August 15, 2006
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer
For decades, commercial architectural gems in Hartford were bulldozed, blown up or smacked around with a wrecking ball.
Today, progress is taking another turn: More homage is being paid in renovations to buildings that have a place in city history - even if only bits and pieces are saved as a nod to the architectural past. The latest example: the American Airlines building on Main Street, now being converted to condominiums.
The discovery of art-deco details during renovation work on the building's façade - first reported here a month ago - has now led the developer to revise his architectural designs and include the sunbursts, geometric patterns and other flourishes in his plans.
The ornamentation under each window was revealed in July when workers pulled off aluminum panels installed in a façade makeover in the 1970s. The art-deco details date from the 1920s, when 915 Main was home to a thriving department store.
"It will put a little sparkle back into that part of Main Street," said TomasJ. Nenortas, historic research adviser at the Hartford Preservation Alliance.
Nenortas said the preservation alliance is thrilled about what will be saved, but he also noted that more architectural elements could be unearthed under the remaining brick.
David Nyberg, the project's developer, said, "We're eager to keep the project moving along, but I absolutely wouldn't rule out further restoration in the future."
Although there initially was concern that the art-deco elements might have been damaged, they were found to be in good shape, just in need of a good cleaning. The elements contrast sharply in style with the brown brick installed over nearly all of the façade in the 1970s makeover - much of which is being retained for the condo conversion.
But the project's architect says the details will still work well with the existing brick and add visual interest now lacking. The geometric shapes, for example, also are rendered in a brownish brick.
"The façade is a little stark," said Matthew Koenig, a principal at JK Roller Architects, the Philadelphia architectural firm designing the renovation. "There's not that much going on."
Unfortunately, the most ornate decoration is found on just one of the lower floors, between the third and fourth stories, Koenig said. But it is close enough to street level to attract the eye and create interest, he said.
This is the second time Nyberg has altered his plans for the façade. He has already incorporated a decorative cornice with dentil work that was discovered under a large aluminum panel stretching across the top of the building.
The latest change was quickly backed by the city, and because it did not involve extensive alterations, city development staff could approve the change without a more formal review from the planning and zoning commission.
In addition to the architectural elements, Nyberg plans to add more windows on the south side of the building, where there are now none. Decorative metal "volute" brackets, painted black, will be installed at the cornice and above the street-level shops. More lighting will be included to better illuminate a dimly lit portion of Main Street.
There are other examples in downtown Hartford where architecture from the past has been preserved in the midst of modern renovation.
One, in1985, was the incorporation of the façade of the First National Bank building into the State House Square construction project. Preservationists successfully fought to save the building's now 107-year-old façade, rendered in the classic Beaux-Arts style, from demolition.
More recently, the elegant Sage-Allen department store façade, dating from the 1890s, with its Classical Renaissance Revival details rendered in terra cotta, is now the centerpiece of a massive $44 million retail and housing project.
Sage-Allen is across the street from 915 Main, which once had a prominent place in Main Street's long-gone department store shopping district. It was home for decades to the Wise Smith & Co. department store, and later discounter E.J. Korvette.
From the mid-1970s until 2001, the Eastern reservation center of American Airlines occupied the building - giving it its popular name.
The building is still slated for condos, even though there have been signs of a cooling housing market. The conversion is still on track to be finished by May 1, but prices for the condos won't be determined for another couple of months.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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