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Utilitarian Landmark

Charles Colbert -- Chloethiel Smith -- Philip Johnson

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Project Name

Utilitarian Landmark

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Project Description

The design of the New Haven, Conn., Central Fire Station won its award over the vehement objections of jury chairman Charles Colbert, then dean of architecture at Columbia University, who maintained that such a facility didn’t call for “foreground architecture.” Chloethiel Smith (the very first woman juror for the P/A program) countered that “a firehouse should be played up.” While fellow jurors focused on the building’s place in the community, Philip Johnson commented on the design’s pedigree: “It is not easy for me to sympathize with this stage-set, Expressionist, New Brutalist, Yale approach, but I do defend their right to say this.”

The city of New Haven envisioned this prominently sited project as a “gateway” to its Wooster Square redevelopment area. And the architects had produced a vigorously sculptural—while functionally admirable—design. The facility was completed in 1962 and still serves as a bold introduction to its neighborhood. Its Brutalism is a lot less aggressive than that of Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building, which opened a year later on the nearby Yale campus.

The fire station’s smooth concrete flanks are scored with subtle vertical grooves; today, its exposed concrete—inside and out—looks very good for its age. Remarkably few changes have been made: Air-conditioning improvements have added more exposed ducts; a top-floor recessed porch has been enclosed for offices. The sleekly detailed aluminum-and-glass overhead doors for the trucks are original, and firefighters still slide down the same brass poles.
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