The Dutch were the first Europeans to set up camp at the confluence of the Connecticut and Park rivers when fur traders from New Netherlands established a post in the early 1620s. The first English settlers arrived in the persons of Thomas Hooker and Samuel Stone in 1635 and the scattering of log houses took the name of Stone’s English birthplace, Hertford.
A half century later Hartford became one of the first trouble spots in the American colonies for the English crown. In 1687 Sir Edmund Andros, the English governor, demanded that the town’s citizens surrender a 25-year old charter granted by King Charles II that gave the colony its independence. Instead the locals hid the charter in the hollow of a large oak tree for about three days. Today a stone marker remembers the Charter Oak a short distance east of the original town center of Main and Buckingham streets.
Hartford has been a capital town for over 300 years but it shared that distinction with New Haven for well over half that time. Until 1818 each town held a legislative session each year and then began hosting the legislature on alternate years. Finally by vote of the citizenry in 1874 Hartford became THE capital of Connecticut.
Hartford’s reputation is as the “insurance capital of the world” but there has always been room in its commercial life for more than underwriting and actuarial charts. It historically has been an agricultural market and tobacco sorting and packing was an important industry. Hartford manufacturers produced typewriters, tools, firearms (Samuel Colt made his revolvers in a brick armory at a bend in the Connecticut River), and the creation of gold leaf among many others. That first insurance policy, by the by, was written in 1810 by the Hartford Fire Insurance Company.
By the 1870s Hartford was said to have the highest per capita income in America. In 1868, Mark Twain, who would move here, exclaimed: “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, Hartford is the chief.” Our walking tour will begin in America’s first public park, which was opening about the time Twain was making his remarks. We’ll see some of what he saw and plenty more...
The 37-acre park is considered to be the oldest publicly funded park in the United States. It was the brainchild of Reverend Horace Bushnell and designed to flow along graceful paths by Swiss-born landscape architect and botanist Jacob Weidenmann. Highlights include the 28-foot tall stone and marble Corning Fountain, created in 1899 by sculptor J. Massey Rhind; a working Stein and Goldstein 1914 carousel with 48 hand-carved wooden horses, two chariots and a 1925 Wurlitzer band organ; and the rustic stone Pump House Gallery that presents art exhibits. The central entrance to the park along Trinity Street is graced by the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, dedicated to the 4,000 Hartford citizens who served in the Civil War. Architect George W. Keller crafted the arch, perhaps America’s first permanent triumphal arch, of Portland brownstone. An eclectic Romanesque design, one of the arch’s most striking elements is a bas-relief frieze featuring life-size figures carved by Bohemian-born sculptor Casper Buberl. It was dedicated on September 17, 1886.
FACING THE MEMORIAL ARCH, WALK TO YOUR LEFT PAST THE CORNING FOUNTAIN AND EXIT THE PARK ON THE WESTERN SIDE AND CROSS ASYLUM STREET ONTO UNION PLACE, TOWARDS THE TRAIN STATION.
One Union Place
Although he was best known as a monument builder, Irish architect and engineer George Keller translated his talents for a new train station for his adopted hometown in 1889. Here Keller used the burly Richardsonian Romanesque style. Unfortunately the entire structure had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1914.
TURN RIGHT ON CHURCH STREET.
William R. Cotter Federal Building
135 High Street at Church Street
In 1882, the federal government completed construction of Hartford’s first permanent post office building. By the 1920s, however, town residents were campaigning for a new postal building to replace the overcrowded Second Empire-style structure. In 1928, the government selected a site for the new building, and two years later contracted the local architectural firm of Malmfeldt, Adams, & Prentice to design the building. Although the Public Buildings Act of 1926 authorized the Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury to hire private architects to design federal buildings, the Hartford project was one of the few times that the act was actually invoked.
Their three-story creation is an excellent example of Neoclassical architecture adorned with stylized Art Deco decorative components. The exterior of the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and named for Connecticut Congressman William R. Cotter in 1982, has remained largely intact since the building’s completion in 1933.
