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Revisiting Downtown Hartford's Lost Architectural Treasures


July 27, 2013

In 1990, a local Hartford bank reassured city leaders that plans for an office tower at the corner of Main and Asylum streets were real and that the 45-story edifice would be built.

Just one thing stood in the way: the 78-year-old Hartford-Aetna Building, the city's first skyscraper. Over the protests of preservationists, the 11-story building came tumbling down.

Today, nearly 25 years later, there is no tower, only a parking lot.

Hartford's first skyscraper isn't the only departure from the downtown skyline. Architectural gems like the New Palace Theater, the original YMCA building and the hotels Heublein and Garde are all no more.

"Hartford is famous for having so much torn down," Daniel Sterner, the author of a just-published book about lost buildings in downtown Hartford, said. "It's one thing if you replace one building with another, but when it becomes a parking lot, that's another thing."

Sterner's book, "Vanished Downtown Hartford," provides a tour through the downtown area, chock full of engravings and photos tracing the city's development and redevelopment beginning in the early 1800s. He paints a history of a living, breathing downtown area with old buildings being torn down and new ones going up.

But the book quickly raises the thorny issue and not just for Hartford facing cities in the 21st century: What should be demolished and what should be saved?

"Not every vanished building from the past could have been saved or even necessarily should have been saved, but by thinking about the great landmarks of Hartford's past, we can better reflect on what should be built in the future and which of today's historic treasures should not be lost," Sterner writes.

The loss of the Hartford-Aetna building and the resulting parking lot is still a sore spot for preservationists.

"No major city has a surface parking lot in the middle of downtown," said Tomas J. Nenortas, a consultant on matters of history and former associate director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance.

The bank that proposed the 45-story office tower Society for Savings may well have believed in its plan. But the bank ran into financial problems soon after the demolition, as New England plunged into a deep recession. Society for Savings was itself acquired by Bank of Boston in 1993.

Over the years, the site was briefly considered for a convention center, and, more seriously, for Renaissance Place, a 22-story luxury hotel and office tower. The latter plan, in 2000, died because there simply wasn't enough demand for office space.

Philip A. Schonberger, a partner in Renaissance Place, said the loss of the Hartford-Aetna Building was a blow for downtown.

"Today, it would never happen," Schonberger said. "I can't imagine knocking it down if it were structurally sound."

In the last decade, Schonberger has been a key partner in two major redevelopment projects in downtown Hartford involving old buildings: the conversion of the Richardson Building once home to the Brown, Thomson & Co. department store into a hotel; and the conversion and expansion of the former Sage-Allen & Co. department store building into apartments.

Converting old buildings for new uses is almost always more costly than constructing something new, Schonberger said. In the case of the Sage-Allen building on Main Street, the structure had been vacant for years and had deteriorated significantly. Passersby were treated to a stench wafting from inside what was once one of the city's signature stores.

"For a millisecond, we looked at a plan that would have knocked down the entire building," Schonberger said. "But we rejected the entire notion."

The $51 million project financed heavily with federal, state and city subsidies took nearly a decade to complete, from conception to the first apartment dwellers moving in, Schonberger said. The most that remains of the original structure is its Classical Renaissance Revival facade.

Preserving The Past

The first push to preserve older structures in the city came in the early 1970s, after the demolition of the YMCA building near Bushnell Park. The city had just come through a decade of massive redevelopment that produced Constitution Plaza, which wiped out the Front Street neighborhood, and Bushnell Plaza, which created modern apartments but at the expense of the streetscape between the Wadsworth Atheneum and Bushnell Park.

Those redevelopment projects reflected the tastes of times: build impressive plazas that take people above and away from the street. Today, the trend is just the opposite: bring storefronts close to the street where pedestrians walk.

The Old State House was saved from demolition in the 1970s. Later, there were spotty efforts to integrate old buildings into new developments, such as including the facade of the First National Bank into State House Square in the 1980s. There was more momentum in the last decade, especially on Main Street, where, in addition to the Richardson and Sage-Allen, the former G. Fox & Co. edifice was redeveloped into Capital Community College.

But it wasn't until 2005 that Hartford passed a citywide preservation ordinance requiring approvals for alterations to all buildings in historic districts or those that are listed on the state or national register of historic places. The ordinance took full effect in 2009, and now all demolitions must be reviewed by a historic preservation commission.

Certainly, experts say, cities will always have to wrestle with balancing preservation priorities with the need to offer modern office space and apartments to foster economic development efforts. In the past year, the Capital Region Development Authority has backed apartment conversions in existing buildings downtown, many of them in historic districts.

Choosing what stays and what doesn't is done on a case-by-case basis, both Sterner and Nenortas said.

Nenortas said architecture is certainly key, but how the building and architect are connected to the city's history is equally important.

"Does it create a sense of community that people look for?" Nenortas said. "You don't go to Paris to see pharmacies and big-box stores on every corner. You go to see great architecture, great cuisine, a great city. That's something Hartford should strive for."

Sterner, a 1997 graduate of Wesleyan University who majored in history, said he first became intrigued by Hartford architecture while working on a degree in American Studies at Trinity College. One of his courses was on the topic.

"There were a lot of slides of old buildings that were gone," Sterner said.

In 2007, Sterner started a blog HistoricBuildingsCT.com posting photographs and histories of old buildings, starting with Hartford and Wethersfield. He was familiar with Old Wethersfield, having worked at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. Since then, Sterner has branched out across the state, posting more than 2,000 properties on a schedule of one a day.

Sterner said preservation should not be solely based on individual buildings, but how groups relate to each other.

While there was much attention on the Aetna-Hartford building, 10 other structures also were torn down on Asylum, Main and Pratt streets. To the south, Bushnell Plaza cost the city the New Palace Theater building, the Hotel Heublein and an entire street, Mulberry Street.

"Not every building is a gem, but together buildings make a whole, a streetscape, an entire block," Sterner said.

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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