Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, Connecticut
Bridgeport, Conn., began as a British settlement in the 17th century, became a center of privateering during the American Revolution, and grew to be an industrial center from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries. Located in southwestern Connecticut, Bridgeport is part of the New York combined statistical area—but with a population of 138,000 is the fifth largest city in New England and the most populous in Connecticut. Bridgeport has a large and distinguished collection of historic architecture located throughout its distinct neighborhoods, many of them historic districts.
Once a manufacturing capital, deindustrialization during the second half of the 20th century caused severe economic contraction and negatively impacted the job and housing markets in Bridgeport. Although the city’s population is currently just 14 percent below its historic high in 1950, a large share of residents cannot afford market rents and the relatively high cost of living. Bridgeport is further characterized by a sizeable income gap; many residents commute to New York City and work in high paying jobs. Connecticut consistently ranks high among states with households burdened by excessive housing costs, and Bridgeport is representative of this pattern.
Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County (HFHCFC) was founded in 1985 to serve the southwestern region of Connecticut. In 2010 the affiliate celebrated its 25th anniversary and the dedication of its 150th home. In mid-2007, HFHCFC took possession of 235-257 William Street, a condemned block of seven rowhouses built in 1896 by a Bridgeport industrialist who lived across the street and operated his own factory in the neighborhood. The largest project the affiliate had yet undertaken, the William Street property was HFHCFC’s very first historic rehab.
Site Selection and Acquisition
Located in the National Register East Bridgeport Historic District, the William Street property was originally built to house seven managers employed by mill owner Frank Armstrong. Armstrong lived just across William Street (his former home has recently been restored) and enjoyed a clear view of both the rowhouses and his factory, located just down Armstrong Place. Mr. Armstrong’s business and properties were an important contributor to Bridgeport’s development in the 19th century, and the prominent “Armstrong Rowhouses” are a key reminder of that era. East Bridgeport is the city’s most intact 19th-century neighborhood, still resembling the “new city” envisioned by famous local resident P.T. Barnum, who purchased the land in 1851 and went on to plan and subdivide it (the William Street property is bordered to the south by Barnum Avenue).
As the city and neighborhood changed over the years, the Armstrong Rowhouses were cut into 14 units, then 21, and eventually served as a 64 unit rooming house. A distinguished masonry building with a gambrel roof, alternating bell turrets and hipped-roof projections, granite quoins, and projecting round bays, 235-257 William was a striking feature of the neighborhood in good condition or bad. After extreme interior modifications, years of vacancy, occupation by local homeless, and water infiltration, the City of Bridgeport condemned the structure in the early 2000s.
At that time the property was owned by another Connecticut nonprofit organization that intended to rehabilitate it, and while that group had completed the lead abatement and begun to clean up the interior, the project had stalled and the City was very close to demolishing the structure. In mid-2007, just prior to demolition, HFHCFC stepped in and offered to complete the rehabilitation, so the City agreed to spare the building. Under their arrangement, Habitat didn’t need to purchase the property outright, but would still fulfill its traditional role as a mortgagor, contractor, volunteer coordinator and agent, stewarding the building through its final disposition as affordable condominiums.
In addition to its association with local history and potential to house several families, the William Street project appealed to Habitat as a way to combat the economic downturn. “It’s such a prominent building in this part of town. We didn’t have a lot of other property at that time because of the economic situation,” said Keith Cook, HFHCFC co-president and director of construction. “We decided we could do it. It would take time and be expensive, but we would learn our way through it.”
Because 235-257 William Street is located in a local historic district, the rehab needed approval from the City’s Historic Commission No. 1, which oversees all but one local district. Because the building is also in a National Register historic district, the project was eligible for historic homes rehabilitation tax credits, available in Connecticut since 2000. In order to earn the tax credit, Habitat worked with the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism (the state historic preservation office), along with the city’s historic commission, to implement a design program that would maintain the building’s historic integrity—satisfying the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards—while integrating maintenance enhancements that were realistic for low-income homeowners. In addition to the standard floor plans, elevations and site plans, Habitat’s staff architect and site development manager, Maria Elena Yrigoyen, worked to submit plans for window, door, and brick restoration.
Building codes for the City of Bridgeport dictated that, based on the amount of off-street parking located behind the building, the structure could comprise no more than 12 housing units. Given the square footage in the gutted interior, Habitat elected to create the full 12 units, which provided the affiliate with a unique opportunity to serve a new market: older single individuals and couples without children. HFHCFC normally builds new three-bedroom houses; the William Street building was split into one-, two-, and three-bedroom condominiums.
A separate section of city code requires that residential multi-unit developments exceeding 10 dwellings must make at least one of them handicapped-accessible on the first floor. At William Street, this required architect Maria Elena Yrigoyen to develop a creative accessibility solution that would satisfy the historic commission. Her innovative design response settled both questions by wrapping a shallow handicapped ramp—set on a brick base with stone coping—around the foot of the building’s northern turret. The ramp capitalizes on the unique geometry of the building and topography of the site while intruding minimally on the distinct rhythm of the facade and streetscape.
