Architect Says Building Owner Seeks Role In Hartford's Revitalization
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
August 12, 2011
It's the forgotten gateway to downtown Hartford: the Whitehead Highway, a spur off I-91 that ends at Pulaski Circle at Bushnell Park.
But now, the new owner of 50 Elm St., a decaying, three-story building across the circle from the park, hopes to give new visibility to the area. That could tie into the iQuilt plan, a vision for a continuous walkway from the state Capitol to the Connecticut River.
The new owner plans a "small-plate" restaurant on the ground floor of the 11,000-square-foot, brick building that dates from the early 1900s and was part of a bustling block that was at the center of the city's carriage-making industry. In addition, there are plans for two "live-work" spaces on the upper floors, according to John Emerson Washington, an architect representing the owner.
Washington could not say the cost of the project because it was still out for bids. He declined to identify the owner, but he said his client wanted to take a role in Hartford's revitalization, since she has operated a business in the city for "a number of years."
City land records show the property was purchased out of foreclosure in December by Aneka Young of Avon for $131,000. Aneka and Judy Young own several McDonald's franchises in Hartford and the surrounding area, according to several sources. The Youngs didn't return a telephone call seeking comment.
Washington said his client intends to occupy one of the upper floors.
There are indications the renovation could spread. The longtime owner of neighboring 40 Elm says he has been approached by Young about selling his building, though he has yet to receive an offer.
Dennis Peabody, an artist who works with fused and stained glass, has owned 40 Elm -- originally a warehouse for storing carriages -- for 13 years, buying it out of foreclosure. Peabody's dream was to convert the building's first floor into a gallery for his work, including fused glass fashioned into jewelry, with a "live-work" space in the second-floor loft.
In 2006, Peabody had plans drawn up for two residential condominiums in the loft and two commercial condos on the ground floor. But then, as now, financing was a problem. Peabody said he made extensive repairs to the roof, but his budget is squeezed: Power has been cut off to the building and he's behind on his taxes.
"As much as I'd like to have a presence in Hartford like I've had for 30 years, this may not ultimately be the place to do it," Peabody said.
Washington, however, said his client has no interest in buying 40 Elm.
At 50 Elm, where some initial demolition work on the project began in July, state officials ordered work stopped because asbestos was found there after state regulators received a complaint. Washington said the owner is "taking every reasonable step to comply with regulatory requirements," and that the delay was done to test materials uncovered during demolition.
When it was built in the early 1900s, 50 Elm housed a business that specialized car-painting and trimming as well as upholstery. Next door, the warehouse at 40 Elm stood across the street from the Mansuy Carriage Manufactory.
The low-rise scale of buildings in that area of Elm Street, similar to Lewis Street, reflects Hartford of an earlier area, before downtown became dominated by modern office towers, said Tomas Nenortas, program director for the Hartford Preservation Alliance.
Elm and nearby Wells Street used to flank the Park River, which was buried in the early 1940s. The river is now under where the Whitehead Highway runs into Pulaski Circle.
The owner is seeking facade renovation grants from the city, Washington said.
"We'd love to see the buildings restored, Wells and Elm as real city streets" said Doug Suisman, a Hartford native whose California firm is leading the design for the iQuilt. "And we'd love to see Pulaski Circle as a vibrant urban intersection rather than a highway interchange."
The area near Elm Street is critical to the iQuilt vision. The plans call for extending Bushnell Park east to Main Street along a swath of land now dominated by Gold Street. That street would be relocated and, in its place, public gardens would be planted. In addition, greenhouses -- not just for growing plants, but to house restaurants and perhaps a banquet hall -- could be built.
The buildings at 50 and 40 Elm St. are just south of this area and are a logical extension, Suisman said, especially if the Elm Street properties are used for retaurants, retail or residences. And the area would link well to The Linden and the "SoDo" (south downtown) neighborhood.
"Having these buildings restored is a wonderful first step toward bringing the SoDo neighborhood right to the corner of the park," Suisman said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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