What’s HPA All About? A Reflection from the Intern

chelsey-crabbeOne of our favorite “jobs” here at HPA is working with interns and student volunteers. Chelsey Crabbe (Trinity College ’17) joined us this semester and leaves us this week with this article. 

Historic preservation is a cause that I feel passionately about and I never thought that I would find an internship while at school that would fulfill these interests of mine. As a History major at Trinity College, I felt like the opportunity to work at the Hartford Preservation Alliance (HPA) would allow me to both satisfy my interests as a “historio-phile” as well as integrate the city of Hartford, a city that has been my home for four years. I, humbly, accepted the internship position at HPA and, thus, began my semester-long experience at the organization.

How fitting that HPA’s office is in the re-purposed (and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) Underwood Computing Machine Factory Building. During my first weeks at the office, I started to become hyperaware of all the quirks of this historic building, an environment that acted as the perfect backdrop for a budding historic preservationist. For instance, one of the most vivid memories I will have of my time at HPA involves continually rolling backward in my chair due to the office’s original flooring that had become slanted over the decades. While a majority of the time, I found this to be quite annoying, a small part of me understood that this tiny intricacy gave the old factory at 56 Arbor Street a certain element of character. Characteristics like this are often lost because of demolition or abandonment and replaced with homogeneous architecture reminiscent of a time that occurred only seconds in the past rather than centuries. And to get back to my point, my awareness of these small details can now be attributed to my time working at HPA.

187-189 Sigourney an endangered property that Chelsey title searched.

187-189 Sigourney an endangered property that Chelsey title searched.

Although I never met the many supporters of the alliance or many of the board members, I had the pleasure of working alongside HPA Assistant Director, Mary Falvey, and Executive Director, Frank Hagaman. If anything, my experience in the preservation field was only enhanced by the support, expertise, humor, and knowledge of these two not-so-silent soldiers. Gaining recognition of and finding funding for historic preservation is trying work and requires a certain amount of engagement and commitment that is difficult to recruit. Both Mary and Frank, through their tenacious work ethic, taught me to speak up within a professional environment and go about obstacles and realities with a sense of humor. My experience at HPA was not only rewarding because of the work that I was doing, but because these individuals were so accommodating and personable.

Borch-Stevens Bakery part of the Windsor Street Factory Building Survey that Chelsey created.

Borch-Stevens Bakery part of the Windsor Street Factory Building Survey that Chelsey created.

Speaking of the work…I found myself switching between projects as circumstances changed allowing me to practice the skill of adapting within a working environment, a skill that will probably be of use to me in the coming years. Each project was different in its content and context, but required a similar set of skills which I found the most enriching. From conducting archival research to brainstorming for a social media campaign, I utilized several important skills sets that are relevant in any workplace. Specifically, I spent a majority of my time working with blighted properties in the Hartford area ranging from old homes to abandoned mill factories. Disturbing fact: the fate of these properties will most likely involve barrels of concrete and, eventually, a new parking lot. However, with organizations like HPA, some of these buildings can be revitalized in a way that would enrich the historic character of Hartford and provide a service to the city’s inhabitants. There is a solution to revamping the city, an answer that involves economic development, and a key to that is keeping the aesthetic of the city unapologetically rooted in Hartford’s heritage. The answer is historic preservation. My time working at HPA highlighted this important fact to me. So, to conclude, did I enjoy my time at the Hartford Preservation Alliance? Of course. Now, there is more work to be done and I truly believe that this organization can make a real difference especially because of Hartford’s rich history. I am sad to leave, but I will continue to support the organization and encourage any student in the area, especially those interested in history, urban studies, and architecture, to apply for a position at HPA.

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Singing Praises

Left to right: HPA Intern Jake Fusco, Valerio Giadone, HPA Board President Jack Kemper

Left to right: HPA Intern Jake Fusco, Valerio Giadone, HPA Board President Jack Kemper

On occasions the stars seem to align to bring great chance to a good idea. We at the Preservation Alliance have been fortunate to have engaged a master of design, common sense and skill to provide technical assistance to those historic property owners in Hartford.  He is Valerio Giadone an architect and guide for our strategy to work on behalf of community economic development here.

In our strategic plan which was ratified late in 2014 the Preservation Alliance determined to be an historic preservation force: Focusing Priority

To be Hartford’s historic preservation resource and technical assistance hub and develop the organizational structure, partnerships and resources to support it for historic property owners and the City of Hartford so that HPA is relevant, is recognized and acheives mission impact and sustainability.

