Connecticut artist Richard Welling chronicled the ever-changing Hartford cityscape through detailed ink drawings. Acting as both works of art and documentary snapshots, these drawings reveal the additions and subtractions to and from the city’s architectural skyline in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Our newest exhibit, (Re)Building Hartford: A City Captured by Richard Welling, showcases his drawings and explores how how and why Hartford changed and how it affects us today.
Houses, apartments, businesses, schools, places of worship. Like all cities, Hartford’s built environment—its physical structures and shape—has changed over time for many different reasons. As the population grew and changed, different voices influenced the city’s identity, and new building materials and resources became available (or disappeared). To put it very broadly, Hartford has been built and re-built four times since its original colonial settlement in 1635. We are living in Hartford’s “fourth build”, which began after World War II.
The First Build (1635-1780)
The Podunk tribe originally occupied the area of Connecticut that is now Hartford County. They built light, wooden structures called wigwams. The town of Hartford was settled in 1635 by a group of English colonists led by Reverend Thomas Hooker. The settlers chose the area that connected the Connecticut River and Park River because of its fertile land. They began constructing simple buildings made from local timber on Main Street. Merchants built along the riverfront as commerce grew.
The Second Build (1780-1860)
As industry boomed, buildings grew in size and number, and architecture mimicked European styles. Building materials, like brick, made buildings more durable. Trade routes expanded with the introduction of the railroad in 1839, and the boundaries of the city spread. The riverfront swelled with industrial buildings and housing for newly arriving Irish immigrants.
The Third Build (1860-1945)
Immigrants began to flood the city, increasing the population density of downtown. Large-scale manufacturing corporations built massive buildings near the railroad tracks. Industrial architecture, previously designed to hold massive machines, developed to accommodate the assembly line. The invention of the elevator encouraged buildings to expand to new heights, while steel made buildings sturdier. Wealthier residents moved out to the city’s limits and built large homes in the latest architectural styles. These styles reflected European counterparts or were revivals of old designs.
The Fourth Build (1945-Today)
After World War II, downtown Hartford started to change rapidly. The automobile and the new highway system made it easier for middle-class families to live outside the city. The government built a new highway through the city that connected to the suburbs. The industrial base, once booming downtown, started to lose to national and global competitors. Blue-collar businesses that did survive moved to suburban campuses with modern amenities. White collar jobs grew and buildings that accommodated them dominated the physical framework of the city. Much of the construction and demolition of Hartford buildings between the 1950s and 1980s was documented by the Hartford artist Richard Welling.