Phelps Triangle

Friday, August 27, 2021

Ever wonder what the small park is on the corner of Whitney Ave. and Trumbull St.? This week we are literally looking out our front door at the Museum and focusing on Phelps Triangle, one of the smallest park areas in the city of New Haven.

Phelps Triangle sits at the intersection of Whitney Ave. and Trumbull St., indicating the beginning of Temple St. It dates back to the mid-19th century when Whitney Ave. was still considered to be in the country outer limits of downtown. The Hillhouse family owned most of the land surrounding their ancestral home, Sachem’s Wood (today the location of the Kline Biology Tower). In 1850, the family gave the small plot of land to the city as a public common, 30 years before the official formation of the New Haven Parks Commission. The plot of land became known as Temple Square, and aside from a couple of small residences and a hunting lodge, was the only landmark in the heavily wooded area.

One of the residences was located directly across the street at 110 Whitney Ave. This was a modest wood frame two story home owned by the Fellowes family. In the 1820s during a smallpox outbreak, the home had served as the local “sick house.” Being that it was isolated in the countryside, it was perfect at the time for the quarantine of sick patients. In 1884, the house was demolished and the current brick house that stands on the lot was built for Professor William Lyon Phelps.

Professor Phelps, or “Billy” as he was known by friends, taught at Yale and was the preeminent literature instructor in the United States during his tenure. A New Haven native, Phelps was held in very high regard by nearly anyone who knew him and was seen as Yale’s “ambassador” to the rest of the world. He was known in his professional career as breaking the status quo of literature instruction and in 1895 introduced the world’s first higher education course in modern literature. By giving modern novels their place of importance next to the old predominantly European canon, Phelps single handedly legitimized the modern novel and the publishing market for novelists boomed in the early 20th century. His course came to be taught in every American college thereafter. Despite disrupting the academic system Phelps was known as the country’s foremost expert on William Shakespeare and was able to quote any line from the Bard at the drop of a hat.

By the 1910s, the public common in front of his home was under the maintenance of the New Haven Parks Department. It was tastefully landscaped, and its edges were surrounded by elm trees and the wrought iron fence that stands today. The care for the park slid over the years as city budgets tightened during the Great Depression and World War II. At the height of the war Temple Square was used as a strategic deposit ground for sand to be used against incendiary bombs. Citizens were welcome to sparingly use the material. Luckily New Haven never suffered an enemy bombing during World War II.

It did suffer the loss of Professor Phelps in 1943. The esteemed community and faculty member passed on August 2nd. In his honor the city dedicated Temple Square to be memorialized as Phelps Triangle. The funding for upkeep remained non-existent and by 1949 the park was in disrepair. The Garden Club of New Haven began to raise funds and plant annually to help keep Phelps Triangle an honor worthy of its name. Despite their attempts the park continued to slide as the last of the elms originally planted by the Whitney family, died off.

In 1970, the Garden Club and Parks Department came to a formal agreement of maintenance and replanting that continues to today.  Phelps Triangle is not a static park but rather one of natural change and progress. Upgraded and cared for by volunteers dedicated to making this tiny sliver of New Haven a lasting refuge in our busy urban landscape.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives

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