Putting Preservation on the Map

Guest blogger Jake Fusco is graduate student in Geography at Central Connecticut State University. He recently completed an internship with the Hartford Preservation Alliance working on the Farmington Avenue Cultural Corridor initiative. 

I could start this piece with a quote from a famous historic preservationist or author and what that quote means to me. However, that’s not how I got here. I found my way as an intern for an historical preservation non-profit through my education in Geography. I have found that during my time studying the science of Geography that just defining the term Geography has been half the battle. “So what do you do? You memorize capitals?” or “So you’re really good with directions?” are both popular questions and responses I typically hear when I let someone know this is the discipline I study. Of course I’d like to think that the answer to both questions is yes but there is much more to the world of Geography (pun intended).

Which brings me to Hartford, Asylum Hill and Farmington Avenue.  While the Stowe and Twain houses remain well preserved symbols of the history of Farmington Avenue we need not forget many others.

On my first day of class in Urban Geography as a first-year graduate student at CCSU I was told that Urban Geography is so great because whatever city you’re in or closest to is your laboratory of study. With that, I chose Hartford to be my laboratory which eventually placed me as an intern with the Hartford Preservation Alliance. I first met with HPA over the summer of 2015 after stumbling across their Facebook page.  Although my knowledge about architecture or historic preservation was nearly absent I was eager to be a part of the protection and revitalization of Connecticut’s capital, although I’ve never lived in, I’ve always had a soft spot for despite its perceived problems.

Aetna Diner Comet reprint vintage postcard date unknown

Aetna Diner “The Comet” reprint vintage postcard date unknown

Prior to our first meeting I received information about HPA’s ongoing grant-assisted project to revitalize six-blocks on Farmington Avenue between Woodland and Sigourney Streets. The afternoon before my first meeting I circled the area several times to acquaint myself with my new laboratory. What I found was actually a sense of relief, relief that there are genuine efforts in this city to protect the authentic character and culture of Hartford especially in the areas that need it most. The front page so to speak of this area and this ongoing project has been The Comet, a 1950’s era diner that reads “Dishes” across the front banner that has been vacant since 2000. This one building has served as a visible symbol of the fabric of Farmington Avenue yet as well a symbol of my learning experience of the process of urban revitalization.

This block on the Southside of Farmington Avenue contains no only The Comet but five additional vacant, abandoned historic properties. These blighted properties became my focus and as a member of the team I have assisted in the research to effect appropriate changes which should happen to this block. Six months ago my own logic would tell me that any vacant building should just be demolished. Tear it down and start over. New is always better for a city. The advantage that working at a historic preservation organization has given me is to look at aged buildings as assets to a community and to the authenticity of a neighborhood. In my research we have followed through with the concept of building on the body of knowledge. To put it a different way, to think about what can be done on Farmington Avenue we have learned by example by looking at similar projects everywhere from other cities in Connecticut to New York, New Jersey, Indiana and even Australia as well.

Even though The Comet to this day remains vacant you still look at it and get the impression that this is a place that is different. A CVS can be found anywhere but its not everywhere that you find a uniquely designed building which has served a s symbol of a city since before the moon landing. With that I now proudly claim myself as a preservationist.  So then, my newly-found response to “So what do you do? You memorize capitals? Or “You’re really good with directions?” is Yes, but what I’m really passionate about is protecting and revitalizing the character of Hartford’s historic places, that kind of Geography.”

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Asylum Hill Artists: A Celebration of Art & Culture

Asylum Hill Artists Collage

Last week we kicked off a month-long celebration of arts, artists, diversity, creativity and fun on Asylum Hill.  During the next four weeks events will happen all over the community which are open to the public underscoring that everyone is welcome.  Born from the Welcoming Committee working with the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association this multi-cultural celebration demonstrates the rich fabric of the population here.  30 % of the residents represent 24 different countries.  We wish to highlight their talent and desire to live in a totally integrated neighborhood which embraces so many people sharing a desire to live their lives with peace and prosperity.

