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Building Up

Illustration by Madeleine Witt

In 1912, just months after opening, the Taft Hotel was already known for its distinctive modern grandeur. With its domed Tiffany stained glass, the lobby served as a meeting place for the hotel’s notable guests. On a typical weekend night, Yale students and guests crowded the oak-paneled room’s Persian carpets and perched on Colonial Revival-style carved chairs. In the dining room, their conversation rose to meet the glittering crystal chandeliers hanging from an elaborately molded soaring ceiling.

Today, a guest at Roìa, the French- and Italian-influenced brasserie that opened in the Taft dining room this March, can still get a feel for that century-old scene. Executive chef and owner Avi Szapiro and his director of operations and wife, Meera, relocated from Brooklyn to open the restaurant. Together, they supervised a year of careful demolition and reconstruction with the goal of repurposing the space while reclaiming its historic beauty.

Over the last hundred years, the property has been occupied by various eateries, each looking to make the space its own. In the eighties, a mezzanine level and sweeping staircase were added. Then, Downtown at the Taft—briefly called Baccus Enoteca—made a number of changes in a move toward more contemporary design: the floor was layered with carpet and linoleum, and the walls with particleboard. John Stuart Gordon, an associate curator at the Yale University Art Gallery who specializes in decorative arts, described the drastic changes as “denying the history of the space.”

To bring the history of the space to the foreground, Szapiro recruited Patriquin Architects, the New Haven firm behind the Chapel Street restaurant Zinc, and consulted with Grayling Design, a New York firm known for its distinctive work on brasseries. The project began in May 2012, promptly stripping away a century of accumulated redecorating. Down came the particleboard, revealing the original oak paneling behind it. When seven types of flooring were peeled away, the original tile emerged: a pearly white-and-gold-flecked mosaic. The winding staircase came down to open up the ground level, but the mezzanine remained to add extra seating, a second kitchen, and more bathrooms. “The space breathed a sigh of relief,” according to Szapiro, “like taking off layers of clothing.”

The years of renovations that had simply ignored the bones of the building had ultimately saved them. “Neglect is the great preserver,” said Gordon.

The remainder of the work depended on finding elements that complemented the original structures at the heart of the space. Szapiro consulted the American Standard’s 1912 catalog and photographs of the old dining room to find the styles of fixtures that fit. Sitting in one of the red leather booths in the restaurant, he showed me pictures on his iPhone from the vintage-scouting missions that ultimately yielded vintage sinks, salvaged doors, and a chandelier from the period. “I had a vision of what I was looking for. You start looking for things, and then the picture starts becoming clearer and clearer,” he said. The space itself often provided the best direction. When renovating the kitchen, the team came across a swatch of wall in what they believed to be the original paint—a light beige—and chose the new color based on that.

Enough documentation exists that a near- perfect recreation of the Taft dining room could be possible, but Roìa’s divergences from the original look are, the team believes, essential to the restaurant’s identity. The original tile floor, which a century ago was covered in rich Oriental rugs, is now left bare, exposing its blemishes and chips. The new look is more casual, better suited to today’s guests.

Christian Garnett, principal architect of Grayling Design, says that he’s not overly concerned with upholding historical accuracy. When he works on a project, he turns to the plaster, molding, and ceiling of the space for inspiration. “There’s a narrative hidden in the walls of the place,” he said. “The idea is that if we can tap into that, it gives the place a depth and richness that you can’t get otherwise.”

“We feel like stewards of the space more than anything else,” Szapiro told me. “You are taking delight in protecting a little piece of history.” I haven’t been transported all the way back to 1912, but it does feel a little closer.

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