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Keeping The City's Parlor Open

March 11, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Nearly 100 years ago, when Hartford officials announced they would build a new city hall and leave the Old State House, there were rumors that the building would be torn down. Writing in the bulletin of the Municipal Art Society in 1911, Emily S. G. Holcombe offered a spirited defense for the "old Bulfinch State House," noting that the Society of Colonial Dames had raised $10,000 to preserve the building.

Indeed, the classic Federal-style government building designed by Charles Bulfinch was saved - there is naught like a Colonial Dame - and would be saved again in the 1970s, when it was almost demolished for (what else?) a parking lot.

But saving a historic building from the wrecking ball is only the first step. The State House's current dilemma reminds us that there are two more vital challenges: what to do with the building, and on whose shilling.

The Connecticut Historical Society, which took over operation of the State House in 2003, has said it cannot afford to go it alone and will shutter the building on June 30, absent state help.

The Old State House is a local example of a growing national problem. A front-page New York Times article on Dec. 31 revealed that Colonial Williamsburg was selling Carter's Grove, an exquisite 18th-century Georgian plantation on the banks of the James River in Virginia.

Colin Campbell, the former Wesleyan University president who heads Colonial Williamsburg, said he tried to interest other historical groups in the 400-acre property, to no avail. It will likely become a private residence, protected by easements against subdivision but no longer open to the public.

If Williamsburg, founded by the Rockefeller family and the country's largest living history museum, can't hold on to one of its signature properties, that doesn't bode well for mere ex-mortals. Indeed, The Times noted, such properties as Robert E. Lee's boyhood home in Alexandria, Va., and a half-dozen buildings owned by the renowned Winterthur Museum, the former duPont estate in Odessa, Del., are back in private hands.

This tells us is that every historic home or mill can't be a museum; the money, interest and programming just aren't there. Some historic homes are best preserved as private residences (same with factories, such as the Colt Armories).

Also, the General Assembly isn't likely to be driving around in a firetruck filled with money, solving every crisis with a grant. If they are to stay open, historic houses and museums have to step back and see how they connect to their communities, what their niche is, how they can use the Internet, how they can make themselves more relevant and interesting.

Some are doing this. For example, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is focused on programming around reading, women's issues and slavery, as befits its namesake.

The Old State House is a special case. It is Connecticut's most important historic public building, the epicenter of city and state history. It was the Capitol until 1878, and thus saw the anti-war Hartford Convention of 1814, the Constitutional Convention that disestablished the Congregational Church in 1818 and the beginning of the Amistad trial in 1839.

In addition, the building is a rare and handsome 18th-century icon. When Emily Holcombe argued to save it in 1911, it was mostly on aesthetic grounds. It's also the focal point of downtown Hartford. It's unimaginable that visitors to the city would walk by and see this building boarded up. In short, as has been affirmed over the past century, it must be saved. The harder part has been to decide what to do with it.

After it was saved in 1975, a nonprofit was set up with Bill Faude at the helm. He did some wonderful things, including a four-year renovation of the building in the 1990s. Faude was a showman and employed everything from cannons to puppet shows to get people in the door. But money became an issue, and the board decided to make a change. At the request of Gov. John Rowland, the historical society took over the building in 2003.

The historical society has done everything it contracted to do, and then some. After extensive audience research, society executive director Kate Steinway developed a stellar exhibit, "History Is All Around Us," focused on Hartford and an education center named for Emily S.G. Holcombe. But the rub is that the society doesn't have the money to market the exhibit.

The 2003 transfer of control agreement envisioned guaranteed support from the city or state. The city has cut its support. The state is the realistic option. What the Connecticut Historical Society would like is for the city to convey the building to the state, which would take over building maintenance and related operations. This would save the historical society about $250,000 a year.

The historical society would then like to run the educational and community programs - though the state conceivably could contract with someone else. This would be covered by a line item of about $350,000. Society officials project this number decreasing somewhat as earned income increases. They have increased rentals of the building for such things as weddings and corporate functions.

That's important. The legislature should support its historic capitol building, as most state legislatures do. The amount of money is not outlandish. But the historical society should continue to bring the building into play, to get people used to using it.

It's the city parlor. In addition to its important historical function it ought to be the site of political events, corporate soirees and educational functions.

Since the Connecticut Historical Society got people talking about the building, I've heard all kinds of ideas. Someone suggested it be used for high school and college debates, or that it display a collection of women's basketball memorabilia during the Big East and NCAA tournaments. (Someone even suggested it become a restaurant -The Old Steak House? - but nix on that.) Legislators are talking about moving some state business back to their ancestral home. The point is to use it for the public good. That's what it was built for.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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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