On Tuesday, the 16th artist took over the gallery at ArtSpace the artist live/work place on Farmington Avenue.  The walls were lively with works from artists who live on Asylum Hill.  At least ten nationalities are represented in the show.  (By the way the gallery will be open each weekend for the next four weeks. )  Photographs, sculpture, painting, mixed-media all are there wowing the overflowing crowd of visitors.  Then, on Thursday the Town & County Club hosted “Black Boy Jungle” a dance by Tnmot Aztro, choreographed by Arien Wilkerson. Simply stated the talent brought the crowd to its feet.  Artistry that can only make one shout with enthusiasm and joy that we have such people who live here among us.

The next three weeks will witness the West End Farmers Markets each Tuesday where artisans will sell their wares.  Each week will highlight different performances during the market.  This coming Thursday there will be a multi-cultural Fashion show, again at ArtSpace.  An exciting evening of color, pageantry, food and music.  Please refer to the schedule which is attached to this blog.  Join us in embracing the excitement of being diverse.

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Deserving Our Attention (a.k.a . Endangered)


The Alliance will announce on Saturday a list of the Ten Most Endangered Buildings in Hartford. Nothing new in preservation activities however timely for us as we exceed our reach on behalf of what matters: saving our heritage. A simple concept to draw attention to the buildings and landscapes that our Architectural Building Committee feels might be at risk from blight, neglect, an uncertain future or “might be in the way”.

I’ve been asked what the process was to create such a list.  My response –  it began with wine.  Folks were gathered to survey and consider places around the City which might be given an endangered status. It took on an aspect of an auction with committee members vying for their favorite building in distress.  A geographic review was accomplished with far greater than ten buildings at risk listed (there is always next year……). All in good fun until the list had to be reduced to ten, and then the knives came out along with opinions!  Wait, preservationists are genteel tea-sippers, right? When it comes to the passion of saving endangered buildings the gloves are off!

Included on this inaugural list will be buildings which you will recognize and know instantly.  There will be a couple surprises because you are probably be familiar with them but haven’t really taken notice.  Our objective is to shine the spotlight on historic properties which might disappear for lack of awareness.  And so, the votes have been tallied and the awards go to………….  You will have to link into our website www.hartfordpreservation.org on Saturday to learn which buildings win the dubious distinction of being most endangered.  Or better yet, join our e-mailing list and have the Top Ten delivered to right to your inbox.

Many thanks to Hartford Prints for partnering with us for our HARTBomb event and creating the event graphic. 

220 High: Reality

220 High Jan 14 2015


The publication of the blog post below has brought forth a lively and spirited discussion on social media. Further information on the fate of 220 High Street follows:


Social media has ignited and the internet has exploded with discussion regarding 220 High Street.  In writing a blog I set forth a typical reality that exists.  This has been misconstrued as surrender yet nothing is further from the HPA reality.

Let me tell you what is, has and will happen:

HPA was never contacted by the City requesting input as to how this historic area and building could be or should be developed in is drive to create DoNo. Until this latest news of its possible demise, we had been informed that the City was looking for a reuse of the building.

For some time I have been speaking publicly regarding the desire of property owners to ignore historic preservation and not following published guidelines.  We have made tremendous inroads with the City staff and the Historic Preservation Commission as they now insist that property owners consult with HPA first. Honestly it is the City which, as a major property holder, needs to lead this change in philosophy.

The next step for 220 High Street is that the request to demolish will come before the Historic Preservation Commission which we attend monthly.  In no uncertain terms we will oppose and object to the permit being granted.  So, the property is not in imminent danger from a procedural consideration and many roadblocks remain at our disposal.

I have met with the City stating that we oppose demolition.  In its haste the City did not make the preservation of 220 High Street a priority.  We seek consideration to propose a design for High Street which would include the preservation of the property.  We have been heard and will monitor.

Our position has been made, clearly recognized and acknowledged with an understanding that our opposition is unyielding. The task before us is the prevention of a demolition of 220 High Street.  Our mission speaks clearly to HPA’s role as an advocate for preservation and I am exerting that.

