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Planned Closing Of Hotel A Discouraging Blow For City

Hartford’s Economic Struggle

By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN | The Hartford Courant

November 09, 2008

Peter and Sally Shapiro couldn't help but pause outside the Goodwin Hotel in downtown Hartford Tuesday night as they walked to an election-night party.

They pointed to the third floor, showing their son Matt the window of their old apartment.

Those apartments vanished two decades ago, when the building morphed into the city's premier boutique hotel. What the Shapiros didn't know Tuesday was that the city landmark was again facing a dramatic change. Earlier in the day, the hotel's owner announced that the Goodwin would close by the end of the year.

The Goodwin has followed the fortunes of Hartford for 125 years, first built as apartments for the rich at the height of the Victorian Gilded Age. By the 1970s, when the Shapiros lived there, it had evolved into a bohemian, eclectic community of artists, writers and corporate executives not ready to flee for the suburbs.

The building rode the boom-time money of the 1980s as it was hollowed out, literally, and redeveloped into a hotel and office tower — just barely beating the real estate crash.

Now, as the city braces for the fallout of the biggest financial crisis in a generation and a looming recession, the Goodwin — and downtown Hartford — are again at a difficult crossroads.

"It's sad, but it's the ebb and flow of economic strength," Peter Shapiro, a former banker and developer of the Artspace apartments, said later. "Its demise will become another opportunity for someone in due course."

That could happen right away. Owner Northland Investment Corp. said the closing can be averted if the hotel's union takes over the business.

Strong Selling Point

The Goodwin Hotel has had ups and downs in its 19 years, but this latest turn is especially discouraging for those who have worked to add life to Hartford's core because the city has shown progress in building apartments and condominiums.

With the enviable blend of history and independent status as a boutique apart from any chain, the Goodwin has been a strong selling point for the city. More than a few young professionals decided to accept jobs here after corporations courted them in a place with such panache.

The Goodwin also has played host to many of entertainment's biggest stars, including Mick Jagger, Cher and LeAnn Rimes.

Now, in a downtown scrambling to create a critical mass of activity, the Goodwin's demise could make matters worse for other properties.

"It was a nice hotel to have as part of the mix," said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. "There was the historic nature, and it always showed very well. This isn't a positive for the city."

The closing of the hotel is an early sign of the economic downturn's taking a toll downtown, said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance. Northland cited millions of dollars in operating losses and a downturn in travel as companies and consumers pull back.

"We're just now beginning to see the impact on the day-to-day economy," Griebel said. "A number of us remain appropriately concerned that we haven't seen the full impact on the economy yet."

Northland, the city's biggest commercial-property owner, has offered the union that represents 70 of the 100 hotel workers a $1-a-year lease to take over the hotel, though Northland declined to comment on what details might be included in such an agreement. The union says it wants to know more.

The city says it would help broker a deal to keep the hotel running.

If those efforts fail, Shapiro and others say the building could be used again for apartments or condominiums. But that likely would be some years off, because other residential projects downtown already have stalled because of an inability to obtain financing in the credit crunch.

Meanwhile, a key intersection downtown, at Asylum and Haynes, would go dark. That area already is struggling to attract street-level retail, particularly a grocery store in the Hartford 21 apartment tower, also owned by Northland.

Election-Day Shocker

Merchants along Asylum Street who depend on the guest traffic at the Goodwin to boost sales didn't have an inkling that the hotel, like many across the country, had fallen on mortally tough times.

"We saw weddings; the valet is always in full action," said Rondelynn Bell, co-owner of the Niro clothing boutique two doors down.

Bell said she and her partner especially counted on the Goodwin on Saturdays, when foot traffic is slower than during the week.

"The first thing we said when we heard the news was, 'What the heck are we going to do with the Goodwin closing?'" Bell said.

Bell said she often sent discount coupons to the Goodwin as a promotion to attract guests to her shop, which offers clothing by new, often unknown designers. Some weeks she would draw two dozen or more sales from hotel guests.

Two weeks ago, Bell held a party to celebrate adding more store space — and it was catered by the Goodwin. There was no hint the hotel might close.

"They really kept it under wraps," Bell said.

A Wonderful Crowd

Although the Goodwin is often cited as historically significant, not much remains of the original structure.

When it was redeveloped in the late 1980s, all but the facade — distinctive for its Queen Anne-style decoration in terra cotta — was demolished to make way for the hotel and office tower.

For years, it was under the control of the state's pension fund, which initially financed the redevelopment.

The fund's original $87 million investment sank to $19 million in the long recession that arrived shortly after construction was completed.

The hotel — briefly known as the J.P. Morgan after the famous, occasional tenant of the original apartment building — opened in 1989 and survived the downturn of the early 1990s. The hotel and office were sold to Northland in 2005 for $41 million.

When the Shapiros pointed out their apartment window last week, their son was already well acquainted with stories of his parents' living at the Goodwin in the 1970s.

They had to put up with an old building that pumped out too much heat in the winter and hot water that ran out fast. But the monthly rent was cheap — $50 for a small, two-room flat, and $90 to $120 for larger units — so the apartments were coveted.

Some apartments retained grand fireplaces. Some had rooms with 12-foot ceilings divided by French doors. Some stretched over more than one floor — a feature the hotel kept in place for a few rooms.

There were musicians, artists and actors living alongside corporate workers like the Shapiros. There were writers from both The Hartford Times and The Courant, including theater reviewer Ted Parker.

"It was a wonderful crowd of people," said Frederick Mahaffey, a retired architect who lived at the Goodwin from 1975 to 1985. "There was a lot of sitting on the stairs talking. It was very arty, very casual."

Graphic designer John Alves, who lived at the Goodwin about the same time as the Shapiros, remembers a Parisian woman named Madame Solange who had lived there since the 1940s. The Goodwin picked up the nickname " North Dakota" after the famous Dakota apartment building on Manhattan's West Side.

"We felt a little edgy being down there," Peter Shapiro said.

Though former residents still feel strong ties to that time, they acknowledge that the building had fallen into disrepair and maybe would have needed too much money to renovate. Ironically, the community at the Goodwin then is just what downtown Hartford wants to encourage now and was the model for Shapiro's nearby Artspace housing, just past the train station on Asylum.

Mahaffey, who still lives downtown, said he was saddened by the prospect of the hotel's closing but hopes another use will be found for the building: "I would hate to see something happen to the original structure just because it doesn't work as a hotel anymore."

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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