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Rescuing Old State House

Legislators Planning State Takeover Weigh Several Ideas

March 7, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Bringing some of the work of modern-day legislators to the halls of the historic Old State House is one of several ideas under consideration as state legislators plan to take over the downtown Hartford icon and look for a way to keep it alive.

"We have one sort of symbolic Senate session over there every two years," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. on Tuesday. "My feeling is that we could go well beyond that and see if we could restore some legislative component."

Williams said Tuesday that he and other state legislative leaders are crunching numbers on a plan to take over the financially troubled Old State House, assume its roughly $600,000 in annual operating costs and perform long-postponed improvements.

For four years, the Connecticut Historical Society has been the steward of the landmark building on Main Street in Hartford, and the programs inside. But this year, the society informed the legislature that the $600,000 annual cost of running the building and the programs is too much to bear. Without support from the state or other sources, the building could close at the end of June.

On Tuesday, Williams signaled an increasing state willingness to take over the building, fund its present uses and contemplate its future.

"There's a clear framework for us to move forward," said Williams after a meeting with legislative budget writers and leaders in both houses. "Then I think we should really challenge ourselves to look at more creative and innovative uses for the building."

This is terrific news," said Kate Steinway, head of the historical society. "It could be a wide draw for all of Connecticut, and I think we've already made it into a first-rate attraction."

The Old State House rests on the site where, in 1639, English colonists enacted the first written constitution guaranteeing the right to representative government. Gen. George Washington and the Count de Rochambeau planned their strategy to win the Revolutionary War on its green. Inside, the celebrated trial of the African captives from the ship Amistad began.

Williams, D-Brooklyn, said that $600,000 is "a reasonable number," but he also said that the legislature is considering new uses for the building, too.

"On the one hand, it's very important to secure this building for posterity," Williams said. "But we'd be missing a huge opportunity if we didn't go back and say, `How can we revitalize this building and make it once again part of the cultural and social life of downtown Hartford?'"

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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