These are all very goals lofty for a small organization with little capacity to deliver on the promise.  With the very generous support of a Capacity Building grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving the Preservation Alliance set out to build a team to achieve its desire.  We wanted to be the go-to resource for the 5,300 historic properties in Hartford.  In hiring Valerio nearly all our dreams come true.  He is a skilled architect with a deep background in working with historic buildings.  He has a passion to learn about design and materials which can repair, restore or replicate the features which we associate with appropriate preservation.  Yet all the while he is working to keep the budget within workable boundaries.

We in Connecticut are very fortunate to have State Historic Preservation Tax Credits which are financial incentives for property owners and developers to go the extra distance in preserving their properties.  Valerio has become expert in navigating the process to apply for and be granted an allocation of credits.  This is particularly true with homeowners who can be fearful of working with a state agency.  He has become a trusted intermediary for the Hartford Historic Preservation Commission often interpreting how best to achieve a preservation goal.  There are many examples of Valerio’s success however the City is most appreciative of his consultation to bring historic tax credit resources to Hartford’s desire to rejuvenate the former Northwest School on Albany Avenue to create the John E. Rogers African American Cultural Center.  By engaging the Preservation Alliance and Valerio the City has realized $ 630,000 in additional financial resources otherwise unknown to the project.  The testimony from homeowners of the benefit that his guidance has brought to their restoration projects grows daily.  Often his steady advice has made the process of petitioning the City for permission to do work on properties far easier and less complicated.  He has also saved them money!

So much praise and thanks for making our team demonstrate that “Preservation Matters”.  He is the force which makes our work so meaningful in Hartford.  Next time you get a chance please thanks him for his work and dedication.


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To What Do We Aspire?

Image courtesy of Jack McConnell/www.jackmcconnellphotography.com

Image courtesy of Jack McConnell/www.jackmcconnellphotography.com

In our determination to save the Comet Diner I have tried to find the words to encourage the public, the City of Hartford and surely the community of Asylum Hill that the preservation of an icon is greater than just bringing the diner back to life. The challenge centers around the fact that the diner was trucked to the site in 1948 so why not send it back down the road to somewhere else?  This is a logical and a reasonable solution for historic preservation of the building. Let’s ignore the cost and issue of finding a new home which these suggestions fail to explore. (Ever moved a building in a city, it’s very expensive.)  For me the question is what is lost by creating yet another vacant lot? More to the point what does this mean to Asylum Hill and the Farmington Avenue corridor as it loses an icon that so many people identify with as a destination they loved.  Have you ever asked yourself “where is the Comet”?  I would suggest that the diner is among a very few landmarks to be found along Farmington Avenue which are instantly identifiable.  Think about it.

Historic preservation is all about community economic development in The Preservation Alliance’s strategic plan.  The Courant called it sentimental to preserve the Comet but throughout the US many cities are basing their redevelopment strategies on the foundation of historic buildings.  As Hartford struggles to recreate a vitality, hats off to the Downtown, what of the neighborhoods? Luke Bronin has repeatedly spoken about the priority to reestablish the commercial corridors of the city.  What was the outcome of demolishing so many historic buildings along Main Street, Downtown Dry Gulch. Time and again in Hartford the immediate decision to get rid of the past is sacrificed to a long term strategy for a comprehensive community plan.  Farmington Avenue and the Asylum Hill Neighborhood created such a comprehensive plan which is based on the preservation of historic neighborhood structures. Principle among these is the Comet

A recent post on Facebook basically asked the question regarding the aspirational goals of Hartford?  Where is the road map, what is the desired future for this city with such an amazing past? Perhaps I am taking the post too far but I immediately thought about the Comet, the effort to preserve it and the future of Asylum Hill?  Sure the preservation of the amazing diner has a cost.  In consideration are several options to reuse the diner offering food and access to food which brings the diner full circle acting once again as a beacon to hungry people in Hartford.  For those of us who frequented the place, for more reasons than having breakfast, it housed one of the best bars in town; we are reminded of the theme song from “Cheers” which said “where everybody knows your name”.  Can there be any better definition of placemaking than having an urban identity?

So yes, to what do we aspire?  Surely waving goodbye to the diner on a flatbed can be accomplished as a form of historic preservation but what replaces the destination?  Do we gather at the CVS, a Walgreen’s, a Delta Dental?  My belief is that the urban neighborhood of Asylum aspires to something better than another drive-through box.  In all humility the City of Hartford hungers for the aspiration to a greater strategy brought about through comprehensive community planning.  I hope that you might have an opinion about this so please share with us.

What Will It Take?


