James Dwight Dana House

New Haven City, New Haven County, CT

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The James Dwight Dana House House (24 Hillhouse Avenue) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places about 1974, having been listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the 1974 nomination document. [‡]


The James Dwight Dana House was designed in 1848 by Henry Austin, a prominent New Haven architect. A 1964 Historic American Building Survey report described it as a "noteworthy example of a 19th century stuccoed brick town house with a wooden portico of Hindu derivation."[1]

When Hillhouse Avenue was first laid out Benjamin Silliman bought a house on the corner of Trumbull Street, and the odd lot next door, called The Triangle, the leftover piece made by the Farmington Canal as it crossed Hillhouse and Trumbull Streets. The Triangle was low marsh land lying along the canal bank and was presumed unbuildable. But soon after Silliman's daughter Henrietta married her father's young assistant, James Dwight Dana, and they began considering a place to live, the railroad bought the old canal and asked permission to deepen the cut and throw the fill up on Professor Silliman's odd lot.

He promptly sold the lot to the Danas, railroad workers pushed dirt up the bank until it was raised four feet, and in a little over a year, in 1849, the Danas moved into their new house. Their architect, Henry Austin, had been Ithiel Town's partner until his death four years before. His drawings for the house may still be seen in the Beinecke Library at Yale, and they show that in spite of wings added later to two sides, the house today retains much of its original character; that of a neat cube with plain walls, a nearly flat roof and symmetrical elements, relieved by the interesting ornament of its cornice and columns.

The drawings suggest that the original colors were more delicate than now. The contrast would probably have been less strong than the present dark chocolate trim against yellow walls. Perhaps the walls were ivory or faint pink, and the trim the color of limestone or of honey-colored marble.

The James Dwight Dana House was not one of Austin's major designs. In fact, it was probably a stock plan, either his own or borrowed. Many houses much like this must once have existed. The English House on Wooster Square, New Haven, also by Austin, was almost identical, and a country version done in clapboards stands on Boston Street in Guilford.

The HABS report described the James Dwight Dana House as being composed of three juxtaposed rectangles. That report supplied much of the following descriptive information. The James Dwight Dana House is stuccoed brick with a wooden porch supported by wooden columns, and a low square cupola in the center of the main block. The overall dimensions are 60 feet wide by 58 feet deep, but the original main block was 30 feet square. The structure is two and one-half stories high, not including the basement which is above grade on the rear. The cellar wall is stone and brick, with a facing of dressed ashlar stone on the exterior of the original block.

The main entrance porch, on the east, has a wooden balustrade with a wide railing and ornamental turned and carved wooden columns. The porch is enclosed with wooden sheathing from deck to grade. There is also a basement porch under the library wing on the south, a wooden stoop on the north leading to the sidewalk, and a modern metal fire escape on the south exterior wall.

There are three rectangular brick chimneys on the main roof and one rectangular brick chimney on the west wing. The east entrance wooden door is set into the masonry wall without ornamental trim. However, two upper panels of the five-paneled door are glazed in decorative etched glass, and a pair of full length louvered shutters frame the doorway. On the west wall there are two round-headed windows, one with leaded glass.

The low-pitched hipped roof is covered with sheet metal painted red. The wide overhanging eaves are decorated with wooden soffit, the cornice is corbeled brick stuccoed with an applied band of wooden pendants shaped to form a trefoil void against the stucco. There is one dormer in the rear and two glazed skylights. A low square cupola is located in the center of the main block. Its flat roof is supported by eight heavy scrolls, two at each corner, and there are ten narrow arched windows on each wall of the cupola.

On the interior, the main entrance on Hillhouse Avenue has a deep vestibule and stair hall on the north side of two main rooms which are connected by a doorway. Double glazed doors lead from the rear room to the library on the west, which leads to another room on the north. There is a pantry between this room and the stair hall. The wing which was added on the north contains two rooms and a rear stairway.

In 1896 and in 1905 additions were made to the house. A library addition replaced the porch on the west side, and a wing was added to the north side which fronts on Trumbull Street. However, the flooring in the library, as well as the glass and ceiling work, indicate an early date for that addition, possibly as early as the house itself, thereby implying a change in the original plans.

The second floor has been adapted to office space and seminar rooms. The attic is reached by a closed stairway leading from the second floor hall. At the top of the attic stairs is an open well to the cupola. The attic over the main portion of the house has been adapted for modern use. The attic over the addition is unfinished so that the exterior of the original north wall of the house is visible, complete with corbeled cornice. There are traces of ornamental wooden trim at the eaves and indications of an original attic window which was bricked in.

The floors of the main block of the house are one of the nicest features of the interior. Each room has a different pattern of light and dark woods with intricately designed borders. Other floors are oak or modern vinyl tile. Other decorative features include the double doors in the library with a transom light glazed with etched and ruby glass in a pattern of narrow and wide panes. There are silver doorknobs and keyhole escutcheons and marble and tile fireplaces of various colors throughout the first floor rooms.

Except for the boarding up of some of the fireplaces and some minor changes made while adapting the building to office use (currently for the Statistics Department), the house is essentially the same as when the Dana family deeded the building and the land to Yale University in January 1962. The James Dwight Dana House has been treated quite sympathetically by the university and high-ceilinged, spacious rooms still are furnished with some older furniture and decorative pieces appropriate to the house.


