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Remembering the Old Bulkeley, Celebrating The Renewed M.D. Fox

By Andy Hart

October 10, 2013

The recent restoration of M.D. Fox Elementary School, formerly Bulkeley High School, has sparked renewed interest in the history of this unique school.

Rising out of the tightly packed multi-family homes and apartment houses of Hartford’s Barry Square neighborhood is an enormous structure at the corner of Maple Avenue and Benton Street which is as remarkable for its ornate architecture as it is for its size.

This is Michael D. Fox Elemen­tary School, which was originally built in the 1920s as Bulkeley High School.

Bulkeley moved to its current location on Wethersfield Avenue in the 1970s. On Friday, September 27, the school officially opened its new Bulkeley History Center. Shortly before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, over 70 Bulkeley alumni visited the old school on Maple Avenue, which recently underwent a two-year restoration.

After going through the school’s new main entrance at the rear of the building, the former students immediately headed for the school lobby. They found the lobby’s vaulted ceiling was still there. The wooden tracery on the windows of the school office was intact as well. The massive marble drinking fountain was there, too, although you can no longer take a drink from it.

Above the fountain is a short description of the school’s namesake:

Morgan Gardner Bulkeley

Born at East Haddam, December 26, 1837

Mayor of Hartford, 1880-1888

Governor of Connecticut, 1889-1893

United States Senator, 1905-1911

Died, November 26, 1922

That’s impressive enough, but the inscription doesn’t even mention that Bulkeley also served in the American Civil War and was president of the Aetna Life Insurance Company for 43 years. In addition, he was the first president of the National Baseball League, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Bulkeley Bridge over the Connecticut River was named in his honor.

“One of the reasons we wanted to open a history center at Bulkeley was to let people know more about what a remarkable person he was,” said Maria Mascaro. Mascaro graduated from Bulkeley in 1967, worked there as a teacher until her retirement in 2010 and continues to serve the school as a volunteer tutor. Along with many others, she was instrumental in creating the new History Center (see page 8)

Designing a school that would be worthy of its namesake must have been a daunting task for its architects, Frank Irving Cooper and Edward T. Wiley. After all, the other edifice named in Bulkeley’s honor, the Bulkeley Bridge, had been one of the largest and most expensive public works projects in the city’s history and forever transformed the look and nature of Hartford’s waterfront. Completed in 1908, it is still considered the largest stone arch bridge in the world. A one-room schoolhouse simply wouldn’t do – as a tribute to Bulkeley or to meet the needs of Hartford’s rapidly growing population.

By the end of World War I?in 1918, it had become increasingly apparent that Hartford Public High School, as large as it was, was no longer adequate for the city’s secondary school needs.

City leaders decided to build two new high schools, one for the north end and one for the south end. The former became Thomas S. Weaver High School and the latter Bulkeley High School.

“This was a time of great affluence in Hartford, a time when people took an enormous pride in their schools and other civic buildings,” said Tyler Smith, Principal at Smith, Edwards, McCoy Archi­tects. The Hartford-based firm designed the recently completed restoration of M.D. Fox School, which was constructed by the Downes Construction Company of New Britain. Both firms have extensive experience in both historic renovations and school construction.

Weaver was built first, with construction commencing in 1992. Two years later, work began on Bulkeley. The school first opened for classes in the Fall of 1926. The school was officially dedicated at the end of that school year, in June, 1927.

That the two schools have a similar look is no accident. Cooper designed Weaver as well as Bulkeley, although he was assisted by Philip Mason on the North End school just as he had been helped by Wiley at the southend school.

The main design difference between the two schools is a reflection of their neighborhoods at the time. Weaver was built on the southern end of the Blue Hills neighborhood, which was still being developed at that time. As a result, the school was allotted an entire block and was designed with a rectangular floor plan.

The Barry Square neighborhood, on the other hand, was far more developed at that time and so Bulkeley had to fit into the existing layout of the area. As a result, it has a boomerang-shaped floor plan, with one arm running along Benton Street and the other along Maple Avenue.

But both school’s were designed in an architectural style known as collegiate gothic.

“It’s the style used for several buildings at Yale, Trinity and many other colleges,” said Smith.

The message was clear: students at both schools were to take their education as seriously as if they were already in college.

Education was also stressed in the architectural details of the building. Above the entrance to both schools are stone carvings inspired by Aesop’s Fables. In the library at Bulkeley, stained glass windows depict famous scenes from the history of Connecticut.

Both the carvings and stained glass windows were fully restored in the recent restoration of the school. The windows were a main attraction for the alumni who toured the school last month, with many expressing surprise that they had lasted so long.

Repairing the school’s many windows was actually the “Phase I” of the restoration process. “Some of the glass was starting to fall out and it had become a safety issue,” said Smith. “So they were replaced first.” Phase I was completed in 2009.

Design work on the overall restoration began in 2010 and took about 18 months. Construction then began with Downes Construction serving as the Construction Manager.

While M.D. Fox is just one of many Hartford schools that have been renovated and/or expanded in the past decade, its size and architectural richness set it apart.

Smith said that the Hartford Board of Education decided that tearing down the school and building a new one was not the preferred option.

Most of the funding for the project was provided by the State of Connecticut Department of Education, Bureau of School Facilities, under its “Renovation As New” guidelines.

While the original Bulkeley High may have been a showpiece for the city when it opened back in 1926, by the time the restoration project began, much of the building was outdated and in ill-repair.

“The school had a mechanical upgrade in the 1970s,” said Smith, “but not much since then.”

To bring the school back to its former glory and also meet all existing codes, the school’s electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation and fire protection systems were all replaced. Classrooms had to be completely reconfigured based on the changes that had taken place in education technology in the eight decades since the school was built. Extensive work also had to be done to remove hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead paint.

The school’s gymnasium and auditorium were fully restored and brought up to modern standards, with full accessibility.

Smith said “exploratory demolition” had to be conducted in certain areas, such as the slate roof over the gym, to see if the original construction was usable. During the construction process, a time capsule that had been enclosed in a cornerstone of the building was discovered. The contents of the capsule will now be on permanent display the Bulkeley History Center (see page 8).

One major change was the creation of the new main entrance at the rear of the school. When Bulkeley was first built, most students walked to the school. Today, many students at M.D. Fox arrive by bus or are driven by their parents. Before the restoration, this had caused major traffic tie-ups at the start and end of the school day.

To ease this problem, the new entrance was built, additional parking was added at the rear of the school and a road looping around the school from Benton Street to Maple Avenue was created. The rear of the school was also landscaped and playgrounds were added.

In addition, a new lobby was built in the rear of the building with a grand staircase, designed to compliment the school’s architectural style, leading up to the original lobby.

“I think the renovated building really can have a transformative affect on the students there,” Smith said. “If you tear down a building and build a new one, everything’s new. But when you take something that the kids saw was falling apart and turn it into something beautiful, then they see positive change can actually happen...that’s what adaptive re-use is all about.”

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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