Duncan Rebuilders Vow To Preserve History

Paul Bass photoThomas Breen photoThe new owners of the the 123-year-old Hotel Duncan promised to preserve many of its historic architectural elements, from its manual-operated elevator to its neon-lit marquee, as it converts the building into an upscale establishment.

On the inside, they aim to reimagine the design of the rooms and lobbies to reflect New Haven history and culture and to create a communal space that is welcoming to both visiting hotel guests and members of the community.

Such was the pitch that Graduate Hotels president Tim Franzen made to the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team on Tuesday night during its monthly meeting on the second floor of City Hall.

Built in 1894, the Duncan is a 92-room part-hotel, part-Single Room Occupancy (SRO) boarding house at 1151 Chapel St. that currently rents out most of its rooms by the night, but also rents out some of its rooms by the week to longer-term tenants.

Last week AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago-based investment and development firm that specializes in independent and boutique hotels, formally completed its purchase of the hotel from its current owner Stirling Shapiro for a price tag of $8 million. (Click here for a previous article about the history and changing fate of the Duncan.)

Through its university-focused division Graduate Hotels, AJ Capital Partners plans on scrapping the SRO business model, converting the entire hotel to traditional, nightly rentals, and reducing the total number of rooms to around 70 or 72. Each room is to have its own bathroom, as opposed to the current layout, in which some rooms share a single bathroom.

The new owners plan on closing the hotel for renovations in December 2017 and plan on reopening for business by January 2019.

SRO rooms at the Duncan currently rent for between $170 to $240 per week, while traditional hotel rooms at the Duncan rent for around $130 per night, according to Tripadvisor. Franzen did not say how much nightly rates will be at the newly renovated hotel. He did say that they would likely be comparable to nightly rates at the nearby boutique hotel The Study at Yale, which charges around $250 per night for hotel guests.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Franzen assured neighbors that AJ Capital plans on renovating the Hotel Duncan in the same way that it approached renovating other historic properties like the Hotel Durant in Berkeley, California and the Chicago Athletic Association in Chicago, Illinois: by focusing on historical continuity and community specificity, and not on the monolithic, anonymous experience typically provided by major national hotel brands like Marriott and Hyatt.

“The idea is to bring interesting, independent, unique, fun hotels to communities that have universities as their anchor,” Franzen said as he described the mission of Graduate Hotels, which has opened hotels in such cities as Ann Arbor, Michigan; Athens, Georgia’ and Madison, Wisconsin.

He said that although his firm seeks out cities with a strong university presence, the hotels themselves are rarely university-themed. Instead, their custom designs focus on relating to the communities in which they exist.

“You don’t see school colors and banners and mascots [at our hotels],” he said. “We wanted something a little more unique. We wanted to research the story, the history, people who went to school there, who grew up in the community. Our team spends a lot of time and effort coming into particular communities, talking with people, going to thrift shops, going to restaurants, walking through campus, and getting to understand the history and culture and figuring out what stories we want to tell.”

Franzen offered no details on what specific elements from Yale and/or New Haven history may make it into the final design of the new Hotel Duncan. He did say that Graduate Hotels plans on maintaining the Duncan’s century-old, manual-operated elevator, while also installing a new elevator. They also plan on preserving the current flooring, molding, and woodworking of the lobby, and will open up a 1,500 square-foot ballroom on the ground floor that has served as a storage space and workshop for decades.

“We also want to be a bit of a community living room,” he told the group. “Our hotel lobbies are not staid or cold or quiet. We have a lot of soft seating, a lot of communal tables.”

He said that, as an example, the Ann Arbor hotel has a publicly accessible, 40-foot communal table with 60 seats around it that gets used all day long by hotel guests, students, family visiting students, and unaffiliated community members. Similarly, his firm envisions creating a community space in the lobby of the Hotel Duncan that will have a coffee shop, and that will be open to anyone and everyone.

“We want to create these living rooms,” he said. “Active spaces where anyone in the community can come, congregate, have a cup of coffee at the end of the day, have a glass of wine or a beer. Active spaces morning, noon, and night where people can congregate and collect.”

Franzen said that AJ Capital has assured the 15 or so current employees at the Hotel Duncan that they are welcome to keep their jobs at the new hotel after renovations are complete in early 2019.

AJ Capital has also been working with the Glendower Group, the not-for-profit relocation arm of the New Haven Housing Authority, to help the Hotel Duncan’s current SRO tenants find new homes by the firm’s mandated early-November move out date.

AJ is paying Glendower $50,000 to assess renters’ finances and needs, make appointments, and drive them to visit new properties. AJ Capital has promised to pay for security deposits and moving expenses, and has told renters that they are welcome to bring with them the furniture in their current Duncan rooms, if they would like.

Shenae Draughn, senior vice president of Real Estate Development at Glendower Group, said that there were 39 longer-term tenants at the Hotel Duncan when AJ Capitals purchased the building. So far, Glendower has successfully relocated 10 of those tenants to new permanent residences, and is in the process of moving another 15 tenants who have already found new homes. Glendower is still working with the remaining 14 tenants on finding new homes.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to do whatever we can to lessen this burden and this disruption” to the Duncan’s tenants’ lives, Franzen said. “At the end of the day, we’re committed to do whatever we can.”