Early in 2015 the Hartford Preservation Alliance and the Hartford Business Improvement District joined together to address the question posed by a desire to improve the Farmington Avenue corridor between Sigourney and Woodland Streets.  What is necessary to bring about a change along the corridor and contribute to community economic development for Asylum Hill?  Our determination to gather many collaborators allowed us to seek wide-ranging opinions and to encourage a diverse mix of ideas.  With the help of a consultant our collaboration produced “The Farmington Avenue Comprehensive Community Plan, A Framework for Action.”  Our challenge was to create a vibrant, pedestrian friendly and safe Farmington Avenue corridor between Sigourney and Woodland Streets with a high quality and diverse mix of commercial, cultural and residential offerings. We wished to create a cohesive identity where commercial and residential buildings complement the rich and architectural heritage. Along the corridor sit six vacant and abandoned historic properties which, among other sites, posed tremendous opportunity for revitalization.

Among the signature properties is the Comet Diner.  Built, or rather delivered, in 1948 the classic stainless steel diner has been a destination and a beacon on Farmington Avenue providing food, drink and hospitality since it opened as the Aetna Diner. Times and urban demographics changed ultimately causing the diner to close its doors ten years ago.  The owners have been frustrated with a reuse of the property and therefore recently determined that the building needs to be demolished.  Unfortunately their strategy is to invite a reuse involving big box retail.  Perhaps the destruction of the Comet Diner would drive a spike into any hope for a revitalization of the Farmington Avenue corridor.  For decades the diner has been a destination even when sitting vacant and abandoned.  There exists an architectural cohesion while it sits empty.  Yet to destroy this bit of history takes away one more icon from Hartford and therefore eliminates more of the historic fabric of Hartford.

The Comprehensive Community Plan pivots on the preservation and adaptive reuse of the Comet Diner.

A recent application to demolish the Comet was withdrawn by the owners to be considered at a Hartford Historic Preservation Commission hearing.  Within days the Hartford Preservation Alliance worked diligently to alert the public that such an action was being taken.  Within two days we had marshaled the public to protest the demolition request.  We won the skirmish but the battle is far from done.  It is now incumbent for Hartford and the preservation community to find an adaptive reuse this needs to be a practical solution for community economic development.

Please keep in touch with our effort to “Save the Icon”.  We would welcome any suggestions of a reuse or ideas of what might be done with the Comet.

“People need to believe it’s a great place . . . We need a positive campaign. Then perceptions and perspective will change. Begin by taking the randomness out of the neighborhood and then gradually adding resources; whether a bike or walking trail, new vendors or creating the same look and feel . . .

When we do this folks will believe in the potential, have a sense of pride and invest in the area’s future.”

Floyd Green, Vice President, Aetna, Inc.

Community Relations and Urban Marketing

Hardly Saccharine or Sentimental

. . the city shouldn’t let saccharine sentimentality dictate the future. If the city around the building has changed, it might be best for the building to evolve as well.” – Hartford Courant editorial, August 24, 2016

Anyone who has spent five minutes with me in a discussion regarding historic preservation knows that I refer to myself as a “practical” preservationist.  HPA is not the organization which just says “no,” rather we operate with a mission of “here’s how.”  Preserving a property only to have it continue to sit vacant, abandoned, without contributing to community economic development is useless in Hartford.  We try to prevent demolition in haste. One only needs to walk along Main Street in Downtown to see how well that strategy went.  Our Throwback Thursday posts on social media are among the most popular in our attempt to draw public attention to historic preservation.  Invariably the comments tend to wonder why such and such a building had to be torn down.

289 Farmington Avenue - Comet Diner

289 Farmington Avenue – Comet Diner

One has tremendous sympathy for an elderly property owner who bears the financial burden of maintaining a vacant building. Several cases have come before state courts seeking to have buildings demolished due to their poor condition.  The courts found that “demolition by neglect” is not a defense.  Our attempt to work with representatives of the Comet has yet to engage in a conversation to forge a workable solution. In fact the representative seems determined to ignore any of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood wishes to rejuvenate one of the City’s major commercial corridor.  The desire seems to be to get rid of an historic building and replace it with soulless big box retail.  Please give attention to the intersection of Park Street and Washington to envision an eyesore which pretty much destroyed the urban fabric of that neighborhood.

Washington St. corner of Park St. (photo: Hartford City Assessor)

Washington St. corner of Park St. (photo: Hartford City Assessor)

HPA is working diligently to find an economically viable solution.  Never confuse our desire to preserve with saccharine sentimentality.  We seek some time and the opportunity to bring funds to redevelop and reuse the Comet as well as five other vacant and abandoned properties along Farmington Avenue.

Read full editorial here: http://www.courant.com/opinion/editorials/hc-ed-comet-diner-0824-20160823-story.html

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