CONTINUE TO MAIN STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
45 Church Street at Main Street
The Christ Church parish dates back to 1792 and construction of the current brownstone church began in 1827. The design is by Ithiel Town of New Haven who used sketches done by the church’s rector while on a trip to England. These sketches included architectural details from many churches, among them Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. It is one of the earliest Gothic-style churches built in the country. The bell tower rises 150 feet where the open parapet at the top is an exact replica of those at York Minster. In 1912 the church was chosen to serve as a cathedral for the Connecticut diocese.
942 Main Street
Henry Hobson Richardson, the pre-eminent architect of post-Civil War America, contributed this brownstone and Berea limestone to the Hartford streetscape in 1875-1876. Richardson’s trademark bold arches are much in evidence on the ground floor and are carried throughout the building. It was originally a multipurpose structure with five small shops on the ground floor, and offices and apartments above. the clients were the Cheney Brothers, who were silk manufacturers. For years this was the home of Brown Thomson’s department store and is currently home to an extended-stay inn.
884-902 Main Street
Jerome E. Sage, Normand F. Allen and Clifford Moore opened their store on Main Street in 1889. Sage-Allen evolved into a mid-market department store chain that was a fixture in southern New England and anchored a number of smaller local and regional shopping centers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and, later, New Hampshire. The eight-story Classical Renaissance Revival building is rendered in yellow brick and richly ornamented. After 101 years, the Hartford store was closed and the company struggled for only a few more years before ceasing operations in 1994. The store was perhaps best known for the free standing ‘Sage-Allen’ clock, a local landmark, that was located on the Main Street sidewalk in front of the flagship store until the clock was damaged in a windstorm in 1992. The clock, manufactured by Seth Thomas, was later repaired and erected on another sidewalk in the city. Its importance as a Main Street landmark was known to the re-developers of the Sage-Allen building, and a deal was struck to return the clock to its traditional place. The clock was re-started after its return to Main Street in the summer of 2007.
Old State House
800 Main Street
Mentally remove the fronting balustrade and the topping cupola and you can see what is considered the first public building designed by celebrated architect Charles Bulfinch. Constructed of Portland brownstone below Flemish bond brick, the State House was completed in 1796 and is said to be the country’s oldest. Considerable history occurred behind its walls before the government left in 1878 - the Hartford Convention, where the secession of New England from the United States was discussed, took place in 1814; P.T. Barnum served in the Connecticut legislature; and in 1839 the first Amistad slave rebellion trial took place here. Joseph Steward’s Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities, one of America’s first museums when it opened in 1797, is located on the second floor. Steward, a portrait painter, decided he needed a hook to draw more people to see his paintings. He collected a number of “natural and artificial curiosities,” including an 18-foot Egyptian crocodile, the “horn of a unicorn” and a calf “with two complete heads,” and added them to his gallery space in the original State House. Steward’s museum was so popular that it outgrew it’s original space and had to move to a bigger building across the street.
688-704 Main Street
When it was completed in 1919, the Travelers Tower, at 527 feet high, was the first commercial building outside of New York City to rise higher than 500 feet. It was the tallest building in New England and the 7th tallest in the world. New York architect Donn Barber, who also designed the Connecticut State Library, Supreme Court Building and the Hartford Times building, gave the Travelers Tower at its crown an 81-foot high pyramidal roof topped by a small cupola housing a powerful beacon. The original portion of the building that is faced in Westerly pink granite was built in 1906. The Travelers Insurance Company was founded by James Goodwin Batterson in 1863 as the first casualty insurance company in North America. It wrote the first automobile policy and the first commercial airline policy. After a series of mergers and acquisitions that began in the 1990sthe company, while maintaining significant operations in Hartford, landed its headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota and then New York City.
