Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

In the five years I’ve either lived or visited New Haven, I had never found an opportunity to visit Louis’ Lunch, the famous, teeny joint whose claim to fame is having served the first hamburger.  It’s right across the street from BAR, which is one of my favorite restaurants thanks to its delicious, cheap pizza and delicious, cheap house beers, and usually when we’re in that part of the city it’s to go to get pizza instead of hamburgers.  But while we were out on Friday celebrating a good friend’s successful thesis defense, our buddy C proposed a quick trip across the street for no other reason other than none of us had been there, and it’s a piece of New Haven’s culinary history.

Care to check it out?


Front façade of the building, which is charmingly small and is the establishment’s fourth location after having a lunch wagon in two parts of New Haven and a tannery which has since been demolished.


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            During a particularly random Wikipedia spiral, I stumbled across the story of Best Products, the “catalog showroom” retailer that competed with Service Merchandise and went out of business in the late 90’s.  Growing up the store meant little to me other than having to go there so my parents could buy some mundane item or another (although I do remember my dad getting a particularly pretty strand of pearls for my mom for her birthday) or paging through the color-coded catalog, looking at all of the mundane items at home.  That said, I knew little about the retailer’s contributions to the architectural landscape from 1974 through 1980 until I stumbled across its Wikipedia page—who would have thought that a fairly conservative couple-cum-retail-magnates from Virginia want to revolutionize the way the suburban retail landscape would look?

            The firm responsible for carrying out their vision of turning retail on its ear was SITE, (anagram for Sculpture in the Environment), a high-concept architectural firm in New York committed to elevating the general public’s self-awareness via grandiose, daring building projects.  Each of the eight BEST buildings were meant to generate both internal and external dialogue, from doubting the wisdom of entering a building that appears to be crumbling before you, to allowing yourself to be put on display in what could be termed a human-sized terrarium, to discussing the physics of a building that literally looks like its’ been hoisted off of one end.

            Despite this seemingly progressive attitude towards retailing, BEST’s business model was not one of longevity, and certainly not one that could anticipate the advent of the Internet and the rise of the big-box discounters, and its swift demise rendered many of the buildings left in its wake completely useless to any other business—only one of the eight buildings survives in its original form today, ironically both as a Christian chapel and the only one that looks like it’s been left abandoned as an intentional line of trees bisect the building, encouraging growth all around the structure.

             To get an idea of exactly how cool these projects were, a documentary made sometime in the 80’s looked at each building individually, and is now posted on YouTube in four parts:




Note:  in this segment they also mention the now-demolished Ghost Parking Lot that lined Dixwell Avenue in the Hamden Plaza parking lot—it’s wild to see the difference in the area between then and now.



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(Image from Wikipedia).

 I’m rather on the fence on whether or not I like the new Comcast Center–granted, it’s immaterial, since it’s nearly complete.  It’s just weird seeing the skyline I’ve always known (and can see from my grandmother’s house) altered so dramatically.  Also, it’s a bit shiny for my taste.

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One of the side benefits of living in New Haven is that it’s a city full of fabulous architecture, including two art galleries designed by Louis Kahn.  More importantly, the city is fervent about preserving this part if its culture.  This is why I am able to live above a drug store that is likely from the 17th/18th century today, and why IKEA was forced to agree to a stipulation that the Marcel Breuer Pirelli Tire/Armstrong Rubber building had to be as preserved as possible (sadly, a good portion of the base did have to be demolished for parking spaces, but unlike other cases where buildings were flattened to accommodate the estimated masses swarming to a retail behemoth, the spaces are filled most weekends).  That said, it’s not completely unheard of for the city to demolish some of its downtown buildings:  in January the Coliseum, an old stadium that had fallen into disrepair and subsequently closed, was demolished, and currently the old Macy’s by my parking garage on Temple Street is being ripped apart. 

Since I see it every day on the way to and from work while I wait for/ride on the Union Station shuttle, I’ve been able to monitor its progress.  For months, the building just sat there, a huge brick monolith with no windows and no indication of what it originally was.  But within the past few weeks, its transformed into what could easily be described as a carcass, with the interior steel curled and dangling from other supports like ribs, with portions of the exterior brick façade still clinging to those steel supports like rotting flesh.  Graphic, yes, but it’s utterly fascinating to watch the crew disassemble this in the midst of downtown bustle and at little to no inconvenience to the surrounding area. 

Here are a few pictures to illustrate what I mean:  



Seeing it being dismantled reminded me of a random Sunday afternoon involving a Wikipedia binge and reading about businesses that had ceased to exist.  This naturally led me to Chi-Chi’s, the beleaguered Tex-Mex chain that met its maker after an outbreak of Hepatitis-A at a Beaver Falls, PA location (and I know this because one of my dear friends used to go to that restaurant) forcing it to pay millions in damages until it closed for good.  While this happens to many chains over the years, an odd epilogue to the Chi-Chi’s story is that many of the locations once closed were just left to be abandoned.  Some were turned into Carrabbas (including a particularly iconic location along the PA Turnpike), but a shocking number to this day still sit, examples of suburban blight at its finest. 

Don’t’ believe me?  Check this out.  Even for the internet, it’s…pretty shocking.

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