Ira Atwater House, New Haven, Connecticut

The building at 218-224 College Street, at the corner of Crown Street in New Haven, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The building in 2018:

This large Federal-style house was built around 1817 as the home of Ira Atwater, a local architect, builder, and carpenter. He evidently built the house himself, and its completion coincided with his marriage to Roanna Buckingham. The couple would go on to have ten children, and Ira had a successful career as a builder, which included constructing the historic First Congregational Church in nearby Guilford. However, he died in 1849 from injuries he sustained after falling from the roof of his house. Historical records do not specify whether he was living at this same house at the time, although it seems likely that he was.

At some point around the early 20th century, the house was converted into commercial use, and the ground floor was altered with the addition of two storefronts. By the time the first photo was taken, the building was occupied by Phillips Restaurant on the left and Star Shoe Repair on the right, and a sign above the front door advertises for “Rooms,” suggesting that the upper floors were used as a boarding house. Many of these rooms were likely occupied by Yale students, as the campus lies just a block north of here.

Today, not much has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken. Despite the ground floor alterations, the Federal-style architecture of the house is still easily recognizable, and it is one of the oldest surviving homes in this part of downtown New Haven. It stands adjacent to another historic home, the Thomas Merwin House, which was built around 1840 on the right side of the scene. Its ground floor has likewise been altered over the years, but the two upper floors have survived intact. Both of these houses are now contributing properties in the Chapel Street Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

United Illuminating Company Building, New Haven, Connecticut

The United Illuminating Company Building, at the northwest corner of Temple and Crown Streets in New Haven, around 1910-1916. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, Randall Photographic Survey of New Haven and Environs.

The building in 2018:

The history of the United Illuminating Company dates back to 1881, when the New Haven Electric Lighting Company was established, in the early years of electricity in America. Two years later, it was reorganized as as the New Haven Electric Company, and then in 1899 it became the United Illuminating Company, with a name that reflected the increasingly regional scope of the company. Around 1910, the company moved into this new headquarters, which was designed by the New Haven architectural firm of Foote & Townsend. The exterior features a distinctive Renaissance Revival-style design, and makes extensive use of marble and terra cotta.

The building was originally only two stories in height, as shown in the first photo. However, it was expanded around 1916, with the addition of a third floor and a wing on the right side. These additions maintained the same architectural style, although the third floor gave it a somewhat unusual appearance, since the old cornice above the second floor is significantly larger than the 1916 cornice at the top of the building. The United Illuminating Company would remain here for several more decades, but in 1940 it relocated its offices to a much larger, newly-completed building just a block south of here at 80 Temple Street. This building was subsequently converted into a bank, and was the home of several different banks throughout much of the second half of the 20th century.

Today, much of the surrounding area has changed in the century since the first photo was taken, but this building has remained well-preserved. The only significant difference in its appearance is the 1916 addition, and this was added only a few years after the first photo was taken. As a result, it stands as an important architectural landmark in downtown New Haven, where its highly ornate exterior provides a sharp contrast to the modernist buildings and parking garages that now surround it. In addition, it is a contributing property in the Chapel Street Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

New Haven County Courthouse, New Haven, Connecticut

The New Haven County Courthouse, at the corner of Elm and Church Streets in New Haven, around 1918. Image from A Modern History of New Haven and Eastern New Haven County (1918).

The courthouse in 2018:

This courthouse was built in 1914, and it stands as an excellent example of the Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival styles of architecture that were popular in the early 20th century, particularly for government buildings. It was the work of local architect William H. Allen, and he designed it to resemble an ancient Greek temple, with classically-inspired features such as Ionic columns on the front and sides of the building, and a front portico with a pediment that was decorated with carved figures. These figures are allegorical representations of Justice, Victory, Precedence, Accuracy, Common Law, Statutory Law, Progress, and Commerce, and they were the work of noted sculptor John Massey Rhind.

Around the time that the building opened in March 1914, the Hartford Courant published a lengthy article about it, which included the following description of the interior:

Its lower walls are of marble, as are the stairways and the walls of the court rooms. The highest walls are tinted and are artistic and pleasing to the eye. A great dome of various colored glass adds to the beauty of the rotunda and the offices are all large and well appointed and handsomely furnished. Every piece of furniture in the building is of mahogany and all the trim is of the same wood. The offices of the county commissioners, sheriff, clerks of the court and the common pleas and superior and supreme court are on the first and second floors. The supreme court room on the second floor is a handsome place: the most beautiful by far of all the courtrooms, because of its large and impressive appearance. Each of the judges will have a private room and there will be all of the comforts and conveniences of home, including a modern tub and shower bath upstairs.

