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Foot Guard Hall An Underused Asset Red Brick Hartford Armory Once A Thriving Social Venue

May 22, 2005

It is the Greta Garbo of Hartford buildings. A century ago it was the center of the city's social life, "the Bushnell before there was a Bushnell," but in recent decades it's become something of a recluse. A million people have seen it, but few have been inside to be properly introduced.

I speak of Foot Guard Hall, the red brick, Romanesque Revival structure on High Street next to a highway exit.

In more than 30 years in Hartford I'd been in the building just once, because the Foot Guard graciously allowed my church to hold a fundraiser there.

But a few weeks ago, I ran into Lt. Col. Robert A. Burnham of the First Company, Governor's Foot Guard, who invited me over. It turns out they'd like to get more people in the building, and would like to have some of them enlist.

The building was constructed in 1888, and is interesting for its style and its location. If you can imagine the city in the late 19th century, long before I-84 cut it in half, High Street led to the fashionable North End. The building would have saluted the State Capitol, from which it is now obscured, and the Cheney Block on Main Street, which then had a pyramidal tower much like the one on Foot Guard Hall.

The hall is technically an armory, built for a military organization. Its main space is a large open room known as a drill shed, surrounded by a second-floor balcony. The roof is supported by a series of cables and turnbuckles, one of few such support systems left anywhere. Hanging from the balcony are flags from all the French Army units that accompanied Comte de Rochambeau when he arrived in Hartford in 1780 to meet with Gen. George Washington. The Foot Guard escorted the generals.

The Foot Guard's First Company was founded in 1771 to escort the Colonial governor on Election Day, apparently a raucous holiday in the Colonial era (the Second Company was formed in New Haven in 1775). The First Company can boast of being the country's oldest military organization still in continuous existence, sort of the martial equivalent of The Courant.

The red-coated Foot Guard, as well as the Horse Guard, are the state's ceremonial units. The Foot Guard escorts the governor and runs the inaugural balls, escorts dignitaries, marches in parades and takes part in all manner of civic events.

On the facing of the balcony are wooden plaques recalling some of the events in which the Foot Guard has taken part. Units escorted Lafayette and Marshall Foch, marched at the dedication of the Washington Monument and took part in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's funeral. In 1926 they traveled to Europe, where they were reviewed by the president of France and the king of Belgium.

Around and under the drill shed are an array of offices, lounges, a band room and storage rooms. The building had a rifle range - for whatever reason - but Burnham closed it. In its place, Maj. Loren Schave, a retired West Hartford history teacher, has created a Foot Guard museum.

The small museum is well worth a visit. I didn't know, for example, that Heublein Bros. pre-mixed cocktail business came about because the company had whipped up batches of martinis and Manhattans for the 1892 Foot Guard picnic, then had to do something with them when the picnic was twice rained out. The Foot Guard had a Civil War Medal of Honor winner and a former Confederate soldier.

Foot Guard Hall was the city's major entertainment venue a century ago, and was well used into the 20th century. John Phillip Souza and his band played there, as did Benny Goodman and his quartet. Willie Pep fought there, and Willie didn't need a band.

But in the past few decades, with so many new venues in town, the old hall became an afterthought.

The Foot Guard no longer rents it out, Burnham said, because of wear and tear on the building. But it has allowed neighboring organizations such as The House of Bread and St. Patrick St. Anthony Church to have fundraisers there.

It would be nice to get more people in, an idea the Foot Guard welcomes because the company needs more men and women. Membership in the Foot Guard was once a matter of status, with the troop headed by scions of the best families; Wadsworth, Cheney, Barbour, Putnam and others. But, as with most service organizations in our era of bowling alone, the numbers are off. There are about 110 members now, down from a high of nearly 200. "We could use 40 more people," Burnham said.

Burnham said people can visit during Monday night drills from 7 to 9 p.m., and tours can be arranged by calling 860-522-1337. The Foot Guard should also consider joining other downtown museums as well as the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Have limited visiting hours, take part in downtown celebrations, have a few more meetings or events in the building. It's a living connection to history, a great place with a great story to tell.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at condon@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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