Series Of Missteps Led Hartford's Constitution Plaza Off The Path To Success
July 22, 2007
By WILSON H. FAUDE
A recent article in Place spoke of Hartford's seemingly perpetual affection for "dumb, big projects" that are proposed to revitalize the city. As might have been predicted, Constitution Plaza was cited as an example. Constitution Plaza is the example so many use for failed urban renewal.
The critique ought to come with a caveat; If Constitution Plaza had been built as it was originally planned, it would have been an example of successful urban renewal. It would have worked.
The word on the street
For many years I was critical of Constitution Plaza. I could not understand why the plaza, the shops, Connecticut Bank & Trust's main banking floor were all a full story removed from Market Street and its pedestrian traffic. One day I was talking to Morrison H. Beach, chairman of the Travelers Insurance Corp., which had owned the plaza. I made a comment about how all of the plaza's "businesses" were on the wrong level.
Mr. Beach quietly remarked, "You know why the plaza is at the elevation that it is?"
I replied that I did not.
Mr. Beach continued: "It is the same elevation as Main Street at the Richardson on the corner of Temple Street. It was envisioned as an extension of the Main Street retail center that included G. Fox, Sage-Allen, Brown Thomson, E.J. Korvette and others. There was to be a land bridge joining the two centers. It was to go down Temple Street, from Main Street to the plaza's clock tower."
Two things were instantly clear to me. First, the design of Constitution Plaza was not, as so many have claimed, merely to eliminate an ethnic neighborhood for a slick corporate big project. The second was that the land bridge from Main Street would have turned the plaza into a model urban renewal success story.
I knew this because it worked on the other side of the plaza. When Riverfront Recapture opened its great riverfront plaza beside the Founders Bridge in 1999, it was fairly popular, but hard to get to from Constitution Plaza - down a lot of steps, up a lot of steps. But when the Phoenix Gateway, the land bridge over Columbus Boulevard that connected Constitution Plaza to the riverfront plaza, opened in 2001, daily attendance increased several hundred fold, and has kept on growing. On a nice day, it's mobbed.
I needed to find out what the plaza was supposed to look like.
Getting the ball rolling
In the 1950s the city of Hartford needed to renew itself. Major tax-paying corporations such as Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. were leaving the city. The Phoenix Mutual had an option on a suburban site. The neighborhood popularly known as Front Street was a perilous, crime-ridden slum, where prostitution, gang wars and murders were not uncommon. It was only one or two blocks from Main Street. As former Mayor James Kinsella remarked "Nostalgia diminishes the scent of rotting structures, the sight of rat infestation and the grief caused by disease and poor health." Hartford received federal approval to develop this East Side site and in 1952 secured federal funding. Hartford's plan to issue redevelopment bonds was challenged in court, but finally in 1956 the bond issue was approved by voters 4 to 1. Demolition of the structures on the 12 acres began in June of 1958 when the mayor threw a brick through a window on Front Street.
Cliff Strike of F.H. McGraw Construction was selected as the developer and general contractor of what was called "Front Street Redevelopment." Strike in turn hired architect Charles DuBose to design the project. The Travelers Insurance Co. organized a separate corporation to finance it. A contest was held on what to name the project, because Front Street had too many negative associations. June Sawyer, a waitress at Scoler's Restaurant, won it with her entry "Constitution Plaza."
An ambitious plan
In 1959 Strike and Dubose presented their vision for Constitution Plaza. To the east of Front Street, where the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. building now stands, was to be the civic center and coliseum. It was close to I-91.There were connecting land bridges from the plaza to the civic center and coliseum and another to Main Street. The plaza to Main Street land bridge was to have a festival market beneath it, with stalls and vendors, designed by DuBose associate Jack Dollard. There would be three major office structures, extensive retail and commercial facilities, and apartments on the upper floors of the office buildings. On the parcels of land to the north and west was to be a full housing complex, a hotel and an educational center.
The main level of the plaza was designed and built with a variety of courtyards created by Sasaki Walker and Associates. Near the clock tower was willow court, where medium-sized willow trees grew from raised islands of molded grass. Quiet streams of water flowed from beneath them across the black hexagonal tile into a brown pebbled trough.
