Hartford's efforts to embrace its storied past and present it to the world advanced considerably this month, to wit:
•The city finished the first phase of a major restoration of Old North Cemetery, which some, such as historian William Hosley, consider the city's most important historic site. The 17-acre site was the city's cemetery of choice in the first half of the 19th century, and is the final resting place of numerous luminaries — the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the Rev. Horace Bushnell, governors, mayors, even Nathan Hale's fiancée.
The cemetery was overgrown and ignored for years, but thanks to its Friends group and others, along with city officials, it's come back to life, and can join the Ancient Burying Ground and Cedar Hill in the first tier of historic cemeteries in New England.
• The nomination of the Harriet Beecher Stowe House for national historic landmark status cleared its biggest hurdle last week when the Landmarks Committee of the National Parks System Advisory Board voted unanimously in favor of the designation. It now goes for full board approval and then to the secretary of the interior for final action.
Landmark status for the Stowe house is long overdue. Mrs. Stowe, whose seminal "Uncle Tom's Cabin" lit the fire of the antislavery movement, lived in Hartford for the last 23 years of her life and continued her work, leading the fight against polygamy, for example, believing it another form of slavery.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, which oversees the house, has been highly successful in connecting the author's work to present issues through a variety of programs. A national historic landmark designation can lead to grants, publicity, tax incentives and technical preservation assistance from the federal government.
• Congress has passed, and President Obama is expected to sign, a bill creating Mark Twain commemorative coins. These limited-circulation coins from the U.S. Mint usually are bought by collectors. The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford is one of four Twain-related nonprofits that will share the surcharge on the coins. Again, great promotion for a top-tier Hartford landmark.
Hopefully this will be prelude to Coltsville winning National Historic Park status in 2013 -- talk about long overdue. That welcome announcement will give the city a chance to become the national heritage tourism destination it ought to be. The attractions in the region make it very attractive to travelers interested in the nation's history.
How to get there?
Cities that do this well, such as Charleston and Savannah, aggressively market themselves as historic destinations, and have the tours, hotels and other amenities ready when tourists arrive.
They also keep preserving and restoring buildings, keep improving the product. For example, at the Savannah College of Art and Design it is possible for students to major in historic preservation. Since 1979 the school has bought dozens of historic buildings, taught students how to restore them and then put them back into service, a classic win-win.
Would this make sense in Hartford? Definitely. The city has a wonderful residential vernacular architectural style, the "perfect six" apartment house. These have been ignored for many years, but are very attractive and can be reduced from six units to two side-by-side town houses, for an owner and a renter. If Trinity, UConn or the University of Hartford were buying these, restoring them and turning them over, they might become a huge attraction for middle-class residents, would they not?
To date Hartford has done very little besides talk about heritage tourism. Housing advocate Greg Secord and community activist Lynn Ferrari, along with many Hartford history buffs, are spearheading an effort to form a Hartford Historical Society. Its purpose would be advocacy and marketing for the area's 30 or so heritage organizations, ultimately to have Hartford's history become an economic driver for the city.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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