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A Loss That Hurts Hartford

Downtown CL&P Building Cleared For Parking Lot

June 26, 2005

If you stand in the parking lot on the site of the former Statler/Hilton Hotel on Jewel Street in Hartford and look east, you will see the huge graphic covering the entire wall of 266 Pearl St. It advertises an image of the condominiums being built within that will soon be available for occupancy. Reaching into the sky in the background is the steel frame of the residential tower that will bring another 262 apartments to the downtown. Nearby, just out of site, are the recently renovated and now occupied apartments in the old SNET building, and on Trumbull Street are more apartments to come on line this summer.

New downtown housing is sprouting up everywhere, the surest sign of Hartford's nascent resurgence.

But back at ground level in the parking lot, an excavator - what we used to call a steam shovel - claws away at the brick shell of a small four-story building set back between Pearl and Asylum streets. This curious but well-proportioned building was formerly owned by the Connecticut Light & Power Co., and housed switching gear. It is a very substantial concrete and steel-framed structure, as confirmed by its resistance to its own demise.

Its most distinguishing feature is that it had no windows, except an elegantly detailed copper-clad bay window, perched halfway up its south façade. This window hinted at what this building might have been. With its large open floor plates augmented with more bay windows, 294 Pearl St. could have housed six or eight loft apartments with stunning views of the state Capitol. The first floor would have been a natural for a restaurant, with plenty of room for an outdoor terrace and more captivating views of Bushnell Park.

The building was purchased in December by Pro Park. It owns the sea of parking lots that surrounded this building, and many more around downtown. A few people tried to approach Pro Park about converting this building to housing. No interest and no response. They do parking, not housing!

In the grand scheme of things this is a small loss to the city. Nevertheless, it is significant. It is buildings like this that need to be saved and adapted to new uses. Although the city now has a preservation ordinance that will contribute to a collective appreciation of historic structures, the city needs do more to see to it that we don't continue to give away buildings to surface parking lots. They may not be landmarks, but as well-built, handsome and often quirky structures, they contribute greatly to the character of our city and our particular sense of place. Without them, we are nudged ever closer to Gertrude Stein's dire pronouncement that "There is no there there."

Tyler Smith is a Hartford architect and a member of the Place board of contributors.

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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