The Urban Renewal-era design of Hartford's Constitution Plaza has been called many things since the 1960s, not all of them flattering.
The long-vacant building that was a 12-story hotel, known by several names, was recently listed on the State Register of Historic Places and appears to be headed for the national designation as well, clearing the way for the new owners to seek historic tax credits to help finance the hotel's conversion to 199 apartments
The redevelopment could begin as soon as this summer.
The designation may seem like a bit of stretch: architecturally, the waffle-like pattern on much of the exterior of the former Clarion hotel was fashioned by using pre-cast concrete panels bolted to concrete slabs.
Not very romantic and not necessarily the first building in Hartford you'd think of winning a listing on a historic register — but experts say the building is a strong example of the Modernist style in commercial architecture.
"It's not the Taj Mahal," said Jared Edwards, a Hartford architect and chairman of the Connecticut board that reviews national register nominations, "but it's an example of a successful commercial hotel project in the 1960s, using schemes in commercial vernacular architecture."
Edwards said the building "tells a lot about that period. It was really boiled down to plain colors, more or less smooth finishes, steel or metal window sashes and large panels of pre-cast concrete."
Edwards said the hotel also was technologically advanced for its day, with, for example, individual thermostats in each room — something hotel guests take for granted now.
"It's become so commonplace that we don't think about how it was once quite innovative," Edwards said.
A partnership of two New York developers plans a $20 million conversion of the hotel into 54 studios, 127 one-bedrooms and 18 two-bedroom units.
The hotel opened in 1964 to much fanfare under the name Hotel America and for years, the hotel's "Rib Room" restaurant was considered among the finest in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was known as Hotel Sonesta and the Summit Hotel and finally, in the 1990s, as the Clarion.
When it was purchased last year by Girona Ventures and Wonder Works Construction and Development Corp., it had been vacant for at least 15 years under the ownership of the Maharishi Global Development Fund. It had decayed into an eyesore at a critical gateway to the city across the Founders Bridge.
William Crosskey, of Crosskey Architects in Hartford, said the exterior will be largely preserved as it now appears, with the exception of some changes on the lower floors. Plans include removing a band of black paint that was later added around the top of the building — it looked "kind of goofy," Crosskey said — and the new windows will match the originals, except they will be better insulated.
The hotel's conversion comes as six of the buildings on Constitution Plaza are being put up for sale by co-owners GE Capital and Capital Properties of New York, which invested tens of millions in renovations. Those improvements helped boost occupany in the office towers and helped the plaza shake off some of its troubled past.
Constitution Plaza often has been cited as classic example of failed, 1960s Urban Renewal, in part because it displaced blocks of old retail and housing stock without generating as much activity as was lost. Some say the plaza did not work primarily because plans for housing there were scrapped and walkways to Main Street were never built. Those changes served to not only isolate the plaza, but give it a work-week-only environment.
Now the city hopes the addition of the apartments will spur activity seven-days-a-week.
Lucas Karmazinas, a Hartford preservation consultant who prepared the register nomination, said it is particularly notable that tax credits will be used to finance the redevelopment.
"There is a new enthusiasm for these buildings," Karmazinas said. "A lot of people look at Modernist buildings and see an ugly shell of concrete and steel. But they have their own significance."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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