James Dwight Dana transformed geology from an investigation of individual rocks and minerals into a study of the earth's evolution. The work of this scholar stimulated the interest of generations of Americans in geology, as well as bringing him international fame as one of the world's major geologists.

Dana married Henrietta Silliman, his mentor's daughter, and in 1849 they commissioned Henry Austin to build this elegant town house for them at 24 Hillhouse Avenue, near the Yale University campus. Dana, the son-in-law of another great scientist and Yale professor, Benjamin Silliman, was also the father of another scientist and Yale professor, Edward Salisbury Dana, and for over one hundred years Hillhouse Avenue was the address of both Sillimans and Danas. Since 1962 this Italianate villa style house has been owned and maintained by Yale University and it presently houses the offices of the Statistics Department.


Born in 1813 in Utica, New York, Dana manifested an early interest in geology. While attending the local high school, he accompanied a science teacher on field trips and began to collect minerals. When he entered Yale University, Dana's interest in geology was heightened by the teaching of Benjamin Silliman. Silliman, the first great teacher of chemistry and geology in America, was not forgotten when Dana became a tutor in mathematics to the midshipmen on board the U.S.S. Delaware in 1833, after graduating from Yale. When the Delaware visited the Mediterranean, Dana continued his study of geology whenever he had the opportunity to land, and when he-returned to New York in 1834 he carried off the ship a collection of rocks and minerals.

Once ashore in America, Dana quickly accepted an offer to become as assistant to Silliman. Although he analyzed rocks for his mentor and created some geological charts, Dana still had a lot of time at his own disposal. He used this opportunity to investigate the construction of minerals. Crystallography, as Dana's study was called, constituted a new branch of geology, and the young scientist soon made himself one of its leading adherents. His measurement of thousands of angles in crystals fathered his devising of a mathematical relationship between a crystal's angles and axes. To help himself in his work, he made glass models of crystals, a pioneering step in this country. The culmination of his study appeared in 1837, when Dana, only twenty-four, published his System of Mineralogy. This book pleased the layman as well as the scientist, stimulating numerous amateurs to collect rocks and minerals.

Although firmly established as a geologist by 1847, Dana's evolutionary, world-wide concept of geology only developed during his participation in the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-42. Sponsored by the United States and led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the expedition covered a large part of the globe's surface in its quest for scientific information. Dana had a splendid opportunity to study geological matters. When the trip was half over, Dana in June 1840, wrote from the Fiji Islands that the natives were cannibals and preferred roasted white men. More important, he said that he had made almost a hundred drawings of caverns, craters, mountains and rock formations. Moreover, he had collected numerous fossils. After the expedition's return to the United States, Dana spent ten years in producing his reports. The very nature of the reports, one on zoophytes in 1846, then one on geology and a final one on Crustacea in 1854, show how Dana's point of view had been broadened. The reports appeared in beautiful volumes, but in such limited quantities because of Congress' parsimony that Dana did not receive copies of them.

Dana's appointment as the Silliman professor of natural history and geology at Yale in 1849, a position he held for almost fifty years, did not impede his personal research and writing. Not only did he complete his reports of the Wilkes Expedition, but in 1862 he published his Manuel of Geology. In this book Dana pictured geology as a vast, global experience, showing from the beginning of time how the interaction of air, water, heat and pressure underlay the evolution of the earth. He had thus travelled far beyond a mere commentary on individual rocks and minerals; he told how mountains, valleys, plateaus and plains had been formed. Subsequently, his On the Origin of Continents and Corals and Coral Islands explained the formation of mountains and coral reefs, respectively. His interest and desire to learn never flagged, and when seventy-four he took his family to Hawaii to show them the Island's volcanoes. There the natives called him "the Sorcerer who could rend rocks."

Although a student of evolutionary processes, even Dana found it difficult to accept the theories of Charles Darwin, because of his Puritan heritage he opposed a mechanistic explanation of man's development. Once, during a lecture on the formation of the Coral Islands, he said, "Science, while it penetrates deeply the system of things about us, sees everywhere in the dim limits of vision, the word mystery." As the years passed, however, Dana accepted more and more of Darwin, finally agreeing with his concept of man's rise. Dana always maintained, though, that a divine act began the origin of man.

When James Dwight Dana died on April 14, 1895, he left behind 215 published works, a legacy of faithful teaching and a new concept of geology. All of this entered the mainstream of American science, enriching it in a seldom equalled fashion.


  1. This report and measured drawings of the James D. Dana House, (HABS No. Conn-273), were prepared as part of the Summer 1964 New Haven Project, under the supervision of Woodrow W. Wilkins.


Chamberlain, Joshua L. Yale University. Boston: R. Herndon Company, 1900.

Gilman, Daniel C. The Life of James Dwight Dana. New York, 1899.

Jaffe, Bernard, Men of Science in America. New York, 1958.

Merrill, George P. The First One Hundred Years of American Geology. New Haven, 1924.

Struik, Dirk J. Yankee Science in the Making. New York, 1962.

Yale University. Pamphlet prepared for dedication ceremony June 1964.

Historic American Buildings Survey. James D. Dana House, HABS No. Conn.-273. Prepared under Woodrow W. Wilkins, Summer 1964 New Haven Project.

‡ Blanche Higgins Schroer, Landmark Review Project, James Dwight Dana House, New Haven CT, nomination document, 1974, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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