Architectural Components, Inc.

Yale's Skinner-Trowbridge House

Early American Life, February 2002

by Gladys Montgomery Jones

Photographs courtesy of Helpern Architects, New York City; Post-Restoration Photographs by Peter Mauss, Esto Photographics, MamAroneck, New York

The east portico of the Skinner-Trowbridge house presents an elegant face to Hillhouse Avenue, as the building's original architects, Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, intended.

Estimate the number of historic buildings demolished each year because American communities can't figure out how to use them, and you would—conservatively—reach a number in the hundreds. Internationally, the number is much greater.

"Unlike a picture or a statue, a building must continue to justify itself on more than artistic grounds," wrote Constance Greiff in Lost America, From the Atlantic to the Mississippi. "It must continue, in some way, to be functional if it is to survive. And, only recently have Americans begun to accept the notion that function might include the provision of visual delight, variety in the townscape, or a sense of place and identity."

One of several institutions of higher learning to recognize this latter truth is Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, which is working to restore many of its historic buildings, originally designed as residences, and adapt them for educational use. What's relevant about this project for individual homeowners is decisions the university made about what features to retain, which to rework, and how to accommodate modern systems and codes.

Yale acquired the Skinner-Trowbridge house in 1978. It had been used in various ways through the years, including for classrooms, but had suffered deterioration over time. In 1999, Yale's governing board decided to use the mansion, which the New Haven Preservation Trust has called "New Haven's finest Greek Revival house ... a priceless heritage," to accommodate the School of Management's prestigious International Center for Finance. For restoration of the 14,OOO-square-foot space, Yale turned to Helpern Architects of New York City, a firm known for its educational and preservation work.

The building is located on Hillhouse Avenue, which was developed in 1792 by James Hillhouse, a 1773 Yale graduate and contemporary of Nathan Hale, on his farm in a rural section of New Haven. Senator Hillhouse, who served in Congress during George Washington's presidency and as Yale's treasurer for more than fifty years, laid out a road and lined it with elms. He specified that houses must be set back fifty feet from the two-lane street and mandated that homeowners hire a leading architect for residential design. The result of Hillhouse's plan was a street Charles Dickens called "the most beautiful in America." All but two of the homes Dickens admired on the upper section of the street have survived, and all are owned by the university. (Ironically, one of the two no longer standing is Hillhouse's own, demolished in 1942 at the instruction of its owner, who feared it would "fall to decay, or pass into the hands of strangers who have no interest in it." Local preservationists tried, but failed, to save it.)

Aaron N. Skinner, a Yale-trained lawyer, bought his 100-foot-wide lot for $1,000 in September 1830 and agreed to build a residence costing at least $3,500 in the six-month period beginning May 1, 1834. For his home's design, Skinner hired architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis; Town's extensive architectural library stood at the lower end of Hillhouse Avenue. It is said that Davis based his design on Decimus Burton's plans for the 1823 Greenough Villa in Regent's Park, London.

His Greek Revival design was cruciform with a two-story Ionic-columned portico facing east to the street. Its central core was balanced by two one-story pavilions, which made a graceful transition from the imposing portico to the landscape. The main entry was a Doric-columned porch on the south side. Built of brick, it was veneered in stucco, coursed to imitate stone blocks, and painted a light stone color. According to one historian, Skinner's house was the model for "at least nine other Town and Davis temple houses within a radius of fifty miles."

Skinner, who was admitted to the bar in 1829, founded an exclusive school for boys in the house, served four terms in the Connecticut legislature, and, as mayor of New Haven from 1850-54, took an interest in the city's parks and streetscape. In 1858 he sold the house to Judge W.W. Boardman, who had it remodeled in a more eclectic style, possibly by Henry Austin, who designed New Haven's City Hall. The roof parapet was removed and a second story was added to both flanking wings. The upper windows of these additions were outlined with round-headed gouged frames popular in the Victorian period. Inside, the front hall received a new staircase and carved deep-relief crown moldings with chevronesque banding.

In 1907 another new owner, Rutherford Trowbridge, scion of a wealthy New Haven shipping family, expanded the mansion. He added a large dining room featuring a semicircular bay with leaded windows on its north side and an open porch and two-story kitchen/service addition on the west.

For Yale's restoration, project architect Margaret Castillo took her lead from the building's architectural pedigree and from historic sources, such as Davis's diaries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The intent of the changes was to be consistent with the character of the house and its anticipated use.

