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What Happens If City Leaves City Hall?

July 3, 2005

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 Atheneum.

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 Memorial building.

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, the Atheneum.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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