The new Hartford Public Safety complex on High Street in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood stands as a flag of optimism planted in a bleak landscape.
The 146,000-square-foot complex, which houses the headquarters of the city's police and fire departments, 911 and 311 dispatch, and assorted other public safety personnel and services, was more than a decade in the making. According to David Jepson of JCJ Architecture, the project's architect, finding the right site for a complicated building that serves some 600 people daily was a process in itself. A site near Park Street was considered, along with others. But the High Street site was the right move, urbanistically. In a neighborhood punched in the face by "urban renewal" more than 40 years ago, there are few "teeth" left. The new complex is physical evidence of what one hopes is the city's commitment to regenerate the neighborhood, enticing others to build there.
Architecturally, it is a solid start. The site is wedged between Walnut and High streets, with train tracks to the north. With the exception of the stately 1854 Isham-Terry House on the corner of Walnut and High, the only significant building on the site was the Second North District School, a Victorian mass of red brick and brownstone. The architects hoped to incorporate the 1891 school into the new complex by gutting the old building and preserving its exterior brick walls. But the building's derelict condition made it unstable, and a partial collapse of some of the walls set the project on another tack: the remainder of the exterior walls were demolished and a new building, replicating the exterior appearance of the old one, was constructed.
If you are a die-hard Modernist, this type of architecture might make your skin crawl. But to someone interested in retaining a sense of a place's history, even if it means losing the original and recreating it, this is a valid approach. The old school had an architectural character still found in the old brick buildings across the street and around the neighborhood the few that are left. The "new" school, which houses the fire department facilities, plays its part in preserving a quality of what the neighborhood's architectural character once was. It is a stand-in for history and it is well done, with durable brick and brownstone, incorporating some of the same brick details and patterning of the old school. As a bonus, the new school brought the old clock tower back to life; the original had lost its top years earlier.
The architects sensitively stepped the new portion of the building back from the recreated school, allowing three of its well-proportioned facades to be read from High Street. Stepping back the new wing (which houses police functions) creates a forecourt (used for visitor parking) and allows a visual connection between the school and the Isham-Terry House. This is another responsive design feature, as it gives the Italianate mansion its due, not upstaging it.
The main entrance to the complex is through this new wing, with its brick columns and shed roof (if you squint, the front of the new wing might remind you of the central facade of the old Hartford Times building), behind which is a dark glass curtain wall. This helps the new materials, such as the glass, to visually recede, and makes the brick all the more prominent the right move in a neighborhood noted for its use of brick. Inside is the only public space in the entire complex a soaring two-story lobby housing service desks for police and fire, a records office and a credit union. The interior is of substantial materials rough and smooth-surfaced concrete block, wood paneling, steel structure that are easy to maintain and communicate a sense of permanence. A large bulk of the building and a parking deck extend north toward the tracks, and are of light-colored brick to reduce their visual impact on the red-brick wings.
Is it too bad the old school couldn't be saved? Yes, it is. But the new building pays homage to the memory of an architectural past, and gives it center stage.
Essex architect Michael J. Crosbie is chairman of the University of Hartford Department of Architecture, and writes about architecture and design for The Courant.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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