The Politics of Preservation

in Criticals/Snapshots

Until just a few months ago, a 1948 art moderne bank stood at 80 Elm Street in downtown New Haven: a sparse stone monument to the cold simplicity of mid-twentieth century architecture. As the bank was torn down piece by piece in early 2020, the remnants of an Episcopal church built a century before were revealed and, likewise, demolished. Today, there is an empty lot. Plans for the construction of a Hilton Garden Inn have halted due to COVID-19. 

The Yale tour groups ogling at campus buildings, admiring the statuaries on Harkness’ face, taking pictures of the cathedral-like grandeur of Sterling—it’s a familiar sight for current students. But beyond Yale, the Elm City is perhaps even more remarkable for the history embodied in its structures and spaces. Consider that the sixteen  acres of the New Haven Green bordering Old Campus began in 1641 as a marketplace for Puritan colonists. The John Cook House, on Elm Street, is one of the country’s oldest surviving stone structures. And New Haven’s Union Station was designed by the same architect who planned the U.S. Supreme Court building. Remnants of New Haven’s past linger in many of the buildings lining the streets of the Elm City, even as other aging edifices are threatened by degradation or new development. And tensions often arise between those who wish to preserve physical structures evocative of the past, those who make up existing communities that inhabit those places, and those who look to economize, modernize, and create spaces according to their own imaginings. 

Critics often condemn historic preservation for advocating unattainable and illogical standards, such as banning solar panels or dictating which sort of columns should be allowed. In January 2020, Binyamin Appelbaum, a member of The New York Times editorial board, wrote flatly that preservation “obstructs change for the better.” He was speaking specifically in the context of Washington, DC, but it is a sentiment many Americans would echo. In New Haven, although many of the best cases of preservation have been cooperative, a multiplicity of unequal voices can result in inequitable decision-making. There is no cohesive system of checks and balances, no single method to ensure the democratization of either development or preservation, which can at times leave parties feeling ignored or unheard.

In New Haven alone, there are a total of twenty-seven historic districts. At Yale itself, however, there are relatively few buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of buildings which require preservation for their historical significance. Most of them lie within the relatively small Hillhouse Historic District. Professor Alan Plattus, a scholar in the Yale School of Architecture, explained that the University has traditionally been opposed to placing more buildings on the register, due to the restrictions such a designation might impose. He said, “Yale is totally within their right” in their desire to keep their buildings off the register. When a building is registered or a historic district created, property owners have to approve the new designation. This is one of the challenges that an organization like the New Haven Preservation Trust (NHPT) seeks to address. A private non-profit organization dedicated to “preserving New Haven’s architectural heritage,” the NHPT was founded in 1961 in opposition to Yale’s plans to demolish the historic home of James Dwight Dana, a significant Yale geologist, at 34 Hillhouse Ave. The Trust was successful, and the house was registered in 1966. Today, it holds Yale’s Department of Statistics and Data Science. 

Plattus described Yale’s frequent expansion as an attempt to control the edge of campus—and not always in a manner respectful of the preferences of New Haven residents. As a sprawling presence in New Haven, Yale historically has played a complicated role when it comes to preservation. Plattus pointed me to Associate Professor of Urbanism Elihu Rubin and filmmaker Elena Oxman’s half-hour documentary, “On Broadway: A New Haven Streetscape,” which reported on Yale’s purchase and subsequent renovation of properties on Broadway. 

Produced when Rubin and Oxman were students at the School of Architecture, the circa 2000 documentary has an indie feel. It features many Yale figures, including Plattus himself and the renowned art historian and Yale professor Vincent Scully. Between interviews, the film includes clips of Broadway that would be unrecognizable to today’s Yale students. Many storefronts belonged to small, multigenerational family-run businesses. Some of the changes are due to unavoidable economic trends; it seems unlikely that the typewriter repair store or Cutler’s Records and Tapes could possibly remain afloat today. But many residents and business owners additionally felt that Yale was marking the neighborhood with its own brand. 

At one point in the documentary, Joe Fahey, then director of operations for University Properties, describes Yale’s vision for Broadway, one in which chain stores would exist alongside and help to support businesses run by New Haveners. Seated at a conference table, he concludes, “That’s how Broadway’s gonna work.” Rubin aptly characterized Fahey’s comment as reflective of “the hubris of a lot of city planners”—the idea that such a broad swath of city can be planned and shaped according to a single vision. Peter Spodick of York Square Cinema objected to this notion in the context of downtown New Haven: “All these components of downtown were not things that were planted, they evolved over hundreds of years.” The owners of Cutler Records and Quality Wines both described the sudden changes as equivalent to losing a family. Yale’s determination to homogenize and strategize with their property on Broadway impacted not only the business but also the lives of those already there. 

When working on smaller-scale development projects, Andrew MacPartland of Elm City Architects consciously tries to respond to both the needs of the area and the expectations of preservationists. A practicing architect, MacPartland was hired to gain approval from the local historic district commission for a project in Wooster Square. In designing a new home he, like Yale, left his mark on a New Haven neighborhood. MacPartland, however, had a personal connection to the Wooster Square neighborhood, where his grandfather settled after emigrating from Italy. He said that this link was central to enforcing a sense of responsibility not only to his client but also to the surrounding neighborhood. He advocates for architects to be “humble enough [to] get a consensus of opinion”—from preservation organizations but also by seeking out input from those in the community. That humility stands in stark contrast to Yale’s confidence regarding the future of Broadway.