Over the years, this courthouse has been the site of several notable cases. These included Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark Supreme Court decision that originated here in this courthouse in 1961, when Estelle Griswold and C. Lee Buxton were each fined $100 for violating Connecticut’s anti-contraception laws. This case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction and set a major precedent for the right to privacy. Other important events here included the 1970 Black Panther Trials, which occurred after the arrest of nine Black Panther Party members in connection with the 1969 murder of Alex Rackley. The trials sparked large protests, with tens of thousands of demonstrators gathering on the New Haven Green outside of the courthouse, and most of the high-profile defendants were ultimately either acquitted or had the charges dropped.

The building was threatened by possible demolition in the 1950s, at a time when urban renewal projects were transforming the downtown areas of many cities across the country. However, it ended up being modernized instead, and it continues to be used as a county courthouse. Overall, very little has changed in its exterior appearance since the first photo was taken, and some of the nearby buildings are also still standing, including the Ives Memorial Library on the left side. Because of its historical and architectural significance, the courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

Ives Memorial Library, New Haven, Connecticut

The Ives Memorial Library on Elm Street, seen from the New Haven Green, around 1918. Image from A Modern History of New Haven and Eastern New Haven County (1918).

The library in 2018:

The New Haven Free Public Library opened in 1887, and it was originally located in the second floor of a building a few blocks away on Chapel Street. Although most of the major cities in New England already had well-established public libraries by this point, New Haven’s library started strong, with 3,500 books at its opening and a circulation that, by the end of its first year, was the fifth highest in the country. It did not take long for the library to outgrow its initial location, and there were several proposals for a new facility. These included a push to convert the vacant former State House into a library, and in 1887 the voters of New Haven even approved a referendum to spend $30,000 to repair the old building. However, the city council ignored this decision, and ordered the building demolished in 1889.

Ultimately, instead of appropriating $30,000 to repair the State House, the city spent around $71,000 in 1890 to purchase the former Third Congregational Church on Church Street, which was then converted into a library. Once again, though, the building became too small for the library’s growing collections. The former church building was also poorly-suited to be a library, with the Hartford Courant describing it in 1911 as “the dingy library which until now had its home in the old church building,” and noting that “The dim recesses and dark winding ways of that building were mysterious enough to one acquainted with its ins and outs.”

Because of this situation, Mary E. Ives, widow of prominent New Haven businessman Hoadley B. Ives, donated $300,000 to the city in 1906, for the construction of a new library building. She died soon after, and in her will she left an additional bequest of some $90,000, for a total contribution that would be equivalent to about $11 million today. The city purchased this lot here at the northeast corner of Elm and Temple Streets, and construction began on the new building in 1908. It was designed by the prominent architect Cass Gilbert, whose later works included the Woolworth Building and the U. S. Supreme Court Building, and it featured a Colonial Revival-style design that was intended to match the historic character of the New Haven Green.

The new library, shown here in these two photos, was completed in 1911, and was named in honor of Mary Ives. The dedication ceremony, held on May 27, featured speeches by dignitaries such as noted author and Yale professor William Lyon Phelps, and Connecticut governor and New Haven native Simeon E. Baldwin. Cass Gilbert’s design received praise from newspapers such as the Courant, which contrasted the new building with the old. In a June 23 article, published about a month after the dedication, the newspaper declared it to be an “artistic structure, in keeping with historic surroundings,” and remarked on its “Perfection of Interior Decorations and Arrangements.” The article further described:

The whole effect of the exterior with its brick walls and white trimmings of marble and wood and large windows with their many small panes of glass is one of cheerfulness, and on entering the building this is found to be the effect of the interior, which is striking with its white marble floors, stairways, its white walls and light mahogany fittings. . . . The contrast between the library to which New Haven has been used to and the one to which New Haven will get used is striking.

At the time, the library had a collection of some 95,000 books, although only about a third of these were directly accessible to the public. The rest were in the closed stacks, and patrons had to specifically request these materials. Other features of the newly-completed library included a periodical room, an art and technology room, a map room, and several study rooms. It also included a children’s room that, according to the Courant, was among the largest in the country, and a story hour room adjacent to the children’s room. Overall, according to architect Cass Gilbert, the building had a capacity of 256,300 books. In the event, though, that more space was eventually needed, the rear of the building lot was left undeveloped, to allow room for future expansion.

The first photo shows the library only a few years after its completion. More than a century later, it is still standing, although it has undergone some significant changes. The library was nearly relocated to a new building in the 1970s, but these plans ultimately fell through. Instead, the old building was renovated and expanded, with a significant addition to the rear of the building, just as Gilbert had intended. The work began in 1987, and the following year the library moved to a temporary location for the duration of the project. This building reopened in 1990, and it has continued to serve as the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. It is also an important architectural landmark in downtown New Haven, and it is one of the many historic buildings that line the New Haven Green.

