How We Saved The Post Office—& The Library

Thomas MacMillan PhotoFirst of two parts. With New Haven’s landscape changing amid a wave of building projects, William H. H. Rees recalled what happened during a previous massive rebuilding wave, in the mid-20th century. Rees, who is now retired and lives in Westville, wrote up his reminiscences of how citizens stopped several colossal mistakes in their tracks. He served as alder (then called “alderman”) during the reign of Mayor Dick Lee, who at the time oversaw the largest per-capita urban renewal campaign in the nation. Rees represented Ward 1 downtown from 1963-5, then the old Ward 21 in Dwight from 1965-9. An excerpt of Rees’ write-up follows.

After graduating from Yale in 1956 and having an interest in politics, I moved into New Haven’s First Ward and became its Democratic ward chairman. This ward encompassed much of the city’s historic center and much of the university and is bounded by the founding fathers’ original nine city squares, circa 1638, which is the nation’s oldest city plan. Adjusting my work schedule to accommodate my political ambition and newly married in 1963, I was appointed to fill its vacant aldermanic seat. Shortly thereafter, I was also elected as the non-voting aldermanic representative to the Board of Directors of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency (hereafter “Agency”).

Sharing the same idealism and political party, I had great admiration for Mayor Dick Lee, especially for his early restoration of the Wooster Street neighborhood and for his commercialization of the Long Wharf, including a regional market of wholesale food merchants and the Long Wharf Repertory Theater. As I arrived on the Board of Aldermen, the colossal and long-delayed Church Street Redevelopment Project was being brought to fruition.

As the ink was drying on that project, the aldermen were handed another block-buster, the State Street Redevelopment Project, including the Government Center Plan, delineated by the successful and internationally known architect, I. M. Pei. It recommended demolition of everything standing in the block on the east side of the Green, except for the Hall of Records on Orange Street and as modified the façade of City Hall, which had been designed in 1864 by Henry Austin, one of America’s preeminent 19th century architects.

Among the structures slated to vanish was the elegant 1910 post office and federal courthouse, by James Gamble Rogers, later the architect for a dozen Yale buildings as colonial or medieval clones. The wide-scale clearance would allow for an underground parking garage, a federal office building next to the Hall of Records on Orange Street; two bank buildings, one on the Church-Elm corner and the other on the Church-Chapel corner; and a high-rise office tower on the Green with a plaza in between it and a renovated City Hall to allow the employees of the federal office building a view of the Green, a provision that would have tickled Moliere. The three office towers and City Hall with open space in between them would be as nice a sight as someone smiling with several teeth missing. On the north side of the Green the New Haven Free Public Library building, a handsome, Palladio-type building, designed in 1906 by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Office tower in New York City, was to be sold to the State of Connecticut for a new Superior Court house and replaced by a new facility in the Government Center. I loved the Green and its inimitable quality. To me Pei’s plan tilted dangerously toward Brasilia’s sterility and the pomposity of Nelson Rockefeller’s Government Center in Albany.

The Government Center enraged Vincent Scully, a popular Yale professor of art and an internationally acclaimed architectural critic. Like Dick Lee, he was of Irish heritage, a native of New Haven, intelligent, persuasive and grandly charismatic.

I had audited his class in 1956, my senior year, and realized why it was one of the most—if not the most—popular Yale undergraduate course at that time. It was well known Scully supported modern American architects, especially Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, both of whom had been engaged for two Yale buildings, no doubt with Scully’s enthusiastic approval. He might well have shared Frank Lloyd Wright’s opinion of earlier American architecture, epitomized in his answer after lecturing at Yale in 1955 to the question of what college he would prefer to live in if he were he a student: “Harkness Tower, because I couldn’t see out.” In 1963, however, two cataclysmic events most likely awakened in Scully an interest in preserving historic, American architecture: the ensuing destruction of the Penn Central Station in New York, the McKim, Mead, and White masterpiece, and the completion of the Beinecke Library at Yale by Gordon Bunshaft, the embodiment of modernism that he despised.

