Docomomo had its day today. All over the U.S., preservation groups were leading Docomomo tours. So what is Docomomo? “Documentation and conservation of bulidings, sites, and nieghborhoods of the modern movement.” Read that as modernist architecture from the mid-20th century.
In New Haven, land of great architecture, New Haven Preservation Trust took on the awesome duty of touring us to see modernist residential architecture. And where better to visit that elegant St. Ronan Street? Wait? What? Yes, among those classic beauties, crafting the first “streetcar suburb” in the area, are emblems of modernity.
After the Civil War, when New Haven became an industrial powerhouse, estates were built in the country outside New Haven on St. Ronan Street. Yes, St. Ronan is walking distance from much of Yale, but that just shows how small New Haven was at the time. Eli Whitney was among the notables to build leafy green estates here.
By the 1920s, with a wave of modernism, the estates were broken up into small lots. Streetcars carried people the easy distance to downtown jobs.
By the 1950s and ’60s though, like so much of the country, car culture created real suburbs, and neighborhoods like this one were in radical decline. Large houses were converted to rooming houses. Lots were subdivided again with urban renewal and back filled with smaller homes.
Architecture students graduating from Yale were building experimental houses on these small lots. Established architects, like H.W. Foote, who designed stately homes like the Adolph Mendel house above, shifted to constructing modernist designs.
Houses like the Jose Delgado house applied a California philosophy to the modernism. Low pitched roof lines overhang garages placed near the street. Behind the garage, the private part of the house opens onto garden spaces behind, melding the indoor and outdoor spaces.
But having the garage up front “deadens the streetscape,” we were told. That’s why traditional houses with front porches will hold a place in people’s hearts.
It’s all a tradeoff.
You can see an earlier California design again in the Tuttle House from 1956.
My favorite was the Leavy house. I just love the geometric lines and blocks of color, reminiscent of a Mondrian painting, and what must be bright, open interior spaces.
Dr. Leavy saw patients in the home originally. Now, the patient area is rented out as an Air BnB. Let me know if you stay here!
By the 1970s, architects were concerned with energy conservation, as we can see in the solar-designed Evenson house. Skylights allow heat to radiate through the space, heat water, that then circulates through radiator piping to heat the house. Heavy walls and small windows provide solar gain, too.
The eclectic architecture of the St. Ronan area shows a pattern of architectural history in towns and cities replicated across the country. The desire to build large homes in traditional, European styles gets intermixed with a robust American modernism. Eye candy all!