Christopher Wigren doesn’t want people to merely read his new book, Connecticut Architecture: Stories of 100 Places. He hopes we will go out and see for ourselves the state’s rich variety of sites and even discover some we never knew existed. Perhaps even some that didn’t make it into the book.
While Wigren was working on this 304-page compilation, a project of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, he often thought of architectural historian and preservationist Elizabeth Mills Brown. She wrote in one of her books: “Architecture is for everyone, and there’s enough to go around if we’ll only learn to take care of it.”
Brown added: “Go out and keep your eyes open. Enjoy every bit of it, whether it’s on somebody’s list or not. And above all, guard it.”
Wigren dedicated his book to Brown, noting she had intended to write it. But after their decades of research together, she died in 2008.
“I kind of inherited it,” Wigren says during our talk in his office at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation in Hamden. Wigren, an architectural historian, is the Trust’s deputy director. He and his colleagues work out of what was once a boarding house for Eli Whitney’s workers, who walked across Whitney Avenue to his factory.
Wigren’s book, promoted on its back cover as “the first comprehensive illustrated history of Connecticut architecture,” will be published Nov. 6 by Wesleyan University Press. Each of the 100 entries has two pages of text and evocative photos, paintings, drawings or maps.
How does one go about choosing those 100 places? “That was probably the hardest part of the whole process,” he admits. “There were places I’m particularly fond of that didn’t make it in.” For example: the Ponemah Mills in Taftville (a village in Norwich), which in the late 1800s encompassed one of the largest textile mills in the country. The mills originally had made it into the book but got bumped out by another site.
In the book’s preface, Wigren says the 100 places were chosen “to present a cross section of the varied architecture found in the state. It is not intended to be a ‘best of’ state architecture.”
Wigren tells me with a laugh, “I’m sure wherever I go, people will ask me: ‘How could you write a book about Connecticut architecture and not include X, Y and Z?’ ”
Indeed, during our talk I can’t help but point out that Yale’s iconic Harkness Tower did not make his list. He nods and notes he also didn’t include Yale’s Gothic residential college buildings created by James Gamble Rogers.
In keeping with his book’s title, Wigren says, “I wanted to choose places that tell good stories.” An apt example is the Groton Monument, aka the Fort Griswold Monument, designed by Ithiel Town. Many people have seen the towering stone obelisk but few of us know it commemorates the battle of Groton Heights. It was fought in 1781 during a British invasion; more than 80 Americans were massacred, most after they had surrendered.
Here’s another story behind a striking site, the James Blackstone Memorial Library in Branford. How did this small town get to have a beautiful, palace-like structure for its public library? The answer is a $300,000 endowment, a gift from a native son, Timothy Beach Blackstone, who had moved away and made a fortune in Chicago as president of a railroad company. The library was a memorial for his father.
One of the sites you would expect to be included in the book, and did make it in, is the Mark Twain House, the pride of Hartford. But Wigren in his text shoots down the popular belief that architect Edward Tuckerman Potter intended it to resemble a Mississippi River steamboat. In fact, Twain’s wife, Olivia, “played a significant role in shaping the house to reflect current fashions.”
Wigren asserts he wanted to show in his book that Connecticut’s architecture is “not just colonial houses,” but he did include some distinguished residences such as the Willis Bristol House, built in 1845 on the edge of New Haven’s Wooster Square. He describes it in the book as “a fantasia of cusped arches, windows with sinuous muntins and glints of stained glass, and columns balanced uneasily on narrow turned bases, all derived from the buildings of India.” Wigren says architect Henry Austin got the idea for the Indian design by reading travel books in libraries.
Wigren also inserted some surprise choices. Who would have expected to see Lakeville’s Lime Rock Park in an architecture book? Wigren says the automobile racetrack is an interesting piece of landscape design. There are no grandstands; instead, he writes, spectators sit on “grassy slopes dotted with maples and oaks, screened by rows of pines.”
Asked if he’d had any “Wow!” moments during his travels across Connecticut to check out interesting places, Wigren recalls beholding the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford. Architect Wallace K. Harrison, who built it from 1953-58, sold his concept to the church’s building committee by asking: “Have you ever thought what it would be like to live inside a giant sapphire?” From the outside, Wigren writes, it resembles an origami fish; inside it is reminiscent of a jewel box.
“I had been in it only once before,” Wigren recalls. “I went back for this book and I was bowled over by what an amazing work of art it is.”
When I challenge Wigren to name his favorite place that’s in the book, he shakes his head and says that’s like asking somebody to choose a favorite child. But he does cite the Merritt Parkway as “one of my favorites.” Wigren writes that when it was created in the 1930s (well before commuting became a daily headache), the Merritt was not a highway but “a parkway — a road in a landscaped park, designed for pleasurable driving.”
You can ask Wigren about his choices when he gives a talk about his book from 5-7 p.m. Nov. 6 at Middletown’s historic Russell House, 350 Main St. And yes, Russell House made the cut.