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Piled-On Problem

June 4, 2006

Hawthorn Street in Hartford is another testament to the failure of urban renewal. Once a lovely and illustrious arm of Nook Farm, it is today a short, sad street whose main feature is an empty lot owned by an out-of-town developer who owes the city more than $1 million in back taxes.

In the 1960s, when highway engineers razed the iconic George Keller-designed Hartford Public High School on the edge of downtown to make way for the tangle of I-84, city officials chose the southeastern end of Nook Farm as the site of the new school. So they tore down a few irreplaceable mansions, including that of author and editor Charles Dudley Warner on Forest Street.

Warner had also lived around the corner on Hawthorn Street in a gabled home that became, in 1908, the home of actress Katharine Hepburn's family. While Forest Street suffered most of the destruction in the postwar era, adjacent Hawthorn Street quickly started to slide as well, eventually claiming little more than some parking lots, a few nondescript storefronts and an old Arrow-Hart factory.

The factory became the Hawthorn Center industrial complex, which burned to the ground on June 23, 1999. Toxic debris from the spectacular fire drifted as far north as Spring Grove Cemetery. All that remains of the factory is a pile of bricks and other debris.

Though various plans for the site have been tossed around, the land hasn't been developed and instead has become an overgrown dump. Besides the construction debris there are old mattresses, an upturned grocery cart, abandoned stoves, plastic tarps, empty bottles. As is common with fires of such magnitude, a cover of new-growth junk trees such as sumac has sprouted around the debris.

The property's owner, William Bellock of Manchester, who does business as O'Leary Ltd. Partnership, blames the city for reneging on development deals and says he's suing. City officials say they're bringing foreclosure proceedings against Bellock. Neighborhood activists just want the place cleaned up and intelligently developed.

"It's a huge eyesore and a real problem for the neighborhood," says Bernie Michel , chairman of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. "As property values rise elsewhere in the neighborhood, that site holds us back. If something constructive were built there, it would be an incentive for South Marshall and Imlay Streets to improve."

Ironically, the sole survivor of the Hawthorn Center fire is an old Tudor-style garage which may have belonged to the Hepburns and is now littered with tires. It's surrounded by a few large trees, and while it's probably apocryphal, some locals believe one of them once held the young Katharine Hepburn's fabled tire swing.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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