Outdoors, sections of original cast-iron fence, found in an outbuilding, were reproduced, and a parterre garden, a buffer between house and rear parking lot, was recreated from plans by Marian Coffin, dating to 1926. The grade behind the house and the basement slab were lowered, permitting the basement to be used for office and administrative space. The basement was also expanded under the west porch, with a scored stucco facing that matches the adjacent foundation. Landscaping and a system of outdoor paths integrate the house with the School of Management complex.

Inside, twelve-foot-seven-inch ceilings on the first floor and ten-foot-seven-inch ceilings on the second floor were retained. The original room configuration was also kept, with a few exceptions. The southwest comer room was subdivided to create space for an elevator, pantry and recycling areas, and an office on each floor. For the elevator, a mezzanine was added off the main stair landing. The rear wing was redesigned to accommodate a staircase and offices. The mansion now houses about twenty administrative and faculty offices, a computer center, a library with desk space for visiting scholars and dignitaries, and a reception/gathering room in the 1907 dining room.

Interior finishes were as important as space design. In the front hall, missing sections of circa 1858 crown molding were meticulously copied—and redone when installation revealed they did not perfectly imitate the originals. The entry's glass tracery was restored and the sweeping staircase was retained, as were all five of the mansion's fireplaces. Double-hung replacement windows with true divided lights and wooden muntins were custom-made using insulated glass; new weights carry their heavier bulk. In the library, use of the original interior pocket shutters was revived. Where Greek Revival period curtains once divided rooms, custom-made wooden doors were installed; on the second floor they function as smoke doors off the open stairhall. Inlaid oak and mahogany floors were restored and laid with area rugs instead of institutional wall-to-wall carpeting. The rear staircase has brass handrails and unfading green slate flooring similar to the material used for the outdoor paths—prettier and quieter than metal stairs. In the historic rooms, incandescent chandeliers and lamps replaced fluorescent lighting.

The result of thoughtful planning and careful craftsmanship is a building that meets current codes and standards but minimizes their visual impact. The architects declined to eliminate small sliding panels under the oversized windows, designed to allow the windows to open as doors onto the terrace, to install HVAC units. Instead, they kept the panels and installed discreet brass floor grates under the windows to channel forced hot air heat up from the basement; air conditioning is ducted in the attic through equally discreet ceiling grilles. In the front hall, the required fire command panel is just one foot square; a larger panel is located in the basement. A new rear entry convenient to the parking lot and other School of Management buildings provides access for the disabled, rather than exterior ramps.

At present, the future of the Skinner-Trowbridge house seems assured. Perhaps it is not just a building that has "learned" to function in a new way, but one that has something to teach future architects, international business people, and other communities.

In keeping with the building's use, work focused on restoring the gracious residential character of the house. The main entrance's beveled-glass-panel door, sidelights, and flat-arched fanlight with leaded tracery offer a graceful introduction to the interior. Sections of the deeply carved, chevronesque banding on the ceiling's crown moldings were reproduced.

The grand staircase, once closed off because of water damage to the second floor, was reopened, with the aid of rear fire stairs, sprinklers, and smoke detectors. Here, as throughout the house, incandescent chandeliers and wall sconces were preferred over more institutional fluorescent lighting. Wall decorations include a permanent exhibition of international bond certificates in reproduction frames.

In the lounge/seminar room, added as a dining room in 1907, the clear and rippled leaded-glass bay windows were fully restored, as was the room's oak wall paneling and fireplace, which is surmounted by the Trowbridge family crest. The joist design of the Colonial Revival ceiling was emphasized, and incandescent light fixtures replaced fluorescent ones.

Restoration Standards

The U.S. Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, drawn from Stewart Brand's 1994 book, How Buildings Learn:

1. A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.

2. The historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.

3. Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements taken from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.

4. Most properties change over time; those changes that have acquired historic significance in their own right shall be retained and preserved.

5. Distinctive features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a historic property shall be preserved.

6. Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features shall be substantiated by documentary, physical, or pictorial evidence.

7. Chemical or physical treatments, such as sandblasting, that cause damage to the historic materials shall not be used. The surface cleaning of structures, if appropriate, shall be undertaken using the gentlest means possible.

8. Significant archaeological resources affected by a project shall be protected and preserved. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures shall be undertaken.

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.

10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

 

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