NEW HAVEN — Connecticut’s architecture is more than Colonial-style houses on small town greens, the first image that usually pops to mind. It’s 19th century rehabbed factories. It’s modernist behemoths in cities. It’s wooden farm houses and gleaming hospitals and old-time theaters.
Christopher Wigren, an architectural historian and deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, attempts to show the state’s rich diversity of styles in his book “Connecticut Architecture: Stories of 100 Places,” published late last year.
“This architectural variety is a living record of the people of Connecticut and the active and varied lives they have pursued. They have tried many ways of making their living. They have absorbed influences from other places and periods. They have been intellectually curious and prosperous to keep up with — and sometimes contribute to — changing fashions,” Wigren wrote.
Wigren will be speaking about his new book on Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. at the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave. The talk is free and will be followed by a book signing.
“We spent a lot of time talking to people about architecture,” Wigren said in an interview, “and there was no basic statewide thing we could point to that would help people know about and understand architecture. There wasn’t anything written on a general level that people could turn to to fill that need.”
Wigren’s book is beautifully illustrated and organized thematically, highlighting key architectural trends and different time periods throughout the state’s history. Wigren picked a wide variety of places and wrote about them in depth.
The book is not a compendium of the state’s major architectural landmarks. It’s a mix of the famous and old, like the State Capitol building in Hartford, to the new and everyday, like Blue Back Square in West Hartford. He hoped that the book would prompt readers to explore these sites on their own.
“I took the kid-in-the-candy-store approach — I want that one and that one and that one,” he said.
The seeds of the book were planted while Wigren worked on a previous project. He was hired in the early 1990s to do research for Elizabeth Mills Brown, a historian who wrote a seminal architectural guide to New Haven. Brown then started working on a statewide guidebook, a project that she could not complete before she died in 2008.
“When she got to the point where she was no longer able to work on it her family gave me use of her papers. In the process of transferring from her to me, I decided that (a topical) format, rather than the guidebook format, would be more useful,” Wigren said.
The format lends itself to some interesting connections. In addition to early settler and Native American influences, the proximity of New York and Boston had an effect on building design, both in terms of aesthetics and utility. But in many ways Connecticut is like other places in New England and other places in the United States.
“There is a similar kind of history and settlement and agricultural development … (but) at the same time it has a particular Connecticut flavor. The kinds of people who settled here were somewhat different than the settlers in Massachusetts and New York,” he said.
Wigren said the state has been an inventive place over the course of its history. That has naturally influenced building, so much so that the Industrial Revolution’s impact is still felt on a daily basis in many state towns and cities.
“Huge amounts of the buildings that still surround us, not just the buildings, the townscapes, even the landscapes, are rooted in the rapid growth and huge changes that take place during the industrial period. We’ve got that framework we are still hanging things on,” Wigren said.
Connecticut also proved to be influential in the modernist movement, perhaps most notably in New Haven during its urban renewal. For example, the Dixwell Plaza is cited as an extant example of the movement. “For its proponents, modernism was not a style but rather an entirely new way of building,” Wigren wrote in the introduction.
In this particular instance, time has not been kind to modernism, particularly in New Haven. “Interestingly enough, modern buildings often tend to be less durable than old ones. They are designed with a kind of planned obsolescence,” Wigren said. “There is the the idea that building is based on function and there are expectations that functions will change.”
The state’s architectural future seems to rest in two primary areas — a return to healthy urban residential neighborhoods and an increase in architectural sustainability.
As for urban residential neighborhoods, “some have suffered over time but I think they have the capacity to work very well,” Wigren said. “Beaver Hills in New Haven is a good example of a compromise between an urban neighborhood and suburban level of planning. That is attractive to a lot of people.”