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Trinity's Monumental Cornerstone

November 13, 2005

The Long Walk building along the western edge of the Trinity College campus has been, since its construction in the 1870s, the public face of the school, and it is now undergoing a face lift. Actually, it's more like a "forehead" lift.

Routine maintenance on the roof of Long Walk revealed water damage and deterioration, according to Sally Katz, Trinity's director of facilities. Similar problems were found in some of the dormers that line the roof like so many doghouses. Before anything let go, Trinity erected chain-link fencing to keep people away from Long Walk's high Victorian, Collegiate Gothic stone facades. The fencing creates a new traffic pattern has been dubbed by one of Trinity's deans as the "wrong walk."

Repairs are beginning, and Katz estimates the work will take about two years, during which the building will be covered with scaffolding.

For the Trinity community, this is a little like going to Paris to see Notre Dame and finding it covered with scaffolds and tarps. Students will not only be put out by the new routing, they'll also lose sight of a familiar face on campus. Long Walk is Trinity's very identity in slate and stone - the building that signifies the college in ways that are unique to the institution. Indeed, Long Walk is a landmark in the history of college architecture.

At more than 900 feet long, it might be hard to believe that the building is only a fraction of what Trinity intended to build as its new home. When the college sold its land to the state and moved from the site of the future Capitol in 1872, it embarked on a radically ambitious plan to build the latest in academic facilities.

Trinity's visionary president, the Rev. Abner Jackson, visited England in the early 1870s to tour its great colleges and engaged the British architect William Burges to design the new Trinity. Burges never visited Hartford but relied on descriptions of the site. He came up with something that had never before been seen on a U.S. campus - a colossal complex of quadrangles, classroom buildings, dormitories, faculty offices, auditoriums and a host of other features.

According to Trinity special collections librarian and archivist Peter Knapp, four quads were to stretch north from New Britain Avenue to Vernon Street in an unbroken phalanx, contained by walls with towers and turrets and arched openings. This was Jackson and Burges' vision for a college that, at the time, had about 100 students and fewer than a dozen faculty members. That's thinking big.

The impact of the design on college planning in the United States was profound. According to Paul Venable Turner, an historian of academic architecture, Burges' plan went on to influence the design of other campuses, such as Stanford and the University of Chicago. One of the greatest architecture critics of the late 19th century, Montgomery Schuyler, described Burges' design for the Trinity campus as "the most impressive embodiment in the Western world of the spirit and the charm of Oxford."

But the entire plan would not be realized in Hartford. Before construction could begin, Jackson died and the trustees realized that Trinity's pocketbook could not match its ambitions. The project was scaled back, and it was decided that just one part of Burges' design - part of its western leg - would be constructed, and this is the Long Walk that we know today. The great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted provided guidance to Trinity. Francis Kimball, the Hartford architect chosen to revise the design and execute it, sited the building on a ridge, overlooking the terrain as it sloped to the east. According to Knapp, Kimball had spent a year in Burges' studio in England, soaking up his sense of Victorian style.

Long Walk opened for classes in 1878, and stands as one of the finest early Collegiate Gothic buildings in America, with its ornately carved ornaments, pointed archways, contrasting materials of limestone and brownstone, leaded glass windows and exuberant orange glazed tiles that line its rooftops.

And Long Walk got longer. In 1883, Northam Towers were completed, and after World War I, the Williams Memorial wing was constructed to the east, drawing on the original building for design inspiration. At the other end of Long Walk, heading east from Seabury Hall, Cook, Hamlin, and Goodwin-Woodward halls were constructed, giving the quad a bit of enclosure.

For the time being, chain-link fences and covered walkways will be the mask behind which Long Walk, the soul of Trinity, slumbers during its much-needed rejuvenation.

Michael J. Crosbie is an architect who lives in Essex. He is a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

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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