Whitney Avenue Historic District
The Whitney Avenue Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Whitney Avenue Historic District is an extensive residential neighborhood in northern New Haven. It includes properties on both sides of the northern three-quarters of Whitney Avenue, a major traffic artery which extends from the center of New Haven into Hamden. Side streets to the east of Whitney Avenue are included, as well as Everit, Livingston, and the northern section of Orange streets, all of which run northward parallel to Whitney. Most of the 749 major buildings within the Whitney Avenue Historic District were built for residential use, but the district also includes institutional buildings, such as churches, schools, and a fire station, and small commercial buildings. The architecture of the Whitney Avenue Historic District is dominated by the styles of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, particularly Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival, but examples of the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic, Stick, Second Empire, Romanesque, Shingle, Classical Revival, Italian Renaissance, and Spanish Colonial Revival styles are also represented. Clapboards and wood shingles are the predominant exterior materials.
The streets are straight, and are landscaped with sidewalks, grass buffers, and mature tree plantings that vary in species by street. Generally, the main, northeastward-running streets are wider, and have larger lot sizes, deeper setbacks, and greater separations between buildings than the more densely built-up side streets. The terrain of the district is flat, with modest grade increases and rises on some of the side streets.
The Whitney Avenue Historic District is set off from its surroundings by visual breaks and changes in the character of the architecture. To the west and south lie the institutional buildings of Yale University. To the north and northeast are large open and wooded areas of Edgerton Park and East Rock Park. To the east a change in character and period of buildings marks a definable edge where the district abuts the Orange Street Historic District, which is primarily made up of buildings from the mid-19th century and earlier. To the west and northwest, the district adjoins the Prospect Hill Historic District, an area of large, formal houses from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Houses in the Whitney Avenue Historic District include large mansions on Whitney Avenue and Livingston Street; most of those on Whitney are now converted to institutional, office, or apartment space. The majority of the Whitney Avenue Historic District's buildings, however, are a mixture of one- and two-family houses, most of them set on small rectangular neatly landscaped lots. Stylistically, most of the houses are Colonial Revival or Queen Anne, with many variations and combinations of features. Streetscapes have a unified appearance, created by the preservation and repetition of such common elements as porches or porticoes with spindlework or Colonial Revival ornament, panelled and glazed hardwood doors, shingled gables, dormers, bay windows, and stained glass. Rows of up to five nearly identical houses are common, but seldom are two houses exactly alike. Throughout most of the Whitney Avenue Historic District, richly detailed and diverse stylistic features are applied to a limited set of common house forms: rectangular, side-gabled Colonial Revival houses with fanlights over the doorways and roofs pierced by dormers; stacked duplexes with two-story porches across the front; a related form of gable-fronted, narrow buildings, usually with shingled gables and an off-center entry with Queen Anne features; cross-gabled or L-shaped Victorian houses with complex rooflines; and, finally, square, hip-roofed, and dormered houses, often with Colonial Revival features, which are referred to in the inventory as Foursquare.
Many of the houses have small garages or, more rarely, carriage houses set to the rear of the house. Most of the garages date from the early 20th century and are hip- or flat-roofed, and built of materials which include clapboard, novelty siding, or patterned concrete blocks. Outbuildings which appear to have been built within the Whitney Avenue Historic District's period of significance are considered contributing.
Apartment buildings are interspersed throughout the Whitney Avenue Historic District, including multiple examples along stretches of Whitney Avenue. These early 20th-century structures include Colonial Revival, Classical Revival, Tudor Revival, and Spanish Colonial Revival examples; some of them have fine details in doorways or wall surface treatment, and roof materials such as tile or slate. The most common forms are U- or multiple U-shaped blocks, of three to five stories, with entries set back in the recessed sections.
Ten churches or former churches are also in the Whitney Avenue Historic District, four of which were built during the district's period of significance and are classified as contributing.
The final category of buildings represented in the district includes small commercial buildings or houses which have been fitted with storefronts, most of them in the 1920s or before, to house neighborhood-oriented businesses such as markets, package stores, a laundromat, and a pharmacy. Usually occupying a corner location, these buildings have plate-glass storefronts with panelled bases, and in some cases pilasters and cornices of cast metal.
