters feel sure that he changed in some significant way.”

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Regardless of how much Town’s hand guided the construction of Center Church, his role in the designing of its neighbor, Trinity Church on the Green—an impressive structure built of local traprock and “one of the first, if not the first, Gothic Revival churches in America,” a Trinity Church history claims—is indisputable. New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library houses Town’s drawings of the church. The lavishly colored renderings show the church’s sanctuary with an intricately painted blue ceiling bordered with leaves and geometric designs. Ionic columns support Gothic arches, and a rose window in blue tops five tall, narrow windows and two smaller rosettes.

“About the only sign of Town now is the clock on the east gallery, his gift to the church,” the Trinity history notes. That clock, topped by a gilded angel playing a harp, is easy to spot. More hidden are traces of earlier stenciling on the walls above the organ pipes; the ceiling’s ornate designs have since been painted over. Nevertheless, the rarely seen bones of the church remain a credit to Town, the history says. “A visit to Trinity’s attic, with its stout timbers and mortise-and-tenon joints still pegged together nearly two centuries after they were erected, reveals Town’s clear understanding of the nature of wood and its load-bearing properties.”

In 1827, Town undertook his third project on the Green: New Haven’s state house. At the time, New Haven was a co-capital with Hartford, and Town’s building, resembling a Greek temple, became a focal point of the Green along College Street. But in 1885, once New Haven had been stripped of its capital status, “a sizable crowd of roughly 3,000 spectators witnessed the building’s ceremonial demolition,” Patrick J. Mahoney writes for “Years later,” Mahoney writes, citing a 1933 report in the Hartford Courant, “it appeared that many citizens of New Haven regretted the decision to destroy the structure,” though, at the time of its demise, the interior of the building was infamously dilapidated.

Town’s influence reached beyond the New Haven Green. For example, with partner Alexander Jackson Davis and protégé Henry Austin, he designed several mansions on Hillhouse Avenue. And New Haven wasn’t his only canvas. He was also the architect of the Samuel Russell home (1828), now part of Wesleyan University, and a Revolutionary War battle monument in Groton (1826-30). He designed Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum (1844, with Davis) and Christ Church Cathedral (1827-8, with Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton).

Town’s projects reached beyond Connecticut as well. He designed the state capitols of Indiana (1831-1835, later destroyed) and North Carolina (1833-1840) and, with Davis, New York City’s US Customs House (1833-1842). Viewed side by side, his projects are an eclectic bunch. “Thanks to Town,” writes contributor Nancy Finlay, former curator of graphics at the Connecticut Historical Society, “Connecticut’s architecture suddenly became considerably more diverse and interesting.”

Still, Town’s best-known legacy—and his route to eventual wealth—was not in his soaring vision for a church ceiling or a capitol dome but rather in the utilitarian design of a sturdier bridge. Known as the “Town Lattice Truss,” Town’s invention utilized “an uninterrupted series of crisscrossed diagonals forming a diamond pattern,” writes Yankee magazine. Used to build countless bridges throughout New England and the South, the Town Lattice Truss is labeled by Yankee as “one of the earliest examples of standardized construction in America.”

Town’s creation was an improvement over the standard at the time, a design by fellow New Englander Theodore Burr. Town himself had built bridges according to Burr’s specifications, but “the huge timbers that were required needed considerable manpower to assemble.” The Town Lattice Truss was simpler to build and stronger too. According to a display at the New Haven Museum, Town’s design “supported a longer span than a conventional bridge” and was easier to repair. It was first tested by Eli Whitney in an 1823 bridge across Lake Whitney, according to a museum marker. A replica of that first bridge, which today leads from the Eli Whitney Museum’s parking lot to East Rock Park hiking trails, was constructed in 1979 by students from the Eli Whitney Technical School on what are believed to be the same piers as the original.

Town built a few of his lattice truss bridges himself, but mostly he collected royalties on the design—some say at the rate of a dollar a foot, others two dollars. “Town had made himself a rich man through his invention and assured himself a measure of fame,” Yankee proclaims, but these days, it’s a small measure. His name is hardly spoken.

Town does get a shout-out on the state historical marker in the center of Hamden, and you can visit his likeness at the Yale University Art Gallery, where he’s immortalized in a marble bust by the artist Chauncey B. Ives. And of course, Town’s local legacy lives on right where it began, in his iconic churches on the New Haven Green.

Photo Key:

1. Example of Town Lattice Truss at the Eli Whitney Museum.
2. Ithiel Town (second from left) with members of his family, from the New Haven Museum’s collections.
3.Town’s rendering of Trinity Church’s apse, from the New Haven Museum’s collections.
4. 1842 sculpture of Town by Chauncey Bradley Ives, on view at the Yale University Art Gallery.
5. Town’s design for Trinity frieze, from the New Haven Museum’s collections.
6. View of Trinity, Center and United Churches on the New Haven Green.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 2, 3 and 5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery. Image 6 photographed by Dan Mims.

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