Since I did not know him personally, I was surprised he invited me to his home one Friday evening in the spring of 1966; I don’t recall what reason he gave for so doing. He probably read a preservation letter of mine in the New Haven Register. Nor do I recall our discussing City Hall, originally scheduled for complete demolition but later changed to keep the façade and the inner staircase. I vaguely recall being told by someone, probably by a member of the Agency, that change was the result of Scully’s intervention, and that the rest of City Hall and its attached building had for him no architectural significance. We shared a few martinis as he regaled me about the importance of saving the library and the post office, even with its ersatz Greek motifs, in what was a dry run of his later campaign to preserve them. He waxed poetically about being a poor boy who had learned to read and to think in that library and the delight he took in seeing the post office’s Vermont marble glow with a lovely pink tint in the rain. He recited all the reasons why both beautiful buildings should be saved and growled at the proposed Oak Street Extension, the turnpike from York Street to Route 34, as a sacrilegious six-lane, street-level highway through the heart of his beloved home town. It was an evening I will never forget.

Scully attacked Pei’s plan with stirring speeches to Yale reunion alumni and to a packed audience at the Yale Law School. On one occasion he shared the stage with Lee, then in the 14nth year of his seventh term, who commented that he did not enjoy the luxury of professors with tenure (i.e. Scully) and had to go before voters every two years with programs and policies for their approval, to which Scully quipped: “But, Mr. Mayor, I thought you did have tenure.”

Scully was the age’s arbiter of architectural sublimity, when mathematics clicked with matter and the concept with the form. Not only that, he had the necessary preservation heft, as Jackie Kennedy when bulldozers were primed to turn New York’s Grand Central Station into dust.

Opposition to the Government Center and the efforts to save the library and the post office were not purposefully organized: interested people, like Scully, and organizations cooperated informally. Initially, we were not confident we could successfully “fight the powers that be”. We were, therefore, encouraged when Kimberly Cheney’s Save-the-Park Committee prevented the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DO”) construction crews from extending the ramp of I-91 at Willow Street to Hamden through the East Rock Park, a majestic piece of the green belt that Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. had designed in 1910. Two important allies in our endeavor were Christopher Tunnard, Yale professor of city planning and president of the New Haven Preservation Trust, and Peggy Flint, its secretary. They played an essential role by attracting enthusiastic support and attaching historical preservation plaques to the library and to the post office, making demolition more difficult.

Mission 1: Save The Library

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThe first arrow in my conservation quiver was the draft of a bill to create a public Fine Arts Committee to support local artistic groups and endeavors, similar to those already in place in several cities. Unlike the others, however, mine included a provision to require the preservation of historical buildings that expressed as best they could the elegance and essence of an era.

I was disappointed no one from any local art organization supported it, probably assuming it would be another entity competing for funds. Soon, the bill it was buried in some aldermanic committee dead-end file, despite its enthusiastic embrace by several artists at its public hearing.

Then I stumbled across Connecticut Bill #417, enacted in 1913, that required New Haven to establish a commission to which all projects for the “…erection of any public building upon…public grounds in [New Haven]” had to be submitted and “…no such public building…shall be erected until the style, design, and material shall have been approved by said commission.” This law was incorporated into the New Haven City Charter of 1928. I could find no repeal of it, which probably had been omitted in error from the Charter Revision of 1952. I wrote about it to William Miller, the president of the Board of Directors of the library, who was also the alderman of the 15th Ward and a Yale professor of political science. I received no response from him. I sent a similar letter to Harold Mulvey, then the corporation counsel for the City of New Haven, asking him if all the city buildings built after 1952 were illegal but heard nothing from him either.

