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Episcopal Diocese Puts Hartford Headquarters On The Market

by Kenneth R. Gosselin

November 13, 2012

For more than a century, the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut has been headquartered in Hartford, the last six decades in a West End mansion that was a gift from the daughter of a wealthy local attorney.

But now, the diocese appears ready to break with Hartford.

The diocese listed the 25-room, mansion at 1335 Asylum Ave. for $749,900 last week, unable to secure city support for adding enclosed fire escapes and making the mansion more handicap accessible.

The diocese is actively looking for alternate locations in a more central area of the state.

The long-simmering, at times tense, behind-the-scenes discussions with the city spanned more than a decade. But resistance from city planning officials led the diocese to drop plans to formally seek approval from the city for the estimated $1.5 million project.

“What became the obstacle is that we would have to fight hard to get this,” said John W. Spaeth III, the recently retired diocesan canon for stewardship and administration, who headed up planning for the expansion. “You’d have to appeal it. You’d be in the courts. There were too many options than to spend our time battling that.”

The city, Spaeth said, objected to the construction because it would alter the footprint of the building that was already used for business in an area with residential zoning.

The push to modernize the 1913 mansion, built for Mabel Johnson, her sister and their widowed aunt, ebbed and flowed over years, sometimes going dormant for months at a time, Spaeth said. Progress moved “slowly, deliberately” as you’d expect for a church organization, he said.

City officials said Wednesday the discussions between the city and the diocese took place under the previous administration of former Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

Maribel La Luz, a spokeswoman for Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra, would not comment on the discussions, calling them “irrelevant” now that there is a new administration in city hall. She added that city officials are willing to reopen talks.

“If the Diocese is interested in pursuing the work, [we] would be more than willing to sit with them and try to find a solution that works and keeps them in Hartford,” La Luz said.

The diocese did not have an immediate response Wednesday.

The mansion is on a stretch of Asylum near the West Hartford line where there has been pressure by neighbors to return the area to strictly residential use.

Earlier this year, the Capitol Region Education Council wanted to build a permanent home for its Museum Academy on the former Hartford College for Women site just to the east. But the zone change needed for the proposal was opposed by the neighborhood, which feared further traffic congestion.

The plan was rejected by the city’s planning and zoning commission in April, and CREC decided to look elsewhere.

The West End Civic Association said that the church offices have been a good neighbor over the years. But the association did object to one renovation plan around 2008 that, in addition to safety upgrades, included an expansion of parking, one association official said.

“They were talking about more parking,” John Gale, the association’s point-person for zoning issues said. “That may have caused people to rightly assume there was going to be more traffic.”

Expanding the parking, Spaeth said, was subsequently dropped from the plans. The plans called for the fire escape towers to match the yellow brick and granite of the original structure and wouldn’t be visible from Asylum Avenue.

The roadblocks led the diocese last year to formally adopt a resolution to move the headquarters and consider a broader array of options, including a smaller, more centralized location for its 170 parishes in the state.

The house has been on the market for less than a week and has already attracted some lookers, said Paula Ostop, an agent with William Raveis in West Hartford, who has the listing.

Finding a buyer that wants to use the mansion as a single-family house could prove difficult given its size. The house also needs electrical and plumbing upgrades that were included in the expansion plans.

One possible alternative is dividing the mansion into condominiums, a strategy that was used to renovate the decaying Goodwin mansion just to the east on Asylum and across the street.

Tomas J. Nenortas, associate director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, said change would not bother the alliance, as long as the view from the street didn’t change.

“As long as you maintain the exterior facade and as much of the interior as possible,” Nenortas said.

The home is rendered in the Jacobethan Revival style with pitched roofs and stepped gables, but its front entrance portico is Georgian Revival. In their book, “Structures and Styles,” an architectural survey of Hartford buildings, authors Gregory Andrews and David Ransom speculated that the portico was a nod to many nearby Georgian homes.

Mabel Johnson, who never married, lived in the expansive home alone with a staff of servants for three decades, beginning in the early 1920s. She was a charter member of the Town and Country Club and was a trustee of the Bushnell Memorial. In 1952, at age 82, she donated the Asylum Avenue mansion to the church, moving to a smaller home on nearby Whitney Street, where she lived another nine years.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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