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
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.
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.
My most recent project here is to catalog photographs, prints and drawings by Hartford artist Richard Welling. I started on his Polaroids, of which there are hundreds. Welling loved photographing Hartford as it changed in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and as a result, I’ve been playing building detective for the past few weeks. My job has been to go through a group of Polaroids of downtown Hartford and identify the buildings in them. Welling was very interested in urban renewal, that mid-twentieth century practice of razing inner city buildings in the hopes of clearing out slums and reenergizing downtowns.* With an SX-70 camera, he photographed several of Hartford’s ambitious renewal projects, often juxtaposing the old and the new. Several of Hartford’s old landmarks have since been razed, so having photographs that document their rightful place in the built landscape is priceless. Continue reading
E. M. Loew’s Theater at 174 Asylum Street in Hartford was one of the city’s landmark movie theaters. Formerly the Majestic, it was the first theater in Hartford to show “talkies,” motion pictures accompanied by a sound track. This radical innovation took place in 1929. But by the 1960s, the inner city had fallen on hard times. The venerable old playhouse was slated for demolition in order to make way for the new Civic Center, which, it was hoped, would help revitalize downtown. This drawing of the theater was made by the Hartford artist Richard Welling in 1970, just before it was torn down. Welling presented the drawing to Bill Savitt, proprietor of Savitt’s Jewelers, whose billboard appears on the side of the doomed building. Savitt’s, another Hartford institution, located at 35 Asylum Street, barely escaped demolition, and endured until Savitt’s retirement in 1986. Less than a month later, 35 Asylum Street was replaced by a driveway.
The Savitt Collection, documenting Bill Savitt’s colorful 67-year career, is now at the Connecticut Historical Society. The Richard Welling Collection, consisting of over 4000 prints, drawings, and photographs, was recently given to the Connecticut Historical Society by the artist’s family. A major exhibition of Richard Welling’s work will take place at the Connecticut Historical Society in the fall of 2014.
“But for you Gold Street would still be a blot on our beautiful city, and we all owe you a debt of gratitude. Now if those stables could go, there would be nothing to offend the eye when the street is finished.”
These words were written to Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe by Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt in June 1899 (Ms 66889). Mrs. Colt was responding to an invitation to be present at a ceremony that would be held on June 17th to mark the transfer of Gold Street land to the City of Hartford.
On February 5, 1895 Rev. George Leon Walker, pastor of Center Church, read a paper before the Connecticut Historical
Society in which he recommended something be done to clean up the area around Gold Street and the Ancient Burying Ground. As The Hartford Courant noted the following morning, “Few of the living of the present Hartford have ever set foot there or set eye there even. It is shut out from sight and it and its are forgotten.” An area such as that, the resting place of approximately 6000 citizens, deserved better.
The woman to take up the charge was Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe. A descendant of the founders of Hartford, Mrs. Holcombe was also Regent of the Ruth Wyllys Chapter of the
Daughters of the American Revolution. The work was done under the auspices of the DAR. In January 1897 Mrs. Holcombe and her committee appealed to the Court of Common Council, who passed the matter to the Streets Board. Soon after meeting with the Streets Board, the project was approved. Fundraising was swift and most of the money, almost $24,000, had been raised by October.
Even though the owners of the buildings on the north side of Gold Street were willing to sell, the destruction of those tenements did not begin till April 1899. Two months later, though, they were gone. The street had been widened, the cemetery cleaned up, and it was time to celebrate.
The Courant reported that the
dominant feeling of the great gathering ws one of gratitude that the shame of the old Gold Street, with all its uncanny and wicked associations, had vanished forever before the unremitting efforts of the women of the chapter and their friends, and that in its place there was a wide avenue, full of June sunshine, and that just where the line of the old rookeries backed up against Hartford’s precious but neglected God’s acre, there was the open of sweetness and light just tempered by the shade of a few trees that have withstood bad treatment and lived until their tall branches could once more drink in the warmth of the sun.
Bands played, speeches were given, and Mrs. Holcombe was presented with a cup for her efforts. The deeds for the property, purchased by the DAR, were formally presented to the City of Hartford.
In 1913 the Court of Common Council reserved space for Mrs. Holcombe’s own burial in the cemetery she worked so hard to preserve. She died at her home in Hartford on March 28, 1923.