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Saving the Old State House

Without State Funding The Old State House Will Have To Be Shuttered. Will The State Step In And Move Some Legislative Business To The Old Building?

April 5, 2007
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

The fate of the Old State House is up in the air, as the Connecticut Historical Society has run out of money to run the 18th century building.

Kate Steinway, executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society Museum housed in the building, has warned recently the that the building might have to be closed without an infusion of cash from somewhere.

Steinway and the chairman of the Historical Society’s Board of Trustees, Jim Williams, testified before the Joint Committee on Appropriations in February, saying that without help from the state, they would have to “cease operations effective June 30, 2007.”

The Historical Society was invited by Gov. Rowland in 2003 to take over the Federal-style building and do something with it. The offer came along with $2.9 million for renovations.

By all accounts, Steinway and the society have fulfilled their end of the bargain, bringing new vigor to the city-owned building, including opening a colorful room where children can learn history by doing — acting out the story of the Charter Oak and other significant events from Connecticut’s long and storied past.

The Historical Society also raised $1.3 million toward creating its museum on the lower floor of the building, an interactive display that encourages children, and even adults, to look at history as something that is all around them, and is being created every day.

But now the money has run out. Steinway says the building will have to be shuttered if a source of funding isn’t found by June 30.

Sen. Toni N. Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said last week she wants the Legislature to come to the rescue.

“What we’re recommending is that we take over the building and that we operate and maintain it, keeping it for posterity,” Harp said.

Sen. David J. Cappiello, R-Danbury, a ranking member of Appropriations, agrees with Harp.

“We’re one of the only states that doesn’t have control of its old state house,” Cappiello said. “I think it’s only appropriate that it be under the control of our state of Connecticut.”

Built on high ground near the Connecticut River where Hartford’s first market took shape, and the earliest meetings of the city’s founders were held, the Old State House was the seat of state government from 1769, when it was built, until 1879, when the state capitol building opened.

From 1879 to 1915 the building became City Hall, with its interior spaces divided up to accommodate the various offices of municipal government. Then, when the Municipal Building at 550 Main was dedicated in 1915, and became City Hall, the Old State House became, well, nothing. And therein lay the problem.

“From 1911 to 1915 when the Old State House was transitioning from being City Hall people talked about razing it,” said Steinway. “That’s been a recurring theme. After 100 years of talking about tearing it down, let’s deal with it.”

No one continues to advocate for reducing to rubble the building where the New England states met to discuss secession during the War of 1812, and where the landmark Amistad Trial began in 1839 before moving to New Haven.

Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Mayor Eddie Perez, said the city would welcome a return of the historic building to the state.

“(The Old State House) was a seat of power for both the General Assembly and city government, but at the end of the day Connecticut history is what that building is about,” Hennessy said. “Having the General Assembly take over really would be a positive step.”

Harp and Cappiello both said the Historical Society should continue running its museum and other programs in the building.

Harp is interested in returning real government business to the Old State House, which Cappiello said would “bring life back to the building.”

“We thought the various caucuses could meet there. It’s a nice ceremonial place for meetings,” Harp said.

With a little retrofitting of microphones and recording devices, there could even be committee meetings held in the old building, which Harp said would alleviate a space problem at the capitol building.

“Some committees haven’t met because there wasn’t space,” Harp said.

Steinway points out the Historical Society never agreed to take over operating and program expenses for the Old State House. But it has reduced those expenses from $1.3 million annually before 2003 to $600,000 annually now.

“We reduced staff and reorganized,” said Steinway. “We do more with fewer people.”

Going forward, Steinway wants the state to assume ownership and management of the building, picking up the $250,000 annual tab for operating expenses. She also wants the state to contract with the Historical Society for $350,000 annually to continue operating its programs in the building, including the museum.

“I have faith a solution will come from the state,” Steinway said.

So what’s left before Steinway can pop the cork on a bottle of celebratory champagne?

“I guess we all have to agree,” said Harp.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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