Yesterday I attended a presentation at the Old State House “A Conversation with Helen Higgins”. On July 1 Helen retires as the Executive Director of the CT Trust for Historic Preservation. Helen’s influence on historic preservation in Connecticut is nearly impossible to define because it is profound and lasting. During her career at the Trust she has influenced public opinion, shaped public awareness and brought historic preservation into a maturity as a critical component of Placemaking to all the towns and cities in Connecticut. This statement is not hyperbole but the varied and many places which have been saved are testament to a woman who is nothing less than a force. Her initiative in cataloguing the barns of Connecticut is but one example of bringing a focus on the rich farm heritage of the State. Due to her efforts these iconic buildings can now find a renaissance as contributions to a New England landscape which we all enjoy. During the chat images were scrolling on a screen behind her which show a legacy to her tenacity in bringing resources to the preservation of homes, hotels, commercial buildings and factories throughout Connecticut.
As I took on the new position at the Hartford Preservation Alliance one of the first people I was told to know was Helen. Over an inaugural lunch I fell under her spell. Warm, lively, funny, passionate, strong willed and smart, I was instantly a fan. Over these past few years I have jokingly come to call her “My Queen.” We became friends instantly and I sincerely know that I am but one of many who can claim the honor. Yet whenever Helen called the guaranty was to have a strategic, productive conversation about how our organizations could advance the notion of historic preservation. She always guided me in suggesting people I should know. If she said “be here” there was no question but to obey. Did I mention that she likes martinis? Of the many preservation friends I have made coming back to Connecticut I count Helen as my best. Yes, I will miss my sovereign.
As in all things we turn the page and start a new chapter. Helen’s chapter is writ large to be sure. I salute a fine person who has made a huge difference in preserving Connecticut for all of us.
For you devotees of the Preservation Alliance in 2014 we signaled an interest to move our office to the community in an effort to make historic preservation more accessible. (Please check out all of our Strategic Plan). After announcing our “ten most endangered” in February we were approached by the Congregation Beth Israel with a truly exciting offer to take their Deborah Chapel, boarded and abandoned, in Zion Cemetery. This building is an historic property built in 1873 to serve as a site for burial celebrations in one of Hartford’s most prominent Jewish cemeteries. It has been difficult for the Congregation to maintain the building which is no longer used as a chapel. It has been subjected to the many indignities of vandalism. We took a look and determined that if The Preservation Alliance is to walk the walk this chapel is surely filled with promise as a rehabilitation project.
One imagines the architecture is in keeping with the period of late-19th Century. Its bones are sound and have the potential to make a wonderful headquarter for us. We envision the ground floor chapel becoming a welcoming public space in which to hold community meetings. The second and third floors can easily convert to office and meeting space for the staff.
Yet most exciting is the potential for our project to become a renovation classroom as we tackle the comprehensive effort to rehabilitate a unique historic structure in Frog Hollow. Demonstrations of planning/design, adaptive reuse, budgeting, finance, demolition, insulation, sheet rocking and decoration all come into play. We often talk of historic preservation as a green strategy and a reuse of the Deborah Chapel can help to educate the community about the cost benefit of saving buildings. We will pursue a strategy of making the property energy-efficient and hope to explore solar energy in our plans to create a small energy footprint. All the while we will work to showcase how cost-effective renovation can be realized.
At our last meeting, the HPA Board of Directors agreed to issue a letter of interest to the Congregation Beth Israel, a good faith effort, to begin the work of our due diligence. We want to assemble a budget and ultimately determine how to finance the project. All of this process will be reported here and on our website. We know that historic preservation matters but now we take up the challenge to prove how! Please join us in monitoring our progress as we endeavor to bring back the Deborah Chapel to a vibrancy for which it was built and dedicated.
On Monday we received a check representing an engagement to consult on a project of historic significance in New Britain. In previous blogs our new strategic plan has been
608 Main Street, New Britain HPA has been contracted to guide the developer through the tax credit process.
discussed which includes exploring ways for the Preservation Alliance to offer services to historic property owners who need technical assistance with their projects. Since our founding the organization has relied almost entirely on grant income. This is a fool’s game in the 21st Century for robust non-profits. Simply reflect on two main sources of income for us- the State of Connecticut and City of Hartford, both under tremendous budgetary constraints.
