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No So Ugly After All

February 12, 2006
Commentary By Tom Condon

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 decades.

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 deal together.

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 Society.

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. 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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