Until recent history, bromances greatly shaped the architectural framework of New Haven. That’s right: Bromances.
The city was created almost four centuries ago by business man Theophilus Eaton and Minister John Davenport. Then, 100 years ago, architect Cass Gilbert and Henry Law Olmsted, son of the Central Park designer, made a sweeping proposal to change the city’s layout. 50 years later, French-born city planner and Yale professor Maurice Rotival and Mayor Richard C. Lee re-swept the streets and neighborhoods in large sections of a complete urban rethink. It was these relationships that defined and redefined New Haven, and the changes that its infrastructure underwent over time.
The first bromance, between the preacher Davenport and his old friend Eaton, began in earnest when the two traveled to the “New World” thinking they might fit in in the existing Massachusetts Bay Colony. That didn’t shake out — Davenport was chased out of town as a religious fanatic — leading them to New Haven. The city fit Davenport’s utopian vision of a holy place.
Their discovery of a broad swampy harbor necessitated a huge panning gesture: A perfect square perimeter, subdivided into nine smaller perfect squares. Creeks to the east and west became the orientation for New Haven’s super square, British surveyor John Brockett tilting that rectilinear master plan at a permanent northeasterly cant. By the 18th century, the super square launched out on all land about its perimeter.
Two centuries later, in 1907, two other men of vision saw the bones of New Haven.
In that year a group of New Haven businessmen called for New Haven to become part of the burgeoning City Beautiful Movement. They raised $8,000 and hired Gilbert and Olmsted to revision the entire state of the city – its parks, its avenues, and the connection between New Haven’s railroad station and the New Haven Green. A 138-page plan with 92 proposed improvements was reprinted in 1912. Its one seminal result was the creation of New Haven’s City Plan Commission—which has morphed over a century into the mechanism to support the last master planning bromance.
Approaching the mid 20th century, Rotival and New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee took over where Eaton and Davenport, Gilbert and Olmsted left off. In 1941, New Haven commissioned its first modernist master plan from Rotival, whose work and career were heavily influenced by Le Corbusier. Lee, the mayor of New Haven from 1954 to 1970, saw a dying manufacturing town and attempted to make it one of the country’s “first slumless city” The city became the country’s leader in per capita appropriations of public funds. By 1971 urban renewal had affected one-third of New Haven’s land area — or approximately 2,400 acres — and one-half of its population.
These bromances are the subject of my most recent “Design Czar” for WNHH radio. To listen, click on or download the audio above, or check out WNHH’s new podcast “WNHH Arts Mix” on Soundcloud or iTunes.