The Grove Spreads East

Thomas MacMillan PhotoIt has four working gas lamps, a hand-operated elevator, stained glass windows, carved chandeliers, and 140 years of history. All that’s missing is a group of artists to move in and give this ancient mansion a second life.

Ian Christmann, the photographer who owns the 1875 mansion at 154 East Grand Ave., has reached what may be the last phase of his quest to revive the old home, dubbed Chetstone.

Christmann has teamed up with the Grove co-working organization on Orange Street to try to launch Grove Studios at Chetstone.

At the Grove’s downtown space, freelancers and small organizations have a place to work together, to get out of their home offices and work alongside other people. Christmann and the Grove’s Slate Ballard envision a similar operation at Chetstone, but for artists and musicians and writers.

Christmann, who lives with his wife and two small children nearby on Quinnipiac Avenue, wants to turn the unoccupied Victorian Gothic house into shared studio space. Think Erector Square, except it’s a historic mansion with exquisite woodwork, not faded old factory made of bricks and steel.

Christmann, who’s 35, said he has about a month to fulfill his dream. He and his wife can’t afford to pay the mortgage on their own. They need to find some artists to rent studio space in the house—immediately.

Since he bought the house in 2003, Christmann has dreamed of filling it with artists.

He and his wife had been looking for a house to invest in, when she happened to be running by the mansion as a for-sale sign was going up. The couple began to investigate the possibility.

The house was owned at that time by Gordana Lam, an elderly widow who’d lived there for 40 years. She was moving into a nursing home and sold the house to the Christmanns for $222,000.

“As soon as we closed on it, it felt like, ‘This is such a cool house, it’s not really an investment,’” Christmann said. He realized the house was something special, not simply a property to flip.

The Christmanns decided to try to create an artist community with the house as its new home. The first order of business was to deal with all of Lam’s stuff. The woman who owned it had no next of kin and had sold the house with most of her worldly possessions still inside it—40 years of memories.

“It was fully loaded,” Christmann said. The house was filled with furniture and personal belongings. Before she moved out, Lam (pictured) “had started to turn inward; everything was closed in,” Christmann said. The front yard was completely overgrown; the house wasn’t visible from the street. Inside, the curtains were drawn and pinned with safety pins that had rusted over.

In Lam’s husband’s old office, it was clear she had simply shut the door after he died in the ‘80s. Christmann found the man’s pipe still sitting on his desk as though he’d just gotten up.

One blessing of Lam’s apparently reclusive lifestyle was that she “never opened her door to the formica people in the ‘70s,” Christmann said. The house still has all original hardwood floors, with inlaid designs, along with countless other architectural details—carved moulding around all the doors and windows, stained glass, painted chandeliers, several working gas lamps.

As Christmann dug into the history of the house, he discovered more and more. The house was built in 1875 by Lucius Moody and his wife Dr. Mary Blair Moody, the first female physician in New Haven. It was one of four Victorian mansions at the top of the hill. At the time, the house looked down on farmland around the Quinnipiac River, commanding from it’s fourth-story tower what was likely one of the best residential views in the city (pictured).

The house changed hands only three times before he and his wife bought it, Christmann said. In the ‘20s, it was owned by an art collector named Albert Haasis, who dubbed the property “Chetstone.”

After the Christmanns bought the house, Home and Garden TV came and did a show about some of what they found inside: several old guns and a lot of paintings. They also ended up with some beautiful old furniture, including a grand piano.

In the attic, they found an old Zenith television with a circular screen ...

... old copies of The New York Times from famous dates in history ...

... and ringing the ceiling—hand-painted images of a gentleman rabbit.

Christmann, who grew up building houses with his carpenter father, dove into restoration work, including fixing leaks in the original slate roof. He worked from a rock-climbing harness roped to the chimney. The Christmanns cut down the overgrowth around the house and painted it inside and out.

Christmann found some artist tenants to move in: a photographer and five musicians, including Jonny Rodgers and Chuck Costa, the state troubadour. But they all moved out in November 2012, leaving Christmann with his artist-community dream still unfulfilled.

He’s teamed up with Ballard, one of the founders of the Grove, to now try a different tack: Not a live-in artist community, but shared artist studio space. Christmann said he envisions a creative space for writers, photographers, filmmakers, and musicians. Messier artists like painters and sculptors might work there, but Christmann said he’s mindful that the Chetstone is a more delicate environment than studio-space buildings in former factories like Erector Square.

The rates are also more expensive than Erector Square’s. “Membership” goes for $350 a month for a shared studio to $525 to $675 for a private room. Day rentals are also available. Christmann uses the house for portrait work.

Just maintaining a 140-year-old mansion is an expensive proposition. The house is heated by an oil-fueled steam boiler. “You can almost watch the tank drain when you fire it up,” Christmann said.

Christmann said he wants to tap into the Grove membership to find artists for Chetstone. “Lots of artists come into the Grove looking for space to create,” said Ballard.

