Flowers are Blooming!

Summer is right around the corner – the weather is getting warmer, the grass has turned a brighter green, and flowers are popping up in gardens all over the state! Perhaps one of the most amazing Connecticut gardens to view at this time of year is the Rose Garden at Elizabeth Park (Hartford, CT). The garden was created in 1904 by Theodore Wirth and spans just over 2 acres of land, filled with approximately 800 different varieties of roses.  Continue reading

A Legacy in Steel: Billings & Spencer Co.

While it can be argued that these days Hartford is thought of as primarily a center of insurance and financial services, anyone driving through some of the neighborhoods just beyond downtown will be quick to note an impressive array of old industrial buildings. These brick and stone structures, some empty and unloved, others hosting a wide variety of modern dreams, offer very real clues to one of the city’s earlier incarnations—an industrial hub specializing in metal products. In addition to iconic Colt firearms manufactured at the complex along the Connecticut River in the city’s south end, there are other buildings just bursting with stories of technological innovation and daring, many of them strung along the Park River. Weed sewing machines, Underwood typewriters, and Pope’s Columbia bicycles (and later automobiles), are just a few of the products that come to mind. Close by stands the remains of yet another hometown industrial giant—Billings & Spencer. Continue reading

A behind the scenes tour

Aerial view of The Hartford's main building on Asylum Street in Hartford.

Aerial view of The Hartford’s main building on Asylum Street in Hartford.

On Tuesday a number of CHS staff had a cook’s tour of the archives of The Hartford, one of Connecticut’s premier insurance companies. I never realized that behind the imposing main building that is on Asylum Street, there is an entire campus of buildings and facilities. Continue reading

Pave Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot, or, You Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Of the many buildings that Hartford has lost to development since the mid-twentieth century, the one that seems to sting a little bit more than most of the others is the Hartford-Aetna Bank Building. When it was built in 1912, the 11-story building was Hartford’s tallest. In 1990, the building was slated for demolition by the Society of Savings, with a 45-story office tower to go up in its wake. Continue reading

Black Portraits of White Americans

This silhouette portrait of Joseph Morgan, the proprietor of Morgan’s Coffee House, an important gathering place for Hartford businessmen in the early 19th century, was cut by Peter Choice, an itinerant silhouette artist who was probably of African descent. Choice also cut portraits of Morgan’s wife and two young daughters.  Choice was a man of many talents: barber, hairdresser, dentist, maker of shoe polish, mender of razors and pen knifes, as well as an artist who made cut paper and painted portraits.  He also offered to teach gentlemen’s servants the art of cutting hair.  Besides this information, gleaned from advertisements in the Hartford Courant, little is known about Choice’s life.  He was clearly an artist of great skill, and would be an interesting subject for further research.  Additional silhouettes from the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society may be viewed in the CHS online catalog.

More Than One Man’s Story

As a museum curator I am of course interested in the big picture, the sweep of events that bear on us all to one extent or the other. But the stories of individuals also have an undeniable lure, because sometimes in the story of one person we can better understand some of the larger forces at work. Continue reading

Before Black Friday…there was G. Fox


For decades now, the day after Thanksgiving has been referred to by many as “Black Friday”, the first day of the holiday shopping season. It’s a day of transition from a season of autumn and Thanksgiving to a season of holiday shopping and festivities; a day of drastic sales, crowds and madness at retail stores. As with many aspects of history common folklore often dictates people’s beliefs, falsely.  So, what is the history of “Black Friday”? What does it mean? Where did it come from? How long has it been around and what on earth was it like before “Black Friday”? Continue reading

Beyond the Nutcracker in Hartford

2001_75 dracula‘Tis the season for theatrical performances, and almost nothing has become more synonymous with this time of year than the Nutcracker. Yet despite the Nutcracker’s popularity, there have been numerous other showcases in Hartford over the years, which may not be as popular, but still maintain a place in history. Continue reading

Monument to Progress

East-West Highway Interchange Spanning Capitol Avenue just west of Arrow-Hart Electric.  Drawing by Richard Wellilng, December 8, 1966.  The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5664

East-West Highway Interchange Spanning Capitol Avenue just west of Arrow-Hart Electric. Drawing by Richard Wellilng, December 8, 1966. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5664

Richard Welling had a way of coming up with perspectives that make us see familiar subjects in a new light. In this view of the construction of Interstate 84 in 1966, the piers that will support the highway loom like ancient monoliths, like the remains of a lost culture. What might future civilizations make of us if they someday unearth the ruins of our interstate highway system? The Eisenhower Interstate System was conceived as a defense network to help move troops and supplies in case of a national emergency. In fact, the interstates had an immediate impact on ordinary people’s lives, cutting off inner cities from their surroundings and obliterating whole neighborhoods, in Hartford and in other cities across the nation. The interstate highway system also contributed to the decline of the railroads as a means of moving people and goods. Trucks had already begun to take the place of freight trains and private automobiles had begun to take the place of passenger trains; the interstate highway system speeded up the process, enabling people to move farther faster than ever before. This not only meant that individuals could travel farther seeking pleasure. They could also live farther than ever from their place of business, depending on the interstate highways for a quick commute. The looming monoliths in Richard Welling’s drawing of I-84 represent a new way of coming into a city that was already undergoing massive changes, precipitating further changes that would affect everyone in and around it.

This drawing of “East-West Highway Interchange Spanning Capitol Avenue just west of Arrow-Hart Electric” is part of a huge gift of drawings, prints, and artifacts donated to the Connecticut Historical Society in 2012 by the family of Richard Welling. They will be featured in an exhibition that will open at the Connecticut Historical Society in the fall of 2014.

Heartbreak Hotel


Drawing by Richard Welling. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1982.33.0. Welling drew on this side of the sheet of paper using magic markers.


Drawing by Richard Welling. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1982.33.0. This is the back of the same sheet of paper, which Welling signed and considered the finished drawing.

Does anyone recognize the grand Victorian structure in this drawing? Richard Welling drew the Heublein Hotel in 1965 as it was in the process of being torn down to make way for Bushnell Towers. At the time, Welling was experimenting with drawing with magic markers on soft sketchpad paper. The colors bled through to the back of the paper, creating a lovely atmospheric—and somewhat ghostly—effect. I wonder if in this case Welling deliberately used this technique to suggest that the grand old hotel was vanishing before our eyes. He signed the ghostly version on the back of the paper in order to make it clear that this was the version he regarded as the finished work of art. When the Heublein Hotel came down, nobody—except perhaps Welling—seemed to care. Less than ten years later, the destruction of the old YMCA, another massive Victorian building facing Bushnell Park, would lead to widespread protests from preservationists. Richard Welling would be on the spot to record its demolition, too. CHS is planning an exhibition for October 2014 that will feature Richard Welling’s drawings of demolition and construction in Hartford during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and examine the effects of urban renewal during this period.