Artists Next Door: Colin Caplan promotes New Haven’s history, architecture

Building on the past

The Thomas Alling House at 1389 Chapel St. in 2003.

The Thomas Alling House in 2005.

By Hank Hoffman

Boarded-up and decaying, the building on the corner of Chapel and Orchard streets owned by the Hospital of Saint Raphael was in the crosshairs, targeted for demolition. But Colin Caplan, a young architect working for the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven (NHS), found an old photograph of the house before it had a storefront grafted over its broad front porch. Struck by its stylish mansard roof and stately contours, Caplan—working in Photoshop—colored the old image. He created a vision of how the building could be restored to glory and submitted it to hospital management.

“They said, ‘We want to see that happen,’” recalls Caplan.

The hospital hired NHS to renovate the building. Working on the plans for what is known as the Thomas Alling House, Caplan taught himself AutoCAD, or computer-assisted design. A photograph of the building after its renovation shows not only a structure but also a city corner transformed.

For Caplan —who graduated from Tulane University in 2002 with a master’s degree in Architecture— the practice of architecture is intimately bound up with history and preservation. Along with his design work, Caplan has served as a board member for the New Haven Preservation Trust and was chairman of the Alliance for Architecture. Caplan has four books to his credit, beginning with New Haven (Then and Now), which was published in 2006 and juxtaposed old images of the city with recent photos taken from the same vantage point. In 2008, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven honored Caplan with an Arts Award for his dedication to the preservation of New Haven’s architectural heritage.

Caplan’s interest in architecture dates to his childhood. He says he knew he wanted to be an architect by the time he was 13; he recalls his parents pointing out interesting buildings to him when he was 10 years old. Caplan lived in the New Haven neighborhood of Beaver Hills, near Westville, an early suburb dating back to the 1920s.

Colin Caplan. Photo by Beja

“It was a very particular development,” Caplan tells me in an interview at the Institute Library on Chapel Street where he is working on research. “Every house was set back the same; the sizes of the houses were similar. I must have read into that an order, a plan, a thought.

“But I’ve always been an artist. I’ve always drawn, created, built, sculpted whatever I could get my hands on,” Caplan says.

From the beginning, Caplan’s interest in architecture was wrapped up in history.

“When I went to Montreal and Quebec, I started drawing and mimicking the historic architecture there because I was very affected by the ‘old city’ feeling of those cities—the stone parapets, gables, and chimneys,” he says.

Caplan also recalls drawing up floor plans for adobe-style homes around the age of 12 after visiting New Mexico.

Part of Caplan’s interest in architectural preservation and restoration derives from “where I live—there’s more to do with restoration here. There’s more of a history” than can be found in more recently developed parts of the country. More important, though, is Caplan’s “appreciation for the real intrinsic art and design and wonderfulness of the old architecture here.”

“I like working within the historical style. It’s like an order. Otherwise, you could do anything you want. I like having some constraints, especially when they’re beautiful,” Caplan says, while noting that he also is interested in design unfettered by historic references.

The biggest challenge in restoration projects, Caplan says, is money. This has been the case for the work he does with Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit that promotes home ownership as a component of neighborhood revitalization. Working with his mentor, Henry Dynia, NHS’ Director of Design and Construction, Caplan helped create designs for renovations of blighted homes in low-income New Haven neighborhoods. Because cost was a pressing concern, Caplan’s role was to “squeeze everything I could out of a small space.”

The cost of some materials—certain kinds of high-quality stone and hardwoods, for example—are much higher today than they were a century ago. Cost factored into Caplan’s work on the façade restoration of the Horowitz Brothers Building at 760 Chapel St. Referring to old photos, Caplan’s design restored the original 1890s stone façade. But using brownstone would have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, they used a new cast concrete product that simulates stone, a necessary compromise.

“It’s hard to mimic the actual quality of stone—its longevity, its look, buildability, and maintenance over time,” says Caplan.

Conservation, aesthetics, and historic value are the reasons to restore old buildings rather than just knock them down and build new ones, Caplan argues.

“If someone says a building is beyond repair, I still question, ‘What’s wrong with the building?’ If it’s here, it takes energy to remove it and that stuff has to go somewhere and sit for a long, long time. And sometimes that stuff is better where it is now because it can have toxic materials in it,” says Caplan.

Historians and preservationists refer to the “embodied energy” of a building. Among the factors that comprise embodied energy, Caplan explains, are the “physical energy it took to build the building, the man hours, the time it took to transport all the materials, the amount of repairs” that went into the structure over the years. When considering whether to demolish or restore a building, the concept of embodied energy embraces the difference in materials costs between when the building was constructed and the present. Other considerations include the cost and time it would take to clear the rubble and, for new construction, “how much energy it takes to make a new brick, cut a new piece of wood, make a new piece of sheetrock and deliver it from China.”

“It would take so much more embodied energy to build a new building versus saving an old building. It’s not a value you can quantify just in dollars and cents,” he says.

On the positive side of the ledger, Caplan notes that oftentimes the materials used in the construction of older buildings are better than what is available to build with today. The wood is harder, the structure more rigid.

“It’s been here 100 years and has been able to withstand the ravages of time,” says Caplan.

“Some buildings are unquestionably valuable architecturally or historically, when we say ‘it’s important because of this guy’ or ‘this is the only one that looks like this,’” Caplan says.

But Caplan asserts he also tries to prove the value of “underdog” buildings.

“Every building has tons of history and connections to people and memories with people so they become the place,” he says. “If you tear down (an old building), you remove many layers of peoples’ memory and experience, family history, and business history. It’s kind of like they are part of us. We leave parts of us behind in these old buildings. Having them around makes life so much more enjoyable.

“Part of the embodied energy is spiritual energy, literally. I do historic research. What’s really fun sometimes—hand in hand with the design work—is you hear stories—ghost stories,” Caplan says.

One of his clients in another Connecticut city told him that she experienced a chair move across a room and “is telling me something’s been going on there for a long time. These stories are part of the embodied energy of a building,” says Caplan.

Figurative ghosts appeared when Caplan and his employers at Neighborhood Housing Services managed to save an old house in the Hill neighborhood. The city of New Haven tore down about 65 buildings to make room for the John C. Daniels School, a play field, and a parking lot. However, NHS was able to buy one house from the city and fix it up.

“It was an abandoned house, full of junk, small. We looked at the history, took off the crap siding and discovered it was an unbelievable old Gothic house. It was little, very humble. It was originally built as a carpentry shop,” Caplan recalls.

When they gutted the house they found, pinned to the original interior walls, an election voting registry from 1878, calendars, and advertisements.

“We felt really good about saving at least that one building,” Caplan says, “which was difficult because we wanted 10 of them.”

Through his LLC, Magrisso Forte, Caplan offers design services, maintains large collections of vintage photographs of the New Haven area (available for purchase as digital copies or prints), and researches building and family histories. His newest venture, started a year ago, is Taste of New Haven, food and drink culinary tours of the Theater District, Canal District, Westville, and Goatville areas. Caplan says Taste of New Haven encompasses all his interests in one—food, drink, history, culture, and sociability.

He is also currently working for NHS on the expansion of a historic district in Newhallville. Poring over property records and excavating the stories of a neighborhood battered by poverty and high crime rates in the wake of deindustrialization, NHS and Caplan hope that state approval of their proposal will free up access to millions of dollars for restoration of rundown homes.

“My goal is to enrich our home and our community through whatever I’m working on, whether it’s a place to live or place to work, a story, a lesson, or even a meal,” says Caplan.


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