By Colin Caplan
The art that passes by and the art that I pass by every day inspire me. I have a good feeling that is why I became so fascinated with New Haven’s buildings and history. I am surrounded by this ever-changing art, be it weathered, worn in, reconstructed, deconstructed, or polished. I also look for a story in this art – a meaning or a collection of related events that inspired its birth, its existence. I want to experience the art as if traveling through a time machine.
The triangle is not only one of the most powerful forms in art, but also in spirituality, religion, engineering, and architecture. The great pyramids of ancient Egypt as well as I. M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre in Paris are magnetic forms visited and studied throughout the world. Although New Haven does not have a well-known pyramidal structure, we do have a triangularly shaped building that I count among my favorite examples of New Haven’s “underdog” architecture.
This building, at the corner of State and Wall streets downtown, is a small relic of times long ago, still existing as a rent-producing, occupied apartment house. Its most recent artistic update was the application of banana-cream yellow paint on its exterior brick face. The building’s base meets the khaki-colored sidewalk and its roof is capped with a black-painted cornice, keeping all of the fruity custard contained, preserved, and jarred. The best piece of this pie is that the building is triangular in plan, seemingly cut off at its rear. But why?
Now I want to employ arts that can answer the questions of time: archaeology, genealogy, and storytelling. The structure can be classified as a three-story, vernacular-style urban building, but that could be said of so many older buildings here. Why was this one built as a triangle? The answers come from digging up the historic records of its owners, neighbors, and tenants.
According to city land records, a Mr. William Button had the building constructed in 1859. Mr. Button was a confectioner and candy maker. He moved his business into the ground floor and lived upstairs with his wife, daughter, and servant. Mr. Button was not shy when it came to land development. He had a sizable real-estate venture in the Oyster Point Quarter, now known as City Point. Button developed 90 buildable residential lots and opened up a new street, aptly named Button Street.
Downtown real estate was a bit more expensive to purchase and develop. The land that Mr. Button purchased at the corner of State and Wall streets in 1856 was tiny – the lot measures a mere 38 feet-by-38 feet-by-50 feet. The Canal Railroad sliced through the rear boundary of the property at a diagonal, creating a triangular shaped plot. In 1847 the rail line was installed in the original ditch created for the Farmington Canal, constructed in 1825. The canal’s path was the original creek bed of the East Creek, Prospect Hill’s ancient drainage into Long Island Sound. Mr. Button used this property to leverage other land purchases around the city, mortgaging it on a number of occasions. Button’s desire to live and work in the center of town inspired him to construct a building fit to the property lines and set up his candy concern, his piece of the pie.
The neighborhood surrounding Button’s little building was a busy commercial, industrial, and residential district. The G. & D. Cook Carriage Company sat across Wall Street and was one of tens of carriage companies that put New Haven on the map as the carriage manufacturing capital of the world. And as more laborers came to the area, the demand for spirituous and intoxicating beverages increased. After Mr. Button moved on and out, his former sweets shop became more of a wet stop. The old triangular brick block became a series of saloons owned by German-born immigrants. There was Philip Winter’s, Joseph Boenig’s, Ernest Gerken’s, Sebastian Hoefler’s, and George Lucas’ (not the director of Star Wars) to name a few.
The day I began researching some of these watering holes I pulled up a story that really floored me. It took me back 120 years to the day, inside of Joseph Boenig’s saloon, September 20, 1892. Here’s the scene: Police officer Hugh McKeon and his brother looking to drown their sorrows stepped into Mr. Boenig’s saloon, two nights after their father died in the waters of the Quinnipiac River. Boenig’s wife was at the helm and recognized officer McKeon. He was a few drinks beyond sanity. McKeon spouted a few below-the-belt words at the lady. Incited by the officer’s rude slurs of his wife, Mr. Boenig and another bartender named William Rebel belted the officer to the floor. Mr. Boenig then delivered a most painful kick to the downed officer’s jaw. The McKeon brothers staggered out, threatening to take the Boenigs and the triangular saloon down.
And down they went, downtown, to the courts. Officer McKeon had Mr. Boenig arrested, accused of assault, while Boenig accused McKeon of drunken disorderliness. Holding the court’s reigns was Judge John Studley, who would be elected mayor in 1905. Studley dropped the case on the terms that officer McKeon’s behavior was impaired by his drunken insomnia, the result of grieving his father’s death. The judge treated Joseph Boenig’s violence as an intervention, the first step to McKeon’s spiritual healing. Both parties went home and no record of further retaliation was reported.
The neighborhood around Button’s old triangular building was largely razed in the 1970s in the aftermath of urban renewal. The old industries, stores, townhouses, schools, rail road tracks, street cars, and arenas have been removed. William Button’s choice to construct on the little leftover sliver of land next to the old canal helped preserve the structure since it was set apart on its own little urban island. I have always noticed and appreciated this triangular corner lot. It now has more meaning to me since my discovery of its inhabitants and their stories. It was an amazing discovery to uncover the story of the bar altercation that happened exactly 120 years ago. I also found another exciting coincidence: The exact moment I snapped the star photo of this building, a random woman rounded the corner wearing a banana-cream yellow shirt, and khaki pants, her ensemble capped by a head of black hair, providing the final touch to an ever-changing piece of art.