Not too many Elm Citizens — even the most preservation-minded — can tell you at the drop of a three-cornered hat to name the oldest surviving Federalist commercial building in the New Haven area.
One woman who can is 95-year-old Deb Townshend, Fair Haven’s most eminent historian, and the woman who three decades ago saved that very building from the wrecking ball.
The building in question is known as King’s Block, the stalwart brick structure at the southwest corner of Grand Avenue and Front Street. Built in 1816, it has housed businesses ranging from hotel to to fish store to brothel to church to tavern.
On Thursday night Townshend and other local preservation-minded folks, architects, and business people were at King’s Block to mark the 200th anniversary of the building of the structure.
The party was convened by Karin Patriquin of Patriquin Architects, the newest tenant of the building that has been owned and well cared for by Carol Cheney since 1997. Cheney’s marketing firm, Cheney & Company, sits on the second floor. Patriquin’s firm is on the street level. The two share the third floor as a conference room, which is one of Fair Haven’s most celebrated interior spaces.
Back in the late 1970s, the city came up with a cockamamie idea to replace the Grand Avenue Bridge with a 20-foot high new multi-lane structure, which would not have to swing open and thus hold up traffic. King’s Block was slated for demolition along with many other structures from East Pearl Street going west to make way for access to the proposed new span.
Deb and Henry Townshend, along with equally preservation-minded Richard and Marianne Mazan, bought the building from the city and led a campaign not only to save it, but to help put the kibosh on the plan.
That’s part of what was being celebrated. Townshend said she was very glad that both she and the building are still here, although “I just wish I were younger,” she added.
Patriquin, who convened the gathering, said she’s celebrating two years in the space and ten years in business, as well as the 200th birthday of the King’s Block.
The name derives from one of the long line of owners, David King, who in 1850 operated a coffee house at the site. He added two large wooden wings for additional commercial ventures and christened the elongated structure King’s Block. The name stuck, even though the wings did not and are long gone.
The third floor of the building features original bold chestnut pegged timbers and — extremely rare for the era — a high vaulted ceiling, now preserved as the most visible interior reminders of the building’s venerable history.
At the party, long-time Fair Havener Joe Fargeorge said he remembers many of the building’s permutations. When he helped clean out the basement decades ago, he found an old oven and two sets of steps that now lie under the sidewalk.
“There was no buried treasure” in the oven, Fargeorge said.
The oven belonged to a bakery that once used the space. The stairways that appear today to lead nowhere were also part of a commercial venture, when ground level was much lower.
The notion that the building was the site of hiding places for runaway slaves moving along the Underground Railroad is “urban mythology,” according to another local historian, Joe Taylor, who attended the gathering.
The building hardly needs mythology because it is so rich in history, much of it documented by a Yale researcher who Cheney hired in 1997, when she purchased the building after renting for about ten years.
King’s Block also continues to possibly make history as the site of brainstorming for future economic development in the area, deriving not only from the lively businesses that Patriquin and Cheney run, but their community-mindedness.
Patriquin said one reason she moved her firm from its former offices on Church and Chapel streets two years ago was to be near the building she created for the Friends Center for Children on upper East Grand Avenue.
Cheney, whose business focuses on marketing for independent schools, gives over the third floor monthly to Diane Panasci, who runs the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association’s economic development committee.
Panasci convenes her meetings on the second Monday of every month to hatch plans for the area’s economic development and to introduce businesspeople to Fair Haven.
King’s Block, with its view of the bridge, the river, and the park nearby, at the historic center of where Fair Haven emerged as a vibrant cultural hub, is the perfect spot.
Full disclosure: This reporter lives down the block on Front Street and is delighted to see the building every day, like a reliable old friend, always there. So, happy 200th, King’s Block.