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Debating The Future Of The Old State House In Hartford

ZEKE MILLER

July 04, 2009

HARTFORD - In 1814, a group of New England Federalist politicians, unhappy with the conduct of the War of 1812, met in the council chamber of the Old State House to discuss seceding from the Union.

History has brought resilient strength to the United States. But the 213-year-old downtown landmark has been plagued by financial uncertainty from its earliest days to this summer, as the state budget crisis leaves its immediate future uncertain.

Designed in the Federal style by American architect Charles Bulfinch, the brick and brownstone building was nearly left unfinished, after money raised for its construction ran out. The first state Capitol was eventually occupied in 1796, as a home for the legislative body that now runs it.

Last August, the General Assembly took control of the Old State House as part of a deal with the previous overseers, the Connecticut Historical Society and the city of Hartford, to provide needed funding.

The Old State House receives $600,000 a year in state money to keep the doors open and the building maintained. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has cut that money out of her proposed budget, just as the agency that runs the historic attraction is retooling its museum displays in hopes of luring more visitors.

It's too soon to know what will happen if Rell's cut prevails, legislative officials said. No one can say whether the building would close, or how its operation would be affected.

"We are waiting for the legislative leaders to decide what to do," said Dana Crompton, financial administrator at the Office of Legislative Management, the state agency now overseeing the Old State House. "We are not doing any 'what-ifs.'"

New Era, Old Woes

The Old State House is widely viewed as a state treasure of great value to downtown and the region, but it has never been able to fully support itself since its transition into a museum. Since 1975, private donations have made up only a small portion of the building's operating budget, with the majority coming from state and other grants.

"Most people thought the state owned it," said Robert M. DeCrescenzo, a Hartford attorney and former chairman of the Old State House Association. "In fact, now the state does own it. So what is the incentive for private donors to give?"

Entrance fees can't support operations, either. Since the General Assembly took control of the site, 15,000 people have visited the Old State House, paying up to $6 each. In 2007, the last year for which data were available, more than 33,000 people visited the Old State House.

The immediate budget crisis aside, this year's retooling is the beginning of a new era for the historic site, said William A. Bevacqua, the director of communications and marketing at CT-N, the state's public affairs TV network which, through a state grant, is now responsible for education and programming at the Old State House.

"We are starting to unveil new programs and hands-on interactive activities," he said. "The visitor's experience will take a quantum leap. This is a continuing process. We will not ever be in a position to rest on our laurels."

CT-N recently developed a new introductory video to the Old State House. Aimed at visiting schoolchildren, the video emphasizes civics and citizenship.

"What we are looking to do is draw on the time-honored strategy of history as allegory, and have history tell a story that has a present-day implication," Bevacqua said. "We want people to get excited about being part of a democratic system that solves problems for communities."

But the Old State House's renewal might have to wait. Its rooms and corridors are empty much of the time, as legislative leaders decide whether to even keep the site open.

Cannon Fire

From the moment the city of Hartford moved out of the Old State House to occupy the new municipal building down Main Street in 1915, the question of who would control the historic site was hotly contested. But the Old State House was never in as much jeopardy as in the summer of 1975, when the city cut its funding and nearly razed the site to build a parking lot.

Wilson H. Faude, who managed the Old State House and its programming for 20 years, recalled that a group of private donors, led by Elizabeth Capen, raised the $80,000 needed to keep the doors open. The Old State House Association took over the day-to-day operations of the site.

DeCrescenzo, the chairman during the 1990s, said that it was under the leadership of the association that the Old State House was at its most creative.

HARTFORD - "Bill [Faude] always kept it interesting," he said. "The interpreters and the re-enactments made history come alive."

Central to the Old State House's identity was the cannon, just outside building, which was fired at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily.

"The reason the Old State House had a cannon was to make sure everybody didn't forget us," said Faude, whose showmanship has been compared to that of another Old State House occupant, P.T. Barnum. "We drove a lot of people nuts but that was the point. We made the Old State House relevant again."

During his tenure, Faude also collected a "tax" of $10 to $20 a year from any office with a window overlooking the landmark, using money from people who benefited from it as a way to help defray costs.

The cannon was sold several years ago by the historical society.

Now, Faude said, as dire as the building's finances are, he's more concerned about public apathy toward the landmark.

"Like in 1975, the Old State House really needs people to stand up and say, 'That is the place Connecticut was founded,'" he said. "We are about to come up on the 375th anniversary of the founding of Connecticut, and do we want to mark it with controversy over our most important building?"

Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the governor's budget and policy office, agreed that the Old State House is something that must be preserved and maintained, but questioned whether the state can afford to do so as it faces a deficit of nearly $9 billion over two years.

"We are asking to suspend funding for two years, as part of the overall savings we are trying to achieve," Beckham said. "Compared to all of the other services that the state provides, this doesn't stack up very well."

The issue doesn't rise to the forefront with state Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, whose mostly North End district also includes downtown.

"I haven't heard anything about it from anyone," she said. But she added, "I don't think it is going to close."

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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