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History As Beauty

January 27, 2015

hillhouse4 (this is a binary piece to one that is running in the Hartford Courant’s New Haven & Hartford Magazines: this was the history side that could not be part of the piece, but generated the lighter, less nerdy focus of a popular magazine piece. See the piece and broader thoughts here: hillhouse As a word “Preservation” sounds depressing. It connotes that decay or neglect threatens something. Or something is so useless that it has to be made museum fodder. But provenance can add deep lustre to any aspect of our lives. Knowing your family tree grounds you, and opens up perspectives that are impossible without knowing it.

There is one street all of two blocks in length, its broad avenue dead-ended by Yale at beginning and end, that has so much history that its amazing level of diligent preservation as a streetscape makes it an extraordinary place. Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut is perhaps, as Charles Dickens declared it to be over 150 years ago, “the most beautiful street in America.” Then the street was almost all exquisite “villas” – mansions for a booming early industrial era’s captains of industry.

The width of the street was extraordinary, but the depth of the flanking greenspace on either side could accommodate curved access drives into each gated site. Now the elms are gone, blighted away, replaced by pin oaks, with second set added by New Haven in the last 50 years paralleling the street, making for an exquisitely composed axis.


The lower block is almost all institutional – St. Mary’s Church and Yale, the rising road to the east is now also all Yale, but perfectly preserved to have the same sense of 19th century urban mansions frozen in time.

Great ideas do not happen in isolation. Almost all of downtown Grafton, Vermont is owned by the Windham Foundation . In 1963 that foundation saw the value in not just preserving the building’s in the town, but the streetscape. It would seem that Yale has had the same master plan for Hillhouse Avenue over the last century.

The context of Hillhouse Avenue is so exceptional the street was added to the National Historic List of Historic Places in 1985. But other places in New Haven and New England are equally stunning: the New Haven Green, the Yale campus itself, and Chris Wigren, Deputy Director of The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation notes that Chelsea Parade in Norwich is another exceptional street on the List of Historic Places, but he also notes that Hillhouse Avenue is “the beginning of the suburban ideal”.

So how did this urban idyll come to be such a unique presence in New Haven’s streetscape? An extraordinary family is at the heart of this street’s story. James Hillhouse was an amazing colonial figure. He was good friends with Jefferson and Washington, a member of Congress, then President Pro Tem of the U.S. Senate and Yale’s Treasurer for 50 years until his death until 1832. He transformed downtown New Haven and the Green by relentlessly planting elms, laying out the beginnings of the present day Yale campus and by taking the lead in removing hundreds of remains from the graveyard behind Center Church and transferring them to Grove Street Cemetery which he helped found in 1797 as the first privately held graveyard in the country.

Even though his personal fortune suffered in the British blockade of New Haven leading up to the War of 1812, Hillhouse found a unique piece of land quite close to the New Haven Green – “the ridgeline of a farm” according to Channing Harris a landscape architect with Towers/Golde, who has a singular devotion to the street. In typical take-charge fashion, Hillhouse bought the property in 1792 and he and future Yale President Jeremiah Day laid out the grand upsweep of avenue to a crown of land he called “Temple Square” located on axis with his new thoroughfare.

Hillhouse was a major investor in the ill-fated Farmington Canal that cut under his street in 1825 on its way to New Haven Harbor. This resultant singularity has fostered musings by architects and historians. Elizabeth Mills Brown, New Haven’s premier preservationist chronicler, dubbed the space between the villas’ front yards and street “the Grove” that created a tree filtered prospect she equated to Regents Park in London. Architect and author Michael Dennis used Hillhouse Avenue as a direct comp to rue Poissonniere in Paris.

Most controversially, architect Patrick Pinnell, who wrote the Yale Campus Guide thinks it’s a real possibility that Hillhouse executed the entire land development scheme to create a site for the permanent home of Connecticut’s state capital: which ultimately was awkwardly built on the New Haven Green as a part-time home of state government- only to be abandoned in favor of a full time location in Hartford. It was only after that New Haven State House was built on the Green, that the Hillhouse home was built by his son . Oddly enough, that house, “Sachem Wood” was demolished in 1942 per the requirements of the will of its builder’s daughter, Isaphene when she died with no relative to replace her.

The site is now a public park, administered by Yale – and there is no sign that announces the hillside greenscape by its official name: “James Hillhouse Memorial Park” – in truth that city park is completely homogenized with the land used by Yale’s Kline Tower. Channing Harris and Towers/Golde landscape architects have spent decades working with Yale to weave all the renewed and restored buildings into a natural fabric that celebrates the 19th century vision of domestic bliss for the 1%. His passion is reflected in the very well attended tours of the street he conducts for the New Haven Preservation Trust.

In these transitions – from mansions, to ad hoc Yale use, to fully renovated institutional use – you can sense how New Haven has changed over the last 200 years. Long gone is the Yale Graduate Housing function that occupied Graves-Dwight House directly to the north of the Farnum House, where, among 40 others, the young family of George H. W. Bush spent almost 2 years after World War 2 – with the infant George W. Bush. Two future presidents sharing a house just might be a singular historical distinction.

When you walk along these two blocks, time slows, light is filtered and your eyes see thousands of burnished architectural details. But in truth you are just walking in history. And history can be beautiful.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bev permalink
    January 27, 2015 4:25 pm

    Love Hillhouse ave


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