Everybody Makes Mistakes

October 14, 2014 · Collections ·
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Post Office Building, Central Row, ca. 1890. Connecticut Historical Society, 1956.84.94

Nobody had anything good to say about the old Hartford Post Office. I thought surely when it was first erected it must have been much admired. In the pictures the huge ornate Second Empire style Post Office Building certainly looks impressive. But early articles in the Hartford Courant complain about the cost and the construction delays. The building was begun in 1873 and took ten years to finish. It almost immediately became inadequate. As early as 1913, the Colonial Dames were calling for its removal. The post office was almost smack up against the Old State House, with only a narrow pedestrian corridor between the two buildings. The space it occupied had formerly been a park, and the façade of the State House, which it effectively obliterated, had once been the front facing the river.

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By the 1930s, plans for a new Post Office building were underway and everyone seemed in favor of the demolition of the old Post Office and the restoration of the park. A few visionary planners, recognizing the changes in daily life and the increasing presence of the automobile in the city, even advocated the creation of an underground parking garage beneath the park. The demolition of the old Post Office began in November 1933, in the middle of the Depression. William J. Rankin, who was nearing the end of his single term as mayor of Hartford, assured voters that Hartford labor would be used for the job. The building that had taken ten years to build came down within a few weeks.

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What if the building had lasted another thirty or forty years until the 1960s or the 1970s? Would this seemingly unloved building have become a rallying point for preservationists, like the Heublein Hotel and the old YMCA? Or would everyone have agreed that we are better off without it? The park behind the Old State House was indeed restored and looks much the way it did in the early nineteenth century, before the construction of the Post Office. Certainly no one would dream of constructing a massive building on that site today. It must have seemed like a good idea to somebody in the 1870s, a vacant lot in a prime location in downtown Hartford. Everybody makes mistakes. Hartford’s town planners have made their share, but this is one mistake that was relatively quickly recognized and rectified.

(Re)Building Hartford: A City Captured by Artist Richard Welling is an exhibition about the changes that took place in Hartford during the late twentieth century, the massive demolition and construction projects that forever altered the city and the lives of its people. The exhibition will be on view at the Connecticut Historical Society through March 14, 2015. Separate satellite exhibitions at the Old State House, the Hartford Public Library, TheaterWorks, and Billings Forge will examine specific aspects of the impact of the built environment on people’s lives.

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