The vast majority of the buildings are well-preserved and well-maintained, and noncontributing buildings are few in number. There appears to be considerable restoration, rehabilitation, and maintenance work done throughout the district. Alterations occur most frequently near the eastern edge of the district, east of Orange Street, where the district abuts the Orange Street Historic District. The most common alteration is the application of modern siding materials, but fewer than 18 percent of the major buildings in the district have been sided, and these retain either some of their architectural detail or, at the least, the characteristic form which identifies them as buildings from the district's period of significance. Sided houses which are recognizably of the period are classified as contributing buildings. Noncontributing buildings of recent construction make up less than 2 percent of the district's 754 major buildings.
The Whitney Avenue Historic District is significant as a well-preserved middle and upper-class residential neighborhood which reflects the process of suburbanization in New Haven during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and which has retained its integrity with few intrusions or alterations. It is architecturally significant as the most extensive and well-preserved collection of late 19th and early 20th century residential styles in New Haven. The houses in the district embody the distinctive characteristics of several periods and types of domestic architecture, including locally outstanding examples of Queen Anne, Shingle, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, and other styles.
Whitney Avenue, the first street to be established in the district, originated as an early road leading from central New Haven northward to Hartford. The Hartford and New Haven Turnpike Company improved it as a turnpike in 1798. The land along the turnpike remained undeveloped until after the Civil War, with the exception of several large farms and estates and a small cluster of homes built in the 1830s and 1840s for workers at Eli Whitney's Armory, located across the town line in Hamden.
After the Civil War the area began to develop, slowly at first, into a middle-class neighborhood, paced by attorneys and other professionals who began moving beyond the limits of the Orange Street neighborhood to the southeast. Speculators and real-estate developers purchased large parcels from the old estates and subdivided them, creating new streets. Building activity was strongest during the 1880s in the Orange Street area, but it was superseded as a fashionable address by Whitney Avenue during the 1890s. The immediate stimuli for development on the broad avenue were the extension of a sewer line and streetcar service, the latter electrified in 1893. The large lots available on former estates along Whitney Avenue made it attractive to owners of local businesses, physicians, attorneys, Yale professors, and executives such as Charles Mellen, president of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad.
During the early 20th century, the upper end of Livingston Street and Everit Street attracted more members of this social group, who created on large lots along Livingston Street rows of Colonial Revival homes designed by leading architects such as Aymar Embury, J. Frederick Kelly, and Leoni Robinson. The natural setting was a factor in this phase of the neighborhood's growth, as the houses on upper Livingston overlook East Rock Park and the tall red sandstone rock itself forms a dramatic backdrop.
Most of the homes in the Whitney Avenue Historic District, however, were modestly priced and therefore available to the large number of middle-income people such as clerks, teachers, builders, and small businessmen who benefitted from the strong local economy. The presence of many stacked duplexes, with upper stories which could be rented out, helped make home ownership possible for many, including a large number of workers at the Marlin Repeating Arms Company at 83 Willow Street, to the east of the district. In the early 20th century, gradations in socio-economic status were reflected in the size of lots and homes, their formality and stylishness, and their distance from Whitney Avenue. Larger single-family homes on Willow and other side streets, for example, tend to be located close to Whitney, while the occurrence of two-family houses increases as the streets progress to the east.
The neighborhood's rapid development tended to promote regularity in street layout and lot size and a degree of cohesiveness, if not uniformity, in architecture. For example, the entire area between Edwards Street on the south and Canner Street on the north was subdivided into small lots in 1884 from the extensive holdings of Maria and Robert Livingston and Cornelius and Caroline Fellows, and most of the lots were immediately purchased and built upon. Individual developers controlled the appearance of large blocks of new homes. Charles T. Coyle, for example, an Irish-born attorney who built himself a mansion at 569 Whitney Avenue, developed the entire square of streets bounded by Whitney, Cold Spring, Livingston, and Canner between 1904 and 1911. Coyle commissioned leading New Haven architects to design many of the houses, which retain a continuity of building shape and layout while differing in details.
