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Preservation Fiasco: Smart Plan For Hartford Public Safety Complex Crumbles

William Hosley

May 09, 2010

The countdown to demolition ticks away for the Second North District School on High Street near downtown Hartford. It is bewildering how it came to this and what, if anything, will be learned if neighbors, preservationists, architects and those with an interest in putting Hartford's arts and heritage to good use shrug and chalk it up as another bad day for what used to be one of the most admired cities in America.

It is discouraging. The city finally decides to try an adaptive reuse using the school structure as the exterior of a new public safety complex instead of the usual default to demolition, and after 10 years of deliberations, gets started, blows it and then blames the bricks and mortar of a building built better, we can be sure, than what will replace it.

Removing the roof, gutting the interior (unnecessary) and then leaving inadequately supported free-standing exterior walls through the winter was begging for trouble. In a perfect world, the architects, engineers and planners involved would be prevented from even pretending to practice adaptive reuse until they demonstrate remorse and re-education.

We're not just talking about destroying what's left of an important landmark, but destroying a key gateway to the city and a potential catalyst for reconnecting north Hartford and Albany Avenue with the rest of downtown. How this was not obvious is hard to imagine.

Despite the fact that Second North is the centerpiece of a National Register district, this project was handled callously and with so little care it now seems like the preservation rhetoric was just a bluff aimed at softening the arrival of a gigantic new police and fire compound welcome as that, or any development there, should be.

A recent Hartford Preservation Commission hearing, while testy and recriminating, chose not to insist on a second opinion from independent engineers more competent to assess whether the shell of the building (still handsome and standing) is or is not too compromised to save. Either way, isn't it time to consider earmarking "1 percent for Heritage?"

Doing so could, among other things, underwrite a cultural resource development plan for the area; a master plan and some preliminary restoration for Old North Cemetery; help get the Isham-Terry House museum back up, running and connected; and provide some interpretive signage for treasures including the Keney Clock Tower, Union Baptist Church, Spring Grove Cemetery and Faith Congregational Church.

Better and more appropriate than the once-popular "1 percent for Art" program, heritage is all about connecting past, place and community, capitalizing on the special qualities of the affected locale and compensating, when damages are involved, for grandiosity and bad (or at least destructive) planning.

There have been so many instances of these massive, often publicly funded transportation or public works projects rampaging through neighborhoods and historic districts leaving devastation and chaos in their wake. There needs to be some form of restitution that acknowledges that whatever good may be gained comes at a cost that diminishes a public good of real importance.

An appeal has been made to the city council for a hearing to deny the application to reduce from 90 days to 30 the waiting period for a demolition permit. Second North does not need to be demolished.

But if it is, the council should at least reaffirm the Preservation Commission's oversight in determining what the new building will look like and ensure that some good comes of this by seriously considering this "1 percent for Heritage" provision. Seven hundred and seventy thousand dollars from a $77 million project budget would be an unprecedented investment in the character and resources of an important neighborhood that rarely gets more than crumbs and yet could be a key asset and inspiration.

It requires imagination to see how the intersection of Main and Albany was or could be a gateway. They certainly saw it a century ago. That's why so many significant buildings, institutions and amenities were clustered there. But it is not difficult to see that Second North is, even still, a thing of beauty that honored the students who learned there, honored the teachers who taught there, added grandeur and refinement to its neighborhood, and symbolized upward aspirations needed now more than ever.

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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