675 Main Street
The First Church of Christ in Hartford, known as Center Church, was founded in 1632 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thomas Hooker served as first pastor and when he left the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 to come to the Connecticut Valley and settle Hartford, he brought a band of parishioners with him. A small log structure for a meetinghouse was built that year, on the site of the current Old State House, that same year. It was given to Hooker in 1640 to use as a barn when a replacement was constructed in 1640. A century later, in 1739, a third meetinghouse was built on this site. The fourth and present Meeting House was completed in 1807 at a cost of $32,000. The pulpit recess and barrel-vault ceiling were added in 1853; the church boasts six Tiffany stained glass windows given as memorials between 1881 and 1903. The tower bell, first cast in England in 1633, continues to ring today. Behind the church is the Ancient Burying Ground, the city’s only cemetery until 1803. Buried here are many of Hartford’s early founders; the oldest gravestone dates to 1663.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
600 Main Street
Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth founded one of America’s first art museums in 1842 at a time when only the very wealthy purchased paintings or decorative arts, and then only for their own enjoyment. His father, Jeremiah, was one of the most wealthy men in Hartford and was involved in trade, manufacturing, banking, and insurance. Wadsworth almost immediately expanded his plan for a fine arts gallery to include a Connecticut Historical Society and the Young Men’s Institute, precursor of the Hartford Public Library. Today the collection of 50,000 works is particularly strong in the Hudson River School of landscape paintings, Old Master paintings, modernist masterpieces, Meissen and Sevres porcelains, early American furniture and decorative arts. Wadsworth admired the Gothic Revival style of Hartford’s Christ Church, diagonally across the street. He commissioned architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Davis, its designers, to create a similarly romantic and imposing building to house his fine arts gallery. The “castle” portion of the Atheneum is the original structure. It was divided into three sections, separated by sturdy brick walls to reduce the risk of fire.
The Stegosaurus is a creation of Alexander Calder. Made of steel plates, it stands 50 feet high and is made of steel plates. It was installed on Burr Mall between City Hall and the Wadsworth Athaeneum in 1973.
TURN LEFT AND WALK THROUGH BURR MALL, PAST THE STEGOSAURUS, TO PROSPECT STREET AND TURN LEFT.
46 Prospect Street
The tradition of private clubs dedicated to philanthropy, leisure pursuits and intellectual exchanges in Hartford goes back to 1809. The Hartford Club was formed in 1873. In its early days it had a decidedly literary bent and its most famous member, Samuel Clemens, joined in 1881. For its first 30 years the Club rented increasingly larger clubhouses, always on Prospect Street, until 1901, when its members merged with the larger but less prestigious Colonial Club. Land was subsequently purchased at this site and Robert D. Andrews of Boston designed this Georgian Revival clubhouse that opened in 1904.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON PROSPECT STREET.
34 Prospect Street
The Hartford Elks Club, the “Mother Lodge” in Connecticut, was founded in 1883. Twenty years later architect John J. Dwyer gave the club this splendid Classical Revival building of limestone, sandstone and glazed buffed brick. Bands of raised brick at the first floor, recessed arch openings at the second floor, and the projecting roof-line cornice under the parapet contribute to the rich texture of the design.
Rock Church of Easton
20 N 5th Street
In 1976 the Hartford Times, the city’s afternoon newspaper for 150 years, put out its last issue. The classical Beaux Arts headquarters, noted for its colorful facade, was erected in 1920. The six Ionic green granite columns at its core were salvaged from the Madison Square Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, designed by the legendary Stanford White. In the middle of the 1900s the handsome portico became an almost mandatory stopping point on the Presidential campaign trail - Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all delivered stump speeches from its steps. The Times building was designed by Donn Barber, a renowned New York architect, who also designed the Travelers Tower. In September 2004, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art took a 99-year lease on the property with plans to create five floors of meeting and event space, classrooms and archival storage.
TURN RIGHT ON ARCH STREET AND RETURN TO MAIN STREET. NOTE THE LIONS IN FRONT OF CITY HALL ALONG ARCH STREET AS YOU APPROACH.
550 Main Street at Arch Street
The mandate for the designers of Hartford’s new City Hall in 1915 was to create a building that essentially resembled the Old State House, from where the government was moving. The round-arched windows and balustrades were recreated in brick and faced with white Bethel granite in a Beaux Arts style. The roof is fashioned from copper and tile; all of the entrances are bronze. The inquisitive-looking stone lions on the south side of the building on Arch Street have been residents of Hartford since 1827. They first home was on the roof of the Phoenix Bank at 803 Main Street. The Phoenix Bank was chartered in July 1814 and was the first non-Congregational Church-owned and -operated bank in the state. They were moved to the sidewalk in front of the bank but were hassled by a city inspector in 1918 who claimed the lions were an impediment to traffic and ordered their removal. The bank offered them to the city with the proviso that they be treated with respect and in 1922 the duo was installed at City Hall.
TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET.
Hartford Public Library
500 Main Street
The library traces its history to 1774 when a group of the city’s financial leaders banded together as The Librarian Company. Incorporated in 1799, it soon changed its name to the Hartford Library Company and occupied space at various locations throughout the city. The 96,448 square foot building, designed by Schutz & Goodwin with H. Sage Goodwin, partner in charge, was finished in 1957. The design includes a plaza that incorporates a 104-foot span across the Park River. The waterway was channeled underground in the 1800s; the original brownstone bridge upon which the library’s terrace rests was the largest stone arched bridge in America when it was constructed in 1833.
Central Baptist Church
457 Main Street
The Central Baptist Church was founded in 1790, well more than a century before the congregation moved into this Classical revival brick home, fronted by a massive colonnade of the Ionic order and a substantial crowning pediment.
1 Linden Place at southwest corner of Main Street
This striking five-story brick building was built as an apartment house in 1891 by dry goods kings Frank Brown and James Thomson, whose store occupied the Cheney building back up Main Street. The building features intricate patterns of brickwork and heavy, rough-cut stone trim. The elaborately detailed roofline is capped by a squat copper-clad tower on its rounded corner.
southwest corner of Main Street and Capitol Avenue
The Linden did not introduce the first corner turret to Main Street. In 1875 John W. Gilbert gave the five-story Hotel Capitol an eye-catching Second Empire corner treatment with a tall dormered cupola with a double-curved mansard roof culminating in a copper pinnacle. James G. Wells built the hotel on the site of his former home but did not involve himself in the management of the inn and in 1882 lost the property to the bank.
357-367 Main Street
Another creation from 1875, this otherwise unremarkable Italianate commercial block in distinguished by a trio of semicircular pediments in the modillioned cornice, each impressed with the construction date. Patrick McKone, who built the speculative block, was bankrupt by the following year and by 1882 it was in receivership with State Savings Bank.
396 Main Street
This is the oldest surviving homestead in Hartford; save for a few spare Victorian embellishments, the exterior looks much as it did when it was built in 1782. The house remained in the same family through four generations and nearly 200 years. Open to the public as a museum today, it houses family treasures collected from around the globe.
South Congregational Church
277 Main Street
The organization of Hartford’s Second Congregational Church occurred in 1670, after years of doctrinal disputes in the Hartford Church following the death of Thomas Hooker in 1647. After the division, the new congregation built its first meeting house in 1673, later replaced by its second in 1754. The current brick church dates to 1827, built in the popular Greek Revival style of the day. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the third oldest public building in the city and one of the only four remaining that were built before 1830.
TURN RIGHT ON BUCKINGHAM STREET, THE STREET TO THE NORTH OF SOUTH CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, TO WLAK THROUGH THE BUCKINGHAM SQUARE HISTORIC DISTRICT. THIS IS THE ORIGINAL SETTLEMENT OF THE TOWN, ALTHOUGH ALL TRACES OF ITS COLONIAL HERITAGE ARE LONG GONE. INSTEAD THE NEIGHBORHOOD PORTRAYS A 19TH CENTURY URBAN ENCLAVE WITH EXAMPLES OF THE ITALIANATE, HIGH VICTORIAN AND RICHARDSONIAN STYLES. Buckingham Square has the highest concentration of these original rowhouses remaining in the city, all of them completed between 1863 and 1879. AT THE END OF BUCKINGHAM STREET TURN RIGHT ON WASHINGTON STREET. IN THE 1800S WASHINGTON STREET CAME TO BE KNOWN AS GOVERNOR’S ROW FOR ITS SPLENDID MANSIONS - ALMOST ALL OF WHICH ARE GONE TODAY.
Hartford County Courthouse Building
95 Washington Street
Paul Philippe Cret, a native French architect, whose vision of an austere, unadorned classicism influenced many a civic building in the 1920s and 1930s, drew plans for the Hartford County Courthouse Building in 1926. It replaced an earlier 1885 structure, located at the corner of Trumbull and Allyn Streets, that was later torn down. Nearly three million dollars were spent before the new Courthouse - boasting 15 different kinds of marbles in its interiors - opened its doors in 1929.