Next it occurred to me that high school teachers at the Wilbur Cross High School and at the James Hillhouse High School might have a professional interest in saving the library. So I asked the respective principals to distribute a petition in that regard. The result was quite successful: the petitions garnered many signatures that I sent to Governor John Dempsey, to Congressman Robert Giaimo and to the local newspapers and radio stations, which favorably reported the results. And I spoke before several groups about our preservation efforts. At a Save-the-Park meeting I made a presentation and received the support not only from Cheney but from many of his colleagues as well. My last shot was a massive letter-writing campaign to the governor, Giaimo, Sens. Thomas Dodd and Abraham Ribicoff, and to as many interested and influential individuals as I could identify, as well as to the local newspapers, which printed several of them. Thomas Hooker, a proprietor of the Green, and Rollin G. Osterweis, president of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, both wrote compelling letters to the governor and sent me copies. Unbeknownst to me, many of those letters were in turn forwarded to Associate Supreme Court Justice John P. Cotter, the chief administrator of the court system, charged to construct a modern court house in New Haven, and a man I knew personally and held in high esteem.

Judge Cotter telephoned me on May 11, 1966. If my notes of the conversation are accurate, he indicated that he was not in favor of buying the library and renovating it as a court or as supporting court offices. To obtain the necessary space, the Center Church house behind the library would have had to be purchased and razed along with the library stacks to provide for a proper court house, but, he said, the Center Church house was not for sale. Since the gross inadequacy of the current facilities in New Haven required there be a new courthouse as soon as possible, the judge said he would tear the library down, if forced to use that site. Such comments probably reflected his frustration in getting bureaucrats to recognize the desperate conditions of the current court accommodations, because the very next day he issued a statement to the press that he had no plan to “…arbitrarily and systematically destroy the aesthetic (sic) architectural pattern in downtown New Haven on the Green…”

Despite Cotter’s representation, an agreement between the state and the city was announced in October, 1966, for the former to buy the library and Center Church house and to build a ten-story Superior Court house behind the library, after demolishing both the house and the library stacks. The library would then be renovated for court offices. Whether the Agency agreed to preserve the building in the early negotiations or in response to the significant voices opposed its destruction is unknown to me, but its preservation became an important condition of the sale.

With this announcement, the matter seemed to have been resolved, except for one essential point: there was no mention of where the library was to go before its new building was built in the Government Center, construction of which would have taken years. That the Judge wanted to build the court house as soon as possible was apparently known to the Agency for it considered several sites as a temporary home for the library and selected the Malley warehouse as the only one available. But—oops!—the warehouse had already been included in another redevelopment project, the Temple-George Redevelopment Plan, to be demolished because of “…sagging floors, settlement cracks and rusting and rotting in limited area throughout the building”, as the then-director of the New Haven City Plan Department reported at a public hearing on the original plan. Furthermore, its 34,800 square feet wer less than the library’s then-present 40,500 sq. feet. Yet when a proposed amendment to the Temple-Grove Project came before the aldermen for approval, there was no mention of the warehouse. When I questioned the omission, a senior Agency official responded it was due to a “clerical error.” I then made a motion to specifically include the warehouse in the proposed amendment, which was accepted by the aldermen. The amendment with the added language was then approved on May 11, 1967. The library had no alternative but to remain in its present home until the completion of the new 90,000 sq. feet Library had been built.

At another aldermanic meeting, I successfully sponsored an amendment to a resolution to allow the library to remain in its present building until 1971 or until the new library was built, if sooner. On November 8, 1967, C. I. Sweeney, the public works commissioner of the State of Connecticut, sent unsigned copies of the Agreement of Sale back to City Hall “…because of the restrictions imposed upon the use and occupancy of the premises prior to December 31st, 1971”. Cotter wrote to me on Jan. 22, 1968: “Time is of the essence, as you know, and we must proceed as quickly as possible”.

A new court plan was drafted and approved for a nine story Superior Court house, which was designed by Alan Greenberg, a local architect, and constructed at the northeast corner of Wall and Church streets in 1971. The New Haven Free Public Library building remains where it has always been. Renovated by the New York architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, it continues to provide a valuable service to the community at large.