United Church, New Haven, Connecticut (2)

The United Church, at the corner of Temple and Elm Streets in New Haven, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2018:

As discussed in a previous post, the United Church – also known as the North Church – was completed in 1815. It was the second in a row of three churches that were built along Temple Street on the New Haven Green, and it featured Federal-style architecture that was very similar to the neighboring Center Church, which had been built a year earlier. However, unlike Center Church, which had been designed by two of the most influential early 19th century architects, United Church was evidently designed by Ebenezer Johnson, Jr., a local shoemaker who was a member of the congregation. Noted architect David Hoadley is generally credited with overseeing the construction, though, so he may have had a hand in the final design as well.

The United Church itself predates the construction of this church by nearly 75 years, with the origins of the congregation dating back to 1742. At the time, New England was in the midst of the Great Awakening, causing a rift between the “New Lights,” who were influenced by the preaching of men such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, and the “Old Lights,” who were wary of the ongoing revival. The New Lights of New Haven ultimately separated from the First Church in 1742, forming the White Haven Church, with a meeting house that was located a block away from here, at southeast corner of Church and Elm Streets.

Probably the most prominent early pastor of the church was Jonathan Edwards the Younger, who was the son of Jonathan Edwards. He was installed in 1769, but this decision proved controversial, and many members left and formed a new church, known as the Fair Haven Church, and constructed a meeting house here at the site of the current church. These two congregations remained separate throughout Reverend Edwards’s tenure, but he left in 1795, and the churches were reunited the following year as the Church of Christ in the United Societies of White Haven and Fair Haven. This rather unwieldy name was eventually simplified, and was variously to as either the United Church or the North Church, given its location at the northern end of the Green.

Following the reunification, the congregation worshiped in both meeting houses, alternating on a monthly basis. This arrangement continued for some time, but by the early 1810s the church had seen significant growth, and the old buildings were in poor condition. As a result, in 1813 construction began on a new brick church, which was built on the site of the former Fair Haven building. Twenty church members were involved in the actual construction work, and their payment was in the form of the two old buildings,, along with the former property of the White Haven Church. The new church was dedicated in December 1815, although the finishing touches would not be completed for another two years.

During the Antebellum period, this church and its members contributed to the growing Abolitionist movement in New England. Perhaps most significantly, one of its members was Roger Sherman Baldwin, an attorney who represented the African defendants in the Amistad case. Baldwin was successful in the trial, which was held across the Green from here on the present-day site of City Hall, but the outcome was then appealed to the Supreme Court. There, Baldwin again spoke in favor of the kidnapped Africans, as did former president John Quincy Adams, and the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court decision to free the men. Baldwin would subsequently go on to have a successful political career, serving as governor of Connecticut from 1844 to 1846, and as a U. S. senator from 1847 to 1851.

Aside from its connection to the landmark Amistad case, the North Church was also involved in the controversy over whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a free state or slave state. Since this issue was to be decided by a vote among its residents, this caused an influx of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, with each side hoping to tip the balance in their favor. This inevitably resulted in violence between the two sides, and on March 20, 1856 the prominent abolitionist and pastor Henry Ward Beecher spoke here at the church, in support of a group of New Haven residents who were moving to Kansas. As the New York Times recounted several days later,

The object of the meeting was to raise money for the purpose of providing the colonizing party with proper weapons of self-defence against the attacks of the Border Ruffians, and also to give them something with “lock, stock and barrel,” to point at the wolves of the prairie who may encroach upon their camps.

The price of admission was fixed at twenty-five cents, but, notwithstanding the equivocal politeness of inviting a subscription party out of an evening, on such conditions, the Church was filled – floor and galleries – with an audience of the most prominent citizens of New-Haven, including a large number of clergymen of various denominations, and a full quorum of Professors from the Faculty of Yale College.

As the keynote speaker of the event, Reverend Beecher spoke about slavery, its effect on the country, and the current situation in Kansas. Following his speech, the audience sang a hymn, “Song of the Kansas Emigrant,” and then Yale professor Benjamin Silliman came forward and asked the people to purchase Sharps rifles, at a cost of $25 each, for the departing settlers to bring with them. Samuel W. S. Dutton, the pastor of the church, was among the first to pledge money for a rifle, standing and declaring that “One of the deacons of this church, Mr. Harvey Hall, is going out with the Company, and I, as his pastor, desire to present to him a Bible and a Sharpe’s rifle.” This was met with great applause, and at one point Reverend Beecher pledged that his church would give 25 rifles, if the assembly could match the contribution. They eventually reached this number, with some contributing multiple rifles, and finished the meeting with a total of 27 rifle pledges from the assembly. This, combined with the admission fee, resulted in a collection of about a thousand dollars for the Kansas settlers, or about $28,000 in today’s dollars.

