HEADING TOWARDS THE GUILFORD GREEN on Route 1, the imposing, old granite building with the elaborate cupola at the top comes into view. It’s easily spotted after you pass Fortes Market.
Maybe you’ve even wondered what it was as it had been vacant for years.
It’s the old Shore Line Times building, as it’s fondly called, or The Guilford Institute, as old timers know it from when it was a high school and earlier a prep school, from the 1930s way back to the mid-1800s.
Despite its new incarnation as a luxury condo development (with vast one- and two-bedroom loft units ranging from 2,400 to 2,800-square-feet and going for $479,000 to $779,000), the gray Italianate building still looks much like it did over 150 years ago, according to old photos. And these days, that takes some doing.
Sure, it may be hard to picture this historic landmark in one of its former lives as you walk in the sunny, windowed entryway and breathe in the fresh smells of new construction.
The long hallways are carpeted, and the new polished wooden floor in the model unit is pristine. Still, the writer is nostalgic for creaky old floorboards that rumbled beneath her feet when the towering steel presses started thundering, putting out the latest edition of the paper.
That was back when the building was the headquarters of Shore Line Newspapers at 120 N. Fair St. Back in the 1950s, Sam Warner owned it and he later sold it to Richard Lightfoot, who in turn sold it to CapCities/ABC, who then sold it to the defunct Journal Register Co.,(former owners of Shore Line Times and New Haven Register). But those are just memories.
In the halls at The Lofts at Griffing Square, the sporadic buzz of power tools and the loud thwack of hammers echo from just-framed spaces, during our tour. It was here, some 80 years ago, that high school students weighed down with textbooks (long before backpacks and iPads) hurriedly filed into class, when it served as the high school before World War II.
Originally built as a preparatory school in 1855 by Sarah Griffing and Simeon B. Chittenden, The Guilford Institute later merged with the town’s public high school and was called The Guilford Institute and High School. Known as “The Institute.”
But all that’s history.
While the building sat empty for a few years in the 1990s, a local developer and preservationist and his wife, who have a singular devotion to restoring old Italianate buildings, came to its rescue.
Meet David D’Atri, an epidemiologist, and his wife, Connie, a former medical researcher, of Guilford, who are both active with the New Haven Preservation Trust and former members of the New Haven Historic District Commission.
The couple restored a similar building in the same style, the Oliver North House and its neighboring carriage house, in Wooster Square in New Haven over 35 years ago, which won them a preservation award for their efforts on the accessory structure.
And, the D’Atri’s seem to doggedly persevere when they have a pet project. Take their own home in Guilford, a modernist structure built on a rocky ledge, using stone as a key design element. D’Atri decided to get hands on and tried to operate an excavating machine (for the backyard), which fell on top of him, smashing part of his head and face. Nearly eight years and dozens of surgeries later, he is still dealing with some pain and aftereffects.
The near-fatal accident did not deter him from taking on this new venture. “Connie and I fell in love with this building,” D’Atri says, simply. He is not your typical real estate developer. By day, he is an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. The renovation projects he does for love, not so much for money, he would tell you. It’s almost like a mission for him, despite the cost, though he does not want to say how much he has sunk into this rehab project so far. (He admits his investment is substantial and won’t be seeing a return anytime soon.)
“It’s easier to knock them down and build them new,” he explains. He is also eager to talk about Lofts at Griffing Square’s origins.
Architect Henry Austin, who built the first Italian villa that the D’Atri’s restored in New Haven, schooled the one who designed the Guilford Institute, Sydney Mason Stone (no kidding). The granite was quarried on site in Guilford. Stone’s mentor also designed another Italian villa in New Haven, on Hillhouse Avenue, now home to the Yale School of Organization and Management, D’Atri notes.
D’Atri’s wife, Connie D’Atri, who also has a background in art history, seems happy at their good fortune in finding another antique Italianate to renovate.
“We love the built-environment,” she says. “We love 19th century buildings, the scale is so habitable.”
In “urban New Haven,” she adds, like many cities in the 1850s, the Italian style was far more common, but much rarer in the outlying towns.
“In sleepy Guilford, a cutting-edge style of architecture was done here,” she marvels.
“This is an extremely unique building on the shoreline,” her husband joins in. “People were looking to buy it and knock it down.” There was talk of putting in a combination retail and residential development here, he says.