Historic preservation in Hartford is not alone in figuring out how to make our way. On a national level, preservation groups are exploring how to operate, and do the work without grant funding. Our strategic business plan anticipates how to grow by seeking business opportunities which will rely on the assembled experience and skill of our staff. Connecticut has a most dynamic historic tax credit program for both commercial and residential properties. Funds generated from utilizing these credits go a long way to make historic preservation more financially feasible. Our expertise in design, real estate finance and preservation strategies makes us uniquely qualified to consult with property owners and navigate the strictures or rules often imposed to take advantage of these credits.
Since late 2014 we have grown in our ability to provide technical assistance to property owners and our success is gaining recognition. Much of the time our advice is made available for no cost. We wish to encourage preservation at all income levels. However we recognize a need for consulting capacity for bigger, more complex projects. We believe that the value added in easing the process of generating financial resources with historic preservation offers an opportunity which we plan to capture. Our reach needs to be greater than advising what color to paint a porch. Through this blog and other media we will begin to talk about other technical assistance that can be found through the Preservation Alliance.
transportation CTFastrak. This is a major step forward in As part of the continuing series of blogs “Hartford Has It” I am delighted to add my new favorite mode of providing a public transportation opportunity to replace a car in my dotage. As the kinks get ironed out this rider sees tremendous potential in a convenient, quick, comfortable and bike-friendly means to explore the new world of New Britain.
This trip was no simple joy ride but a staff outing to explore a building for which we have been asked to lend a hand in assembling historic tax credits. Located on Main Street (BTW New Britain seems to have more than its share of Main Streets….) the vacant and abandoned “Berkowitz” is an historic jewel in the rough. Minutes from the Fastrak terminus this once elegant apartment building may see a renewal as a component of a transit oriented community. It doesn’t hurt that the building is located directly across the street from the Roly Poly Bakery a new discovery for this Hartford dweller. Taking a walkabout was the beginning of a process of discovery to see an urban fabric which once thrived through manufacture. The promise of renewal is exciting.
Hartford Preservation Alliance is about community economic development. Rehabilitation and rejuvenation is a key to improving community by supporting the revitalization of the historic fabric which we all remember and cherish. Our job is to be the guide and mentor for historic buildings to recreate neighborhoods, communities and municipalities as a means toward sustainable growth.
Stay tuned as we report progress on the bus and the Berkowitz. Better yet invite me to share some of the great food found in New Britain as I talk about the potential found in historic preservation.
For those of us who have been associated with Coltsville becoming a national park there are many exciting events incorporated with this spectacular win for Hartford. However, for this scribe, nothing surpasses the opportunity to participate in meetings with Jared Edwards. Long the voice of historic preservation here and throughout the State his presence guarantees that his opinion matters. But more to the point of this blog, is Jared’s encyclopedic knowledge of buildings and the history of them here in Hartford. Who knew that there is a building behind Armsmear (the Colt mansion) that hosted cock fights? Still exists and rumored to have a very impressive interior for such a gruesome utility. Further, there is a house across the street from Armsmear along Wethersfield Avenue which has a pretty juicy history with perhaps a touch of scandal. He has cleared up for me several misconceptions of buildings largely accepted as the truth. He knows his stuff. I now look forward to sitting in on meetings about Coltsville solely because I am certain to learn something about the history, architecture and…….gossip associated with the buildings. Perhaps we might encapsulate some of the lore for visitors which can contribute to making Coltsville a deservedly terrific national park.
Day-Taylor House 81 Wethersfield Avenue
All fine but it seems to me that we need to create a series of public events where Jared Edwards can speak to Hartford’s historic bones. We need to capture his knowledge and bask in it as we work to preserve and retain the important fabric of the City. Stay tuned, we might just organize our own “Jared Edwards Tonight”. We all strive to be “good company”. Jared Edwards is good company and Hartford has him!