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A Landmark Stand: The Man Who Saved The Old State House

December 17, 2006
Commentary By WILSON H. FAUDE

In the summer of 1975, the nation was busily preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution. In Hartford, there was a very different agenda before the Chamber of Commerce. The Old State House in Hartford, built in 1796 and designed by Charles Bulfinch, was under attack.

The building had served as the State Capitol and later as city hall. Lafayette was made an honorary citizen within its walls, and Oliver Wolcott, signer of the Declaration of Independence, had served as the governor in the building.

Its green was where Gen. George Washington first met Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Count de Rochambeau, the commander of the French army in America. Together they planned the strategy that culminated at Yorktown, ending the Revolution.

That August in 1975, the city of Hartford, which owns the building and the land, eliminated $10,000 in support for the landmark.

The Connecticut Historical Society, which had operated the building as a museum since 1960, declared that it could not afford to manage the building on its own. The society began packing its collections. Soon the building would be closed.

The city suggested that this desirable site might better serve as a taxable office complex or a restaurant. But the building could not meet fire codes required for an office or a restaurant, so there were plans to demolish the Old State House. The Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce proposed in its place a parking garage.

The issue was presented to the chamber's board. The proposal was overwhelmingly approved. There was only one dissenting vote, cast by Morrison H. Beach, chairman and chief executive of the Travelers Insurance Co.

Beach, with characteristic directness, later explained his stand against demolition: "It was simply the wrong thing to do."

Because of Beach's negative vote, the chamber and the city leaders knew they had to completely rethink the plans to demolish the landmark. This brought those endeavoring to save the Old State House the time to organize and to plan. Developer Stanley Schultz, attorney Robert Smith, civic leaders Elizabeth Capen, Joan Friedland, Bill Wadhams and others began raising the funds to keep the doors of the building open. They feared that after the historical society left, the city might let the closed building sink into disrepair. Then it could proceed with demolition.

Again, Mr. Beach's quiet influence was crucial. He agreed to serve as the chairman of the newly formed Old State House board of directors. He had the Travelers hold its department meetings in the Old State House, and he approached the chairmen of local banks and insurance companies for their support. A grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving of $1 million required a match of $1 million. It was met in 29 days. Later Beach and his wife, Evelyn, founded the Charles Bulfinch Society to encourage individuals to give at a higher level.

Beach was a modest leader. One rarely saw his name in the headlines. He preferred to get the job done quietly, but done right. "It is," he once said, "not about me. It is all about the Old State House and the heritage of our great city and state."

Morrison Beach died on Dec. 5. His leadership, epitomized by the single vote against the demolition of Connecticut's single most important building, was a stunning example of how Hartford's corporate leaders can make a critical difference.

Wilson H. Faude is director emeritus of the Old State House and a historical consultant.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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