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John Dollard: An Urban Planner Who Put His Stamp On Hartford


July 21, 2012

John "Jack" Dollard was a city planner, an architect and activist whose work is seen all around Hartford. He also was a talented artist.

Dollard, born July 27, 1929, died June 22 of a heart attack in Oaxaca, Mexico.

He grew up in Hoboken, N.J., where his father, Nicholas, worked as a runner on Wall Street during the week, and was a drummer who headed a dance band. In rapid succession, Jack was born to Nicholas and Zelda Dollard, the band disbanded, Wall Street collapsed, and Nick lost his job.

Nick found other work, and as the Depression eased, he became the manager of a grocery store and later worked for an insurance company. In high school, Jack was an athlete who concentrated on sports. He won a football scholarship to Drake University in Iowa, where he planned to study commercial art, but his grades plummeted and the school withdrew its scholarship offer. His father borrowed the $600 Jack had saved for tuition, so Jack took a job in a shipping department and played semi-pro football on weekends.

One day, Dollard offered to drive a friend to take the Air Force entry exam, and a recruiter persuaded Dollard to take the test as well. Dollard earned a perfect score, and both boys enlisted. Dollard took the entrance exam for West Point his goal was to play football for the academy and was sent to a cram school to improve his grades. Vision problems kept him out of flight school, but he graduated first in his drafting class, and chose to go to Bolling Air Force base in Washington, D.C., because it had the best football team in the Air Force.

After three years, he left the Air Force and attended Cornell's College of Architecture, graduating in 1957, then worked as an architect for Charles Dubose in Hartford for several years before earning his master's degree at the Yale School of Architecture in 1961. He returned to work for Dubose, but was so frustrated when a plan he designed for Bushnell Plaza was rejected that he quit. He found work with Jack Huntington, whose architectural office was about to undertake several projects, including the renovation of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Dollard's interests broadened from designing buildings to trying to improve the community around him through urban planning and design.

"I came to Hartford wanting to find urban problems in need of new efforts and approaches," he wrote in his memoirs. He said the focus needed to be on neighborhoods to make the city more livable.

"Politicians talked about big projects," said Tai Soo Kim, a former partner. "Strong neighborhoods were key, not large convention centers. Big projects didn't help."

Dollard got to know John Filer, the former chairman and CEO of Aetna Life & Casualty, where he worked as a full time consultant and influenced the company's visual identity.

When the Aetna built a cogeneration plant to produce electricity, heating and cooling on the south side of I-84 in Hartford, it was Dollard's idea to paint it in bright colors like a steamship smokestack. When Aetna needed more office space and planned to tear down some 19th century buildings on Capitol Avenue in the Frog Hollow section of the city, Dollard persuaded Filer to renovate them in order to maintain a connection with Hartford's former preeminence in manufacturing bicycles, typewriters, rifles and machine tools.

"Frog Hollow had been a vital industrial area," said Whitey Jenkins, who worked with Dollard on design. "He wanted to keep history alive."

"He was devoted to the power of architecture to invigorate and inspire," said Tyler Smith, an architect and friend.

Although some people were surprised by Dollard's longtime collaboration with one of the city's leading businessman, Dollard relished the power it gave him to make an impact. "He thought he could leverage his ideas more effectively [at Aetna]," Smith said. "He expected the corporate community to exercise leadership in an enlightened way, and make Harford a real city."

One of Dollard's most controversial projects was an urban renewal project in the South Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford, where he designed an apartment building and eight detached instructional areas called the Everywhere School. The project initially received national acclaim, but political infighting among city and school officials cost Dollard his position as designer, another architect was hired and the concept was totally revised.

The result frustrated Dollard, and the project eventually was deemed a failure. The school was demolished several years ago and a more traditional building erected.

As director of the city's Knox Parks Foundation, Dollard brought imagination and humor to the job. His best known project was bringing a 1913 carousel in Bushnell Park, designed to bring together children from the city and the suburbs. He refurbished the horses and designed a 24-sided building with more than 600 windows to house the carousel. It opened in 1977.

He gave grants to performance artists who enlivened the downtown scene with antics such as having six people with folding chairs who would meet, sit down, and talk. One performance included a person lying on the sidewalk in underwear covered with slices of bread to entice pigeons to come and eat, while another involved a raft of men walking around in gray suits, in a dig at then UTC chairman Harry Gray.

"That upset UTC no end," said Smith.

Dollard adapted a former warehouse space as a theater for theHartford Stage Co., and had the idea for the "Frog Bridge" in Willimantic, featuring four 11-foot frogs, and he transformed a motel and taxi barn on Farmington Avenue into rehearsal space for arts groups.

He served as co-chairman of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing from 1988 to 1989, and pushed for a revision in regulations so less expensive housing could be built on smaller lots. He also was co-director of the Downtown Revitalization Project.

Dollard was easily recognized. A robust man with a bushy beard, he usually wore red suspenders, Topsiders held together with duct tape and no socks, and he had an infectious joie de vivre. Several times a year, he would head off with some male friends for a wild leave-it-in Vegas weekend of fun, or an elaborate visit to Saratoga to watch the horse races.

"He was charming, hardheaded, Irish, irascible," said Suzanne Levine, a close friend. "He felt we didn't play enough, and play is a huge part of life."

"He was a hard living guy," said longtime friend John Alves. "He never wasted a minute, and filled every moment he lived in."

In addition to his wife, Enid Lynn, former director of the School of the Hartford Ballet, whom he married in 1983, Dollard is survived by three children from a previous marriage and three grandchildren.

In January 2002, Dollard and his wife left the urban milieu they had enjoyed for decades to move to Oaxaca, where Dollard painted while his wife studied Spanish.

"He was Hartford's greatest believer," said Courant columnist Tom Condon. "A kind of life force."

A memorial gathering will be held at 9:30 a.m. at the Carousel on July 27; the Carousel will offer free rides July 28th in Dollard's honor.

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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