"Commissioned as headquarters for the Armstrong Rubber Co. in the late 1960s, the building was part of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency's Long Wharf Project, a major component of New Haven's Model City Program. Then-Mayor Richard C. Lee followed Yale University's lead in hiring prominent architects to design new buildings.
According to Robert F. Gatje, a partner of Breuer's who was co-architect for the Armstrong project, Lee rejected company chairman Joseph Stewart's original plan for a modest two-story building and recommended Breuer.
What made the building significant then - and now - is a "combination of its unique design and location, which is one of the busiest points on I-95," DeStefano says. "Hundreds of thousands of people see that building every day and it sort of defines the image of the city."
Breuer had exactly those thoughts in mind when he created a building in which the executive office space was situated over a two-story void separating the three-story base from a four-story tower. Using cantilever trusses, the tower is suspended from above.
"This building is kind of a weird thing to see, a box with a space in the middle, but in terms of the site it's appropriate," says Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully. "Everything about it says, 'I am not just a building; I am a piece of sculpture.' That kind of architecture was riding high at the time."
The exterior of the Pirelli building is covered with buff-colored and etched pre-cast concrete panels, an element Breuer used in other buildings.
Another unusual feature is a separate structure containing the building sign. This was conceived, Gatje says, because of Breuer's refusal to allow Armstrong to put the sign on the building. Because a city ordinance prohibited free-standing signs, Breuer designed a structure with a small room in which "to put the garden tools."
During a recent visit to the building, when local artists displayed their work for the public the last weekend in October, Alliance member Peter Swanson pointed out its four stairwells are constructed of the same type of material - half bush-hammered concrete and granite - as those in the Whitney Museum. Two of the stairwells in the rear of the building are currently slated for demolition.
Born in Hungary in 1902, Breuer studied and taught at Germany's famed Bauhaus School, where he specialized in furniture design and created his much-imitated continuous bent steel tube cantilever chair.
Breuer came to the U.S. the late 1930s to teach at Harvard at the invitation of former Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius, with whom Breuer later worked. He lived in New Canaan from the late 1940s until his death in 1981.
Coincidentally, Smith acknowledges that IKEA's Scandinavian furniture was "very influenced" by the Bauhaus School in the 1950s, and that its furniture still shows elements of the style.
In 1988 Italy's Pirelli Tire company acquired Armstrong Rubber for $197 million and took over the Long Wharf site as its base of U.S, operations. But within a few years the company relocated its American headquarters, leaving Breuer's once-proud building empty.
Several years later, mall developers began an unsuccessful attempt to make use of the now-dormant property. Their plan, according to Karyn Gilvarg, executive director of the City Plan Department, was to preserve the Pirelli building for office space.
Preservationists concerned about the building's fate, however, moved quickly to secure it a place on the state Registry of Historic Buildings in 1997. The designation is no guarantee of staving off the wrecking ball, but may deter developers or encourage them to incorporate an existing structure into their plans.
Ikea submitted its first formal request for rezoning to accommodate a new retail facility in September. Heeding the mayor's advice, the paperwork showed the company would not disturb the front part of the Pirelli building, but would raze the first two floors, leaving only the tower's bare stilts."
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