Before and After

Before and After


 Before, we were itinerant, unattached to things or places or people, and so our habitats were makeshift, improvised, borrowed accommodations.  We exchanged them rather easily as circumstances changed. Our place on Eld Street began that way.  Although a single family home when built, it was a multifamily house (for a generation) or so when Bruce arrived in New Haven.  He, and then we, rented the downstairs apartment from Stanley and Mary who lived above.  After Stanley died and Mary moved to a retirement home, we rented the upstairs apartment too, using it as office and studio.  Slowly, unremarkably, we grew accustomed to New Haven, and the house became our home.  We felt urban, but settled; we got used to things.  We developed routines, we appreciated proximities.  The longer we were here the more it suited us, and eventually we bought the house from Stanley’s and Mary’s daughter.  We have been renovating and re-imagining and recreating this place ever since.  The house now holds everything we know and are, and it is an homage to all of our teachers and to the past, while being a place for our present, and for someone else’s future.

While we wanted to occupy and use the whole house, we were cautious about too much change, or too much change too soon.  We felt any upgrades and restorations should fit the neighborhood’s accumulated architecture, history, culture, and people.  There was a lot to consider – whether the neighborhood could support single family homes in the future, for example or whether multifamily housing would resurge.  And how to individualize without disrupting?  Could we grow the house as the neighborhood grew, as we grew, and also prepare it for a time after us?  It was a complicated puzzle, and we were just barely up to it.

The house had been built sometime before the turn of the last century.  It shows on the Sanborn fire insurance map of 1888, and that time seems right, given the history of similar houses here in New Haven and in Bridgeport.  The artifacts we discovered are from that era, too: an early nineteenth century wedding photo, ladies boots in turn-of-the-century style, and a money order receipt from 1902.  The building type is very common in the region, and it may be that the house was purchased as a plan, in one of several configurations.  We are still researching …

The history was intriguing and important, but we wanted to play and invent. Our eventual conceit for the re-design was a balance: conserve the old and introduce the new, from the front of the house to the back, from downstairs up, inside and out. Even this parti1  honored past building practices. In the past, new technologies and rooms like indoor bathrooms and kitchens were always added at the back, and unoccupied spaces like attics and basements became storage space and then living space over time.

We worked in phases as money allowed and inspiration struck.  Our biggest project was to remake the exterior.  We removed the aluminum siding and replaced it with painted clapboard. The windows and trim are new too, but in a style that echoes the originals.2  We were sad to lose the old windows with lead counterweights, but they leaked badly.  These changes were made on the three sides of the house visible from street and sidewalk, to acknowledge and strengthen the neighborhood vernacular style.  An antique door replaced Stanley’s heavy metal front door, itself a mid-century replacement of the original.

Our one break from the past in front is the new porch.  Most porches we have seen gracing similar houses are small entry porticoes, with flat roofs supported by Greek columns.  Stanley remade the original, we think, and extended the porch the full length of the house, adding turned posts, railings and a gable roof.  We liked the neighbor space the full porch offered – a place to chat with guests or passers-by – so our renovation keeps the best of both styles.  It is full length, with a shed roof supported by Greek columns. 

The back is different.  The south-facing facade is hidden from public view, and we took advantage of its invisibility to side it with unpainted cedar clapboard, in a contemporary style.  The trim is contemporary too, and the new windows number many more than there were originally.  The back porch is a kind of folly made with references to old and new.  The very different new look of the back doesn’t interrupt the traditional feel of the neighborhood, as it is not a part of any streetscape.

There was (and is) a constant conversation about conserving, adapting, and re-using existing elements inside the house too.  Some of the pieces we kept or restored: the two-story entry hall, a marble mantle in the front room (and its chimney), and the curving front staircase with walnut rail.  We let go a few old features to accommodate our present-day life; these changes happen more at the back of the house in support of our design concept.  We removed some interior walls and other clearly newer additions, like the two interior apartment entry doors.  Beyond the front staircase the house now expands into an open space with seating, dining area and kitchen that look out into the back yard.  We kept the vintage Geneva kitchen cabinets that were a modern upgrade when installed in the 1950’s.  We liked how they supported our overall scheme of ‘new at the back’.  Even though they were old to us, they were new to the house.

Upstairs most changes were practical and personal.  As these are private spaces the conversation with the past is less important to the larger scales of neighborhood or city scale.  Vertical separation of public and private is an original intent, too, reflected in the change in ceiling height as you ascend (from nine and a half feet to eight feet high to seven and a half feet at the attic peak).  The new bathroom is lined with closets and the laundry.  Our bedroom features another antique marble mantle and one originally styled window – but also has new skylights to replace the side windows which offered no privacy from the (very close) house next door.

We treated the attic like a brand new space, because it is most private; the only reference to the original house is the shape of the space, made by the gable roof and short side walls.  Here we put studio, with places for drawing and artmaking, reading and writing.  Bruce’s built-in cabinetry and shelving are tucked under the eaves along both side walls, and the windows back and front complement their respective exterior facades.

Flexibility was central to the design.  We wanted to preserve the options of easily converting the house back to apartments or allowing the house to work as a whole for a family with children, while still enjoying it in our empty-nest live/work way.  The first floor easily becomes an apartment again with the addition of an entry door where the old one was, and the second floor also readily converts.  The plan for a new apartment upstairs modifies the current bedroom and bath into three rooms – kitchen, dining and bath.  Studio becomes one or two bedrooms in either future scenario.  The first floor front room could be claimed by one apartment or the other as an office or receiving room, or even rented separately for short term stays.  So the house has many possibilities, and can adapt as needed to accommodate any number of futures.  We have designed for change.

Beyond this vision we introduced many elements to make the house our own.  Architects value what came before, and we are honest and forthcoming about the precedents underlying any/every new design.  What we make is an ongoing conversation with those who inspired and taught us with their work.  In this house we reference and allude to a precession of master builders and artists:  Philip Johnson, Luís Barragán, Piet Mondrian, Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Alvar Aalto and Santiago Calatrava, among so many others.  We also keep in mind the people who lived here before us: the turn-of-the-last-century wedding photo we found in the basement hangs again in the front room, in its original frame.

It has been said that a house is a metaphor for self, and I can see our growth reflected in every decision, every built-in detail, every bit of decor.  This, now, is our after.  The past echoes throughout, while the changes we initiated and those we have lived are inscribed.  Before, we were expansive, now we conserve.  We created, now we are stewards; we sowed, now we reap.  We have prepared for the big after, when the house is no longer ours – when we no longer are.  We are comfortable with leaving because we have built into ourselves everything we have built into the house:  we can have this house anywhere; we have this house forever. We will turn over the house as we turn over the world to the coming generations, expecting and acknowledging change.

In this way, too, the house has its own before and after, holding all the befores and afters of its inhabitants. We were careful not to completely restore the house to its original design and thereby permanently erase the many renditions. The most important meaning of its history is not found in original details or preservation plaques or the names on the door, but rather in continuance, by virtue of adaptation. The house embodies all pasts, the present, and the future, just as we do now, after.

House Front (after)


  1. foundational design concept
  2. two-over-two and double hung, in architectural parlance
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