Thomas MacMillan Photo

Mission 2: The Post Office

The center of our attention was then directed to the post office. In my many letters to interested persons, to governmental officials and the media, I always linked the Library with the post office as worthy of preservation.

On May 26, 1966, I drafted a post office memorandum and sent it to the popular Mayor: “…the outside [of the post office] blends in beautifully with other structures on the Green …the churches, the library, the Court House, the colonial Yale buildings and the Old Campus. It forms a proper framework, within which the Green is enclosed, and thus does much to preserve the character of the Green… the following recommendation seems reasonable: that the post office building be recognized as a beautiful and historic building worthy of preservation…” Our protagonist was furious. The next day he wrote to me: “…I don’t think your present involvement, or as some people might even put it, your interference, is helpful…I have a position. It was carefully and thoughtfully developed. It is unalterable (sic) and I do not intend to change it”. But his “unalterable” position was soon to be altered: on Oct. 24, 1966, Judge William H. Timbers, chief judge of the 2nd Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals, announced that the six federal judges unanimously agreed to keep their court in its present location in its elegant, Vermont marble building.

As the former, heavy-weight champion, Mike Tyson, once said: “Everybody has a plan until I punch them in the face; then they don’t have a plan.”

BAM! I. M. Pei then had no plan. Ditto for Skipper Dick and his entire clique.

While punching people was not our style, we were, needless to say, absolutely thrilled. The Agency, having working on the project since 1956, had failed to secure approval of the most important players. On Sept. 1, 1966, Timbers wrote to me that until July 7, 1966, “…none of the Connecticut federal judges, including myself, was in any way consulted with respect to either the site or design of the proposed United States Courthouse in New Haven.” Thus, the General Services Administration (“GSA”) had to agree to keep the oldest court in the nation on the Green where it had been for 177 years. When it seemed to drag its feet in coming to agreement, in the apparent nature of bureaucracies, prodding was thought to be in order and was abundantly provided by Dodd and Giaimo, the latter having originally supported for the Government Center a year before. It is difficult to imagine that a federal agency would defy the constitutional separation of powers by challenging the needs of any court and especially of this particular court, especially of Learned Hand’s court.

Contributed PhotoA newspaper reporter in an article at that time presumed Dodd’s and Giaimo’s efforts were to embarrass Lee, since they were known to be allies of Arthur Barbieri, the chairman of the New Haven Democratic Party. Since “The Mustache”, as Barbieri was known, had complete political control of the party, I question whether he’d have anything to gain by so doing. Whatever his motives were, they were not mine: indeed, because of a previous difference of opinion between us, he became so volcanically angry with me, I knew my political career was over, and I was free to say and do what I thought best for the city. Although I knew him well and was a loyal member of his town committee, for the most part, I had no conversation with him on these matters, nor did I seek his support.

The GSA finally approved the renovation of the post office as a federal court and, when completed, the judges moved back in.

Pei’s grandiose blueprint had shrunk to a photo from a Polaroid. What remained was a new City Hall behind its original façade and staircase with a new addition beside it, handsomely designed by Herbert Newman, a local architect; a newly renovated Federal Court house; a new headquarters for the New Haven Saving Bank on its former Chapel-Elm corner site; and the new Federal Office Building, named for Giaimo, bringing a touch of Stalingrad to Long Island Sound. Gone were the underground garage, the second bank tower on the south corner, the library, the police station, the main postal processing center and the plaza. All other buildings remain in place except the skid-row hotel on Orange Street; the back half of City Hall and the attached building on its left and the office building on its right. Both the Police Station on Court Street and the main postal processing center in the post office are gone. Originally planned to be in the Government Center, the former moved to Union Avenue and the latter moved to Brewery Street.

Years later a successor mayor persuaded a Hartford developer, David Chase, to construct office building on part of what was to have been the plaza, beside City Hall. This super-sized Mac-tower is straight out of the Pei play book.

