Saturday, November 19, 2011

Abandoned House Adventure in Fair Haven, Connecticut

Ruined house in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven

Fair Haven, Connecticut is the old riverfront area of the city of New Haven, near the Mill and Quinnipiac rivers. In the early days a lot of money was made there in the oyster business. Today there are old industrial areas near the rivers, and lots of old homes in the adjacent streets. This long-abandoned home on East Grand Avenue had a curious history. 

According to the lawyer who gave me permission to enter the building, the old owner bequeathed the property to his two children by dividing the long, narrow lot right through the center of the house. Unfortunately, the heirs quarreled, and neither would agree to sell to the other, or to co-develop the property, so the house lay there decaying for most of the twentieth century. 

By the time my college roommate and I went there the building was derelict; almost every single pane of window glass was broken. This early 19th-century home was rather large—probably one of the largest built in Fair Haven, although it was seemingly built as a double. Brick walls created the tall, raised basement, and at one time stairs led to an entry porch. Here is another home in Fair Haven built on the same general plan, although with more insistent Greek Revival trappings:

This old neighbor, at 37-39 Grand Avenue, shows how the abandoned house might have looked in better days.

We entered though a basement window at the back, and immediately fell though the floor. Fortunately, the wooden boards were only a few inches above the true dirt floor beneath, so there were no casualties. However, the floor, which was rotten everywhere, was a cause for concern, as was the condition of the foundation bricks:

Usually it is the mortar that falls out from between the bricks, which must then be repaired by repointing. Here the bricks themselves have disintegrated, leaving behind a honeycomb of intact mortar.  At this point, considering that these bricks were also holding up the structure, we decided to leave the house and go to a nearby fire station, explaining that we were photographing the home and if we didn’t report back by such a time, they should come to look for us.

The old beehive oven

Early homes often had their kitchens in the basement, as evidenced here by a large fireplace equipped with a beehive oven. Often these ovens are set into a wall, so the backs cannot be seen, but it this case the back was exposed, giving us a rare glimpse at this attractive spiraling masonry work:

Back of the beehive

We cautious ascended to the main floor (the stairs were broken and rotting), to find a curious hodge-podge of rooms; it wasn’t exactly one house, but it wasn’t exactly a double, either. Although there was evidence of some early woodwork and remnants of hand-blocked wallpaper, there were also cheap moldings that indicated that perhaps the dwelling had been cut up into a rooming house, not an unusual fate for old buildings.

Climbing another questionable staircase to the second floor, we encountered a hallway floor riddled with large holes that allowed us to see through to the first floor below. One of the bedrooms still gives me nightmares. Aside from the overwhelming water damage and the incredible dreariness, the cheap, institutional-looking iron bed is another sign that this could have been a rooming house. To be fair, there were some very attractive features in the house, but we never got a chance to photograph them.

Hollywood could not have dreamed this one up...
We then mounted the final stairs to the attic, which apparently had never been finished and was just one large space, although it was fully floored. We started walking toward the chimney, when a strange thing happened—the whole floor under us started to move, slanting as though the very structure of the house were giving way. 

We looked at each other, then gingerly but quickly made our way out . The next time I was in Fair Haven, the house was gone. I never found out if it fell, or if it was torn down as a safety concern. I have never seen an old house in such bad condition as this one. Often owners of historic buildings will claim that a reasonably sound house cannot be saved because they want to develop the property, but this house was truly beyond repair.

The site today, still undeveloped, from a Google Maps view.


  1. A fascinating story, Parnassus, and a cautionary tale to those drawing up their wills! I'm guessing that the honeycombed mortar indicates that the clay never should have been used for those bricks in the first place, especially when bricks used in Hadrian's time are still intact. Could it be that the foundation was under water for long periods of time?

  2. Hello Mark, I have a feeling most of the moisture came from a failed roof--consider the damage everywhere, and look at that bedroom. I don't believe that the raised basement was actually flooded--the house was on a hill, and if you look carefully at the base of the wall, you can see piles of powdered brick.

  3. oh, but I have the saddest tendency to think nothing is beyond repair, causing many a stumble and fall thru out my life! pgt

  4. Hello pgt, It is so important for there to be people with your attitude, especially when it is always easier to not to deal with difficulties. I am sure your tendency also resulted in many high points.

    However, in this case the building was really gone. Both the surface and structural elements were so far decayed that if this had been a super-important building to save at any price, the end result could only have been a recreation or reconstruction--it could look the same, but virtually no original materials could be included.

