The Old State House in many ways is like Hartford itself.
The Charles Bulfinch-designed building, completed in 1796, has touched the hem of American history. In its graceful halls, Lafayette was made a citizen, the Amistad trial began and the Hartford Convention was convened to discuss New England secession from the Union during the War of 1812. It was, and remains, a site for speeches, protests, bill signings and other gatherings.
But that doesn't quite put it in a league with Independence or Faneuil halls. Hartford's state house was the state capitol and, later, city hall. Most of what went on there was the grunt work of government. Committees met, hearings were called to order, bills were drafted (in quill pen!) and debated by Yankee legislators.
That's not unlike the city itself, which has had its moments but nonetheless isn't Boston or New York.
This is the challenge Kate Steinway of the Connecticut Historical Society faced in preparing an exhibit about Hartford for the Old State House. She meets the challenge by poking Hartford's inferiority complex right in the eye. She doesn't waste time comparing Hartford with Boston or New York. Hartford has a unique and fascinating history, and she believes studying it for its own sake yields many rewards.
The result is "History Is All Around Us," a terrific $3.5 million exhibit that will open Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the downstairs Mortensen Gallery after some run-up events last week. I love it. It's bright, colorful, great for kids and adults, interactive in very creative ways. It conjures a real sense of place.
She builds the exhibit around the oft-forgotten ideas that history is always being made through family stories and experiences, and that these weave into a community's history. The exhibit explains how Hartford has grown and changed. Three things I like:
There is a study of the city's postwar urban renewal projects, the well-intended upheavals of old Front and Windsor streets for office towers and highways. The video and photos tell the story impartially. Draw your own conclusions.
There's a history of a single city block in the old East Side, on what is now part of Constitution Plaza, and how it grew and changed over the years.
We all know about the great manufacturers who used to be in Hartford - Fuller Brush, Royal and Underwood typewriters, Colt's, etc. Steinway has a small exhibit dedicated to 10 manufactories who are still here. Who knew?
In short, the exhibit is a lot of fun, and you should see it. The Mortensen Gallery used to house a puppet theater and storage space; you'll be surprised at how big it really is. Also, the historical society has created a new education center, featuring the wonderful work of Connecticut painter Ted Esselstyn. If all goes well, the exhibit and education center will be the first major step in a 21st-century revival of the Old State House.
The building was almost torn down in the 1970s, astoundingly enough, but was saved by some thoughtful citizens. It was on its own for a quarter-century, led by Bill Faude, who directed a major renovation of the building in the 1990s. Despite Faude's flair for marketing, the building got too expensive to run independently. He departed in 2001, and in 2003 the Old State House joined forces with the Connecticut Historical Society.
The merger should give the society more exposure, more exhibition space and more opportunities for educational programming (what better way to teach the three branches of government than to tour the courtroom, governor's office and House and Senate chambers?). Steinway, deputy director for interpretation, said the organization is working on a dual ticket for both the Old State House and the historical society museum on Elizabeth Street.
She said they are trying to balance smaller changeable exhibits with the need to increase the rental business. The building has to draw more parties and gatherings. I think it will. It's the epicenter, Hartford's town green, the traditional place to which New Englanders are drawn. It was the site of last week's 9/11 memorial service, Ned Lamont's Senate announcement in the spring and a host of other such stuff.
Perhaps what people most need to know is that the Old State House has a parking agreement with one of the Constitution Plaza garages for a flat $5, and that there's plenty of on-street parking on Saturdays (though finding a place for lunch on weekends is still iffy). For more information call 860-522-6766 or see www.ctosh.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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