When the building dies, as it most
likely will, it will be for someone else's sins.
I speak of the former H.B. Davis building,
the sore thumb in a sea of surface parking lots just north of I-84
and downtown Hartford. Everyone including me has called it an eyesore;
city officials have begun calling it the "Butt-Ugly Building."
Let's at least get the record straight.
It is not an ugly building.
It is, or was, a sturdy, well-proportioned,
beige-brick commercial building, an attractive background building
in any city in the world. It once was home to a thriving department
and catalog store and later turned to offices. It had adjoining
buildings, as downtown commercial structures did, a row of them
on the west side of Main Street that went all the way north to "The
Tunnel" and beyond. In the early 20th century, North Main Street
was a prosperous commercial and residential area.
Look at the building from Main Street,
if you can do so without causing a five-car collision, and note
the symmetric patterns of windows. Imagine that there are buildings
on either side, as there were, and buildings leading down the side
streets. Sweep away the empty wine bottles, graffiti and old posters,
and steam-clean the brick, in your mind's eye. If the whole street
were still intact, we'd be fighting to preserve it.
It might still be there, but for one
disastrous decision and its consequences.
That would be the bewildering choice
in the 1960s to run I-84 through the middle of Hartford. Sticking
I-91 between the city and the Connecticut River was not a work of
unrelenting genius either, but the I-84 decision cost the city much
more dearly. Great architectural treasures such as Hartford Public
High School were lost. The highway went where the housing for Constitution
Plaza was supposed to go, leaving that project at half-mast for
Finally, it cut the North End off from
the rest of downtown, and orphaned part of the Main Street commercial
district. Combine this with the riots of the late 1960s, the closing
of the downtown department stores, the flight to the suburbs and
the relentless growth in automobile traffic, and downtown Hartford
lost its magic. It almost became a suburban office park, and the
land north of the highway became one of its many parking lots.
It's depressing to walk the area, and
see the exposed ends of foundation walls where buildings once stood.
It's like visiting Machu Picchu or Pompeii. In one generation we've
turned parts of a real and great city into archeological sites.
The H.B. Davis building was back in
the news this month because a developer, Joseph Citino of Providian
Builders, has proposed tearing it down and replacing it with a luxury
condominium structure, if he can acquire the property and put the
Mr. Citino is a capable developer (his
family's restaurant in the South End, Francesco's, is superb), but
I'm not sure anything, standing alone in a sea of parking next to
the highway, is going to show to advantage or draw many paying customers.
Would you live there?
Well, people are moving downtown. But
if we are serious about reviving Hartford and again having a great
capital city, we must heal this near-fatal wound. The city should
develop a plan that reintegrates the area north of the highway with
the rest of downtown.
This isn't a new idea. City Councilman
Robert Painter has proposed a college campus on the north side of
the highway, and the city wants to use the 19th-century school building
on High Street in a new public safety complex. Historic homes on
nearby Belden Street are being rehabbed.
There are a handful of gorgeous historic
buildings in the area, such as the High Victorian Arthur Pomeroy
House on Ann Street and the Italian villa-style Isham-Terry House
on High Street, which is maintained by the Antiquarian & Landmarks
Toronto planner Ken Greenberg is coming
back to the city this year to broaden his earlier work on downtown.
He should meld the good stuff north of the highway into a downtown
plan. The city and state can help by extending the platform over
the highway. If the market helps fill in the dead spots, Hartford
gets a bigger and more vibrant downtown.
Do I advocate saving the H.B.
Davis building? No, it probably cannot be saved. But when the ball
swings, let's have the good grace to remember it wasn't the building
that was ugly - it was what happened to it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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