Jonathan Hopkins stood on a grassy hill overlooking a nearly vacant housing complex and pointed out some of its buildings’ distinguishing architectural characteristics.
A mixture of smooth and rough concrete blocks at the end walls mimicked a Colonial brick feature called quoining. The two-over-two double-hung windows with lintels and protruding cornices recalled a popular type of Georgian window design. The individual staircases and private outdoor spaces provided a modicum of privacy for tenants when the 301-unit complex was more fully occupied.
This coherent and innovative architectural design is still visible, Hopkins argued, if you look closely at the buildings themselves that comprise Church Street South, the notorious subsidized housing complex near Union Station that has been almost completely vacated after decades of mismanagement, crime, and neglect have reduced the complex to a dangerous state of disrepair for its recently-evacuated, low-income tenants.
Such was the type of architectural investigation that Hopkins conducted on a recent Saturday morning and early afternoon as he led a sprawling, three-hour biking tour that visited four different past, present, and future affordable housing locations throughout the city, with “affordable” referring to housing where tenants generally paid a third or less of their incomes on rent.
An architectural consultant and native New Havener who has studied and written extensively about Church Street South in particular and New Haven urban design more broadly, Hopkins put together a free biking tour that encouraged participants to contemplate the architectural details and physical presences of different affordable housing complexes in New Haven.
He challenged his fellow cyclists to think about these structures’ relationships to the built environments of their surrounding neighborhoods as one key for understanding the broader histories and policies that lay behind each complex’s construction, development, and sometimes demise.
Organized as a mobile instance of one of the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-Op’s regular “Shop Talks,” during which friends and neighbors share short presentations on their professional and non-professional areas of expertise, the biking tour took a group of ten architecturally-curious locals to affordable housing complexes at 65 Dwight St., Church Street South, Farnam Courts, and Ferry Street and Chatham Street.
The tour began the Saturday before last at around 11 a.m. on the Green, where Hopkins walked his fellow riders through a brief history of architectural debate and development in downtown New Haven. His introductory comments focused in particular on an early 20th century aversion among some civic activists to the proliferation of tall, commercial office towers and crowded tenement housing.
“These civic activists preferred the colonial scale of the Green,” Hopkins said, citing a 1910 report from architects Cass Gilbert and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. that encouraged New Haveners to develop low, domestic-looking buildings that complemented a skyline pierced by civic, not commercial, towers.
While visible in Gilbert’s 1908 design of the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, which Hopkins admired for its combination of domestic form [e.g. front stairwell, gardens, street-facing single entrance], civic scale, and architectural coherence with the existing Georgian mansions along Elm Street, this preference for low, domestic-looking buildings that were architecturally consistent with the surrounding neighborhood would be on full display on the first two stops of the bike tour.
Trade Union Plaza
Winding their way along Chapel Street, College Street, and M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard, the cyclists made the first stop of their tour at 65 Dwight St., a gated complex of 77 apartments located between N. Frontage Road and George Street.
Originally built in 1968 as a housing co-operative for low-income families, 65 Dwight St., then known as Trade Union Plaza, was financed by a subsidiary of the Greater New Haven Labor Council and was meant to offer a redoubt of domestic tranquility for members of the city’s working class who could not necessarily afford single family homes.
Designed by Victor Christ-Janer, a mid-century pioneer in Modernist architecture based out of New Canaan, the former Trade Union Plaza offered plenty of architectural clues for Hopkins to unpack. Each one hinted at the complex’s hybrid nature as affordable housing, built with a modern sensibility, designed to fit in with the style of the surrounding neighborod.
“It’s concrete block construction,” he said, pointing up to one of the many porches and dormer windows that looked out on the shared courtyard blooming with flowers. “These pink-tile-looking things are custom-designed concrete blocks that the architect had made specifically for this complex. It’s an inexpensive building material, but since it’s made to look like shingles, the design fits in with the surrounding wood-frame construction of many of the homes in the neighborhood.”
As the cyclists admired the well-maintained facilities and tranquil interior courtyard, insulated from the traffic of Howe Street, Hopkins explained that the complex has not been a co-operative since the 1980s. While he said there are still six or seven tenants who have their rents subsidized through Section 8, many of the new residents in the fully occupied complex are Yale students and hospital employees, with a majority of the one, two, three, and four-bedroom apartments renting at prices near the top of the market.
The building remains occupied, and its Modernist-New England-style architecture well-renovated and maintained, but the complex’s original purpose as a source of affordable housing for working families has for the most part dissolved.
Church Street South
The group hopped back on their bikes and then headed down George Street, turned south on Church Street, and wrapped around the intersection of Union Avenue to find its next stop on the affordable housing biking tour: Church Street South.
Hopkins explained that Church Street South, which has been roundly condemned by local, and more recently federal, housing agencies for its leaks, mold infestations, and general state of hazardous disrepair, was initially envisioned as just one component of a sweeping commercial and residential mid-century redevelopment project for the Downtown-Church Street corridor.
Even after numerous design compromises and abrupt financial setbacks, the complex was still designed with gestures towards the architectural ambitions of such nearby civic structures as the Cass Gilbert-designed Union Station across the street, Hopkins said.
Designed by Modernist architect Charles Moore and constructed in 1969 under private management but with federal subsidies coming from Section 122 of the National Housing Act of 1954, Church Street South was supposed to consist of pre-cast concrete structures with brick end walls and wooden fencing.
Instead, Hopkins said, flipping through a packet of site plans and architectural designs he had been carrying in his messenger bag, last minute budget cuts led the architects to limit the building materials to just concrete blocks and metal railings.
Nevertheless, looking closely at the design of the windows, stairwells, end walls, and the concrete quoining that meanders its way up the corner of the building above the vacant asphalt courtyard and doorways boarded with wooden planks, Hopkins drew his audience’s attention to the architectural decorations still visible on the surface of this nearly empty complex.
“It’s a modern design that’s trying to call back some of these features of Colonial architecture,” he said, “which would have tied to what Cass Gilbert was thinking about with the train station and the library.”
With a last glance at the complex, all but vacant but still bearing clues as to its initial Modernist-Colonial design, Hopkins rounded up the group for the last two stops of the affordable housing biking tour.
To read John Hopkins’ writings about the history of Church Street South, go to his Urbanism blog and his numerous writings for the New Haven Independent.