The recent conversion of a 1929 car dealership into a University of Hartford arts center is a promising and unusual step for Connecticut colleges and universities. While colleges across the country have embraced the idea of renovating and reusing historic structures in their communities, few of Connecticut's major academic institutions have a substantial rack record in what is called adaptive reuse.
The state school with the strongest history of adaptive reuse development is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but Rensselaer has done the bulk of its work in and around its main campus in Troy, N.Y., while its Hartford satellite campus is still a tired-looking, suburban-oriented enclave north of I-84 in the northern part of the city. Still, the institute's intensive, decade-long adaptive reuse effort in Troy is an example of what schools, including RPI, could do in Connecticut.
Since 1999, when Rensselaer started to improve town-gown relations with Troy, it embarked upon a dramatic community initiative that led to four major adaptive reuse projects and other works within the community. The institute started by moving its prominent Lighting Research Center out of the suburbs and into the historic Gurley Building in downtown Troy.
Today, the facility houses the research center and acoustic facilities for Rensselaer's School of Architecture.
Rensselaer later moved its financial and communication offices into the Rice and Hedley buildings, also downtown structures. Then came the restoration of West Hall (originally Troy Hospital) into the institute's new arts and music center.
Finally, Rensselaer converted a former public school next to the campus into Academy Hall, which now houses the institute's health center and additional programs.
Along with these projects, the institute also moved further into the surrounding neighborhoods by converting a series of urban structures near campus into new housing and amenities for the Rensselaer community, including the new Java++ coffee house. Plus, the institute is also converting downtown Troy's old Rensselaer Inn into the institute's first downtown dormitory.
The RPI projects have inspired two other downtown conversions: Troy's old Stanley department store into apartments and the historic Cannon Building into an extended-stay hotel.
Rensselaer is definitely not alone when it comes to using the historic fabric around its campus. The Rhode Island School of Design recently converted one of downtown Providence's historic bank buildings into the school's new central library and downtown dormitory. Duke University recently moved offices into the American Tobacco Co. Historic District, a massive adaptive reuse complex in downtown Durham, N.C.
Universities can be a vital tool in the restoration of cities. Rensselaer should be encouraged to continue its adaptive reuse strategies in Hartford, either downtown, at the Capewell building, or, better yet, the Colt Armory.
Samuel Colt wanted a technical school in the complex. Without one, United Technologies Corp., whose origins trace to two former Colt employees named Pratt and Whitney, asked Rensselaer to create a Hartford-area facility in 1955 to fulfill the company's work force needs. So a move by RPI to the Colt complex would be a perfect opportunity to synthesize Rensselaer's adaptive reuse policies and development interests with Hartford's employment needs and industrial heritage.
Nicholas Caruso is working on a master's degree in architecture at Yale University and is a summa cum laude graduate of Rensselaer.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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