  5. I love this post. Too bad the house is no longer. As they say, every victory of architectural preservation is temporary, and every loss is permanent. RD

  6. Hello Reggie, What you say is very true, and this house didn't even have progress or profit as the motive behind its destruction, just pettiness.

    The heartbreaker here is worse than usual, because the house was located on its own small city block, and retained its original land. The similar house down the street was in an urban context, but this house, although just across the Quinnipiac River, had a more suburban feel to it. Instead of recreating a historic lifestyle, now that land will only be seen as a condo development.

  7. In brickwork, the mortar must be softer than the bricks. In historic work, the bricks are often very soft and the mortar easily removed. But in modern repointing, there is often an overcompensation using (hard) Portland Cement. The result is the brick spalling that you witnessed.

  8. Hello Devoted Classicist, You are absolutely right about the dangers of hard mortar with old bricks. That is one of the tragedies of many historic buildings, when beautiful old bricks are improperly repointed (not to mention inappropriate mortar colors).

    In the present case, however, take a closer look at the picture. The bricks are disintegrating, not spalling. You can see powdered brick on the ground, and even in the "honeycomb" itself for some of the more extreme cases.

    I didn't mention it before, but this was an interior wall, with almost certainly its original mortar, and so was more protected from the ordinary spalling seen on exteriors.

    Any way you look at it, these are not the bricks you want supporting the building you are standing in!

  9. This was such an interesting post! How fortunate you were to be able to get in and take phtotographs (and to get out;) It always makes me sad to see houses not being loved. What a sad ending. I wonder who owns the property today...


  10. Hello Joan, Yes, I was lucky to get out, but this is not really a dangerous hobby if you use a little sense, and in fact this was the only time I was ever nervous about a building.

    Some houses have had a much happier ending, and like your beautifully restored farmhouse have ended up with a new life.

  11. It is not the bricks fault they are crimbling - it's the mortars fault.

    Brick is clay and clay naturally absorbs and sheds moisture, so they expand and contract.

    The mortar on those bricks was repointed at sometime in the early 20th century with a "hard" type portland cement - that's caused the front of the bricks to spall. Old bricks are soft bricks by virtue of the techniques used in at the time they were manufactured. The original mortar would have been a soft sandy one to allow the brick to expand and contract with the weather. If you look at those pictures - the mortar is still intact. The fronts cracked and fell (spalled) because repinted the mortal wouldn't accomodate them.

    When will people understand that mortar is no so much "glue", but a cushion to absorb the expansion and contraction of the bricks.

  12. Hello Cool Cookie, These bricks are turning into quite a mystery. I agree with you about spalling in general, but here there were no spalls (chips or flakes) present, just powder. So even if it is the mortar's fault, the bricks reacted in an odd way. Notice far far back the disintegration goes; usually spalling affects mostly the fronts.

    I need to do some more investigation here. The mortar does look hard and cement-like; it also seems to be intact (not joining with older mortar), representing an unusually thorough job in a house that received so little maintenance.

    Thanks for your close observations. Too bad we didn't investigate those walls more thoroughly at the time, but at that moment we were more interested in getting away in one piece.

  13. When I was younger, several of the oldest houses in this region were similarly turning into compost, for the same reason. In fact 'heirship property' was the simple shorthand often stated to answer the question 'why is this lovely old house in such wretched condition?'. Very sad. Now, of course, times have changed, and it is far less likely to be divided ownership than the rising desire to make everything new that endangers these houses.

    Interesting post.

  14. Hello DED, The issue you point out is possibly old houses' worst enemy today. Even in Fair Haven, where this house was, which is famed for its historic associations, I see large swaths of old neighborhoods clear-cut to make way for tracts of new condominiums.

  15. Good stuff! You noted that early homes could have their kitchens in the basement, and the fireplace equipped with a beehive oven does look HUGE.

    I suppose the heat would be used to cook food and to warm the house, from the basement upwards. But it must have been tough work for the kitchen staff.

    In which decades were these basement beehive ovens popular?

  16. Hello Hels, That beehive oven was actually not that large, not more than about two feet deep--there is just nothing in the photo to provide scale. These beehive ovens were used until the mid-19th century, when large cast-iron stoves took over. I have seen them in almost every old house I explored from the Greek revival period and earlier. Unfortunately, many have disappeared or been covered up when remodeling.

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