For as long as I can remember, there has been the speculation
that when financier and Hartford native J.P. Morgan gave the
land on which to build the Municipal Building (City Hall) he
did so with a stipulation. That stipulation was understood
to be that if the city ceased to use the building as its center,
then the building and the land would revert to the Wadsworth
As is too often true with legends, some of the facts are correct,
but some are not.
Around 1900, at the encouragement of his cousin, the Rev. Francis
Goodwin, president of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Morgan acquired
the land south of the Atheneum to allow for the museum's expansion
and to protect the land from undesirable commercial development.
The land would later become the site of the Atheneum's Morgan
In the early 1900s, Hartford needed a new city hall. The Old
State House had served as city hall since 1878, but was unable
to accommodate the growing bureaucracy. The city wanted to build
a modern municipal building, one that would reflect city pride.
The favored site was beside the Wadsworth Atheneum. On Feb. 8,
1911, the city purchased land on the corner of Arch and Main
streets. The land to the north and east was owned by the Atheneum,
having been purchased by Morgan and given to the museum.
After the plans for the Atheneum's Morgan Memorial had been
set, a substantial parcel of land remained. It was suggested
that the eastern parcel on Prospect and Arch streets should join
the city's Main and Arch street land and be the site for the
city's new Municipal Building. The new Municipal Building was
built on the merged parcels of land. It was completed in 1915
and dedicated over three days, Nov. 4-6, of that year.
On June 29, 1911, Goodwin,
on behalf of the Atheneum's board, transferred to the city
the land south of the Morgan Memorial. The deed is clear on
the intent of the gift. It is to be used to create the street
some 60 feet wide just south of the museum. Known as Atheneum
Square South, it was later closed to create the Burr Mall.
For the balance of the land, the deed directed it must be used "for some worthy municipal building or for
a public square, at the discretion of said City, but for no other
use." They apparently called it the Municipal Building to
comply with the letter of the deed. What the deed does not have
is a reversal clause, namely if the city at some point did not
use the land as specified, it would revert to the previous owner,
So if the city does decide
to leave the Municipal Building, which celebrated its 90th
birthday this year, it is free to do so, but there is no provision
to have the Atheneum receive the building. By deed it must
remain a city building or become a public square, "but for no other use." If
the city leaves, it would probably fall to the attorney general
to review all uses for the site.
Wilson H. Faude is a historical consultant and director emeritus
of the Old State House.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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