Guard Hall An Underused Asset Red Brick Hartford Armory Once
A Thriving Social Venue
By Tom Condon
May 22, 2005
It is the Greta Garbo of Hartford
buildings. A century ago it was the center of the city's social
life, "the Bushnell
before there was a Bushnell," but in recent decades it's
become something of a recluse. A million people have seen it,
but few have been inside to be properly introduced.
I speak of Foot Guard Hall, the red brick, Romanesque Revival
structure on High Street next to a highway exit.
In more than 30 years in Hartford I'd been in the building just
once, because the Foot Guard graciously allowed my church to
hold a fundraiser there.
But a few weeks ago, I ran into Lt. Col. Robert A. Burnham of
the First Company, Governor's Foot Guard, who invited me over.
It turns out they'd like to get more people in the building,
and would like to have some of them enlist.
The building was constructed in 1888, and is interesting for
its style and its location. If you can imagine the city in the
late 19th century, long before I-84 cut it in half, High Street
led to the fashionable North End. The building would have saluted
the State Capitol, from which it is now obscured, and the Cheney
Block on Main Street, which then had a pyramidal tower much like
the one on Foot Guard Hall.
The hall is technically an armory, built for a military organization.
Its main space is a large open room known as a drill shed, surrounded
by a second-floor balcony. The roof is supported by a series
of cables and turnbuckles, one of few such support systems left
anywhere. Hanging from the balcony are flags from all the French
Army units that accompanied Comte de Rochambeau when he arrived
in Hartford in 1780 to meet with Gen. George Washington. The
Foot Guard escorted the generals.
The Foot Guard's First Company was founded in 1771 to escort
the Colonial governor on Election Day, apparently a raucous holiday
in the Colonial era (the Second Company was formed in New Haven
in 1775). The First Company can boast of being the country's
oldest military organization still in continuous existence, sort
of the martial equivalent of The Courant.
The red-coated Foot Guard, as well as the Horse Guard, are the
state's ceremonial units. The Foot Guard escorts the governor
and runs the inaugural balls, escorts dignitaries, marches in
parades and takes part in all manner of civic events.
On the facing of the balcony are wooden plaques recalling some
of the events in which the Foot Guard has taken part. Units escorted
Lafayette and Marshall Foch, marched at the dedication of the
Washington Monument and took part in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's
funeral. In 1926 they traveled to Europe, where they were reviewed
by the president of France and the king of Belgium.
Around and under the drill shed are an array of offices, lounges,
a band room and storage rooms. The building had a rifle range
- for whatever reason - but Burnham closed it. In its place,
Maj. Loren Schave, a retired West Hartford history teacher, has
created a Foot Guard museum.
The small museum is well worth a visit. I didn't know, for example,
that Heublein Bros. pre-mixed cocktail business came about because
the company had whipped up batches of martinis and Manhattans
for the 1892 Foot Guard picnic, then had to do something with
them when the picnic was twice rained out. The Foot Guard had
a Civil War Medal of Honor winner and a former Confederate soldier.
Foot Guard Hall was the city's major entertainment venue a century
ago, and was well used into the 20th century. John Phillip Souza
and his band played there, as did Benny Goodman and his quartet.
Willie Pep fought there, and Willie didn't need a band.
But in the past few decades, with so many new venues in town,
the old hall became an afterthought.
The Foot Guard no longer rents it out, Burnham said, because
of wear and tear on the building. But it has allowed neighboring
organizations such as The House of Bread and St. Patrick St.
Anthony Church to have fundraisers there.
It would be nice to get more
people in, an idea the Foot Guard welcomes because the company
needs more men and women. Membership in the Foot Guard was
once a matter of status, with the troop headed by scions of
the best families; Wadsworth, Cheney, Barbour, Putnam and others.
But, as with most service organizations in our era of bowling
alone, the numbers are off. There are about 110 members now,
down from a high of nearly 200. "We could
use 40 more people," Burnham said.
Burnham said people can visit during Monday night drills from
7 to 9 p.m., and tours can be arranged by calling 860-522-1337.
The Foot Guard should also consider joining other downtown museums
as well as the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Have limited visiting
hours, take part in downtown celebrations, have a few more meetings
or events in the building. It's a living connection to history,
a great place with a great story to tell.
Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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