The church went through another merger in 1884, when it joined with the Third Congregational Church. The combined congregation continued to worship here in this building, which had seen few exterior changes by the time the first photo was taken in the early 1900s. Two other historic buildings are also visible in the photo, which predate the church. On the far right side of the photo, at 149 Elm Street, is the John Pierpont House, which was built in 1767, and just to the right of it is the Jonathan Mix House, built in 1799. Today, remarkably little has changed in more than a century since the photo was taken. Both of these houses are still standing, with the Pierpont House now serving as the Yale Visitor Center. The church has also remained well-preserved during this time, and it is now a contributing property in the New Haven Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Center Church, New Haven, Connecticut

Center Church on the New Haven Green, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2018:

Center Church has been featured in several previous posts, which show the building along with the neighboring churches. However, this particular view provides the best look at its design, which was the work of noted architects Asher Benjamin and Ithiel Town. It was completed in 1814, but the congregation itself is considerably older, dating back to 1639, just a year after New Haven was settled. The first two meeting houses were located near the center of the eastern part of the Green, at approximately the spot where these two photos were taken. A third meeting house, built of brick, was completed in 1757, and stood a little further to the west, probably in the middle foreground of this scene.

This third meeting house remained in use until the early 19th century, when it was replaced by the current church, which stands even further to the west than its predecessors. This site was not without controversy, though, because the western part of the green had long been used as New Haven’s burial ground. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people had been buried here during the 17th and 18th centuries, before the opening of the Grove Street Cemetery in 1797. The burials on the Green had largely ceased by the turn of the 19th century, and around 1812 the church decided to construct its new building on a portion on the burial ground.

This action caused considerable controversy in New Haven, with many objecting to the perceived desecration of their ancestors’ graves. The book Chronicles of New Haven Green, published in 1898, provides the following description:

A public meeting was held at the County House, in March, 1813, at which a protest was adopted, signed by one hundred and seventy-eight subscribers, and resolutions passed vigorously denouncing the proposed location of the building. The construction was nevertheless commenced, but when the workmen began to excavate the trenches, a number of persons assembled with shovels and began to throw back the earth as fast as it was thrown out.

The work went on, though, and few of the graves were ultimately disturbed. Instead of removing the remains or the headstones, the church was built over a part of the existing burial ground, which became the floor of the basement. This created an unusual sort of crypt, with all of the headstones left standing in the same position that they had been in prior to the construction of the church. As it turned out, these graves would be better preserved than the ones outside of the church. In 1821, those stones would be moved to the Grove Street Cemetery, but the remains were not disinterred, leaving several thousand unmarked graves that are still located beneath the New Haven Green today.

Aside from its unconventional basement, the design of the church was typical of many New England churches of this era. It was built of brick, and featured Federal-style elements such as rounded arches over the windows, a balustrade along the roofline, and a classically-inspired columned portico at the front entrance, with modillions around the pediment and an ornate carving in the middle of it. Asher Benjamin, who at this point was a well-established architect, provided the original plans for the church, which was evidently based on St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. However, the design was modified by his former protege Ithiel Town, who was at the beginning of a long and successful career as an architect.

The completed church was dedicated on December 27, 1814, with a ceremony that included a closing prayer by Timothy Dwight, the eminent theologian and author who served as president of Yale from 1795 until his death in 1817. At the time, the pastor of the church was Nathaniel W. Taylor, a young Yale graduate who had studied under Dwight. Like his mentor, he went on to become a prominent theologian. He served as pastor of the church until 1822, when he left to accept a position as a professor at Yale. He was also one of the founders of what later became the Yale Divinity School, and he continued to teach didactic theology at Yale until his death in 1858.

Reverend Taylor’s successor, Leonard Bacon, was installed as pastor in 1825, at the age 23, and he served for more than 50 years until his death in 1881, although he retired from active ministry in 1866. He was also a Yale graduate, of the class of 1820, and in 1823 he had graduated from Andover Theological Seminary. Like his predecessor, he would go on to become a prominent clergyman, but during this time he also achieved fame as an author and editor. He was the editor of the Christian Spectator, which was a literary journal that later became the Yale Review, and he was also a founder and the longtime editor of The Independent. In addition, he published several books, including Slavery Discussed in Occasional Essays from 1833 to 1846. This abolitionist book helped to influence, among others, Abraham Lincoln, whose famous statement, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” is actually a paraphrase of Bacon’s assertion in the book that “if those laws of the Southern States, by virtue of which slavery exists there, and is what it is, are not wrong — nothing is wrong.”

The first photo was taken only a few decades after Reverend Bacon’s death, and by this point the church building was already nearly a century old. Very little changed on the exterior during this time, and although another century has passed since this photo was taken, the church has remained well-preserved today. Along with the two other nearby historic churches, it is now a contributing property in the New Haven Green Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Underneath the church, the crypt has been unaltered since the building was completed, and 137 headstones still mark the graves. It is the only visible remnant of the large colonial cemetery on the Green, and it is seasonally open to the public for tours.