Yale’s Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall

Door Frame

New Haven has better reason than most to think about its doors. This dates back at least as far as the Revolutionary War, when British soldiers spent the first week of July 1779 raiding towns on the Connecticut coast. In Fairfield and Norwalk, the raiders disembarked from their ships, skirmished with local militias, destroyed barns and public stores and seized or destroyed armaments. They then went on to put those towns to the torch.

But according to letters written by New Haven residents at that time, published exactly 100 years later in Charles Hervey Townshend’s The British Invasion of New Haven, Connecticut, the redcoats generally spared the buildings of New Haven. Instead, they forced open doors in order to demolish or plunder whatever they found inside. While other towns had to rebuild their homes and businesses from the ground up, New Haven would have been occupied first and foremost with replacing its doors.

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Flights of Fancy - January 24, 2019

In part because all three towns were simply pawns in a failed attempt to draw General Washington’s army out of its encampments in New Jersey, they weren’t immortalized in songs about the Revolution the way that Boston, Savannah, New York and Charleston were. That kind of immortality waited until 1969, when, two years after riots broke out in New Haven—four days of vandalism, looting, and fires in The Hill and other districts—the song “Peace Frog” by The Doors evoked “blood in the streets of the town of New Haven” over a funky groove. The song’s writer, Jim Morrison, was singing about race riots that had broken out all over the country, and New Haven’s made the cut. Sparked by the shooting of a knife-wielding Latino man by a white restaurant owner, the riots, as a New Haven Register headline noted at the time, were much more “deep-rooted”—a serious reckoning for a city that had recently capped off decades of growing socioeconomic resentment by bulldozing the homes of many of the city’s poorer residents.

The ensuing violence was directed predominantly toward property, not people. But Morrison’s dramatic lyric may have also been informed by his arrest during a Doors concert at the New Haven Arena a few months after the riots, his resentment amplified by his apocalyptic imagination or perhaps vice versa. The police first confronted Morrison and a groupie in another band’s dressing room before the concert, doing the sort of thing that bands and groupies did in the ’60s. When Morrison refused to leave the scene, an officer sprayed him with a can of Mace. After taking the stage, he shared his indignation with the audience until the police took him away. Morrison was charged, by the end of the night, with indecency, public obscenity and inciting a riot, as the reaction of audience members leaving the Arena had led to 13 more arrests. The first run-in and all the subsequent ones between Morrison and the police might have been avoided if the doors connecting the dressing rooms at the Arena had had locks on them.

And there were plenty of locks to go around. Long before it helped shape The Doors, New Haven became a major player in the development of the door when the hardware manufacturer Sargent & Co., headquartered in the Long Wharf area, began making door locks. This was in 1884, and the addition of locks and other door components to its hardware catalog led Sargent to become one of the two most important manufacturers in the city, according to Carriages & Clocks, Corsets & Locks (2004), a coffee table book about New Haven’s industrial history. (The other most important manufacturer made corsets.) The company grew from a single plant to five by the turn of the century and by the early 1900s was one of the largest employers in New Haven.

Sargent & Co. is considered a part of New Haven’s industrial past, but it technically never shuttered its doors (although most of its plant buildings were demolished to make way for Interstate 95). A series of buyouts starting in the 1960s eventually placed it under the umbrella of Assa Abloy, a Swedish lock and security door maker prominently positioned across the interstate from Long Wharf Park. “The answers to your door-opening challenges are here,” Assa’s website says. Upriver—up the Mill River, that is—the Bilco Company, which began making its ubiquitous basement access doors in New Haven in 1926, is on its third year in its current location in Fair Haven, suggesting the beginnings of a door corridor.

Another prominent New Haven institution that’s in the door-making business is Yale University. According to a March 2017 article in Yale Alumni Magazine, an “on-campus millwork team” has been on a mission to update the wooden doors, numbering in the hundreds, to buildings across the campus. The new doors are made sturdy in vintage fashion, with interlocking mortise and tenon wood panels further fastened together by iron grillwork, conveying the same message of grandeur and continuity that their surrounding stone elements do.

Many more local educational institutions have had evolving doors thanks to the Citywide School Construction Program, begun in 1995 to rebuild the city’s schools. Spared the wrecking ball ethic of the mid-20th century, neighborhood schoolhouses like Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School in Westville and Nathan Hale School in Morris Cove—both originally built in the early 20th century, the latter just up the hill from where one of the British contingents landed—are fascinating hybrids in the 21st century. Sweeping light-filled promenades and multi-story spaces spring from the sides of stately brick boxes constructed long ago. Kids can come and go through historic stone archways or contemporary glass features.

Of course, whether those students pass through the past or the present, the key thing is the presence of a door.

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 depicts a doorway at Yale’s Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. Image 2 depicts a doorway at Nathan Hale School. Image 3 depicts a set of doorways at Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School.

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