To Save Or Not To Save 80 Elm

Paul Bass PhotoBob Grzywacz and Anstress Farwell, two of the city’s most ardent preservationists, both used to bank in the building.

Although they hadn’t been inside it in decades, they remember a high, two-tiered lobby that just might make a signature restaurant or an elegant entryway to a boutique hotel.

That recollection and suggestion informed an argument they and other preservationists made — for the former Webster Bank building not to be demolished but rather preserved, at least in part, by its new owners.

Preservationists made their pitch at the regular meeting of the Historic District Commission Wednesday night at City Hall.

Allan Appel PhotoNo decision was made by the commissioners except to bring in the new owners, initiate a dialogue, and then perhaps take the question out to other community groups such as the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT).

At stake is the fate of 80 Elm St., a 1948 “art moderne” building architected by R.W. Foote and originally serving as a church before housing bank branches.

The building, most recently owned by Webster Bank, is listed in the city’s Historic Resources Inventory. So its purchase last November by Spinnaker Real Estate and planned demolition to make way for a small hotel or apartments  has triggered a 90-day delay to give preservationists a chance to weigh in.

Which they did Wednesday night.

The delay, mandated by city ordinance, applies when demolition of a building of significance is in play, although the 90-day period has not officially started,. said Deputy Director of City Plan Tom Talbot, who was in attendance. That’s because Spinnaker, which has been approved to start construction on a separate residential-commercial project on the surface lot at Orange, Audubon, Grove, and State streets, has not officially made its intentions for 80 Elm known to the city. It has tentatively expressed interest in building a boutique hotel or apartment complex on the current parking lot and adjacent property housing 80 Elm.

The universal sentiment among the presenters Wednesdsay was to save and/or adapt, and not raze.

“We’re concerned,” said John Herzan, the preservation services officer at the New Haven Preservation Trust. “It’s got a rich history; it’s understated and elegant art moderne [a late form of Art Deco]. Most people don’t think about it, but it’s important, possibly eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.”

He urged commissioners to contact state preservation officials to determine that eligibility.

“It’s been 40 years since I’ve been inside. It used to be my bank,” said architect Bob Grzywacz, who chairs the NHPT’s preservation committee. “But it’s two-story and ideal for a lobby. Maybe suggest to the developer preservation as a lobby? This is important to the community. Maybe it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Christopher Wigrin, of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, took the same practical line: “Hotels are looking for a building with local flavor. This represents a great opportunity. It could be a candidate for a lobby.”

“We have such a great and rich architectural heritage in the area [including the Green], and we need developers who value and enhance it,” said Anstress Farwell of the Urban Design League.

In addition to its dramatic volumes, speakers talked about interesting and rich detail on the interior that could be preserved, even if facades and other portions of the structure had to go.

Commissioner Doug Royalty asked if the speakers knew of alterations that might have been made. Herzan and the others were not able to answer the question fully, although Herzan added, “The real question is: Does it still convey its essential quality? But we could look into itfurther.”

Royalty said that will be important if the commissioners forward the case to state preservationists.

Commission Chair Trina Learned elicited and confirmed with Acting Director of City Plan Mike Piscitelli, also in attendance, that the city has received no official application containing what specifically might replace the bank building.

“It’s the tradition of the commission not to look favorably on a demolition without a plan for emptiness,” she said.

Talbot added that the official 90-day delay would not itself begin until the developers present all the relevant documents.

Commissioner George Knight said he feels strongly the building should be preserved. “Until one hears of something better [replacing it], it’s impossible to advocate for anything else.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to coordinate with the city to bring in Spinnaker, preservationists, and to begin a formal conversation. When plans are clearer, that conversation might also be extended to a more public forum, like the DWSCMT.

“OK,” Learned said, “we could have them on our agenda next month.”

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posted by: 1644 on April 12, 2018  12:56pm

As one who used this branch frequently until its closure,  the lobbies magnificent and should be preserved.  It would be a great lobby/reception area/bar for a hotel, the type where, upon walking in, a guest says, “Wow, what a great place!”

posted by: Atwater on April 12, 2018  2:54pm

This is one NHI story that could use some better photography, particularly of the inside of the building. It’s the lobby area that is really unique, but really needs a visual to show that.

posted by: 1644 on April 12, 2018  3:32pm

Atwater: Precisely.  I am not too enamored of the facade, and there seems to be an office wing to the east, but the core lobby should be preserved.  As I recall the polished stone has some minimal gold trim, an elegant and restrained style very current today.

posted by: JCFremont on April 12, 2018  3:47pm

I guess the problems with banks are that they where built to show strength and stability but with the introduction of ATM’s and a cashless society the space needed is no longer needed. The Lobby of the Webster Bank would make a great lobby restraint/lounge as would the Union Trust Bank but I guess it must continue to live in it’s nostalgic grandiose. Preserving the façade into a functional building is the best of both worlds. There is a constant struggle between repurposing buildings that no longer fit their initial use and those who want to preserve them as is.

posted by: JAD240 on April 12, 2018  8:01pm

The former bank lobby of this building is a magnificent space, soaring up the two full stories.  It’s also a beautiful example of Art Deco.  The lobby was created from the nave of the old church.  From neighboring vantage points (the old Bullard building, the Key Bank building and the rear of the top floor of the Hall of Records you can see the roofline of the old church.  By all means the lobby should be adapted with minimal change in architecture.

posted by: Patricia Kane on April 13, 2018  11:32am

With all the mediocrity being built in the last 10 years, it becomes even more important to preserve the architectural heritage of New Haven.
    A city is about more than making money and increasing the tax rolls.
    Good places in a city nourish the spirit and spark creativity.
    Bad or mediocre architecture takes away from the daily experience.
    It’s good to see a Board search for a workable compromise.