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posted by: 1644 on September 21, 2017  12:50pm

Wonderful news.  I was afraid modern building codes would mean the demise of the elevator.  Building inspectors are the enemies of historic preservation. 
Perhaps some of the rooms could have pictures of actors and actresses who have stayed in them, with the dates listed?  That would give a cachet to the hotel, as guests would say, “Hey, Sigourney Weaver stayed here in 1982!”

posted by: robn on September 21, 2017  2:33pm

The easy part is keeping the elevator. The hard part is finding a place for the donkey that pulls the elevator cable.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 21, 2017  4:42pm


Sure, there’s the Sigourney Suite, but what’s gonna happen to ‘The Hinckley Quarters’.... ????

posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 21, 2017  4:51pm

New Haven has to generate some SRO housing to meet the needs of the people here.
  All the money and attention is going into high end housing. Government either has to push for it or it won’t happen.
  Where is the leadership on this issue?

posted by: jim1 on September 21, 2017  6:34pm

“Vow to preserve history”
They might just keep 2 of the old tenants.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 21, 2017  6:40pm

Shenae Draughn, senior vice president of Real Estate Development at Glendower Group, said that there were 39 longer-term tenants at the Hotel Duncan when AJ Capitals purchased the building. So far, Glendower has successfully relocated 10 of those tenants to new permanent residences, and is in the process of moving another 15 tenants who have already found new homes. Glendower is still working with the remaining 14 tenants on finding new homes.

I wonder where did they find new homes?Like i said this is displacement and more displacement will be coming as the gentrification vampires with the help of Judas Goat Leaders step up there game.

posted by: Esbey on September 21, 2017  9:58pm

The SROs at the Duncan were not particularly cheap.  At $240/week and slightly more than 4 weeks per month, that’s more than $1000/mo.  For a single room! Folks probably pay this out of disability payments, retirement income, earnings from work etc.  So, there is demand for SROs, even before a government subsidy.  Maybe Chapel street next to the Study isn’t the best place for them, but the demand is there. 

@Dwightsteeter might want to know why all the SROs are disappearing.  Well, first of all, they are straight up illegal under current zoning. A bunch of folks in the Independent comment section (good “liberals” all) defend strict minimum apartment size regulations. Without these regs, SROs would appear in older buildings, in more marginal neighborhoods, much as they did in decades past.  If it were legal, lower income homeowners would also rent out single rooms, as in the old “boarding houses” run by widows and divorcees.  That has also become illegal. The manner in which “low on their luck” single men (and, yes, women) used to gain a roof over their heads is now illegal.  And yet we wonder why there are so many homeless! 

Now, Dwightstreeter is correct that government subsidies would create even more SROs, and I would strongly favor that.  It would really help to reduce homelessness.  But the first problem is that it is straight up illegal to create new SROs under most zoning laws, in almost every neighborhood.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on September 22, 2017  12:58am


These were never meant for long-term housing. These “apartments” don’t even have kitchens.

I know one person who lived here and she’s moved to a nice apartment downtown on Court Street. I imagine many of the others have found similar situations.

I understand the fear of gentrification, but these were never meant to be long-term apartments. If you want to protect real citizens of all classes, you surely want them to, you know.. be able to cook dinner.

posted by: JCFremont on September 22, 2017  6:43am

Talked with a tennis player her for The CT Open in August who mentioned her coach was staying at The Duncan. I was surprised and asked how he liked it. She quietly mumered it was awful, he found mice in his room. SRO’s are never efficient for the city or the occupants on a long term basis. The Duncan is a fine old building and will be great when renovated. Turning The Residence Inn on Long Wharf into a long term temporary apartment complex has pretty much destined that place into an East side 3 Judge’s Motel.

posted by: 1644 on September 22, 2017  7:25am

Here’s a 600 square foot, downtown studio with private bath, full range and full size refrigerator for less than $1k/mo, utilities included.  It’s not new and shiny, but it compares well with the Duncan.  A tenant would also be close to the Elm City Market, and not too far from Ferraro’s, while there is no grocery near the Duncan. Like the Duncan, it’s close to the intellectual and cultural stimulation of Yale, Ives library, the downtown churches, Cafe Nine, and the like. 

BTW, Esbey is correct that while urbanites complain about exclusionary suburban zoning, New Haven has its own zoning sins which drive up the cost and drive down the supply of affordable housing.  I do, however, wonder how big the SRO market really is.  There are only 39 residents at the Duncan.  And most of the homeless are not, as at the Duncan, folks like Register journalists whose pensions were wiped out in bankruptcies, but the mentally ill.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 22, 2017  6:51pm

@Esbey: great info. Unfortunately the people who need SRO housing are not great at lobbying or donating to political campaigns, but maybe Joel Schiavone can jump in and design something that makes sense and meets peoples’ needs.

posted by: 1644 on September 23, 2017  10:57am

Bill Sounders:

The Hinckley Quarters should be perhaps the creepiest of the present rooms, unreconstructed.  It should be adjoining, but not visible from, the Foster Flat.  The Foster Flat would feature classic beauty, photos of Calhoun College, Yorkside, and the old Anchor Bar, as well as her movies.  Residence in the Foster Flat would be, like the old Barbizon, limited to women.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 24, 2017  8:25pm


People would pay to stay in that exhibit!!!  I’ll Split the commission with you…..