As a child in the years before World War II, I'd visit my grandparents in southwest Hartford. The visits were weekly and mandatory. They lived in the blocks below the brownstone cliffs on which Trinity College looms. Those dozen blocks are Trinity's most identifiable border; the cliffs are the reason Hartford calls the neighborhood "Behind the Rocks."
I was probably 10 before I noticed that among the sturdy and ordinary two- and three-deckers crowding the blocks were some fancy houses, upscale, side-by-side duplexes that looked gloriously out of place. I was smitten with them.
It's now 70 years later and finally I know how they got there.
Bill Barrett, a resident who's owned his duplex half on the Allendale block for years, told me last year that he'd always heard an insurance company built them, but didn't know which one or whether the houses were for employees. An examination of contemporary newspaper accounts and the archives at Travelers answers those questions.
Architects call them Stockbroker Tudors, a fad in the 1920s meant to evoke British grandeur, even on the two-family level. Zion Street, opposite Trinity's south Summit Street entrance, has them with timbers and slate roofs still intact. But most of the others were more modest versions, without timbers, just with Tudor roof lines and unadorned facades.
The 12 blocks off Zion, mainly Italian in my childhood, are now robustly Hispanic. There are five small grocery stores in its three central blocks, and "we all manage to make a living," said Jose Rivera, who owns the Glorimar market at Bonner and Hillside, where he carries imported yams and yantia, among other vegetables, with signs in Spanish.
The front porches of the two- and three-family houses — open and beckoning when I was a kid — are now almost uniformly closed in by pale vinyl siding and windows. Tiny front yards have been divided by chain link fences. And whatever the benefit inside — perhaps year-round use, a feeling of safety — the look on the streets seems hard and hostile.
The two blocks with most of the duplexes remain strikingly different. Barrett jokes about his street's suburban-like name — Allendale Road — as though it's a stray from West Hartford. And after 90 years, it can still look suburban too, with shrubs, trees and impatiens blooming in September at Sandra Strogoff's, opposite Barrett's, where gardeners were reseeding his lawn.
The houses were built in 1920 and 1921. Barrett bought his from the son of the family who bought it in 1921, Merrill Nichols, a Travelers retiree who lives nearby at 5 Avery Heights. But Nichols' father was not a Travelers man, and the houses were not built for Travelers people.
They were built by Hartford Home Building Association, a group headed by Travelers treasurer L. Edmund Zacher, although Travelers archivists say it's unclear whether the group was a Travelers affiliate. The New York contractor who won the job of building what were to be 90 Stockbroker Tudors hired some 1,000 workers, bringing 400 from New York, building a barracks and a commissary for them. The project went into receivership in 1921 and was rescued by Travelers and three other insurance companies, Aetna, Phoenix and The Hartford.
That apparently was not held against Zacher; Travelers made him its president in 1929, two days before the stock market famously crashed, before it was clear, because of the crash, that Zacher as treasurer had saved Travelers just months before when he shifted all of its investments from stocks to U.S. government bonds. In 1940, Trinity gave Zacher an honorary master of arts, perhaps partly for his ambitions at Zion.
The streets around the Tudors have changed, but are still recognizable. Zion Street had a well-known Trinity haunt, the College View Tavern, and until three years ago, Timothy's Restaurant, with outdoor dining behind a screen of greenery. Now there's the white-tablecloth Trinity Restaurant, with gallery art on the walls and Albanian owners with a flair for Mediterranean food.
Trinity's size — a 100-acre campus with 2,200 undergraduates — made it unlikely its footprints would be all over the neighborhood. It doubled its student size but barely breached its boundaries. The college was insular in the old days, but its insularity ended after Hartford's sea change in the latter half of the last century.
Its role as neighborhood ally in the city's new order has been clear since the 1990s, when it led the drive that found the funds, friends and courage to build the much admired, multi-building Learning Corridor, sweeping away dilapidation and menace along Broad Street, on the east edge of its handsome campus.
Lorraine Hopkins was a reporter for The Courant and The Providence Journal. She lives in Rhode Island.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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