TURN LEFT ON CAPITOL AVENUE.
Connecticut State Library
231 Capitol Avenue
The Connecticut General Assembly first recognized the need for a State Librarian in 1854 when legislation was introduced that organized a State Library Committee. In the autumn of 1854, J. Hammond Trumbull began his tenure as the first State Librarian. In 1878 the collection moved into the new Capitol building but by 1906 its growth demanded new quarters and property was purchased across the street. Architects Donn Barber of New York and E.T. Hapgood of Hartford envisioned a design based on an adaptation of the Italian Renaissance style of architecture. The design included three wings off of a central lobby, the State Library on the left, Memorial Hall in the center and the Supreme Court on the right. When the Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court Building opened in 1910 the Hartford Courant gushed, “it is one of the most beautiful structures in this country and said by some to be the handsomest building in New England.”
State Capitol Building
Capitol Avenue at the head of Washington Street
Connecticut considered both Hartford and New Haven to be state capitals from 1703 until 1875. The location at which the state legislature met alternated each year during that time. Beginning around the Civil War, the need was felt for a single capital location and a referendum was held. Hartford won easily, and the capital building was begun. Richard Michael Upjohn won the design competition and set to work on an exuberant High Victorian Gothic capital building awash in crockets, finials and niches. Built of New England white marble and granite, the original budget was $900,000 but with the addition of a gilded, twelve-sided dome the final tab came to $2,532,524.43. The dome is topped by the winged figure of Genius of Connecticut by Randolph Rogers. The grounds and interior are studded with memorials and mementoes to Connecticut’s past.
WITH THE STATE CAPITOL ON YOUR LEFT, WALK DOWN CAPITOL AVENUE.
The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
166 Capitol Avenue
Dotha Bushnell Hillyer founded Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall in 1930 as a “living memorial” to her father, esteemed Hartford minister, theologian, philosopher and civic leader. The Georgian Revival exterior, much in the manner of the Old State House, came from sketches drawn in the offices of Corbett, Harrison and MacMurray. The firm also designed New York’s Radio City Music Hall and brought those classic Art Deco lines to the richly appointed interior of the performing center.
First Presbyterian Church
136 Capitol Avenue
This is the First Presbyterian Church’s fourth home and the first built by the congregation. It was completed and dedicated May 17, 1870. Designed by Renwick and Sands of New York, the building is of Vermont granite with a trim of Portland brownstone in a blending of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Although the architect’s plan called for a taller tower topped by a spire, it was built with a sloping roof only slightly higher than the main roof.
TURN LEFT ON CLINTON STREET. TURN RIGHT ON ELM STREET.
Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company
79 Elm Street
The Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company issued its first policy in June, 1851, insuring only those who totally abstained from alcohol as the American Temperance Life Insurance Company. By 1861, finding that market a bit limited the company changed its name and policies. It moved into this richly decorated seven-story headquarters in 1917. Interspersed among the dark green bricks are inlaid designs of red and blue tile and a dark red Spanish tile roof. Today it is home to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
CROSS ELM STREET INTO BUSHNELL PARK AND WALK DOWN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.
This has been a long tour but if you still have spring in your step you can use Bushnell Park as a jumping off point for another walking tour of Asylum Hill, an historic neighborhood named for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Person institute that was founded in 1807.
To take this tour, begin the same way by exiting Bushnell Park to the west. Instead of crossing Asylum Avenue, however, this time turn left and cross under the railroad tracks. Bear left on Farmington Avenue. After several long blocks, turn right on Woodland Street. Turn right on Asylum Avenue to return to the tour starting point.
On this tour you will see the headquarters of several major life insurance companies including Aetna and the campus of the Hartford Fire Insurance Company; several churches including Asylum Hill Congregational Church, The Trinity Episcopal Church, and Saint Joseph’s Cathedral; and historic homes such as the Mark Twain House at 351 Farmington Avenue and behind it at 77 Forest Street the restored Harriet Beecher Stowe House.