Whether those artists will take root at Grove Studios at Chetstone remains to be seen. Christmann said he’s not sure what he’ll do if the studio plan doesn’t work out.

“We want to see it come to life,” he said of the old house.

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posted by: Wildwest on January 4, 2013  9:09am

I bet that 222K seemed like a bargain back then huh? This house looks like it could employ one person year round to maintain it. What an incredible property, it is high on my list of most beautiful houses in New Haven/CT. Good luck.

posted by: Lallements Ghost on January 4, 2013  9:11am

Host murder mystery dinner parties to help pay rent!

posted by: anonymous on January 4, 2013  10:20am

I agree with MikeM.  The house is beautiful and the Grove is an amazing place. I hope that the project succeeds.

I know that more people would be interested in renting the space if it were easier to get to. 

For instance, there’s currently no way to bike from Wooster Square to Fair Haven without risking death, even though the City just spent tens of millions of dollars re-doing Grand and Quinnipiac Avenues using regressive, 1960s-era design standards that, by failing to address speeding, make the roads even more dangerous than they were. 

Furthermore, bus service used to be regular, but due to lack of oversight and willful neglect from our City and State elected officials, it has become sporadic.

Maybe we should import the engineers from NYC (a city which imported Copenhagen’s engineers). When roads are safe, economies boom.

posted by: FairHavenRes on January 4, 2013  11:20am

Anonymous, I cycle from the train station to Fair Haven every day, with multiple routes available, so I know it’s entirely possible.  From Chapel St you can cut north on any of the streets (I frequent Blatchley) and then take Grand across the river.  Or you can take Chapel St all the way around to Front and then head east on Grand, although Chapel’s a little more dicey in general.  It’s totally feasible, I promise!

posted by: anonymous on January 4, 2013  12:09pm

FairHavenRes, I agree there are some great routes in Fair Haven, but they certainly aren’t of the quality that most people would allow their children to ride on.  And putting these aside, the Grand Avenue bridge, the corner of East and Chapel, and a few other spots can be very frightening even to our city’s most experienced cyclists.

posted by: FairHavenRes on January 4, 2013  1:08pm

For cycling I certainly try to avoid that stretch of Chapel, yes, and use Grand Ave instead.  As for children (?), no, I wouldn’t allow my child to cycle most of the roads, but I wasn’t aware that was a criteria for getting to a studio space on E Grand Ave.  New Haven has a ways to go in terms of making roads cycle friendly enough for children, but adults are more visible and it’s certainly feasible for them to get from Wooster Sq to Fair Haven (Heights) on a bike.  Happy cycling!

posted by: anonymous on January 4, 2013  1:55pm

FairHavenRes, Fair Haven is a wonderful place and certainly more accessible than most places, but we can do better. 

“Feasibility” is not the goal of any city that wishes to be financially competitive and socioeconomically integrated. Rather, the goals for competitive cities should include being very pleasant, extremely safe, and accessible to people of all ability levels or age. Children are simply an indicator species.

Cities that do not follow the principles of “universal design,” particularly in our world of changing demographics, are destined to fail.

posted by: Lallements Ghost on January 4, 2013  2:31pm

I worked downtown on Broadway for 4 years while living in Fair Haven Heights and biked to work 5 days a week year round; rain, snow, whatever. No traffic issues to speak of, the only problem I had was that I enjoyed biking on River Street and caught my front wheel in the old trolley tracks on one occasion (that I recall). The city has of course since redone River Street with new smooth pavement and traffic calming measures like speed bumps and jersey barriers to prevent drag racing. I’d love to see more bike lanes in general everywhere (I’d actually prefer New Haven’s streets to look like cities in Asia with bicycles from curb to curb) but I think the sharrows have since improved this commute, and the share the road signs on Quinnipiac Ave that went up 10 years or so ago were a great step. Neither of these things existed when I started the commute and since we’ve seen additional signage, sharrows, repaves, and traffic calming. Furthermore, having grown up in the heights, my family regularly rode bicycles together to Lighthouse, Long Wharf, and Downtown recreationally. I started in a baby seat on the back of my mothers bicycle. The only accidents my family had were getting Tomlinson bridged (everyone but me, to date). I also knew numerous cyclists who lived on both sides of the bridge who regularly commuted to their various jobs, some as far as Hamden. This was all before any of the aforementioned measures on the city’s behalf.
I sincerely appreciate your intention, Anonymous, but when you make these garish blanketing statements about how atrocious and antiquated the city is you end up alienating people like myself and others who have posted here who actually know that you’re inaccurate from lifetimes of first hand experience. Yes, more bike lanes. Yes, more traffic calming measures. Please hold the inaccurate, nonconstructive, and undue depreciation.

posted by: yousaidwhat on January 4, 2013  2:53pm

yes, erector square is an old factory but hardly vacant and tired. I have been here
27 years and it is a vibrant place. Knocking your competition belittles your intent.

posted by: anonymous on January 4, 2013  3:38pm

Mr. Lallement, you have spoken like a true bicycle advocate. You are correct that some people will ride in just about any condition (even over conditions like the Tomlinson tracks, which have recently hospitalized more than a dozen people with severe injuries).  But not everyone is as proficient, and I’m sure you’ll agree that a sharrow in the truck travel lane is not the most effective advertisement.

