by David Sepulveda
At the far end of Austin Street, one can glimpse a slice of West Rock’s fractured basalt columns and ledges, part of a magnificent and extended geological ridge that rises to 700 feet - a natural backdrop for New Haven’s Westville Village. At Austin Street’s other end is Blake Street and the recently built Wintergreen of Westville, a rambling and controversial “luxury” apartment complex that blocks views of West Rock and that some say is a monument to poor planning and ill-conceived expectations.
If the Wintergreen apartment complex is emblematic of what is wrong about Westville development, so are the deteriorating and neglected homes that encourage instability and blight, according to Thea Buxbaum, co-owner of the newly restored Hotchkiss House at 9 Austin St. Bauxbaum, who has been at the forefront of a number of Westville’s revitalization projects, recognized the historic home’s potential and set into motion events that would have made some of Westville’s early founders, like Miles and Elezar Hotchkiss (for whom the house and town were originally named), proud.
In recent years, the languishing 1820’s Greek Revival house and its 17th century barn-house component, fell into disrepair after its history as a private student dormitory for the old State Teacher’s College, SCSC, and as an illegal rooming house that became a magnet for illicit activity. Upon entering for the first time, despite its dilapidated condition, Buxbaum sensed a positive karmic quality and good vibe that she said is not apparent in all homes. She recruited her friend and business partner, Rebecca Gratz, a New Haven Sound School History and Environmental Studies teacher, to help purchase the property in order to stave off what would have been the likely loss of the house to another serious development faux pas in Westville. Gratz, whose mother has authored three books on the subject of historic preservation, accepted the challenge of saving the home without reservation. “Preservation is in my blood” she noted emphatically.
A previous owner’s plan to install a drug rehabilitation halfway house at the Hotchkiss site met with strong community opposition, leaving the home’s future clouded. Bridgeport developers, who had been eying the gently sloping parcel with intentions of building four vinyl-clad rental structures, managed to acquire an open-ended, if dubious contract, on the property. But after several complicated legal hurdles, a path to ownership was finally realized by Buxbaum (at right in photo) and Gratz (at left). “We purchased the property as a placeholder,” they said, unsure of how the house would eventually be utilized, but resolute in their commitment to not yield its historic significance or future to the wrecking ball.
Among the ideas floated for the house was its possible acquisition by Westville Village Renaissance Alliance (WVRA), a non-profit organization that Buxbaum helped found. WVRA’S mission statement—“to partner with local businesses, property owners, residents and institutions to foster and sustain economic development, community engagement and cultural vitality”—seemed a perfect fit for the historic home. While the work of restoring Hotchkiss House was yet to begin, Buxbaum, Gratz, and WVRA joined with John Herzan, Preservation Services Officer of the New Haven Preservation Trust, in an attempt to secure recognition of the house by the State Register of Historic Places. While largely an honorary designation, the move was a prerequisite to pursuing the more coveted designation of placement on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor that is granted by the National Park Service. That effort was hampered in part by the 1960s-era addition to Hotchkiss House - a crumbling structure that was eventually removed during renovations.
While the attempt to acquire the federal historic designation did not meet with success, recognition by the state did, paving the way for future tax credits and potential grants. For now, WVRA is not in the position to consider buying the house, so the future use of the Hotchkiss House remains an open question. “We are considering ideas and are open to any suggestions,” said Buxbaum. For the short term, the home is being rented to a WRVA staff member while repairs are made to her storm-damaged home, and summer will bring temporary occupation by the Elm Shakespeare Company as they prepare for area performances.
The notion of the home’s eventual use for a public purpose, including possible public tours, guided much of the two-family renovation. Though modern adaptations like wheel chair and handicap accessibility were created, New Haven architect Ken Boroson, who designed the project, said that the guiding principle in the home’s restoration was to return it to its former historic glory. “I was delighted to participate in this collaborative effort and take great pride in the building whenever I drive by,” he said. General Contractor Jacek Tarlowski, of J & A Construction, said that when he first saw the house, “it was ready to fall. We could not enter the house without providing physical support to all parts of the structure… But in the end,” he said, “we saved another beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood.”
The warm history-infused floors installed at Hotchkiss House were reclaimed from an Albertus Magnus University gym floor by Robert Fecke of New Haven’s Reclamation Lumber, LLC. Decorative window treatments for the home were, in part, created by the hand of Westville interior designer Deirdre Fox of Pure Home Interiors. Turning over one of the drapery panels in the formal living room, Fox pointed out the drape’s double linings and fancy goblet pleats. “I wanted to make these myself” she said, adding, “This room was just too important.”
On November first, the gleaming white Hotchkiss House was introduced to the public through a benefit for the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance. Future solvency of the organization has been threatened after cutbacks in State funding, and Hotchkiss House owners could think of no better way to introduce visitors to the new house, than hosting a fund raiser to help boost the critical work of the organization that has been instrumental in growing Westville Village’s identity as a destination. Part celebration and part business meeting, patrons, members and donors attended the “nearly” High Tea (2 PM, as opposed to a later hour) and self-guided tour of the reclaimed property. Live music by the Acoustic Shoes, who often perform pro bono concerts for good causes, filled the home with beautiful vocal and instrumental melodies. Barbara Shiller, one of the group’s members, had actually lived in the crowded girl’s dormitory at Hotchkiss House many decades earlier.
The dining room’s expansive table was a masterpiece of triangular tea sandwiches and tantalizing desserts made by Westville volunteers, who, pouring from ornate silver teapots, kept the fresh-brewed Earl Grey Tea flowing. Some of the antique furnishings that fill the house are a product of Buxbaum’s good timing and good eye. She was able to purchase pieces at bargain prices from the local Columbia Mattress & Upholstery Company “for just the price of upholstering” she said. The work of several artists represented by Westville’s Kehler Liddell Art Gallery was hung throughout the house. Of note are the West Rock Series paintings by award-winning Westville artist, Frank Bruckmann. They present an interesting juxtaposition to the actual views of West Rock seen from some of the Hotchkiss House windows. All artworks are for sale, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting WVRA.
Business owner and WVRA president Gabriel DaSilva, delivered a short welcome and “State of the Village” address, noting that Westville Village has fared well despite recessionary pressures, having just added three new businesses to its main street roster. “We are here to celebrate our vibrant community and its unique role in New Haven” he said. Regardless of the Hotchkiss House’s future role in the community, DaSilva said, the objective of saving and restoring the house has been accomplished. For Buxbaum, who considers herself an “accidental developer” and an “enabler of change” the work is not done. Austin Street, like many others, falls just outside of the officially designated Westville Historic District or West Rock Empowerment Zone, and, as such, does not reap the benefits of homes and businesses inside those areas. Buxbaum finds that untenable. “The history of Westville’s less affluent areas is equally important to preserve” she said. She sees Westville Village as a work in progress that stands to regress if revitalization does not remain an on-going focus. By looking to the past, Buxbaum and the many local citizens that worked on Hotchkiss House, have enriched all of Westville Village and increased hope for a thriving future.