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Hartford's Harmonic Convergence

Putting Symphony Orchestra In Church Could Launch Arts Vision For The Capitol District

Editorial By TOM CONDON

December 02, 2007

If you agree that the arts must play a major role in the revival of our beleaguered capital city, then consider the following opportunity.

The Second Church of Christ, Scientist, a large and lovely 1920s Georgian Revival building on Lafayette Street near the Capitol, was put up for sale last summer. The state is negotiating to buy the building price and other details have not been disclosed and officials haven't yet decided what to do with it.

What if it became the home of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and an adjunct to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, which is diagonally across the street?

Officials of the symphony and the Bushnell are trying to encourage this outcome, and they should. It's the best idea I've heard in decades.

Hartford has a remarkable arts community for a city of its size, a legacy of great artists, promoters and corporate supporters. The plays, concerts and galleries are a main reason people visit, support and enjoy the city. But many of the arts organizations, including the symphony, are struggling to pay their bills.

Making this building available to the symphony would be an unequivocally positive statement about the arts in Hartford. Consider:

In its 64-year history, despite a marvelous national reputation and countless brilliant performances, the symphony never has had its own building or, for that matter, any regular rehearsal space that was acoustically rewarding. Nor has the symphony had the practice rooms, locker facilities and other accouterments of a professional operation.

The acoustics in the church's large auditorium are exquisite, according to several symphony musicians who've checked. The building has been well maintained and would require minimal modification, said symphony board secretary Anita Mielert, a former Simsbury first selectwoman.

If the symphony moved to this central location, good things would happen. The symphony would have a rehearsal hall available whenever it needed it and a space for small performances the auditorium can seat an estimated 800 patrons. There would be room for other musical entities Connecticut Opera, CONCORA, Hartford Chorale and others to rehearse, perform and possibly lease office space.

The symphony would have a higher profile and stronger image, which would give much-needed help to fundraising efforts.

The Bushnell is interested in the space for its arts education programs, among other things. Officials hope to expand educational offerings to Hartford students, but are constrained by lack of space. The location would present cooperative opportunities with the Greater Hartford Academy of the Performing Arts, which is just up Washington Street.

Turning the church into an art space also would preserve a marvelous historical building intact. The 18,400-square-foot building was designed by Hartford architect Isaac Allen Jr. and built in three stages from 1923 to 1929, about the same time the Bushnell was built. With thick white classical columns against a red brick background, the church even looks like The Bushnell. It is a lovely structure.

One idea being floated for the building is to divide up the auditorium or sanctuary area into office cubicles. That would be a travesty. (That the building isn't on the National Register of Historic Places is an oversight that ought to be corrected prestissimo.)

Making it an arts center enhances the neighborhood's development potential. One of the most promising development ideas afoot in the city is an "arts corridor" from the Capitol area toward Main Street. Bringing more people and arts groups to the area would raise interest in developing the acres of moonscape surface parking that sit between the Bushnell and Main Street. Imagine that corridor with housing, music, some shops, maybe a restaurant or two, a short block from Bushnell Park. As Steve Allen so eloquently put it, this could be the start of something big.

It is important on several levels that there be a healthy and prominent Hartford Symphony. First and foremost is for the sake of art, the reach toward man's highest aspiration. Mozart is the best revenge. Also, a state and its capital city ought to have a major orchestra. It much more than a sports team is a sign of a big-league town.

A thriving symphony retains world-class musicians who teach thousands of youngsters in public and private schools and colleges. Strong music programs are a real draw in many Greater Hartford school systems, thus part of our quality of life and our sell in the competitive global economy.

Indeed, take the hundreds of thousands of people who attend concerts and the nationally popular music workshops at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and other venues, and music fills a not-insignificant stratum in the region's economy.

Making this marvelous building available to the Hartford Symphony and the Bushnell, however conveyed, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it shouldn't be lost. Dare I add, it is not too early to be thinking about a legacy naming for the current governor. Rell Hall has a nice ring to it.

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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