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Reclaiming Space

Old Auto Dealership To Be New Home For Dance, Theater Studies

July 31, 2007
By JESSICA MARSDEN, Courant Staff Writer

The front windows of the old Thomas Cadillac dealership on Albany Avenue in Hartford's North End still advertise a "New '95 Sedan DeVille" for as low as $399 per month.

The well-bred line of cars hasn't been sold there for a decade, and the building has stood vacant, decaying. But now, work has begun on a $21.5 million project to transform the building - designed in the 1920s as "the dealership of the future" - into the new home for dance and theater studies at the University of Hartford.

The project has been years in the making, as the university struggled to put together the money needed to gut and renovate the dealership. The renovations will solve a severe space crunch in the performing arts program at the university's Hartt School of music and are expected to be completed by the fall of 2008.

The university also hopes the new center, which is being created in the largest of three buildings on the former dealership property and about a mile from the school's main campus, will strengthen ties with the community. Community groups are expected to share use of the space with undergraduate students.

"I think it's going to be a wonderful thing for the school," said Malcolm Morrison, dean of the Hartt School. "It's taken a little while to come, but it's here."

The designs for the arts center pay homage to the old dealership by preserving much of its architecture, which was designed by noted industrial architect Albert Kahn. Kahn is closely associated with the emergence of the automobile industry, having designed plants in the 1920s for Ford and other car companies in the Detroit area.

Kahn was asked by General Motors to design a "dealership of the future," and the Hartford dealership was one of five that was built according to Kahn's model, said Doug Thomas, one of the co-owners of Thomas Cadillac, which is now located in the North Meadows.

The Kahn connection was particularly intriguing to University of Hartford President Walter Harrison. Before coming to Hartford in 1998, Harrison spent almost a decade as an administrator at the University of Michigan, whose campus boasts more than a dozen buildings designed by Kahn.

The Cadillac dealership, which opened in 1929, shares several characteristics with some of Kahn's more famous designs. Large glass windows flood the building with natural light, and, like the auto factories Kahn designed, it is long and narrow. There is very little ornamentation to the brick exterior, with the exception of streamlined pilasters and corbels on the showroom's façade.

"It's a simple, economical, handsome design," said Tyler Smith of Smith Edwards Architects, the lead architect on the project.

The industrial history of the building is evident in the arts center designs. Brick walls and ductwork will be exposed in some of the hallways, and, where possible, the plate glass windows will be restored, said Chris Dupuis, senior project manager for the university.

A few quirks in the building's design are a legacy of its original use. The floor is sloped, dropping 4 feet from the front of the building to the back, which Smith said was intended to make it easier to roll cars.

The Hartford dealership - which Thomas said was really a "distributorship" - was designed to serve as a regional service center for Cadillacs. New cars would roll off the nearby railway and then receive a significant amount of assembly and customization before being shipped to smaller dealers in the area. So the showroom occupies only a fraction of the entire complex, as much of the space originally was devoted to a full service shop.

The building's floor is unusually strong because it needed to bear the weight of all of the cars, an unnecessary attribute now that the primary occupants will be dancers and actors. But it has been an added benefit for the construction team, which has been able to drive equipment onto the site that normally would be too heavy to come inside, Dupuis said.

The biggest challenge architecturally was that the dealership's ceilings were too low to accommodate some of the planned performance spaces, Smith said. During the renovation, the ceiling will be raised in several places to accommodate the studios, which Smith said will add "visual interest" as well as make the best use of the space.

The open spaces will be welcomed by the music theater and dance programs at the Hartt School. The programs currently are housed in "crowded quarters" scattered around the campus and in leased spaces in the surrounding neighborhood.

The center will contain two "black box" theaters, four theater studios and several dance studios, as well as classrooms and faculty offices.

The main entrance will be on Westbourne Parkway, while the wing closest to the corner of Albany and Westbourne will house two commercial tenants - most likely a bank and a café, university spokesman Dave Isgur said.

The concept for the performing arts center started to take shape in about 2002, Isgur said, when the university agreed to buy the dealership from the Thomas family for $1.6 million.

The Thomas family operated the dealership beginning in the late 1970s, the last of three owners. In the late 1990s, the family purchased a Jaguar facility in the North Meadows and decided to consolidate the two dealerships into one smaller facility, Thomas said.

Fundraising for the project proved to be a challenge for the university. In addition to the current construction, a second phase, estimated to cost about $12 million, will tackle the two smaller buildings on the 7.2-acre site, "as fundraising allows," Isgur said.

State and federal support provided a big chunk of the money, with the difference coming from contributions made by individuals and charitable foundations. The performing arts center will be named after West Hartford residents Mort and Irma Handel, who made the largest individual donation, $1.5 million.

Construction began at the site on July 9, and workers so far have focused on clearing out debris that accumulated over a decade of nonuse, Dupuis said. Last week, workers were removing old wiring and piping from the ceiling.

Thomas said he is pleased to see the old dealership being cleaned up. During the years it sat empty, a portion of the roof had collapsed and the building developed a bad case of mildew, he said.

"They really had some vision to say, out of the darkness they saw something bright," Thomas said.

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.
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