Design New England

Around New England: A Hartford Lament


Photographs by William Morgan

Not the best view of Hartford, Connecticut.

For much of the 19th century, the Connecticut capital was a city to be reckoned with: wealthy, beautiful, a commercial and intellectual powerhouse.

Today, Hartford is a ghost of the city of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Wallace Stevens. Beset with poverty, potholes, and uninspired development, the once pleasant city on the Connecticut River is an urban disaster.

Without going into the political, economic, and social reasons for a once proud metropolis’s decline, some conclusions can be drawn just from the view from my downtown hotel room during a recent visit.

Not so many years ago there were few skyscrapers downtown, the early 20th-century Beaux Arts tower of Travelers Insurance acting like an inspired solo beacon. You could still see the gilded dome of the magnificent Victorian Gothic state capitol, surrounded by a lovely greensward of park. One did not have to pick through the hideous boxes of thoughtless overbuilding to see such nationally important architectural treasures as the Romanesque Revival railroad station by H.H. Richardson or the picturesque Gothic Wadsworth Athenaeum by Alexander Jackson Davis. You have to wonder where were great architects during the city’s recent mad rush to reinvent itself as a New England version of Los Angeles on the freeway.
One surviving gem is Christ Church Cathedral, designed in 1827 by the noted architect Ithiel Town. You can barely make out the spiky English medieval outline of the cathedral, dwarfed and overpowered by mediocre office blocks. A pilgrim on foot trying to reach this house of worship would likely be killed trying to cross the many lanes of traffic, seemingly speeding cars and trucks away from downtown.



The spiky medieval Christ Church Cathedral, designed by Ithiel Town in 1827, is dwarfed by the city’s office buildings.

Juxtaposed with this urban nightmare is the hotel swimming pool, a surreal oasis in the asphalt dessert of downtown Hartford.
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