Bringing Back Hartford's Asylum Hill One Home At A Time
By Susan Campbell
March 07, 2012
The glitterati of the Hartford of old left evidence of their lives with a series of Italianate, Victorian and Gothic homes scattered around town.
Over time, many of those houses were lost. Some were carved into apartments. Others were turned into businesses. Neighborhoods morphed. Home ownership declined.
Enter a scrappy nonprofit organization, Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, which since 2004 has been resurrecting some of Hartford's older housing stock in the Asylum Hill neighborhood. Through a unique partnership with other nonprofits, volunteer and apprentice construction workers, and a rigorous collection of available grants, NINA is bringing Asylum Hill back, one dwelling at a time.
And it's not just older stock. Recently, Ken Johnson, NINA executive director, visited the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center to look at photos in anticipation of building four new Gothic-style dwellings on land donated by Aetna in the Nook Farm neighborhood. (For reference, the Church of the Good Shepherd across town on Wyllys Street is an example of Gothic architecture, as are portions of the state Capitol.) Construction should start within the year, he said.
This is a neighborhood that has an abysmal homeownership rate of 9 percent. The national home ownership rate, says the Census Bureau, is 66 percent.
"Even Hartford is around 24 percent," said Johnson. "We can address that by converting some of those wonderful, historic homes for home ownership."
The area was once the home of Mark Twain, poet and novelist (and Twain collaborator) Charles Dudley Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her feminist half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker. The bold-faced names of Hartford's heyday walked these streets, tended these gardens, and raised families that subsequently left Hartford.
Most of NINA's projects must be gutted. Renovations include energy-efficient windows, insulation, and finish work done by master carpenters and apprentice students. Volunteers pitch in, said Johnson, and that keeps costs down. A structure purchased for $15,000 might sell as a finished home for less than $200,000. Some of their projects have included taking homes that were converted into apartments during the housing boom of World War II, when munitions factories and other businesses brought workers to the capital city.
Reclaiming buildings takes a lot of hands, including volunteers from ServCorps, a service organization that focuses on renovation in the neighborhood, but also in areas affected by natural disasters, such as the Nashville flooding in 2010. The group is planning a trip to Alabama, where tornadoes did immeasurable damage last April, said ServCorps President Rich Grobe. Last year, ServCorps helped renovate four units on Atwood and Sargeant streets. Grobe said he draws volunteers from all over — Hartford residents, as well as people who work or attend worship services in town.
"They are committed to the city of Hartford," Grobe said. "They see this as an opportunity to serve."
And, in the corollary of the broken window theory, where one building falling into disrepair can open the door for others, the new homes are moving neighbors to try a little harder, Johnson said. ServCorps helped build a house from the ground up across the street from NINA's office. The original house was condemned by the city. The current house reflects the former's Queen Anne architectural style.
That project is a graceful, refurbished, one-family home. And next door is a newly painted house with a few nice little architectural additions added by the owner as the neighboring home was being built.
ServCorps is sponsoring A Broadway Revue at 8 p.m. Friday at Hartford's Asylum Hill Congregational Church. For more information, call 860-278-0785.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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