The First Institution of the City

Design by Sara Offer

Louis Kahn, one of the most famous architects of the twentieth century and former professor at the Yale School of Architecture, described the street as “the first institution of the city.” Take, for instance, Chapel Street and Hillhouse Avenue: both are central to today’s Yale experience and have long served as hallmarks of downtown New Haven, evolving alongside the city over the course of the last century. 

Chapel Street served as a place to both live and shop during the 1920s. Commercial activity in the city was centered between Chapel and Church streets, where the city’s trolley system brought millions of customers each month. Chapel Street was a bustling place of commerce, home to Rubin & Berman Tailors and Haberdashers (1091 Chapel St.), Glouskin & Fox Jewelers (1058 Chapel St.), and Hodges & Bro. Picture Frames (952 Chapel St., just below the Taft), among others. The University Smoke Shop at 1012 Chapel St. advertised its pipes, cigarettes, and cigars in addition to milkshakes, sodas, sundaes, and sandwiches. Today, an electronic cigarette store named Anesthesia Smoke Shop operates on the same block. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Most of the shops on Chapel either sold a singular good or performed a specific service. A New Haven resident could easily walk from the butcher to the baker to the druggist, performing their routine errands. However, these single-line shops soon had to compete with department stores, which had risen in number across the country during the Progressive Era due to their ability to provide a variety of goods at a low price.  

Located at 761 Chapel St., Shartenberg’s Department Store offered dry goods, fashions, and sundries, and was founded by business partners Harry Robinson and Jacob Shartenberg in 1906. In 1913, Shartenberg’s sons, Charles and Henry, bought Robinson out. Two years later, they completed construction of a newly expanded version of the store in a neoclassical architectural style. The new Shartenberg’s had six floors and 150,000 square feet for customers to peruse and was the largest store in downtown New Haven. The store remained family-run until 1952, when it was sold to a businessman from New York. The store officially closed in 1962 and was demolished only four years later to make room for a parking structure. 

In addition to Shartenberg’s department store, the Edward Malley Company was a destination for shoppers. Edward Malley, an Irish immigrant, originally opened a dry goods store in 1852 and operated out of a 300 square foot space he rented on Chapel Street. Like the Shartenbergs, Malley and his son bought out the company from their business partner in 1899 and opened a nine-story Beaux-Arts style building at the corner of Chapel and Temple Streets, which expanded to much of the block. Malley’s suffered a similar fate to neighboring Shartenberg’s, as its original location was torn down in 1962 to make room for the Chapel Square Mall.

Gamble-Desmond Company, another department store on Chapel Street, was opened by David S. Gamble, an early employee of Malley’s. In 1898, Gamble joined with a fellow Irishman named John D. Desmond to form their eponymous shop. The company occupied the Insurance Building, then a six-story Second Empire-style building that stood in front of the Green. 

Among these three businesses, one throughline remains: the decline of the trolley and subsequent rise of the automobile catalyzed each store’s demise. In 1870, the New Haven Railroad began purchasing the trolley systems in Southern New England and opened a subsidiary called the Connecticut Company to manage them. As the company reached its peak profit in 1924, they shrewdly recognized that the future of transportation was in buses, not trolleys. Buses were much cheaper; they eliminated the loud clattering of streetcars, and their routes could easily be modified and adjusted. With this in mind, the Connecticut Company transformed trolley lines into bus routes. At the same time, a growing number of people who moved to the suburbs purchased cars and became less reliant on public transportation lines. Out-of-town shopping centers offered a large variety of stores and grew to be a convenient option for customers. This rearrangement of the retail landscape rendered department stores in New Haven obsolete, marking the beginning of a shift in urban and suburban environments that would unfold over the ensuing decades. 

While Chapel served as a thriving symbol of commerce, Hillhouse served as the city’s center for architectural artistry. The development of Hillhouse Avenue, famously deemed the most beautiful street in America by Mark Twain, was the brainchild of urban developer James Hillhouse and later, his son James Abraham Hillhouse. The street, located just a few blocks over from Chapel, was flanked on either side by expansive residences designed by renowned architects such as Alexander Jackson Davis, Henry Austin, and Beatrix Farrand. The end of the nineteenth century marked the acme of the street’s residential development, at which point there were 19 finished residences of varying architectural styles. At the end of the street, atop a small hill, sat the younger Hillhouse’s palatial Grecian villa-style mansion, known as Sachem’s Wood. 

The emphasis on beauty and architectural excellence extended to the homes near Sachem’s Wood, and the Pelatiah Perit House was no exception. The Italianate structure located at 55 Hillhouse Ave. was designed by Connecticut architect Sidney Mason Stone in 1860 for Pelatiah Perit. Perit, a graduate of Yale College, worked as a merchant in New York City and served as the president of the Chamber of Commerce. His symmetrical residence featured numerous decorative elements such as projecting eaves and flamboyant frontispieces, and was sure to leave any passerby impressed. Between the Pelatiah Perit House and Sachem’s Wood, the stately homes which dotted the street symbolized the wealth, power, and elegance of New Haven’s upper echelon.

Today, the avenue is still imposing, as many of the original homes remain intact. What has changed are the purposes of the buildings, many of which are now owned by Yale University (with the exception of St. Mary’s Church, 5 Hillhouse Ave.). Sachem’s wood was demolished in 1942 as stipulated by the will of Hillhouse’s daughter. In its place lies Steep café. 

While Sachem’s Wood no longer stands today, the Pelatiah Perit House presently operates under a different name and a vastly different function: Yale University renamed it Horchow Hall and its current tenant is the nascent Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Like Horchow Hall, many of its neighbors on Hillhouse Avenue have been incorporated into academic departments. The evolution of Hillhouse Avenue from a residential street to a scholastic hub is emblematic of the city’s transformation into a center for scholarship. 

Considering how both Hillhouse Avenue and Chapel Street have changed from the 1920s to today teaches us not only about New Haven and Yale, but also about broader American culture and practices. The street connects the past and present in the same way it connects one block to the next. Examining the storied past of the streets of New Haven provides a glimpse into the future, if only we take the time to look. 

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