Thursday, August 06, 2009

Medieval Fonts: Public Housing

Middletown, Connecticut is full of medieval fonts (see Lettering project). One late specimen (ca. 1969) comes from an apartment block. The sign is about 12 ft. long and 6 ft. tall (6-in grid above). The letters are white and protrude from a brown brick wall to which they are fastened by metal clamps.

Formally, the sign is a brilliant graphic composition with three different fonts. The T of Towers crosses the Stonycrest and roots the design vertically and frames the upper horizontal edge. An ornate S frames the left edge and two floating tildes balance the second line. The medievalizing font of Stonycrest is of a distinct 1960s vintage. It evokes the spirit of a romantic Middle Ages. We find this very font used in the 1960 Broadway production of Camelot starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet.

The LP (above) was the top-selling record for 5 months and, moreover, a personal favorite of President John F. Kennedy (who was college friends with the Broadway's author). "Camelot," in fact, came to designate the Kennedy Administration. A 1967 film version of the play with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave popularized the Broadway play even more widely. In some general sense, America's medieval revival of the 1920s (Tudor houses, academic Gothic, etc.) continued into the 1960s adjacent to the anti-historicist vocabulary of Mid-Modern design.

Now we must turn to Stonycrest Towers, the building itself. Things become even more interesting once we realize that it was no medieval castle but a public housing project, an eight-story concrete derived from the urban visions of Le Corbusier and CIAM.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created programs of subsidized housing. HUD provided financial subsidies for private contractors to build public housing. One such company was Carabetta Builders, now the Carabetta Organization. The Carabetta brothers started their career by remodeling kitchens and installing porches in Meriden, Conn. In the late 1960s, they had established a company large enough to receive federal funds for large urban development. By the 1980s, Carabetta Organization was the largest owner of federally subsidized housing in Connecticut managing 1,284 housing units in Middletown alone. Stonycrest Towers was built under Section 221 and 223. Basically, the private developers built affordable housing for lower income residents. After 20 years of subsidized rent, the developer had the option of placing the units into the open market.

Although springing from the Housing Act of 1937, public housing boomed in the 1970s thanks to Section 8 programs. Public housing was invented through a collaboration of local government (impoverished cities), the federal government (HUD), and the private sector (developers). The Carabetta Builders had to create an aesthetic fantasy, a motivation for moving into such radically new domestic forms. The period's idealistic prism sought to create a brave new Camelot, a paternalistic social block evocative of the Middle Ages. Associations with both the Broadway show and the Kennedy Administration were hence deployed. While nothing in the building (except its verticality) relates to Arthurian legend, the text's medieval font creates a quick Pop association.

Below the fantastical name Stonycrest, we also find the name of the contractor prominently displayed on the facade. Inserting "Carabetta Builders, Meriden, Conn." right under the name ensures that both residents and local authorities will remember the building's actual patron--not the federal government in Washington but the local Italian American developer. Given the complex status of the building (half-private/half-public), the sign assures that nobody will forget the structure's rightful ownership. This is especially important given the 20-year clause of the subsidies. The sign guarantee that after 20 years of public connotations, the building would not be forgotten as a Carabetta product. Note, the word "Builder" rather than "Company" or "Developer." If we read the T of Stonycrest as an architect's T-square, we have a graphic representation of building. Like imperial dedications in ancient public works, or founder inscriptions in medieval churches, the inscription takes a proprietary almost legalistic role. It literally underscores the authority responsible for the bricks and mortar in perpetuity.

I don't know enough about Connecticut politics in the 1960s and 1970s to interpret the relationship between the Carabetta company and Middletown's administration. Knowing a little bit about the story of Italian immigration in the area (not typical for New England), I presume that the Carabetta Builders were self-made enterpreneus, products of the American dream. A series of articles in the Hartford Courant, suggest that the relationship between developer was not always great. In 1968, for example, the Middletown Housing Authority turned down the permit for the Carabetta projects due to a 1967 shakedown. On June 27, 1968, the City Planning Commission approved the controversial subdivision. As early as 1977, the Carabetta company was involved in legal battles for raising the rent in 11-owned housing projects. In 1992, they also sought Chapter 11 protection. These are only impressionistic glimpses that I've got from the Hartford Courant. Middletown politics are very complicated. Stonycrest Towers in sociologically interesting. It pithces the Italian self-made, hard-working immigrant community (and its associations) right next to the African-American impoverished population.

The medievalizing public inscription is a beautiful work of mid-modern American design. It needs to be celebrated (and hopefully preserved). It represents the complicated interaction between a federal stimulus package, a national Broadway fantasy and local politics.

Location: 41°34'07.13"N, 72°40'14.82"W
352 Newfield Street, Middletown, CT 06457

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States