Around this attractive oasis were upscale retail stores including Brentano's bookstore, W.J. Sloane home furnishings, Layne Brant women's fashions, Rogers Peet men's clothier, Bridal Party Penthouse, Manning Armstrong shoes, as well as several restaurants and a pharmacy. On the north side of the court was an office complex with the Chamber of Commerce as a main tenant. To the far south was the great stone water sculpture, whose the angular stone plinths are assaulted by torrents of water, a careful counterpoint to the most formal tinted glass of the former CBT building. Between these business centers were several large rectangular raised water gardens of plants and low bubbling water fountains. This was designed as a transition area where people would stroll from the businesses and shops to the Hotel Americana, restaurants and Broadcast House of WTIC.
The complex was to have parking for 3,500 cars, was on the major bus lines and close to the highway. One of the innovations was that the buildings would be heated and cooled by a central system from Connecticut Natural Gas, a first for the city. This eliminated the need for extensive furnace rooms and air conditioning towers.
By 1960 major tenants had signed on: CBT, Hartford National Bank, Paine Webber and the Chamber of Commerce. Hotel Americana agreed to build the hotel, and national retailers had signed leases. There were even informal talks with Hugh Heffner about opening a Playboy Club on the plaza. It was decided that this was just too risque for the insurance city. Additional support for the plaza came in 1961 when Benjamin Holland, president of the Phoenix, announced that his company would not leave the city and would build just south of the plaza.
So why isn't Constitution Plaza the example of urban renewal that worked? Why did it become the dog we love to kick?
From the beginning there was a major financial investment in Constitution Plaza by the Travelers Insurance Co. As the majority owner, it had first refusal if the McGraw Corp. wanted or needed to sell its shares in the plaza. The 1960s were marked by a strained economy and as the plaza progressed, McGraw was forced to sell all of its shares to the Travelers. The result was the vision and careful planning by Cliff Strike and Charles DuBose were replaced by the parsimony of conservative actuarial bean counters. In addition, city politicians decided against building the civic center and coliseum just east of the plaza.
Under the Travelers' control, Constitution Plaza was redesigned and restructured. The original plan had apartments on the top floors of the office towers, and additional housing units on the land just to the northwest of the plaza for more than 1,500 people. The actuaries disagreed. Dealing with tenants would be a 24/7 headache. Better to eliminate the apartments in the towers and abandon the additional housing. Businesses should replace the apartments in the towers because they only needed to be tended to 8/5.
Anything not in actual construction was scrutinized and usually eliminated. Finishes were reduced to bare minimums. The largest item and the fatal change was the elimination of the land bridge from Main Street to the plaza. Without the civic center and coliseum on the east and the land bridge on the west, the plaza was completely isolated.
To the north the education component, the Hartford Graduate Center and the hotel were built as planned. The housing units that linked these entities to the plaza were canceled by the Travelers even though federal funding had been assured. Later, I-84 would be credited with canceling the housing component. The housing was actually eliminated because the actuaries saw it as too much of a bother. The area is now mostly surface parking lots.
Picking up the pieces
The plaza was designed to extend the successful retail core of Main Street. With the housing, hotels and education center there would have been the critical mass of bodies to help assure its success. Instead, Constitution Plaza was cut off and left to wither alone.
This space today (Morgan, Main, Windsor and Market streets) is mostly parking lots and highway, with the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and the Hartford Graduate Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
When one visits Constitution Plaza today, it is very hard to see the once shimmering and sleek plaza that it was. The Willow Court is still there, sort of. What was a careful symphony of white marble and green grass mounds floating in a mirrored black pool is a distant memory. The willow trees have grown out of scale or died and been replaced by insensitive bombastic blooms of jarring colors. Water no longer flows across the black tiles. The pebbled trough has been filled in.
The fashionable stores with up-scale merchandise in their windows have been replaced by cubicles with post-its on the glass. The clock tower is still there, but is now overshadowed by new office additions of a bland, monochromatic dullness. The transitional water gardens to the south have been filled in. The great stone water fountain still cascades jets of water, but its context as the counterpoint to Willow Court and the other water gardens is gone. Even the once carefully patterned sidewalk, toned to enhance the whites and the greens, is now patched with whatever is available. One must not judge Constitution Plaza by the shards that remain.
I do not know if a land bridge could still be built to connect it with Main Street either over State or Temple streets. Today, anything that is built on the sea of open, weed-filled parking lots, north of I-84 where the housing was to go, would be an improvement. The success of the Phoenix Gateway proves that Strike and DuBose were right in their concept and design. If the plaza had been built as designed, it would have been the model for successful city growth and renewal. Retail would have remained centered in the city, and it's conceivable that suburban malls such as Westfarms and Buckland Hills might never have been built.
Wilson H. Faude is a cultural historian and executive director emeritus of the Old State House.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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