One of the key preservation challenges confronting the Armstrong Rowhouse rehabilitation was the severely deteriorated condition of the masonry. Distressed by years of water infiltration and organic growth, the four-story structure was in extremely poor condition. “Our biggest worry was that we were stepping way outside our experience area,” said Keith Cook. “We’ve never worked with brick before, particularly from the 1890s. Walls were crumbling. Any layman could see the structural issues.” To address these problems, Habitat enlisted the volunteer assistance of structural engineer Ed Stanley, who teaches in the Yale Graduate School of Architecture and operates Edward Stanley Engineers, LLC. “Ed’s role was crucial,” said Cook. His plan called for repointing and even rebuilding some exterior walls, and reinforcing the structure from the interior with multiple laminated veneer lumber elements (LVL).
The Queen Anne Roof
Habitat’s construction team was also faced with a series of complex issues stemming from the geometry and features of the roof—turrets, eyebrow dormers, materials, and finishes. The projecting elements of the upper floor were refitted with cedar shingles stained to match the original color, which was still discernable from remaining original fragments. The gambrel, bell turrets, and projecting bays were also fitted with a new roof. The upper roofline had originally featured a pair of eyebrow dormers surmounting the projecting bays. Over the years, one had been entirely lost and its footprint covered over; the second had deteriorated severely. Wanting the finished building to be balanced, Habitat had to decide whether to eliminate the original feature or twice re-create it. According to Keith Cook, a small group of volunteers decided to take on the project, and began by scaling the roof with protractors to measure the compound angles that defined the dormer’s arc and its intersection with the steep roof. The team built a full-scale mockup of the roof in Habitat’s warehouse, painstakingly reconstructed the dormers, and, with the help of scaffolding and harnesses, went on to install the pair of them on the top floor roof. “You just have to appreciate the attitude and creative hard work of the volunteers,” said Cook.
Constantly aware that the partner families are low income, Habitat tries to keep maintenance and energy costs down so home ownership remains financially possible. Keith Cook noted that the affiliate was concerned about homeowners’ ability to maintain the trimwork around the top floor windows, including the complex rounded cornices on the building’s three turrets. Because these features are located high off the ground and are difficult to access, Bridgeport’s Historic Commission was willing to accept the use of AZEK trimboards—a PVC material—in place of wood. Although the synthetic substitute is historically inaccurate, it will place less maintenance demand on the homeowners and is visually indistinguishable from wood when viewed from the street.
Keys to Success
The rehabilitation of 235-257 William Street earned Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County $350,000 in historic homes rehabilitation tax credits from the State of Connecticut. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Habitat wasn’t able to use the tax credits directly, but the organization realized their value by selling them to eligible businesses through a tax credit broker. According to Keith Cook, the affiliate’s co-president, Habitat sells homes to buyers at cost; the less the organization spends on a building project, the lower the price of the home they provide to a partner family. The tax credit enabled Habitat to pay the additional cost of the historic renovation without having to pass all of those costs to the new homeowners.
“For what it was,” said Cook, “it was cost-competitive with a new build.” He added, “The state does deserve a lot of credit for that program…It’s nice to meet historical requirements—and we do so willingly—but knock those costs off.”
Cook explained that his affiliate understands the importance of community revitalization, and tries to geographically concentrate projects in order to achieve it. “People take care of homes because they know they’re not going to get thrown out. Then neighboring owners start taking better care of their homes as well, and pay attention to schools and police patrols. This really just played into it—putting 12 families at once into a neighborhood…Because we took this house, another developer did some private houses. The neighborhood has really turned around tremendously. The City is putting in a park along the river near a soon-to-be demolished warehouse.”
According to Cook, the process of rehabbing the Armstrong Rowhouse was a capacity test for his affiliate. “You do have to do your research,” he said. “Unless you’ve done rehabs by themselves and then historical rehabs, both of them add a level of complexity and skill requirement that most Habitat affiliates don’t have. So my challenge would be to make sure you know what you’re getting into, and while the contribution will be great, it will tax your staff physically and skill-wise, and if you can’t bring in outside assistance—architect, engineer, or mason—you probably shouldn’t be doing it. It’s a question of assessing your own capacity. We used in three years all of our staff, professionals we hired, and all volunteers—about 6,000 volunteers.”
William Minor, Bridgeport’s director of Land Use Construction Review—which is responsible for historic preservation regulation activities—noted that Habitat took a building that most people wanted demolished and restored it. “Probably only Habitat could’ve done that because of the cost involved,” he said. “As far as the city is concerned, it’s one of the better restoration projects around. When you look at the before and after, you have to shake your head and say, ‘what a magnificent job.’ They’ve done an excellent job from the perspective of the Historic District Commission.”
Header image courtesy of Shawn Kravich.