Beginning with the World War I period, when New Haven's population reached a peak of 160,000 and its many arms-related manufacturing businesses boomed, speculators began erecting large apartment complexes throughout the district, with the largest concentration on Whitney Avenue. Another factor appearing at this time was the encroachment, especially on Whitney Avenue, of institutional buildings connected with Yale University. Several large homes were purchased by Yale or organizations affiliated with the university. After World War II, many houses on Whitney Avenue were converted to office or rental space, and several mansions were demolished to make room for new development.
The origin of the area encompassed by the Whitney Avenue Historic District as an upper and middle-class residential neighborhood gives the district architectural qualities unmatched in other areas of New Haven. During the 1890s, Whitney Avenue blossomed into a boulevard lined with architect-designed houses of fashionable styles, which mingled with the surviving buildings of the large estates from which their lots had been carved. While comparable domestic architecture can be found elsewhere in New Haven, the Whitney neighborhood's large lots, deep setbacks, and exceptionally wide roadway made it a unique setting for large, impressive homes. Newer construction after these years on surrounding streets near the avenue, such as Humphrey, Bishop, Edwards, and even, to some extent, Willow Street, echoed this feeling of grandness on a more broken landscape punctuated by rises of ground and heavily treed lots which partially hide the residences. The opening of Livingston Street between 1910 and 1929 provided another opportunity for builders and architects to continue development of this character.
Three attributes in particular contribute to the Whitney Avenue Historic District's architectural significance: 1) the large number of individually distinguished examples of 19th and early 20th century domestic architecture: large, highly ornamented houses which epitomize the styles of the period; 2) the intense concentration of well-preserved buildings from the period, with a negligible number of substantially altered and noncontributing buildings; and 3) the physical setting of broad shady streets, recalling the qualities which made the neighborhood so desirable in its day.
The Whitney Avenue Historic District's individual buildings are particularly notable in illustrating the evolution of the Queen Anne, Shingle, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival styles in New Haven.
Queen Anne houses in the Whitney Avenue Historic District display the asymmetrical massing, complex rooflines, varied exterior materials, and combined Classical and medieval detailing which are the defining characteristics of Queen Anne architecture, which valued a picturesque appearance, interesting interior spaces, and large comfortable rooms. Among the district's notable examples is the house at 357 Whitney Avenue, built in 1897, it is one of a row of large Queen Anne houses which reflect contemporary descriptions of the southern end of Whitney Avenue as a row of baronial castles. Its tower, dormers, complex roofline, and overhanging stories create the picturesque asymmetry valued by the style; it has the characteristic varied exterior surface materials (brick and slate); and its detailing is typically eclectic, with medieval oriel and paneled chimneys and Classical porch columns. Other Queen Anne houses in the Whitney Avenue Historic District feature such characteristic details as terra cotta embellishment, elaborate stained-glass windows, fishscale and other patterned shingles, ridge cresting, half-timbered gables, and Eastlake-inspired woodwork in the bargeboards and peak ornaments.
Several Shingle style houses in the Whitney Avenue Historic District reflect the avenue's long history as a setting for estates. The Charles Atwater House of 1890 at 321 Whitney Avenue, recalls McKim, Mead and White's William Low House of Bristol, Rhode Island, of 1887 in its low, spreading roof and banded fenestration with windows separated by panels; it was designed by the nationally renown firm of Babb, Cook and Willard. The Abner Hendee House at 703 Whitney Avenue also expresses the horizontality of the style, while 244 Livingston Street is a more modest example which in its cobblestone foundation and wood-shingled exterior expresses the affinity Shingle-style architects and builders felt for natural materials.
The Whitney Avenue Historic District's Colonial Revival houses illustrate the whole spectrum of the Colonial Revival movement. Many of the Colonial Revival homes on Whitney Avenue, especially the earlier ones, continued the form and spirit of Queen Anne houses of the period and utilized Colonial architecture simply as another source of ornament. For example, the house at 591 Whitney Avenue, built about 1909, freely combines Colonial elements without reference to any single prototype. A nearby contemporary house, built for real estate developer Charles T. Coyle, with its two-story Ionic portico and a prominent hip roof, illustrates a level of the Revival in which the most grandiose of Colonial features are combined into a large, symmetrical composition. In contrast, the 1908 Rudolph Steinert House at 469 Whitney Avenue marks an early appearance of a phase of the Colonial Revival in which houses employed an accurate reproduction of period features and details. The Dr. Henry Hessler House at 370 Livingston Street is similar to the Steinert House, with a more modest portico and more restrained use of detail. It was designed by J. Frederick Kelly, whose measured drawings and writings in Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut made him one of the chief exponents of the accurate-reproduction phase of the Colonial Revival. The house at 340 Livingston Street, built in 1929 for contractor Ray Reigeluth, marks the local apogee of this trend toward reproduction — a house modelled in precise detail on the Julius Deming House on North Street in Litchfield.
