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Old State House Crisis

Historical Society Wants State To Take Over Central Structure Of Hartford's Past

February 26, 2007
By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press

Despite a recent $3.2 million renovation, one of the nation's oldest historic state houses is on the verge of closing its doors.

Unless the state comes to the rescue, visitors will not be able walk the halls of the 211-year-old Federal-style building where the Amistad slave ship trial began, where presidents from Andrew Jackson to George H.W. Bush have visited and where U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd announced last month he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

The Connecticut Historical Society, which took over operations at the Old State House about four years ago, has said it will begin boarding up the 1796 National Historic Landmark on June 30.

"We looked at the budget. To continue to operate the Old State House, it would be a financial drain and would potentially bring down the Connecticut Historical Society," said James C. Williams, chairman of the historical society's board of directors.

Historical society officials last week appealed to state lawmakers, urging them to transfer ownership of the Old State House from the city of Hartford to the state of Connecticut. They also want the Office of Legislative Management, which runs the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building complex, to take over operations such as security and building maintenance, of the Old State House.

The historical society operates its own museum, library and educational center in Hartford, and wants to continue running the programming and fundraising efforts at the Old State House. The entire proposal would cost the state about $600,000.

"The fact of the matter is, we can't do it anymore," said Kate Steinway, executive director of the Old State House and the historical society. "We can't support it on our own anymore."

The Hartford City Council would have to sign off on any transfer of ownership. But Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Mayor Eddie Perez, said it makes sense for the General Assembly to play a greater role.

Over the past decade, the city has had to reduce its annual stipend of $150,000 for the Old State House to $50,000 because of cuts in federal grants.

"It's a state asset. The city owns it, the city has been a financial supporter of it for a long time, but at the end of the day, this is something the state has got to decide is worth preserving," Hennessy said. "This is really a state asset. A state treasure."

Rep. Denise Merrill, co-chairwoman of the legislature's budget-writing committee, said she wants to find a way to keep the building open to the public.

"They're raising the red flags. I feel strongly that we can't let it close. I just think that would be an embarrassment to the state," said Merrill, D-Mansfield. "I just don't think we should be the generation that lets it close."

The Old State House and its land have been part of key moments in Connecticut and American history. Connecticut is known as the Constitution State because the original meeting house on the Old State House grounds is where the first written constitution, the Fundamental Orders guaranteeing the right to representative government, was written in 1639.

The Old State House originally operated as one of the two Connecticut state Capitols. The other was in New Haven.

The old Senate chamber still appears as it did in about 1820. George Washington's portrait by Gilbert Stuart, painted especially for that room in 1801, hangs on the wall. There, students are taught about the three branches of government and how the legislature operates.

Across the hall is the former Hartford Council chambers, which appears as it did in about 1890.

The building has had its troubles over the years. In 1915, the Old State House was abandoned. In 1921, a group of citizens raised money to protect the building. By the 1970s, there was talk of tearing it down for a parking garage.

In 2003, then-Gov. John G. Rowland asked the historical society to take over the operations and expand school programming, create a new exhibition program, develop a self-guided audio tour, open a store and streamline the operating budget. The state provided $2.9 million for the improvements.

Last year's state budget included a $200,000 stipend, but the money is not part of the second year of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's spending proposal.

Steinway said the society has increased admissions and made all the improvements, including raising $1.3 million toward the $3.2 million renovation. It also has begun renting space in the building for weddings, corporate meetings and political events to generate income. Still, it has become difficult to raise money for both entities, said Marion Leonard, director of internal affairs for the Old State House and historical society.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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