James Dwight Dana was the preeminent geologist, mineralogist and volcanologist of his day and one of Yale University’s most distinguished professors. He made ground breaking studies in mineralogy, mountain-building and the evolution and structure of continents around the world.
His home located at 24 Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut is a historic 19th century stuccoed brick Italianate house with a wooden portico trim of Hindu derivation. It was designed and built in 1848 by a prominent New Haven architect, Henry Austin.
Born in 1813, James Dwight Dana showed an early interest in science in high school. At seventeen he entered Yale College to study under Benjamin Silliman, one of the leading geologists of the time and head of Yale’s geology department who would play a major role in his life.
He graduated in 1833 at twenty, and for the next two years taught mathematics to midshipmen in the Navy sailing on the USS Delaware to the Mediterranean as part of these duties. This voyage also began his career as a scientific author with his first published paper on the conditions of Vesuvius in 1834.
In 1836 he returned to New Haven and quickly accepted an offer to become an assistant to Professor Silliman in the chemical laboratory at Yale. He analyzed rocks for his mentor and created geological charts.
However, during his free time he became fascinated investigating the composition and structure of minerals. Crystallography was a new branch of geology and Dana quickly established himself as one of its leading scientists.
He measured thousands of angles in crystals and devised a mathematical relationship between a crystal’s angles and axes. In 1837, at only twenty four his “System of Mineralogy” was first published which to this day has been continuously revised and is still used as a standard textbook in the field.
Dana was selected to be the geologist and minerologist of the Wilkes United States Exploring Expedition to the Pacific between 1838-42. During this voyage he began developing his geosynclinal theory of the origin of mountains and how continents are formed – and accurately predicted gold would be discovered near Mount Shasta.
In 1844 he once again returned to New Haven, Connecticut and won the hand in marriage of his mentor’s daughter – Professor Silliman’s daughter – Henrietta. When Silliman had originally acquired his property on the corner of New Haven’s Trumbull Street he also acquired the odd shaped triangular lot adjacent to his property that was the leftover piece made by the Farmington Canal.
The lot was damp and low lying, but when the railroad bought the canal and offered to deepen the cut and fill the lot with the excavation, the triangle was raised and made ready for the newlyweds to build their new home.
During the time the Dana House was being designed and built, he published a series of reports on the voyage which thoroughly established him as an important scientist. They moved into the Dana House when it was finished in 1849.
His sketch of Mount Shasta is the second known image of the volcano. Its publication in 1949 in the American Journal of Science and Arts just as gold was indeed discovered in California sent many gold seekers across the country with their hopes buoyed with this advice coming from the country’s most imminent mineralogist.
In 1850, he became Silliman’s successor, as Professor of Natural History and Geology in Yale College, a position which he held until 1892.
The James Dwight Dana House exterior is stuccoed brick with a wooden porch supported by wooden columns, and a low square cupola in the center of the main block. The structure is two and one-half stories high, not including the basement which is above grade on the rear. The main entrance porch is on the east, with a wide railing and ornamental turned wooden columns.
The James Dwight Dana House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The building has been the home of the Department of Statistics at Yale for the last 30 years. The house is a contributing building in the Hillhouse Avenue Historic District, which extends south of Trumbull Street to include just the triangular property holding the James Dwight Dana House making it one of New Haven, Connecticut’s most important historic homes.
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