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Does Historic Hartford House Really Have To Go?

November 5, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

To stand on Wadsworth Street in Hartford's South Green neighborhood is to grind your teeth at neglect, bad planning and needless demolition.

A century ago this was an elegant downtown residential neighborhood, with 19th-century Italianate, Second Empire and Queen Anne-style homes laid out on traditional city blocks.

But the postwar period has not been kind. Several buildings have been lost to fire. A lovely old school was knocked down and replaced two decades ago with a suburban-style housing development called Casas Verde Sur. The houses are laid out in a circular pattern, which in a rectangular block creates a round-peg-in-a-square-hole effect. A Jehovah's Witnesses building sits perpendicular to the street, also jarring when other buildings face the street.

For all of this, there are still enough historic structures in the area - some preserved as law offices - to be the basis of a revival. Except that we're likely to lose another historic house.

The 21/2-story, 130-year-old Italianate at 53 Wadsworth St., empty for several years but still salvageable, is threatened with demolition to make way for a building for the Institute for the Hispanic Family, a program of Catholic Charities. The loss of the building would be a shame, because the west side of Wadsworth Street still evokes Victorian Hartford.

The building Catholic Charities is planning is a two-story, $5.5 million, 22,000-square-foot structure that will run from Wadsworth Street through the center of the block to Cedar Street, in effect walling the middle of the block. The demolition proposal needs approval from the State Historic Preservation Office, because the area is in the Jefferson-Seymour National Historic District. A decision is expected momentarily

The Hartford Preservation Alliance is making a last-ditch effort to save 53 Wadsworth. To that end, Hartford architect Bill Crosskey has done a design he believes will save the building and give Catholic Charities the space it needs, minus a few parking places.

If that can't be done, the alliance wants the design of the new building to fit the neighborhood. The current drawings, which may change, show a modern design of the type found in suburban office parks.

This is a dilemma. The Hispanic family program serves 5,000 clients a year and is said to be excellent. It's currently in leased space on Jefferson Street and must move by late next year. Rose Alma Senatore, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, said because so many clients live in the neighborhood, a goal is to stay within a one-mile radius of the current site.

But she said she needs a fair amount of space - for example, state law requires a 6,000-square-foot playground to serve the 60 youngsters in the day-care program. She said space has been very hard to find.

The Wadsworth-Cedar space wouldn't have been available but for a failed attempt to build housing there.

The South Downtown neighborhood's plan of development calls for residential development much like what is there now - duplexes and townhouses - along Cedar and Wadsworth streets.

The nonprofit Broad Park Development Corp. designed such housing for the area four years ago, and the neighborhood loved it. But Broad Park could not put the financing together. Catholic Charities has bought 53 Wadsworth St. from another owner and plans to buy the rest of the land between Wadsworth and Cedar streets from Broad Park for a long, fairly narrow building that will extend across the block.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Catholic Charities. My mother, in her second or third career, was a Catholic Charities caseworker. I'm a periodic donor (not at the endowment level, but still).

What I don't want this or any other social service agency, public or private, to do is bomb the village to save it.

Too often, government or social service agencies demolish parts of the existing urban fabric to build outsized or out-of-place buildings or parking lots, all in the name of helping city residents.

But removing historic buildings and otherwise ruining the design of a neighborhood degrades it and is detrimental to the residents' living environment. Perhaps the worst example, of several, was the placement of a juvenile court building on Broad Street right around the corner from the Park Street commercial corridor. This ruined the streetscape of Broad Street with out-of-place front field parking and made it more difficult to redevelop the area. This remains an outrage.

It's possible to site social services where they don't impede development potential or cause the loss of historic buildings. The Open Hearth mission, the Community Renewal Team headquarters and the Village for Families and Children are good examples, as is the coming move of Chrysalis Center to a former Sealtest dairy on Homestead Avenue.

Though there is deadline pressure, Senatore said she and her architects are continuing to explore the possibility of saving the Wadsworth Street building, but said if it's possible it will take assistance from the city.

The city, which has some money in the project, ought to help in any way possible. Hartford ought not to invest in demolishing its heritage properties. Crosskey, a highly regarded architect, said his plan can be a win-win. A meeting has been scheduled for Friday.

While we're at it, the parts of the new building that front the street should be visually compatible with the historic buildings in the area. Senatore said she is working with the neighborhood to achieve this, but neighbors say they aren't there yet.

With development going on a few blocks north and south of Wadsworth Street, in downtown and in the Park Street corridor, there may be a stronger market for those historic homes in a few years. It may be possible to do the kind of renewal that Broad Park envisioned, the kind that was brilliantly achieved in the Mortson Street-Putnam Heights area, by rehabbing older buildings and building new ones in the style of the old.

But to do this, we need the older buildings.

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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