In the years after world war ii, New Haven became a nationally known laboratory for Modernist architecture and planning. Yale University and proximity to New York City brought new ideas and pioneering practitioners to the city, where they created landmark buildings and districts. Yale’s own ambitious postwar building program resulted in a number of works that are internationally known. Some Yale-trained architects remained in New Haven when their education was finished and they, along with other local architects, also contributed to the architectural development of the city and the surrounding towns. Extensive coverage of New Haven buildings in the architectural press bears witness to the city’s importance and influence.
At the same time, New Haven was embarking on one of the earliest, best-funded, and most ambitious urban renewal programs in the nation. In a well-intentioned effort to improve the life of its citizens, the city drastically reshaped its own landscape. Entire neighborhoods of housing and other buildings considered substandard were demolished to be replaced with new, better-designed construction that would embody the latest and most progressive ideas of urban planning and social thought. Again, the latest in high-quality archi-tecture was sought. In later phases, the city pioneered the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings and neighborhoods, particularly in the Wooster Square neighborhood, as an urban renewal tool. As with non-renewal building, extensive coverage in the architectural press made New Haven’s urban renewal program known around the country. While we now see that urban renewal was in many ways needlessly destructive and that many of the places that it created have proven to be as soul-destroying as the slums they replaced, the program still remains a highly significant historic and architectural event in New Haven’s past, one that touched nearly every corner of the city.
In recent years, the Modernist era has increasingly received the attention of preservationists, as some of its creations approach the 50-year baseline for National Register listing, as architectural and decorating fashion look to modernism for inspiration, and, sadly, as Modernist buildings begin to age and disappear. Experimental materials and building techniques sometimes fail, and changes in lifestyle focus attention on deficiencies.
In this context, NHPT decided to undertake a survey of Modernist-era resources in New Haven. Phase I of the project was an overview of the historical and architectural development of New Haven during the period 1931 to 1980. Covering the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar urban renewal era, this period includes governmental relief projects of the 1930s that introduced the social aims that would later characterize urban renewal. Some of these, as well as other, private, projects also first introduced Modernist architecture to New Haven. The period ends with the last of the heroic Modernist buildings and the introduction of Post-Modernism, paralleling the Reagan-era efforts to dismantle the social programs of the urban renewal era and the Great Society. The overview, with the title “Tomorrow is Here: New Haven and the Modern Movement,” was completed in June, 2008, by historian and preservation consultant Rachel D. Carley. (Read the overview document here.)
In Phase II, the Trust surveyed sites related to the historical and architectural development of New Haven between 1931 and 1980. In this phase, the Trust identified approximately 150 sites and completed Historic Resource Inventory forms for 123 sites, compiling descriptive and historical and architectural information as well as photographs. In addition, recommendations were provided for potential State and National Register listings and other preservation actions.
In Phase III, the Trust has devised this website, highlighting the results of the above survey, as well as the masterpieces of Modernist architecture which were identified and surveyed in the 1980s. This site will evolve over time, with different buildings featured on the homepage, and new information.
The Modernist era brought transformational changes to New Haven, some for the better, some for the worse. By recognizing and understanding the significance of the era, by preserving its best sites, and by adapting others to meet the human needs of the city, we can honor our past and build a better future.
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