New Haven preservationists lament demolition of historic house for Yale neuroscience research center

NEW HAVEN — The preservationists tried for three years but, in the end, the 19th century Queen Anne house has an appointment with the wrecking ball and not a new location.

As the $837 million Yale New Haven Hospital neuroscience research center gets underway after long delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the initial steps is to demolish three buildings on Sherman Avenue, part of the Saint  Raphael's campus of Yale New Haven Hospital. 

The preservationists concentrated their efforts on saving one of them: 131 Sherman Ave., which has the most cultural and architectural significance of the parcels, they said.

There is always tension between developers and preservationists as they seek to mitigate the loss of historic structures, saving them if they can, or having them incorporated into a development. The last, more complicated option, is moving a house to another site.

Also, the city's approval of the major research center called for a conservation survey of  131 Sherman and opening it up to organizations and the public interested in claiming some of the architectural elements if in the end it was going to be demolished, according to Evan Trachten of New Haven's Livable City Initiative.

The beginning of demolition was set to start Wednesday.

In order to make the move possible, Olivia Martson of Friends of the Dwight Historic District said they needed a source of funding, a place to move the building and an end user.

For a while, it seemed like it was coming together.

Vincent Petrini, senior vice president at Yale New Haven Health, said the hospital offered to give the preservationists the $150,000 it would cost to demolish just 131 Sherman Ave., which was most recently was being used as a day care center.

Also being demolished is 125 Sherman, the pastoral center when Saint Raphael's was a separate entity, and 121 Sherman, which was the convent for the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, the order that ran Saint Raphael's before it was taken over by YNHH in 2012.

Petrini said they were also donating the house if relocation were to be picked up by others.

Martson said Fellowship Place, run by executive Director Mary Guerrera, was interested in possibly converting the building to affordable housing units for some clients. Fellowship Place provides a broad range of therapeutic support and rehabilitation services for adults with serious mental illness.

She did not return several calls seeking comment.

"The fact that they were giving us the house, we could have had eight studio apartments there for affordable housing," said Marston, who had hoped for a city contribution.

The Livable City Initiative, a department that oversees some affordable housing development, and takes care of neighborhood blight, in April 2021 had suggested relocating the house to 1589 Chapel St. on property the city owned.

By spring 2022, however, city Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli said this was off the table over the cost and because LCI had another use for the property.

"The city did not have the capacity nor was it our role to lead the process as the proposed relocation was not a condition of the Planned District Development," Piscitelli said.

The Board of Alders had approved an amendment to the hospital's PDD in order to construct the neuroscience center, replace the current garage and build a second one, while also creating space to replace 204 in-patient beds.

Trachten, acquisition and disposition coordinator for LCI, estimated that the basic cost of just moving the structure at $384,000, which didn't count coordination and design work, utility drops and site engineering.

The building site at 131 Sherman Ave. was owned by Harmanus Welch, a mayor of New Haven from 1860 to 1863, who built the 2.5-story brick and brownstone structure  with its composite gable and hip roof for his son, Pierce Welch in 1880. It was designed by famed architect Rufus Russell.

It is one of a number of Victorian residences on the street that were developed following the Civil War.  It was characterized as a good example of the different types of the Queen Anne style with its double leaf front doors, single bay open porch and Gothic column capitals. It is listed on the State Register of Historic Place and the New Haven Historic Resources Inventory. The  Dwight Historic District, however, curves around the site as the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth did not agree to be included in it when it was established in 1982.

Inclusion would have guaranteed it a 90-day demolition reprieve as the parties tried to work out a deal.

Between the Friends of the Dwight Historic District and the New Haven Preservation Trust, they considered seven sites, including 217 Winthrop Ave., which would have been a shorter move, thereby cutting the cost.

Owned by Neighborhood Works New Horizons, Aaron Hoffmann, director of real estate development, said they wanted to help out but it was more efficient to keep this lot to build two houses as part of a contract with the state, than to find another city lot in the Hill neighborhood.

Colin Caplan, historical architect with Magrisso Forte, said razing the homes at both 125 and 131 Sherman Ave. was part of a pattern of  demolishing properties around the hospital with four of them across the street either vacant or turned into parking lots.

"These prime corner properties now create a scale and use that is detrimental to the quality of life of the surrounding neighborhood," he wrote in a letter to the City Plan office.

Petrini said he sympathized with their concerns but said the access to clinical care for all members of the community through the neuroscience center is different than a parking lot.

Research in the neuroscience building will address such problems as Parkinson’s disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis and stroke. The hospital has estimated that the project will contribute more than $1 billion to the state economy as it is built over the next five years.

“There is a balance here between recognizing the history of a location and advancing a new building that will be a source of healing and life-saving care for the entire community in the future. We’ve worked hard to respect this balance over the last three years," he said.

“We know that it’s disappointing to some that we now need to move forward, but to so many others  this represents an enormous opportunity to connect people to the essential care they will need in the future," Petrini said.

Petrini said the hospital contacted four groups to view 131 Sherman for a salvage operation. The three reached by the Register said they got calls from hospital personnel in late October and they couldn't undertake the work on the tight timeline requested.

Susan Godshall, an officer with  the Trust, said "it was  surprising that the hospital didn’t invite any salvage operations until the building was already wrapped in plastic for hazardous materials abatement, and when the Trust contacted two salvage firms anyway, the hospital said no."

She feels the Trust and Friends of the Dwight Historic District were cut out of the salvage operation.

"Really, it’s not about what happened or didn’t happen in the last 3 weeks," Godshall said. "YNHH has not reached out to the Preservation Trust in the last 3 years! The hospital’s indifference to the fate of this New Haven treasure is discouraging.  

"In the long run, saving this house would be a more meaningful community benefit than providing a few crosswalks and traffic lights," Godshall said.

The salvage companies contacted by the hospital included Urban Miners, William Gould Architectural Preservation, Habitat for Humanity and  New England Re-Use. Of the three that could be reached, they all agreed the request from the hospital came late in the remediation stage, making it hard to participate.

Joe DeRisi, with New England Re-Use, said his interest is with saving the framing of the houses and the floors which can be turned into other objects, such as furniture.

He said just demolishing the structures creates a huge amount of waste.

As far as the conservation survey is concerned, Petrini said they had staff scan a 3-D model of the interior of the building, which is available on video.