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Architectural Gems

Where To See Hartford's Memorable Buildings, Graveyards Or Neighborhoods

July 6, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

Ask Wilson H. Faude, historian extraordinaire and director emeritus of Hartford's Old State House, for his favorite piece of architecture in Hartford, and he'll sidestep colonial and Italianate and Queen Anne marvels. He'll go straight to that monument of modernism, the downtown "Boat Building," the striking 1963 headquarters of The Phoenix Companies Inc. designed by Max Abramovitz, who also designed the United Nations and Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

The city has its share of "forgettable eye slits of various corporate garages and the mongrel combination of tinker toy designs," said Faude. "The Phoenix is a signature building."

And it is, officially. As of 2005, the Boat Building - the world's first two-sided building, whose shape is known formally as an elliptic lenticular cylinder - has been on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It is like a Barbara Hepworth creation, as it floats confidently and supremely on its graceful platform and so carefully manipulated concrete terrace with reflecting pool and other hidden treasures," said Faude.

Practically every other Hartford building could exist in practically any other American city, but the Boat Building is Hartford, he said.

And oh, yes, says Faude: If you're looking for great architecture, you also should check out Cedar Hill Cemetery.

If a graveyard seems a strange place to look for architecture, it is a great place to look for work by some groundbreaking architects, especially in this rural cemetery in Hartford's South End. Here, the walker realizes that Hartford is a small town. Here lie the remains of movers and shakers whose names also grace streets, schools and other sites.

George Keller, who designed Bushnell Park's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch (his ashes are interred there), had a severe distaste of cemeteries, but no one said no to the likes of J.P. Morgan, who wanted Keller to design his gravestone. Though he was loath to be at the site, Keller designed what at first glance looks like a shockingly simple red Scottish granite box - "simple" until you find that the marker is supposed to resemble the Ark of the Covenant, which was said to contain, among other sacred artifacts, the tablets of law handed directly by God to Moses.

(Compare this and other ornate obelisks and life-size angels to one of the cemetery's most popular graves, that of movie actress Katharine Hepburn. That family's iconoclastic approach to life carried over into its members' deaths. The family plot is marked by a huge boulder with the name carved in, and Hepburn's gravestone - a simple stone set in-ground - is front and center. Huge yew bushes threaten to overtake the entire site, but the actress was insistent that they remain.)

(OK. That's not architecture, but it's still pretty cool.)

Stop by the office, and ask for a brochure. If Irene McHugh, cemetery historian, doesn't have an answer for you, she knows where to find it. And new stories are added all the time. Even with roughly 400 graves added every year, development director Wendi Fralick says the cemetery can probably keep taking new interments for 75 or (with more cremations) 100 more years.

Ask McHugh directions to her favorite grave, and she'll direct you to a shockingly lifelike cherub head of a little girl, Cynthia Talcott, who died at age 2 in 1905. Her carved face emerges from the marble with a little girl smile. She looks almost ready to speak, or laugh.

Not far from Miss Cynthia's grave is that of Morgan Gardner Bulkeley, president of Aetna Life Insurance Co., U.S. senator, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (as president of the National League) - who was, perhaps most intriguingly, known locally as the state's crowbar governor. In 1890, he refused to accept a Democratic victory, and he used a crowbar to pry a lock off his office door. He remained governor for two more years, using his own and Aetna's money to keep the state running.

Meanwhile, up in the North End, just off Garden Street, is a gracious Hartford neighborhood where lived William Dibble, who was fired as superintendent of the capitol building just before Bulkeley's office was locked. Hartford was not all business titans who owned snazzy mansions. It was also a city with a middle class; Ashley Street was a neighborhood for the electricians, and the flour and grain merchants. Beneath vintage street lights, the Italianate and Queen Anne houses are marked by sidewalk signs with the names of their former owners. Here was Frances A. Cummings, a merchant, who was known for taking a bullet in Antietam (and then keeping the bullet to show the neighborhood children). Here was Franklin Smith, a master builder. More recently, dessert maven David Glass - he of the chocolate truffle cake - got his start in one of these houses.

These buildings are a particular favorite of Tomas Nenortas, historic resources adviser for Hartford Preservation Alliance. His recently released "Victorian Hartford Revisited" (Arcadia, $19.99) includes a photo of an old trolley car stopping at Ashley Street. Some of Hartford's most intriguing architectural finds aren't as dramatic as the Boat Building, he said, and "that's why you have to get out of your car and walk."

The alliance has been contracted by the state Commission on Culture and Tourism to update a historic buildings survey from 1997 in Hartford. Nenortas said the process will take three years or so, and will cover 22,000 buildings. Frog Hollow is finished, and the alliance plans to be done with Parkville, Upper Albany, Northeast and Clay-Arsenal neighborhoods by the end of the year.

On a recent tour of Ashley, Ken Johnson, executive director of Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance Inc., points down the street: Not so long ago, that house was empty, as was that one, and that one. Today there are homeowners in gracious single-family homes, many of which are sturdy brick. (Italianate is a formal style replaced in Hartford by Queen Anne in the late 1870s, early 1880s.)

Just down the street lives Gloria Robidas, known as the Angel of Ashley. She and her husband moved in 20 years ago, and she started picking up trash up the street, and planting grass in the meridians. Her yard is a thick carpet of grass and graceful gardens.

"Every day I pray for this neighborhood," she said. "And every day, God answers my prayers."

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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