Call it what you will, but pilgrim's progress/Puritan austerity/Yankee practicality could be the death of New England history.
At Hartford Public High, the country's second-oldest public high school, the regional attitude of facing forward - with nary a glance at the past - has made creating the new school museum more than a small headache for archivist R.J. Luke Williams.
But not to worry. Williams, who taught history at the school for 35 years before his 2004 retirement, is tenacious, and he has the help of some dedicated alumni and donors.
The school opened in 1638; only boys were admitted, and generally those boys were heading for the ministry. The institution evolved into Hartford Grammar (the name for secondary schools at the time), and then Hartford Public High in the mid-1800s, when girls were finally admitted. Through the years, the school expanded and moved and eventually came to rest at Hopkins Street, in what historians say was one of Hartford's most beautiful buildings, near where Farmington Avenue and Broad Street now intersect.
In those halcyon days, Hartford High was more a college than a high school. The teachers were graduates of Columbia, Yale, Harvard. Even now, Williams will occasionally take a copy of the old student literary magazines home to read, they're that good.
The ornate building, designed by George Keller, the man behind the city's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, was torn down in the mid-1960s, when the East-West Highway (now I-84) was built through the campus. A few treasures, including a 2-foot-tall 1883 brownstone owl now in restoration, were rescued.
But a lot of stuff scattered - into closets, storage facilities and the like. A few items showed up at tag sales. An old class picture was pulled from a trash bin.
In the recently renovated circa-1963 campus on Forest Street, the museum and archives take up two rooms. Items include an old oak box of drawers that contains the names of every student enrolled between 1915 and 1980. (Williams says even if the student only attended classes for a day, the name is there.) Nearby sits a row of circa-1900 desks made of oak and wrought iron. The archives include boxes of stuffed birds, portraits of Mark Twain and school principals, a 1785 sermon and the 1837 report card of one G.F. Hale. There's a collection of signed portraits from every president (save Chester A. Arthur), starting with Rutherford B. Hayes; shelf after shelf of ornate trophies; and a plaster cast of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (though there's a shadowy fifth figure bringing up the rear).
There is also, as with any Connecticut museum worth its salt, an imposing piece of wood that is said to have come from the legendary Charter Oak.
By the time Williams began teaching at HPHS, students were rushing through the modern building, paying little attention to their school's history. When Williams' job was expanded to include honors history classes, he became enthralled with Hartford's past. He told students that every corner in the city has a story. In 1995, he began leading a committee to gather precious items back for a museum.
Modern life, he says, is so shallow. HPHS students walk the streets of Hartford; they should know the famous people who once lived here and how those famous people were often connected to their school.
The next step is to catalog some of the more obscure pieces - a wonderful, teachable moment for current students, some of whom are third-generation at the school, said Williams. He gets almost rapturous just talking about it. Think of the history they would learn. Think of the Hartford they would come to know.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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