Next: How We Stopped The Ring Road.

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posted by: hrsn on January 27, 2014  4:08pm

Extremely interesting. Thank you. Also good to know some of the history behind the Willow St. Exit 6 abortion. Presumably, the ring road to be mentioned in the second article is the one that Exit 3 Trumbull St. was clearly designed to feed.

posted by: anonymous on January 27, 2014  4:13pm

Great story.  The property-tax-free “Mac-tower” is arguably the most hideous building in New Haven, due to its inappropriate scale, destruction of the Green through long cast shadows, and wind tunnel effects that it creates.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 27, 2014  4:49pm

“I do not see why architects continue to plaster pediments onto attic stories where the pediment does not in any way represent the slope of the roof. In the Post Office design we have a huge pediment spanning ten columns and absolutely barren of sculpture and yet in the Corinthian order. The fact that the building has a well lighted attic story, as shown by the windows on the side street, makes it obvious that the pediment does not represent anything. It would have been so much finer without the pediment, with a simple attic above the portico. You see the pediments in classic architecture was always the termination of the roof and naturally took the shape and slope of the roof…The pediment is the survival of a traditional form, in this case, quite without meaning.”
-Cass Gilbert

“Gilbert reviewed the New Haven Post Office in a 1913 letter to his friend George Dudley Seymour. While James Gamble Roger’s building was ‘a very fine example of good architecture,’ Gilbert was critical of several aspects. He found the style ill-suited to its context, in that it was ‘much better suited to a location near the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York than on New Haven Green.’ A more appropriate style, he believed, would have been Renaissance rather than classical. He found the details to be inconsistent, stating that a square arch, instead of a round arch, should have been used for the side doorway, because the round arch made the side appear ‘to be of one type and the facade of another.’
...Unlike the overly monumental post office, his Ives Memorial Library (1908-11) in New Haven is a Colonial revival building of brick and stone. The style and materials, Gilbert believed, were appropriate to the colonial heritage of the New Haven green. Gilbert called attention to the roofline by using a ‘truthful’ stone balustrade rather than a ‘false’ pediment.”
-Barbara S. Christen. “Cass Gilbert: Life and Work” (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2001) p.79

posted by: Pat from Westville on January 27, 2014  5:00pm

Thank you so much, Mr. Rees, for this look back at the struggle to keep 60’s urban renewal from demolishing a good chunk of downtown. I’m as personally thrilled at this saving of the library and the post office as I was at the saving of Grand Central Terminal largely due to Jackie Kennedy’s efforts. In recent months I’ve found it quite ironic that the famous “highway to nowhere” (aka the Oak Street Connector) is currently being given a decent burial. Perhaps the judgment of history?

In any event I look forward to Part 2.

And thanks also to the Independent for making this fascinating chapter in New Haven history available to its readers.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 27, 2014  5:06pm

Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

The Federal Plaza development continues to baffle me.

Court Street formally linked the Old Town Green of the Nine Square with Wooster Square, the Newtownship’s green, but was replaced with a parking garage, tunnel and enormous paved plaza surrounded by building rears and directly next to the largest green in New England - pure genius! Instead of redeveloping the block with low-rise buildings along Court Street to maintain the connection to Wooster Square and form two intimate courtyards, a tax-exempt skyscraper was plopped into a barren plaza and appendaged to the side of City Hall.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on January 28, 2014  9:35am

Great read! The Iron Mike quote made my day.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on January 28, 2014  1:50pm

Betty Brown, the author of New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design” had a different view of the of the Court House. She emphasized its brilliance in responding to the street and creating urban scenery. The building joined a distinguished ensemble of classical buildings on the Green. A less acute writer might note the compatible style and fine construction of the building and put down his pen. Betty looked past these qualities to suss out the architect’s challenge and special accomplishment.