D’Atri was determined to buy the building – he made offers on it in the mid-1990s only to close in 2001, he notes.
The property was also named a Superfund site by the EPA in the 1990s (because of ink and solvents that leached into the land when it was a newspaper printing facility) and was cleaned up by its previous owners, according to D’Atri, as per federal regulations. This did nothing to dissuade D’Atri. In fact, D’Atri is adamant when he says that he did further testing, two years’ worth, to more-than-meet any federal or state environmental standards for residential use.
“We didn’t want a cloud on this building. We wanted to say it was good enough for everything. We wanted to make sure this site was absolutely clean.”
To raise capital, D’Atri built four townhouses (named after Chittenden) behind the main stone building, all sold in 2008, “in order to preserve this building.”
He says, “Economically the building could not sustain itself.” He notes that Guilford Savings Bank and the town were supportive of his venture.
While not as visible, these earlier townhouses are not eclipsed by the stone edifice. Project architect John Matthews of John A. Matthews Architecture & Planning in Madison, adds that the units sit on top of great rock outcroppings and open up to elevated patios and terraces with expansive views of Guilford. Huge “tandem” garages with 16-foot ceilings and deep enough to pull your trailered boat into, with plenty of room for your car, are built below, with elevator access.
Another four units (less spacious than the grander ones in the main building at The Lofts) are housed in the wooden structure abutting the stone building, added in later years to expand the main printing facility back when it was a newspaper headquarters. In these, parts of the original stone exterior are now interior stone walls, 3-feet-thick – not something you’d generally find in modern construction.
Back to the grand tour of The Institute. (It sure is easy to get lost in this rambling building - it’s hard to keep up with D’Atri as he is always a few steps ahead while he gleefully points out features.)
“We wanted people to realize what they had,” he says.
He takes us to the model unit (which has since sold) with a ballroom-sized living area. Great sweeps of wall space look more like they belong in a contemporary art gallery than in a private residence. To illustrate that point, the D’Atri’s personal modern art collection fomrerly hung here, while the model was being shown.
The D’Atri’s wanted to provide lots of wall area, Matthews says, because they wanted to attract “connoisseurs of the art world,” he says. “People in New York would be falling all over themselves for these spaces.”
At press time, three of the eight units have been sold: two at $675,000 and one at $619,000, according to D’Atri, and most of the heavy construction is done – just finish work is going on in some of the units.
To remind you that this is an old building, there are smaller exposed rock walls here and there.
Naturally, there are all the modern amenities one expects: state-of-the-art kitchens with granite counters, hardwood cabinets, Sub-Zero, Wolf and Asko appliances, and tall windows everywhere, washing everything with light. Soaring ceilings, 9 and 10 feet tall, add to the grandness.
D’Atri takes us out into the hallway where more old granite abuts new stone work (quarried from this site by stone masons from Macedonia, he proudly says), nearly identical to the original.
We follow him up in the elevator to the unfinished penthouse, just framed – no sheetrock here - but dramatic nonetheless with massive exposed beams (cleaned with walnut shells shot through a sandblaster to preserve their rough-hewn appearance) and banks of windows. At press time we learn that most of the work on this unit has been completed.
“You can play basketball in there,” jokes Matthews about its large dimensions.
In the center of the room is an unfinished stairway, two stories high, leading up to the cupola. From here, locals watched for enemy planes during World War II, we are told.
Because this was built as a school and not a home, there was no decorative woodwork to take care to preserve. This gave the D’Atris the freedom to create spare, roomy contemporary spaces.
“It gives you a tabula rasa,” D’Atri says.
This is especially attractive to buyers “who like the charm of old buildings, but don’t like the constraints,” such as warrens of tiny rooms and low ceilings. “People love volumes of space, the high ceilings.”
Here, new beams that look as old as the former printing plant, were added for structural integrity after they gutted the space. For aesthetics, the beams are encased in reclaimed, aged steel found on site (perhaps from the old newspaper pressroom). Added decorative metalwork in a crisscross pattern, resembling an old train trestle, is a nod to the building’s industrial roots.
Light, air and space, stone and steel, and steeped in local history and close to The Green. Far from a cookie-cutter condo development.
D’Atri says modestly, “It has some flair, but it’s quiet, too.”