Houses and other buildings deriving inspiration from English Tudor prototypes began to appear in the Whitney Avenue Historic District in the early 20th century. One of several large formal examples in the district is the Dr. Edwin Butler House at 640 Whitney Avenue, which displays such characteristic features of the style as a masonry (tapestry-brick) exterior, steep gables, and medievalisms such as crenelation, label molds, and diamond window panes. Other houses in the district are typical of the Tudor Revival's English Cottage mode, embodying such characteristic features as stucco exterior, half-timbering, and steeply pitched gable roofs.
Although the Queen Anne, Shingle, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival styles account for the vast majority of the houses, there are many other styles represented in the Whitney Avenue Historic District, usually by examples which include not only the distinguishing characteristics of the style but also unusual or inventive architectural ornament as well. These include houses which pre-date the area's major period of expansion, such as the George Mason House at 749 Whitney Avenue, a typical Italian Villa with unusual leafy or feather-like porch-post capitals; the 1867 Richard Everit House at 641 Whitney Avenue, whose steep roof and finely scaled gable ornament epitomize the Gothic Revival style; Victorian houses of mixed inspiration, such as the Samuel York House at 233 Edwards Street, built in 1876, with such Victorian features as a mansard roof, exposed Stick-style "framing," bargeboards with quartrefoils and Gothic bosses, and a bracketed cornice; and the Colin Ingersoll House at 475 Whitney Avenue, a prominent example of the Chateauesque style designed by noted architect Joseph Northrup, with the characteristic masonry construction, slate hip roof, medieval detailing, fleurs-de-lis, and prominent tower. The profusion of styles in the Whitney Avenue Historic District reflects a wide diversity of sources for architectural inspiration, one of the period's fundamental characteristics.
The mass of late 19th and early 20th century houses in the Whitney Avenue Historic District complement these prominent individual examples. They are well-preserved, and possess an integrity of setting and a commonality based on scale, form, massing, and architectural ornament. The repetition of elaborate porch trim, shingled gables, stained-glass windows, and pedimented entries creates cohesive streetscapes throughout the district. Although less fully detailed than the mansions, these houses allow the Whitney Avenue Historic District to illustrate the full range of Victorian and early 20th century architecture.
Outbuildings in the Whitney Avenue Historic District also enhance its significance. There are several elaborate examples of late-19th century carriage houses which complement the Queen Anne style of their main houses. The district's many "automobile houses," some as early as 1907, also reinforce the Whitney Avenue Historic District's sense of time, and several of the garages use materials and detailing similar to the domestic architecture of the district.
The Whitney Avenue Historic District's apartment blocks, churches, and schools reinforce the architectural cohesiveness of the district by providing institutional examples of the Revival styles which characterize the area's houses. Although larger than the houses, these buildings exhibit similar materials, workmanship, and ornamental details and thus complement the residential scale of the district. The Worthington Hooker School is a well-preserved illustration of the exuberant Classicism of the Beaux Arts movement, and several of the churches are individually distinguished as representative examples which exhibit the distinctive characteristics of the Late Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles.
In summary, the Whitney Avenue Historic District is distinguished by its exceptional number of architecturally significant houses; the wide, shady, tree-lined streets which provide an appropriate setting for those houses; and by the high proportion of buildings which have retained their integrity of materials and design. Together these attributes create the sense of historic and architectural cohesiveness which makes this area a distinctive cultural resource.
Architectural and Historical Survey of New Haven. New Haven Preservation Trust.
Brown, Elizabeth Mills, New Haven; A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
Kelly, J. Frederick. Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1924.
Osterweis, Rollin G., Three Centuries of New Haven: 1638-1938, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.
Scrapbook collection of Arnold Guyot Dana, New Haven Colony Historical Society, New Haven.