She notes that the building, “used the classical temple-front , the standard American image of civic dignity, but Rogers had to accommodate his version to a long frontage on a built-up city street. He accordingly flattened his portico against the wall and stretched it to the unclassical length of ten columns, deftly turning the temple image into street architecture. Beautifully finished side and rear elevations make this one of downtown’s best sights from many directions.”

In a few phrases, Betty sums-up the ingenuity of the architect, the importance of creating urban scenery, and a reason for the durability of classical architecture—that it is a flexible language of form that becomes poetry in the hands of a master.

posted by: anonymous on January 28, 2014  4:36pm

Agree with Jonathan. What a terrible example of design, one that has untold long-term impacts on the financial health and livability of our city.

Unfortunately, it’s a tradition that we carry on today in New Haven, as demonstrated by several of the current Route 34 proposals.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 28, 2014  5:10pm

I think its very interesting that the architect of one of the buildings highlighted in this article, actually commented on the other building highlighted in the article.

My guess is that if Gilbert were to have written a formal, published review of Roger’s building he would have agreed with much of what Brown later writes. Gilbert’s commentary on Roger’s Post Office is from a private letter and is definitely acute in that it only focuses on a few architectural details that he finds less-than-ideal. Though Gilbert does praise the overall form and proportions of the building, he says nothing of its urban design, but I suspect he was aware of Roger’s success in relating to the urban intensity of Church Street, since equal effort must have been put into his own design for the Library, which had a slightly different context on Elm Street.

Where Roger’s building is urban in form, civic in scale, and classical in detail thus connecting to the intense commercial and civic life of Church Street, but not to New Haven’s specifically, Gilbert’s Library is domestic in form, civic in scale and colonial in detail, thereby relating to the character of the replaced Quality Row, the civic needs of the modern city center around the Green, and New Haven’s colonial history. Both make appropriate formal and scalar choices for their buildings in their contexts, and only differ in style. Gilbert tied his architectural detail to both current Beaux Arts fashion as well as New Haven’s past, while Roger’s only tied his to what was popular at the time of its design. I don’t know if one style is more legitimate than the other or if both are equally valid and reinforce one another, but I sympathize with Gilbert’s extra effort to connect specifically to New Haven and find some validity in his call for accurate classical detailing.

Both buildings are masterful, but I can’t help but wonder if Gilbert’s changes wouldn’t have made Roger’s building even better.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 29, 2014  4:03pm

Upon further reflection, I agree that Christen calling Roger’s Post Office “overly monumental” is incorrect, because she mistakenly compares its form with Gilbert’s Library. Both buildings address the context of their sites appropriately. Gilbert’s domestic form fits with the Green’s north side, his civic scale relates the building’s use and place in the city center, and his Colonial Revival style relates specifically to the Green’s North and Center Churches. Rogers’ urban form fits with the intense commercial and civic character of Church Street, his civic scale communicates the building’s use, and his Classical style provides New Haven with a generally dignified building. Brown points out that Gilbert took extra “effort to create a specifically New Haven idiom, mixing Colonial motifs with the new grandeur of the Beaux-Arts movement.” Gilbert had a dogmatic view of Classicism, which is why he would have preferred that Rogers use a Renaissance style because it allows for more Manneristic interpretation in its application, according to Gilbert.

Gilbert’s proposal for a Courthouse on Elm Street, which would have masterfully transitioned from the village scale west of Temple to the urban scale of Church Street:

Elm Street complex as built, which accomplishes a similar transition, albiet with a classical style:

An earlier proposal from George Dudley Seymoure for an Elm Street civic center, which makes good use of a Colonial Revival style, but makes the same mistake as Federal Plaza by creating another public space directly adjacent to the largest Town Green in New England:

A preliminary proposal from Cass Gilbert for a Hall of Records, City Hall, Bank and Hotel complex along Church Street (overly monumental?):

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 29, 2014  4:46pm

Working link for Gilbert’s Courthouse design:

Working link for Gilbert’s Church Street complex: