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History Set In Stone

By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

September 06, 2007

Take a walk? In Hartford ? Well, yes. This is the last of our summer walks to get to know -- or to reacquaint ourselves with -- our capital city. Today, we look at a handful of the city's more notable memorials and statues, some because they're rare, some because they're beautiful. and some because they're both.

We are, of course, leaving a lot out. The city has ample statues and memorials, some creating controversy, and some tucked in as a reminder to the Hartford that was.

"Wherever you work, I need a job now," calls out a man sitting on one of the benches surrounding the Keney Memorial Tower, a 130-foot Gothic sandstone tower that crowns Main Street at the start of the city's North End. In the early 1800s, Joseph Keney started a wholesale grocery business on Main Street. He married Rebecca Turner, and they had two sons, Henry and then Walter.

Joseph died in his 40s. Rebecca, who lived to age 71, raised the children alone. The family business was taken over by Rebecca's brother Robert until 1830, when the Keney brothers stepped in.

Henry never married, but Walter married a daughter of another wealthy Hartford family - the Goodwins - and the two brothers and Walter's wife lived together in one of Hartford's nicest homes on Main Street, near where the tower stands today. Together they built their business, and Henry was involved in everything from insurance to banking to carpets.

Walter died in 1889, and when Henry died in 1894, the family left money to Trinity College and various area charities. They also left land for a park, and money that set aside to build the imposing memorial tower with a plaque dedicating it to their mother, Rebecca, and her "womanly nobility."

Not much more is known about Rebecca, but it's rare to have a tower dedicated to a woman known solely for her mothering skills. For years, neighbors claimed they never owned wrist watches because the clock tower chimed every 15 minutes.

The family is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, in Section 10, right next to the Goodwins. The Keney house was torn down in 1933 to make way for new businesses. The tower has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

Moving midtown, you wouldn't think a majestic horse and rider that crowns the circle at Washington and Capitol would be the least bit controversial.

But you'd be wrong.

When it was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1933, the Marquis de Lafayette statue was placed on a granite pedestal facing the State Capitol. It paid tribute to the French nobleman, who joined the American Revolution as a teenager. "From the moment that I first heard the name of America, I loved her," Lafayette said in his later years, and he distinguished himself as a fierce warrior.

On a visit in 1784, Lafayette - perhaps setting the stage for a later ad campaign - praised the "rising city" of Hartford. When he returned in 1824, the city turned out to greet him.

Here's where things get weird. Six years before his statue was dedicated, a 17-foot statue of Christopher Columbus was erected a stone's throw (if you've got a good arm) to the south.

The placement of the horse confined Columbus to forever facing the rear end of a mount. Through the years, citizens rallied to move one or rearrange another, but so far life has gone on. A tree has been gently placed to somewhat block the view of Columbus, whose head is turned to the right, anyway. But mostly his view of the Capitol is marred a bit by the back end of a large horse and rider.

The sculptor of Lafayette's likeness,Paul Wayland Bartlett, placed a turtle at the left hind foot of Lafayette's horse. One legend has it that he was protesting the state's late payment to him. Another legend says the artist himself was late, and he wanted to acknowledge that.

Lateness seemed to dog Lafayette's legend. It wasn't until 2002 that Congress awarded him a rare honorary citizenship, 168 years after his death.

Honoring Hunger Strikers

Controversy also accompanied the South End's Hunger Strikers Memorial when it was dedicated in 1995, but that soon faded, and the cross with the names of the dead marks the Bobby Sands Circle.

A resolution to dedicate the corner off Maple Avenue to Sands and other Irish hunger strikers was sponsored by then-councilman John B. O'Connell. The memorial was paid for by the New York-based Irish Northern Aide Committee.

"I happened to be a member of the group and an Irishman and all the rest, and they had this idea to erect a memorial," O'Connell said. The memorial stands within view of the Maple Café, with its shamrock-decorated sign, known as an Irish watering hole, he said.

In the early '80s, Sands and other Irish Republican movement prisoners in HM Prison Maze - also known as The Maze - north of Belfast refused to eat to protest the conditions in the part of the prison reserved for inmates convicted of terrorist acts. The strikers wanted to be treated as political prisoners, but the British government refused. After Sands' death in May 1981, nine more hunger strikers died in prison before the strike ended.

Hartford has long been home to Irish immigrants and their families, and a Mass at St. Peter Church was held to mark the death of each hunger striker. The cross holds the name of the 10 from the Maze as well as the names of two other Irish Republican hunger strikers - Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg - who died in the '70s.

A few residents thought the site would be better used as a memorial to American veterans, but O'Connell said "the city's been pretty good about honoring its veterans."

To people squeamish about honoring members of the Irish Republican movement, O'Connell argued that the British probably thought American colonists were terrorists. He said the memorial is recognized internationally and is one of the few of its kind - if not the only one - in this country.

"We're very proud of it," he 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.
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