Blog Post Jan 15 2015

The issue cycle of social media seems to be a nanosecond. And this cycle is filled with the request for demolition, by the City, of the Italianate property located at 220 High Street. At issue seems to be how this could happen. Vacant and abandoned for greater than a decade the property has been stripped – gutted to be exact – of all internal historic fabric and now sits by itself, virtually the only property along the block, as a shell. The Preservation Alliance was contacted recently by the City, its owner of many years, to discuss options. The facts are simple, no viable project or plan to reuse the property was presented to the City. Long ago talk of moving the fireman’s Credit Union into the building did not materialize. Consideration was made to moving the building which elicited bids in excess of $ 1 million dollars. However a far greater impact on the property is the DoNo development surrounding a new ball field. As development plans for the area north of I-84 evolved since the summer a development proposal, involving multiple properties along High, Chapel and Main Streets was presented to the City. In effect the development demands that 220 High be demolished. The DoNo master plan and the specific recommendation to the Planning & Zoning Committee were presented by the City on January 8 to approve variances allowing for the redevelopment. Petitions were granted.

Developers by definition will always lead with a mantra that historic buildings are too expensive to reuse. Therefore demolition is required if a development is to go forward. Always the argument holding historic preservation hostage. Two elements blunt the argument: 1. Preservation of an historic structure is demanded within a master plan for development articulated by the City 2. Financial incentives are made available to encourage historic preservation priorities to protect our assets. Hartford talks of the importance of the historic fabric of the City but when push comes to shove demolition is often given first consideration. A reality which must change.

In a perfect world 220 High Street should have been designed into the master plan of development. Our challenge is to make historic preservation matter. In this case the desire for preservation was outdone by the priority of the creation of DoNo. As a city a profound understanding that preserving the historic fabric is a priority must enter the public discourse.

We would appreciate your thoughtful comments on how to effect such a self-awareness.

What Are They Thinking?

(a case for Form-Based Zoning)

This has been a remarkable week due to two proposed developments to be located in seriously high-profile locations.  McDonald’s is in pursuit of building a new restaurant along Farmington Avenue, next door to the existing Burger King, in the West End. The owners of the gas station located on the corner of Broad Street and Capital Avenue are seeking a variance and historic district approval to replace the current gas station with a new facility (read proposal here).

26 395 Capitol Ave proposed gas station Dec 9 2015

My reaction is not one of surprise but who is to protect the comprehensive design guidelines made part of cities everywhere with aspirations to becoming livable, sustainable and attractive places where people live, work and visit?  My friends are tired of listening to a treatise which asks why we in Hartford talk about the rich historic fabric of the city yet ignore the potential of such amazing assets when it comes to self-interest.  Attend one Hartford Historic Commission hearing and listen to petitioners do their best to circumvent or “game” the City’s preservation guidelines.

Climbing off my soap box I offer some really good news containing an exceptionally exciting tool with which Hartford can control, plan and implement development to contribute to our historic heritage:  Form-Based Code .  This effort to modernize building codes around the country is in fact being studied and will be presented to the City in 2015. It is a powerful preservation tool.  Basically local communities would determine how they want their neighborhood to look and how they want to encourage smart growth.  The gas station might be required to give better consideration to its location as a site which is part of the Capitol Campus.  The store could be built to the sidewalk, contributing to a streetscape such as that to the west along Capitol Avenue.  The pumps would be repositioned behind the store making them less obtrusive.  The community would guide how it wants to see growth and development become a movement to improve the neighborhood.

Form-based code was introduced to Hartford through a series of community meetings held last spring and summer.  Community input was solicited during public forum.  From those focus groups the consultants have begun to organize zoning code changes informed by national best practice.  An Advisory Committee has been given the task of working with the Development Department to make sure that as many constituents as possible are included in the discussion.  I happen to be one of the members of that committee and am impressed at both the education involved and the thoughtfulness and process of deliberations in creating a new development tool for Hartford.  A draft document will be published by the third quarter of 2015.  Please take the time to learn about and support this effort to revamp our zoning code. A unique opportunity to help preserve and protect our historic city which we all care about so deeply is what Form-Based Code proposes.

The Preservation Alliance is firmly opposed to mindless and inappropriate development of the two sites mentioned.  We ask that you join the West End Civic Association, Frog Hollow NRZ and us in demanding better for Hartford.  We always welcome your comments on this so please do so.