Hall Past

Hall Past

Rising over the New Haven Green with Victorian Gothic towers and windows, and surrounded by less vintage constructions, New Haven City Hall strikes an immortal pose. So it’s hard to believe that its time was once up.

Striped in rosy taupe and sandy brown and constructed in 1861, its facade is plainly exotic. The look was a signature of New Haven’s hometown architect, Henry Austin, who also designed local features from the Grove Street Cemetery’s imposing Egyptian Revival gate to Wooster Square’s pastel Willis Bristol House.

According to its entry in the National Register of Historic Places, the original City Hall was “three and one-half stories, constructed with brick, with facade faced with Portland and Nova Scotia stone.” The interior had “a grand cast iron spiral staircase,” “oak wainscotting” and “a polychrome tiled vestibule.”

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It was a civic center befitting an up-and-coming industrial powerhouse. But a century later, New Haven had become a poster child for the blighted American city. Incentivized by federal dollars, “urban renewal” was rearing its head across the nation, with many cities declaring war on the seemingly inefficient and unmodern.

Most infamously under mayor Richard C. Lee—but also before and after—and without much regard for historical nuance or the communities in the way, the downtown area was transformed, clearing swathes of land for throughways, apartment-style housing and office buildings. Most coveted was the space around the Green.

Soon, the New Haven skyline was bristling with the works of some of the world’s most bleeding-edge architects. But city planners were even more ambitious, calling in 1965 for a new Government Center, with ample parking above and below ground. In the way was the old City Hall, its connected annex, the big post office (the current Lee Courthouse) and, for good measure, the New Haven Free Public Library.

Tapped to design the Center was I. M. Pei, the designer of the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Requiring the demolition of nearly all of the Church Street buildings facing the Green, the plan would have replaced them with a complex housing nearly every government service.

It was a radical proposal, and it was radically opposed by many citizens and civic groups, from the then-young New Haven Preservation Trust to the judges who worked in the targeted courthouse.

After Pei departed the stalled project in 1967, it was eventually handed over to Paul Rudolph, former dean of the Yale School of Architecture. In some of Rudolph’s plans, the facade would be saved, to be surrounded by a modern superstructure.

Ultimately, a spirit of compromise prevailed. The library and the classical, columned U.S. post office (now the Lee Courthouse) were saved, but in 1976, City Hall and its annex were demolished, with the exception of the facade.

And then it stayed that way, for a while. An article in the April 11, 1982, edition of The New York Times describes how, six years later, the facade was still freestanding. The problem was money: The projected $70 million cost of Rudolph’s design had become prohibitive.

Times had changed. The federal government was no longer offering huge chunks of change to cities for “renewal.” But the city still needed a City Hall.

It finally tapped Herbert S. Newman and Partners, a New Haven firm, to produce a more modest design in 1985. The new building, which wouldn’t be finished until 1993, would be taller, and it would put the mayor’s office right over the Green, up the original hall’s reinstalled stairs. The annex was rebuilt, styled after the old facade but not quite getting there, a ghostly echo of its predecessor.

Today, the interior of the building has two distinct looks. The front is classic civic architecture, with numerous artifacts from the old City Hall. The rear is contemporary and not very fussy, with clean lines and an enormous skylight.

Unlike many of the city’s renewal projects, City Hall emerged with some of its unique and historic character intact, giving us a deeper sense of pride and place. And if the powers that be circa 1965 had realized the value of that, there’d probably be more of it to go around.

New Haven City Hall
165 Church St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8am-6pm
(203) 946-8200

Written by Anne Ewbank. Images 1-4 and 6-7 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 5 photographed by Anne Ewbank. This updated story originally published on June 15, 2017.

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