University of Hartford President Walter Harrison picked an apt literary reference when he likened himself to Don Quixote during the naming ceremony and construction kickoff for the Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center Monday.
The $21 million first phase of the center, a vision that took eight years to be realized, will occupy a renovated former auto distributorship on Albany Avenue and Westbourne Parkway. It doesn't look like much now. Only someone with the imagination of Cervantes' famous knight could see a state-of-the-art music, theater and dance venue in the crumbling brick structure with more broken windows than intact ones. Only Don Quixote could hear voices singing inside, students practicing and classes being conducted where oil changes and air hammers once reigned.
But through Mr. Harrison's leadership, the support of federal, state and city dollars, private donations and a coordinated community effort, this dream is no illusion. If all goes according to plan, the main building will open as a performing arts center in about 14 months. Much of the remediation work on the 7-acre brownfields site is done. The cavernous interior of the landmark designed in 1929 by industrial architect Albert Kahn is waiting to be outfitted with black box theaters, dance studios, theater studios, classrooms, faculty offices and space for community functions.
This facility is important to The Hartt School, the university's acclaimed conservatory. But it is equally vital to the economic development of the Blue Hills and Upper Albany neighborhoods. The center will anchor the revitalization of the district and complement the vibrant Artists Collective at Albany and Woodland streets, already a first-rate jazz venue and educational resource. It should bring more foot traffic to neighborhood shops and restaurants. Ideally, it will lead to transformation of the aging Westbrook Village housing project nearby into a mixed-use village.
The project, notes Gov. M. Jodi Rell, is a prime example of responsible growth because it "uses what we've got and makes it work."
The Handels of West Hartford are the largest individual donors, giving $1.5 million to the project. Their generosity is consistent with their commitment to The Hartt School and to the cultural life of the region.
This is a regional asset that combines the best aspects of public policy, private initiative and creative imagination. To extend Mr. Harrison's metaphor, it can be compared to Dulcinea de Tobosa, the illusory object of Don Quixote's passionate devotion. Except that it is beautifully real.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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