Historic Building In Downtown Hartford Gets A Face Lift
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN | Courant Staff Writer
July 15, 2008
A century ago, a rather plain brick storefront at the corner of Asylum and Trumbull streets in downtown Hartford was dressed up with a decorative, two-story, cast-iron storefront.
The improvement, made in 1896, opened up broad display windows and let sunlight flood into the retail space that was occupied for decades by clothier Stackpole, Moore & Tryon.
Now the historic building, owned by the same family since it was built in 1850s and passed down through seven generations, is recapturing some of that old magic.
The Seymour family and its new tenant, Sovereign Bank, are finishing up a $4.6 million renovation of the four-story building at 115 Asylum St. that is at the center of what many consider to be the heart of downtown.
"When Stackpole left in 1989, we thought we were going to do what we're doing now," said family member Jonathan Seymour. "But then we had the [real estate] crash in the Hartford area and everything was put on hold."
The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been owned by a member of the Allyn family since 1855, when it was built and belonged to Timothy Allyn, a prominent city landowner who served as mayor. Jonathan Seymour's grandmother was an Allyn.
Timothy Allyn also was the proprietor of the Allyn House hotel, which until 1960 stood where the XL Center now does, diagonally across the street from 115 Asylum.
The longtime stewardship of 115 Asylum by descendants of the Allyn family is unusual in itself, let alone in times when real estate investment trusts buy and sell properties to benefit investors.
"I can't think of any building in the city with that kind of family legacy," said Tomas Nenortas, historic resources adviser at the Hartford Preservation Alliance.
Nenortas said the kind of renovation pursued by the Seymours — preserving original exterior architecture but adapting the interiors for modern use — fits well with the alliance's goals.
"It's an iconic downtown building," Nenortas said. "It will be a grand statement having the building back to its full glory."
Vision for Revival
The structure is one of the few surviving buildings on Asylum Street from the horse and buggy days. Before Stackpole, it was home to another department store and once had a hat manufacturer as a fourth-floor tenant, possibly accounting for the fire escape that has been removed in the now nearly complete renovation.
The 18,000-square-foot building had been vacant for two years, its last major tenant being the Bar with No Name. The renovation has added new elevators, heating and cooling systems and staircases, including emergency exits to replace the old fire escape.
Key to renovating the building was finding a tenant such as Sovereign that would make a major investment in the property, Seymour said. Sovereign is leasing three floors — one for a street-level branch, already open, and two for lending and executive offices.
Seymour said one of the biggest renovation challenges, besides the building's age, was its interior stair and elevator design, tailored for a single tenant such as a store. As a bar, much of the upper-floor space went unused, so the bank was a better fit, Seymour said.
The new elevator system will also make it easier to access the as-yet-unleased fourth floor, Seymour said.
Sovereign is investing about $2.6 million in the interior renovations — about what it costs to build a free-standing branch from the ground up — and has signed a 20-year lease. The space will be in addition to offices Sovereign has in West Hartford and will mark the bank's return to a corporate office presence downtown.
The bank left downtown in 2003 to consolidate in West Hartford but later regretted not having a presence downtown other than two branches, said Kevin E. Flaherty, market president for Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
"After five years out, there was the feeling that we should be part of the capital city," Flaherty said.
The building also gave the bank a highly visible branch location, right across from the Hartford 21 apartment tower, and the opportunity to consolidate two less-visited branches elsewhere downtown, Flaherty said.
City officials praised the project because it didn't draw on public funds for financing, though Seymour said he is applying for state historic tax credits.
Construction began in September, and for weeks the building was wrapped because paint containing lead needed to be stripped from the bricks, sills and cast-iron front. The bricks were painted with a yellow that was in keeping with their original color, while the cast-iron front and sills were painted green.
Matt Durbois, project superintendent at The Master's Construction Corp. in Avon, which oversaw the renovations, said brownstone window sills and lintels were so eroded that each needed to be repaired.
The cast-iron front, made in a city foundry, includes broad arches with acanthus-decorated keystones on the second floor. Under each arch and across the bay of windows are leaded glass panels in an elegant heraldic motif. The second-floor arches are supported by pilasters, each with a bas-relief above it, such as a wheat sheaf, eagle and cross.
The renovation also paid homage to building's past in other ways, like not painting over the remnants of lettering that once advertised "Hatters."
The Seymours had the chance to sell, but decided it was more important to keep the building in the family.
"We hope we're restoring it so it can go on for a few more generations," Seymour said. "They say you should never fall in love with a building, but we have a bit of a love affair going on here."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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