1% for Heritage: The Least We Should Do for Old North
I am here this evening, not to forestall demolition of a building that is the centerpiece of a
National Register District – the opportunity to save that has passed. I am sure may of us here
would be a lot easier about it if those with technical expertise, a commitment to preservation
and no bias or stake in it had examined it and could assure that it is, indeed, a lost cause. But
that costs time and money and we all understand that the chances are very slim that anything
good would come of it. But I do think the tragedy of this – and it is a tragedy – is that the City
finally opted for adaptive reuse rather than demolition and we still end up violating an
important historic neighborhood that has been hanging on for years, against all odds, with its
character and integrity in tact. It’s a neighborhood that remains indispensible if we ever hope to
see north Hartford, upper Main and Albany reconnected with the heart of the city as it once
was and as it must be for the city to become whole again.
Without dwelling on blame it must be said that it required both indifference to a preservation
outcome and inexperience to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory here. I believe the project
architect, engineers and managers should be held accountable. This was not an accident or bad
luck or because the bricks and mortar were defective or because Homeland Security and
FEMA made us do it. Engaging an architectural firm inexperienced and unaccustomed to this
kind of work was asking for trouble.
My concern at this point is that we learn something from this and adopt some deterrents and
policies that increase the chance of successful adaptive reuse projects in the future and of
greater care and attention to the historic qualities that give Hartford such an advantage over so
I propose a policy that earmarks “1% for Heritage” on development and construction projects
that affect the quality and character of our most historic neighborhoods and areas. This is not
asking a lot and could, in fact, be funded 5 to 10x over simply by having the will and
determination to stand up to the costly, archaic, anti-competitive Davis-Bacon Act provisions
that make building and preservation so much more difficult, bureaucratic and costly than it
needs to be.
Seven hundred and seventy thousand dollars from a $77 million project budget would be an
unprecedented investment in the character and resources of an important neighborhood that
rarely gets more than crumbs and yet could be a key asset and inspiration – funds that could be
used to help Old North Cemetery, Spring Grove Cemetery, the Isham-Terry House, any of the
many historic churches that carry on there and so much more.
In 2004, as Director of Connecticut Landmarks, which owns and operates the Isham-Terry
House, north Hartford’s only museum, I organized a North Hartford Festival for the purpose of
demonstrating that even here – in a place ignored and dismissed by tourism officials, the
culture elite and even some with a stake in it – that even here we could dazzle residents,
visitors and guests with the power and inspiration of the art, architecture and history present
here. Within walking distance of Second North School are 5 historic churches – including the
State’s oldest African-American congregation, four historic cemeteries, where so many of the
Catholics, Protestants and Jews who built this city are buried, two historic schools or school
buildings, dozens of important historic structures, the Keney Clock Tower, and Isham-Terry a
house museum – that of the five operating in Hartford is – the most authentic and to my mind
the most compelling in its stories – every bit as much as significant as Mark Twain.
When I talk about “1% for Heritage” this is not so much about damages and reparations –
though who can dispute that the damage done ought to be repaired. No, it is about investing in
the cultural heritage of a neighborhood with the understanding that doing so enriches
everything in that neighborhood and enriches us all.