Yale’s desire for expansion and emphasis on efficiency can clash with the priorities of New Haveners. Susan Godshall, who has long-standing connections to both Yale and the city of New Haven, spoke to the complexity of the problem. Godshall is a graduate of the School of Architecture and Yale Law School and serves as the treasurer of the NHPT. She has also held various positions in the Chamber of Commerce and the Counsel’s office for the City of New Haven, and was Assistant Secretary of Yale for almost a decade. Godshall speaks in the classic vocabulary of preservationists—referring to the “character” of a neighborhood or the success of the NHPT’s date plaque initiative. Like Professor Plattus, she described areas of tension being especially “around the edges” of Yale. But Godshall also explicitly emphasized that “it doesn’t serve anyone to have a permanent adversarial relationship.” Although the NHPT was initially founded in opposition to a Yale project, it has also operated as a partner and consultant to the University. As MacPartland recognized with respect to his project in Wooster Square, collaboration is essential to preservation. 

In historic cities across the United States, one of the largest obstacles to preservation is a chronic lack of resources. MacPartland admitted that to design and construct a historic-grade building from scratch—as he and his client did in Wooster Square— “comes with a price tag.” In New Haven, where more than 25% of residents live in poverty, the initial capital needed to begin such a project is often hard to come by. For those who own historic structures and lack the financial resources to renovate, the channels available are present but limited, as Godshall explained. Owners who complete a major renovation can receive tax credit from the state; for those looking to make modest repairs, the NHPT offers grants from their Historic Structures Fund. These grants range only from $1,000 to $4,000, however, and are made on a one-to-one matching basis. This means that whether residents are making a larger renovation or are looking to apply for financial support, they will need to start with at least some capital. 

The prevailing critique of preservation organizations concerns this difficulty: that it is unrealistic to expect the vast majority of Americans to have the financial flexibility and time required to make historically accurate renovations. As Rubin put it, there is often a trade-off between the desire to “preserve the building but [a failure to] preserve the people.” When practiced to the extreme, Rubin worries that historic preservation can “change a city into a museum of itself.” An extensively preserved city may become a static relic, prevented from evolving by the high-value placed on structures of the past. He cited European cities like Venice, which rely heavily on tourism for revenue. But even when preservation is more limited, he pointed out that gentrification is still a legitimate and growing concern, threatening the existing residents. Plattus admitted that in many successful case studies—such as past preservation efforts in Providence, Rhode Island, or Havana, Cuba—gentrification may be inevitable. College Hill in Providence is now a relatively upscale neighborhood near Brown University, where preservationists used an entrepreneurial model to put profits from successful renovations into additional projects in the area. Plattus believes this could be viable in areas of New Haven, where affiliates of the University may be looking for historic homes. He also said, however, that it is possible, if at times challenging, to preserve without gentrifying. He pointed to Pittsburgh as a model, where he said that certain inner-city neighborhoods successfully preserved historical structures while also retaining a significant portion of the existing population. 

Organizations like the NHPT work to protect history throughout cities nationwide, but Abby Roth, representative of Ward 7 on the Board of Alders, also hopes that preservation might be an endeavor supported by independent citizens from the ground up. Roth told me that there are many New Haveners who want to share their voices when it comes to the changes in their neighborhoods, even when there might not be existing channels. Roth grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and says that her passionate advocacy for preservation stemmed from growing up in historic cities in New England. As an Alder, Roth has a direct say in New Haven governance, but not everyone has this privilege. For individuals who want to participate, she emphasized Community Management Teams as possible channels. These public meetings consist of presentations on major events in a neighborhood, information which is voluntarily shared by the city of New Haven, police, or developers. Yet Roth still worries that there’s a silent subset of residents who don’t, won’t, or can’t have a voice in these matters due to the self-selecting nature of these forums. 

When it comes to preservation, concerns about resources and representation mirror worries about who gets to decide how and where New Haveners live. Yale has the wealth and influence to rival that of the city government. And as Plattus commented, even the NHPT may be outmatched in a direct confrontation with Yale or other developers, which generally have more extensive resources. At the same time, many New Haveners may chafe against both Yale’s infringement on their neighborhoods and a historic district commission’s regulations on their homes, but won’t have the means to respond. 

Historic preservation is easily simplified and reduced by critics. But we all know that “place” matters. The spaces in which we work, study, and live impact what we do and how we feel. The predominant risk of both preservation and development is that those who actually inhabit these spaces are ignored. Both Rubin and Plattus clarified that preservation is not only about preserving histories, but also about perpetuating a community. Appearances are important, but only so far as they affect, as Godshall described it, the “integrity” of the area. As I understood it, Godshall meant physical, historical integrity. But as MacPartland first emphasized, that integrity is also directly tied to the neighborhoods in which buildings stand and the people who walk past them every day. As students, we live at Yale but also in New Haven. Plattus described how it often takes a catastrophic loss—such as the demolition of Old Penn Station in New York—to motivate meaningful support for preservation. But whether by taking a long walk to get to know the city better, attending a Community Management Team meeting, or directly advocating for the salvation of a historic Yale building, there are so many unexplored avenues for students to conscientiously engage. Even if only for four years, the Elm City is our home and a place which we can engage with and influence for the better, starting with the physical places that matter to us most. 

—Jack Tripp is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College.

Correction as of Nov. 11, 2020: While federal and state mechanisms encourage owners of nationally registered historical buildings not to demolish, it’s not strictly required that these owners do preserve.

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