Norfolk is a small village in the rural northwest corner of Connecticut, the setting for a classy summer music program sponsored by Yale University. The other day while driving through, I stopped to admire the town’s library, a fine old structure that really catches your eye from the road.
The building expresses the essence of that vibrant period of late nineteenth century American architecture when the sleek new Shingle Style was shaking off the excesses of Queen Anne. The second floor is clad in reddish tile shingles stretched tight over a curved bay. Its fish-scale shingles sit atop a rusticated first story of brownstone. You can see in the building’s strong front gable facing the street signs of the struggle underway at the time between the old verticality and the new horizontality that was just coming into vogue.
But the building is remarkable for more than its façade. This is the most perfectly preserved nineteenth-century structure, outside and in, that I have ever seen. Apart from a small 1985 addition that houses a children’s space, it looks and functions exactly as its architect must have originally envisioned, right down to the circulation desk. What is notable, of course, is that the architect envisioned it all in 1888 –a full decade before the Spanish American War! Continue reading Enduring Perfection in Norfolk, CT→
Spring comes earlier for maple sappers. Robins or green shoots in the garden means a missed maple sugaring season. The first unseasonably warm day in February, or even January, is our harbinger of Spring. I panic, thinking I’ve missed the early run with highest sugar content destined to become Grade A light amber. I tapped six sugar maples right here at Centerbrook, down by the Falls River, and nine more at my home in Deep River.
For a few weeks in February, maple syrup is my raison d’etre, occupying enormous amounts of time collecting the sap, boiling it down, finishing it off, and then, of course, consuming it. During ideal conditions, when nights are cold, in the twenties, and days are sunny with temperatures in the forties, each tap can yield as much as a gallon of “sweet water” per day. The drip from the spiles replaces the weather forecast: slow drip means daytime temperatures slightly above freezing; fast drip means upper thirties and into the low forties; if the bucket is full, there was no need for a winter jacket.
Evaporating takes the most time, reducing approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup. The evaporator is also what defines making maple syrup a macho sport. The discussion of “rigs” is akin to NASA or Nascar palavering. I’m not writing about stainless steel reverse-osmosis technology, shiny commercial evaporators with automated controls and manicured cordwood stacks. This is about backyard sugaring with a Connecticut Swamp Yankee ambience. Continue reading The Big Drip by the River→
Despite the impressive role it has played in our nation’s history, the classic granite of Stony Creek, Connecticut is virtually indescribable, but I won’t let that stop me. Long termed “pink,” that adjective doesn’t do it justice and lumps it together with other, less appealing varieties that go by that name. It reminds me of the mottled fur of a cheetah cub, the muted, brownish “pink feldspar” is flecked with black biotite, and gray and cream quartz. There is nothing quite like it. You can tell it immediately from pink granite from other localities. It has more character, flow structure, and a subtle intriguing complexity. It is not a feminine pink, but not quite masculine either. Darrell Petit of Stony Creek Quarry Corporation calls its look “highly eroticized.” I better stop there. You have to see it.
We have used it for a number of projects, most recently as stair treads, wall caps and as ornamental pieces on buildings at Quinnipiac University. This fall I organized a field trip of my colleagues from Centerbrook to the last Stony Creek quarry in operation. There once were as many as 15 such enterprises in tiny little Stony Creek, a section of Branford better known today for its upscale residents than for hardy quarrymen. Around 1900 there were some 1,800 workers in town extracting large blocks (routinely 20 tons, but sometimes much more) from the ground, a veritable United Nations of immigrants: Italians, Irish, Swedes, Finns, English, Spaniards, Germans, Scots, among others.
Newspaper editorial writers, generally on a tight deadline, often characterize architects – along with developers and engineers – as heavies overwhelming local land-use boards in pursuit of nefarious, land-gobbling sprawl. We may be easy whipping boys, but the reality is that here in Connecticut, and in many places across the nation, architects would love to create sociable, dense urban communities with open space set aside in perpetuity, a practice generally known as New Urbanism. Unfortunately there are many obstacles — the biggest, worst, and most entrenched being antiquated zoning codes that make sprawl all but inevitable.
Zoning codes began to appear in Connecticut in the boom years following World War II, a time when few questioned the American Dream of owning your own patch of land. Writing zoning codes from scratch would have been a daunting undertaking for town volunteers at that time, so the codes were purchased lock, stock, and barrel from supplier companies eager to make money distributing zoning boiler plate.
One of the largest such suppliers is the perfectly respectable MuniCode, which since 1961 has supplied zoning codes to 23 Connecticut towns and cities. Not bad for a company located in Tallahassee, Fl. You might ask what a Tallahassee outfit knows about the special character of the New England village of Westbrook? Probably not much. So over time, Westbrook has taken on the suburban look of MuniCode’s 1,600 other client communities across the United States, which is a shame.