I was a bit skeptical when the deal was announced back in 2000. University of Hartford president Walter Harrison was going to turn a former car dealership on Albany Avenue into a performing arts center, at a cost of about $20 million. Could he raise the money? Could the building be saved? Was this a good idea?
It's taken eight years, but the former Thomas Cadillac property at the corner of Albany and Westbourne Parkway is indeed becoming the Irma and Mort Handel Performing Arts Center (Mr. Handel of West Hartford is a former Coleco executive). It will open next summer and be ready for the fall semester.
I walked through it the other day with university executive vice president John Carson and architect Tyler Smith, who has designed the restoration. The building, built in 1929, has been taken down to its brick and concrete shell which, fortunately, is in good shape.
The main building is much, much bigger than it appears from the street. If you look up at the building from Albany Avenue, you see the main part of the structure, which used to be the showroom. That's what you were intended to look at.
But behind the showroom, heading north toward Granby Street, is a series of connecting buildings, originally built with slanting floors so cars could be moved through various stations of maintenance and final assembly in the early days.
Taken together, the main complex has 51,000 square feet, enough for theaters, classrooms and five dance studios, along with some small retail shops, such a coffee shop and a bank.
Seen in its structural underwear, the building is spare and utilitarian, with some understated design touches.
It might have been torn down, regardless, except Harrison knew of the architect.
The building was designed by Albert Kahn, who is well regarded for his commercial and industrial buildings, as well as an array of public buildings. The key is that many of them are in Michigan, including the milelong Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn. Kahn (no relation to architect Louis Kahn) designed several major buildings on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Before coming to the University of Hartford, Walt Harrison was a vice president of UM.
When told the Thomas Cadillac structure had been designed by Albert Kahn, Harrison responded: "You mean the Albert Kahn?" The building would be restored, not demolished.
The cost of the main building renovation and reconstruction is $21 million. There is a planned second phase, the restoration of two other buildings on the site, for $14 million.
The first owners picked this site in the 1920s because it had a commanding location. Location again will be key to the success of the university's project.
The performing arts center is as both an academic and a community venture. The university leaves its suburban-like setting and steps toward the city. The new building engages the Upper Albany and Blue Hills neighborhoods. It opens the door of possibility.
The new arts center is just east of the aging Westbrook Village housing project, which is at the end of its useful life and slated for some kind of reconstruction. If city officials see their way to rebuilding a mixed-use, mixed-income, university village development connected to the University of Hartford, it could be a major step forward for the school and the city.
In the other direction, heading east, the new arts center will be just a few blocks from the Artists Collective, presenting the opportunity of creating a jazz or arts district to complement the many small businesses along Albany Avenue.
Harrison has made many good decisions since coming to the university, not the least of which was to get his school involved in the Albany Avenue neighborhood. The business incubator program, in which undergraduate and graduate business studuents work with Albany Avenue business owners, is a national model.
The opening of the performing arts center next summer is another step in a good direction.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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