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Amid Conversion, History Pops Out

July 11, 2006
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer

For years, the American Airlines building in Hartford - across from Sage-Allen and The Richardson - stood as a monument to the drab façade makeovers of the 1970s, all brown brick and aluminum panels.

But now, as 915 Main St. is being converted into condominiums, the developer is unearthing pieces of the structure's art deco architectural past behind those bland-looking panels.

The developer, David Nyberg, already has revised his plans once to include a decorative cornice once hidden under a row of panels. Now workers yanking off panels under windows recently revealed sunbursts, geometric patterns and other flourishes dating from the 1920s.

The discovery places Nyberg in a predicament. He never intended to remove all of the brick and restore the façade of the former department store building. Instead, his plans call for working with the brick, adding more attractive windows and lighting and making it look less institutional.

And although preservationists see the merit in incorporating bits and pieces as a nod to a building's architectural past, Nyberg's manager on the project says it isn't as easy as it sounds. It's also bound to push up the costs.

"We're going to get all the panels off and take a look," said Daniel Sullivan, Nyberg's project manager.

Much may depend on the condition of the elements and whether they can be combined aesthetically with the brick that will continue to dominate the façade.

City officials lent some early support to the possibility.

"To the extent that they can save some of that artifice," said John Palmieri, director of development services for the city, "we would absolutely work with them."

He added: "Even if it took a little longer."

Nyberg originally intended to convert the building for office space after buying it from the city in 2004 for $1.4 million. He later decided that condos and street-level retail would be more feasible, given the boom in residential construction downtown.

He was granted a six-month extension earlier this year, and Sullivan expects the project to be complete in a year. A change in façade design now would mean more reviews by the city.

There are other examples in downtown Hartford where architecture from the past has been preserved in the midst of modern renovations.

Right across the street, the elegant Sage-Allen department store façade, dating from the 1890s with its Classical Renaissance Revival details rendered in terra cotta, is now the centerpiece of a massive $44 million retail and housing project on the site.

But the American Airlines project would be different from Sage-Allen in that it would need to combine myriad smaller, window elements into the cohesive whole.

"If there is a pattern that works, we'd like to salvage it," said Matthew Koenig, a principle in J.K. Roller, the architectural firm designing the project.

But Koenig said he's concerned about the condition of the window elements, which run horizontally at intervals across the stories. He noted that the cornice had been damaged in the 1970s makeover.

The building once had a prominent place in Main Street's long-gone department store shopping district. It was home for decades to the Wise Smith & Co. department store, and later discounter E.J. Korvette.

From the mid-1970s until 2001, the Eastern reservation center of American Airlines occupied the building - hence its popular name.

Ironically, the details now being uncovered at 915 Main - formally known as One American Plaza - are evidence of another façade makeover that covered the original building, which dated from the late 1890s.

Laura Knott Twine, executive director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, said that shouldn't make a difference because they reflect how the building appeared for most of its century-plus existence.

"There's value in saving that," Knott Twine said. "Let's hope they get excited about it."

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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