Alice Washburn and the trolley suburb

It was standing room only at the New Haven Museum this evening for an illustrated lecture on Alice Washburn, a self-trained architect. In her ten year career, Washburn built about 90 homes, mostly in one neighborhood in New Haven and in my new hood, Spring Glen in Hamden. She started on spec on one of the nicest streets in Spring Glen and with a budding reputation, worked on commissions for larger, custom homes.

But with the Depression and her own perfectionist tendencies, Washburn went bankrupt in 1931, living out her life in an apartment and dying in obscurity in 1958.  Unknown she stayed until the 1980s, when an intrepid art historian resuscitated her career.  Realtors now sell her 1920s homes for more than average.  I sat next to Jean, the owner of a Washburn home, purchased from the son of the original owner.  She received a tube in the mail, addressed to “Occupant,” containing the original blueprints.  A precious thing indeed.

Washburn  believed that women were the ideal architects because the home was the domain of women.  Does that mean she designed gender-specific qualities?  Lecturer Charlotte Hitchcock, an architect with the Connecticut Trust, didn’t know.  Apparently, her kitchens ranged in size, more suited to the house than any particular gendered use.  Jean said her four-bedroom house has two baths at either end of the hall, not a master, clearly suited to family use.

Washburn’s houses were part of a larger Colonial Revival period, lasting from about 1910-1930 and the City Beautiful movement that started in the 1890s.  During that time, monumental buildings were constructed like the stately Hamden Town Hall.  Also a focus on public health meant putting gas, electricity, and running water, as well as parks, into developed and new neighborhoods.

Attention was certainly paid to walking-oriented new developments.  Hence the trolley suburb–first horse-drawn rail ways, and later, around 1910, electric.  That’s how my neighborhood grew up.  The Webb farm was subdivided for single family homes.  The town center, literally just below my house, was the retail that emerged along the trolley line.  Still very handsome today.

But no, my house isn’t a Washburn.  It was built about 25 years after her last.  Still I hope someday, it will have a bit of that New England charm she trolled for and incorporated in her Colonial stylings.  She happily mixed in Dutch, Greek Revival, Arts and Crafts, and Federal elements.  She liked the classical and a curved walk.  My house sports one now, too!

The largest of Washburn’s houses cost $20,000 to build.  Most were modest, much less expensive.  You don’t want to know what my remodel costs!  At least, the detail and perfectionism going into this little house will honor Washburn’s spirit.