The 40-Year Plan:
'cause it ain't gonna happen overnight...
by Ken Krayeske
W ho will pay for the crimes of demolition of historic properties?
Last week, I rode my bicycle by the corner of Wethersfield Avenue and Airport Road and saw the empty lot where a gorgeous 1892 Italianate once stood. That Italianate was the entrance to Little Italy.
This edifice, formerly the Industrial Home for the Connecticut Institute for the Blind and later Carmichael's Restaurant, was knocked down so that CVS could have easier access to the prescription drug market in the Southend.
CVS was only following Walgreen's lead on Franklin Avenue. A few years ago, Walgreen's bulldozed an original streetscape building, a corner office/residential structure, to erect a brick box. I biked by it daily for a year, and every time I passed the new construction, I felt sad.
If I want to anger myself a little more at the short-sightedness of corporations and city government, I'll pedal past Fraser Place, where I can gaze upon the parking lots Mass Mutual paved after it razed a series of historic row homes.
With Mass Mutual moving out, and not needing parking anymore, what are we left with? Blacktop! Who can be held responsible for the destruction of our architectural heritage?
I used to ride by that Italianate often, and grew to love its ornate soffit and cornices and sturdy brick construction. It anchored the corner well. But no more. Now, we will have parking lots and neon and glass. Progress?
Ridgely's Delight, a Baltimore historic district, lays down its law:
"Demolition of an historic building is a worst-case scenario, and represents a failure of the historic district. Demolition is a last option, and will only be allowed to protect public safety or to help rescue other historic resources. No demolition permit will be granted simply to expedite a project or to make one more profitable. All demolition requests require public hearings. The Ridgely's Delight Association will support CHAP in prosecuting owners who facilitate demolition by willfully allowing their historic buildings to fall into disrepair. This civil crime is defined as demolition by neglect, and is punishable under Ordinance 939."
Substitute "city" for "historic district," apply this Hartford and think of all the landholders who deserve prosecution for neglect. But in the case of the Italianate, the beginning of that prescription was not followed.
The Hartford Preservation Alliance writes in its recent newsletter that neither the city nor CVS notified HPA of the impending demolition. Probably because the city and CVS knew HPA would cause a fuss. For the record, HPA learned of it in the Hartford News.
The city preservation ordinance - that HPA pushed for - will go into effect this year, but it only protects nationally-registered historic buildings. Too bad that Fraser Place, the doctor's office on Franklin and the Italianate were not on the national register.
For argument's sake, I'll call anything built before 1906 historic surviving 100 years, to me, makes a building historic. Would the Italians let developers knock down historic buildings in Rome?
Beyond that, HPA presented designs to CVS which would solve all of the recognizable problems that come with plopping box developments into neighborhoods. CVS rejected it. Seeing Rafie Podolsky's photo of the half-dead Italianate in HPA's newsletter made my stomach churn.
The only person who could have stopped this was Mayor Eddie Perez. The three examples I present of demolition for development have occurred on Perez's watch. Conclusions: He cares little for historic buildings and he is willing to let corporations run roughshod.
If he wanted to preserve those buildings, he could have. In Litchfield, CT, the planning and zoning board and the historic commission forced CVS to build a store that fit into the historic scope of the green and its surrounding areas.
We pay Perez to know the city and act to protect its best interests. It's not like the Courant didn't write an editorial pleading for a stay of execution on the Italianate building. When Perez fails, he deserves to be chastised.
CVS, Walgreens, and Mass Mutual all must pay a price for destroying these structures. What is suitable punishment? Cash? Forcing corporate directors to work on crews to clean up the litter that these businesses generate? An architectural history course? Dante's Seventh Level? A combination of these?
Whatever we decide as punishment, we can't let another building go down.