Anyhow, I love biking in Fair Haven, even if commuting there every day would be difficult.  The bottom line is that if we want more jobs, citywide infrastructure and safety need to be improved, and we are missing out on key opportunities to do so (see above).

posted by: David S Baker on January 4, 2013  3:38pm

I bombed between Downtown and Fair Haven Heights on a bicycle for years with a baby strapped on the back.  No problems. Take Humphrey… If you are intimidated by ethnic diversity you should probably look at other parts of town to commute through.  In the past eleven years I have never had any issue commuting from FHH to downtown on any form of transportation as a result of having to pass through Fair Haven.  I had PLENTY of issues because of aggressive motorist, but no more or less than any other part of the city.

As for the FHH bashing: since neighbors worked with the city to repair the bridge and street I have not had to mop up one injured motorist in front of my home on Q-Ave.  The old average was 2 to 3 per year.  Our sidewalks are not trip hazards, neighbors are throwing parties, people are proud to live there. We have people from every corner of the globe.  We joke that we are the overflow for East Rock.  It’s a gem set in some rough stone but well worth the commute.  Most of this progress is due to people like the Christmanns and their tireless efforts to save the old gems that dot the river and hillside and create a community.  While most of these projects are not anywhere NEAR the scale of his endeavor, this sort of penicillin is sprouting up everywhere in this neighborhood.  Sadly, being the step child of the city, the reputation of the area is about five years behind the reality.  Most people dont even know we are here. 

Ian’s continued support of the arts, his moral fiber, and his drive to create a community speak for themselves, but if I can reinforce this by saying something that is not made obvious by this article;  You will NOT find a better landlord who is more accommodating or kind.  You will also be hard pressed to find a more practical setting for creative endeavors.  The place is a time capsule.  You essentially are being offered a chance to run your organization from a museum in an ivy league town with ample parking minutes from I91 and I95.  Seems like a deal to me.

posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on January 4, 2013  11:37pm

$125 for a few hours or $375 a month? Many artists are employed yet struggling

Little steep for artists. I could do like $25 a day or $75 a week possibly. $200 a month. I would probably use it 10-15 days a month for a few month.

posted by: Stephen Harris on January 5, 2013  12:25pm

Maybe turning it into a gallery would work. A bed and breakfast might work too. Or maybe rent it out to Hollywood for period movies. It would be a shame to lose such a beautiful home.

posted by: anonymous on January 5, 2013  12:38pm

David, let’s be honest. “Take Humphrey” is not a solution. Unlike the misguided officials and reps who constantly proffer it as one and who drive everywhere, most people are not powered by motors. They use more or less direct routes, or use none at all.

In a world of skyrocketing energy costs and eroding incomes, until the City elites realize simple truths like this, the local economy is going to keep sliding downhill and more spaces will sit empty.

posted by: David S Baker on January 5, 2013  10:16pm

anonymous, HONESTLY, I don’t disagree with your stance on improved public transportation bolstering the city infrastructure.  I’ve been screaming to get a Shoreline East stop / union shuttle train stop where it intersects Grand out here for years. God forbid a train platform walking distance from a residential area, right?  People who commute to Manhattan or points in between might start to buy houses out here and some stores might open, right!? 

What I don’t understand is what any of this safe streets soapboxing has to do with the article.  This is a VERY accessible location.  Three bus lines stop a block down the hill.  Parking out here is free.  All the bridges, roads, and lights are currently 100% operational.  You can get here on a bicycle AS SAFELY as any other part of the city.  Heck, you can take a canoe here from Long Wharf.  Did you suffer some trauma on a bike specific to this part of town?  Were you horribly maimed and that is why you don’t use your real name?  Whats the dilly?

BTW, don’t actually answer these questions for my benefit.  I’m done with this thread…

posted by: anonymous on January 6, 2013  10:27am

David, I agree. New Haven can easily improve its commuter rail system. There should be a small station near Humphrey Street to serve East Rock/Fair Haven, and a platform to serve Fair Haven Heights as you point out.  Once NHHS opens, it can stop at the former, and also at a new stop serving the Cedar Hill/Southern Hamden neighborhood. Like other cities, the projects can be funded through a special tax that captures the increase in surrounding land value once a station opens. Instead of just doling out new stations based on politics, construction should be prioritized based on which areas are “shovel ready” for high-density, tax-producing development surrounding the station. Accelerating this type of development should be a priority for Connecticut, if it wants to compete with other parts of the globe.