Historic, Neglected Hartford House Getting New Life
Gosselin, Kenneth R.
September 15, 2013
The history of the oldest house in Hartford's West End is all about the extreme makeover.
First, the Elisha Wadsworth House, built in 1828, was an inn facing Albany Avenue. Then, in the early 1900s, it was turned to face Prospect Avenue and converted into a house. A front veranda and rear ell were demolished, and a new addition and third-story dormers were added, along with modern heating and plumbing.
Now, a builder is completely redrawing the interior for what a 2013 buyer might want.
"When we started this, people thought we were crazy," said Frank J. Cotrona, owner of Cameo Builders in Wallingford.
Understandably so. The house, for all its longevity and for its standing in a national historic district, had suffered through two renovation attempts since 2006. Then, a burst water pipe one winter destroyed most of the woodwork, much of it dating to the original construction. The yard, overgrown with weeds, became an eyesore on a prominent corner, a quarter of a mile from the governor's mansion. Local preservationists worried about demolition by neglect.
The Federal-style house was headed to foreclosure this spring when Cotrona and the mortgage holder, Rehab Cash Now, struck a deal to transfer the property to Cotrona for $150,000, according to city records.
The project represents a gamble for Cotrona. There are the challenges of dealing with the unexpected in an old house, but also competition from at least a half-dozen other houses now on the market in the upscale neighborhood around Prospect Avenue, Scarborough Street and Terry Road.
And recovery in the million-dollar-plus market from the housing downturn remains slow. Cotrona is asking $1.4 million.
Historic district guidelines require that the exterior of the Wadsworth House retain its original appearance. So Cotrona is repairing and cleaning the brick, replacing the slate roof, laying down period-appropriate copper flashing and installing 12-over-12 true, divided light windows.
But that is where the restoration ends. Step inside, and there's an empty shell that might as well be new construction. The 5,000-square-foot structure will have amenities that the Wadsworth family would never have thought of, including an open-concept kitchen with great room and a master bedroom suite with walk-in closet.
To do this, original walls had to come down. The formal living room, for instance, was fashioned from two smaller rooms. A brick wall in the kitchen was knocked down to form an expansive space for the kitchen, great room, breakfast nook and formal dining room.
Instead of bristling, local preservationists praised the meeting of a historic exterior with 21st-century interiors.
"There are iconic properties that have historic fabric inside, but that wasn't the case here," said Frank Hagaman, executive director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, referring to the lost woodwork and other architectural details. "Because of water damage and mold, much of the original fabric had to be removed. The property appeared to be on a swift decline."
All this will take money, and Cotrona said the construction costs are expected to be about $1 million. The makeover is being financed partly by Rehab Cash Now, part of South Windsor-based Entertainment Financial, the lending arm of TicketNetwork, founded by Donald Vaccaro, and equity from Cameo, a division of FJC Construction LLC.
Rooms are now carved out with structural studs, and Cotrona hopes to find a buyer early on so the spaces can be specifically customized for the new owner's tastes and needs.
"The governor comes by here a lot," Cotrona said. "His end down there looks great. This end looks so bad, but it's starting to come back."
A HOUSE WITH HISTORY
The Wadsworth House already had stood for nearly a century on the southeast corner of Albany Avenue and Prospect Street when it was turned 90 degrees to face Prospect.
The house had been in the Wadsworth family for four generations and was operated as a popular inn and tavern. Accounts differ on how long the business operated. One architectural history says the inn and tavern was open until 1862. But newspaper articles from the early 1900s mention the tavern as still operating, at one point referring to it as a "road house."
Until the 1870s, the tavern was actually in West Hartford, until Hartford and its neighboring town resolved a border dispute.
One of the last owners from the family was Dan Wadsworth, a direct descendant of William Wadsworth, a founder of Hartford, and Capt. Joseph Wadsworth, credited with the hiding the state's charter from the British in the Charter Oak.
A known character in Hartford, Dan Wadsworth tipped the scales at 400 pounds and was president of the Connecticut Fat Men's Association, which held annual meetings at Lake Compounce. Once, when Wadsworth was arrested for selling liquor without a license, he couldn't fit through a cell door. He died in 1910 of a heart attack, and his obituary in The Courant proclaimed him "the heaviest man in Connecticut."
When Dan Wadsworth's heirs sold the property in 1916, the surrounding area was mostly farmland. The neighborhood known as the "hill" was targeted for development into a "fashionable residential district," according to a 1917 article in The Courant.
The Wadsworth House was moved so that other houses could more easily be built in the neighboring area. The house was preserved because of its historic nature, architecture and the prominence of the Wadsworth family in the city, the article said.
In the move, the house got a new foundation and its tin roof was replaced by slate. "The bricks are in good condition and have not been touched," according to the article. "The timbers are of old oak and are sturdy as ever."
Inside, "The living room and the other rooms on the first floor have all been made over in the modern way," the article reported. "Upstairs there are nine sleeping rooms and four baths."
A SAFE IN THE BASEMENT
The Wadsworth House was owned for three decades, beginning in 1976, by Allyn A. Martin, a dentist and Hartford's first black deputy mayor, and his wife, Ionis, a local artist and teacher who helped found The Artists' Collective.
The interior retained much of its original millwork and panel molding, seven fireplaces, decorative columns and numerous sets of French doors, seen in photos from when the house was sold in 2006 and based on the recollections of neighbors.
Although not much was left inside the house when Cotrona took it over, workers discovered a massive, cast-iron safe in the basement, which is likely to have dated from the house's days as an inn.
Cotrona couldn't open it, so he brought in a lock expert and waited with anticipation worthy of Geraldo Rivera's opening in 1986 of Al Capone's secret vault. The result, however, was the same.
"There was nothing in it," Cotrona said.
Still, Cotrona is having the safe restored, and it will remain in the basement, near a planned wine cellar.
In the attic, construction workers made an odd discovery: a table with two halves of coconut, a candlestick with a half-burned candle, a book rest and a bucket on the floor.
A visitor raises his eyebrows. Cotrona waves away the suggestion of bad karma.
"Probably a place for the college kids that used to rent here," Cotrona said.
Neighbors had worried about the deepening disrepair of the house after Ionis Martin sold the property.
"I was sure it was going to be let go, be demolished and two McMansions would be put up," said Gary Knoble, a retired executive from The Hartford Financial Group. "It was heartbreaking to see it."
Knoble said he has lived diagonally across Albany Avenue from the house since 1976. The neighbors increasingly became concerned about the house's appearance and the affect on property values. They were relieved when Cotrona began work in June, Knoble said, and he has visited the property several times since, following the progress.
"It has been here for 200 years," Knoble said. "And now what they are doing, it will be here for another 100 years."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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