Every week I select a photo or two to share on our Instagram at work for “Throwback Thursday.” Sometimes this is easy, particularly on major holidays. Other times, such as the middle of August, require a bit more effort. I find myself browsing through folder after folder, looking for something that may resonate with our followers. There isn’t a magic formula. Occasionally I’ll post a photo I doubt will garner much interest, and it ends up being very popular. The opposite happens, too. For me, the best part is when I try to learn more about the photo and come across new-to-me bits of information about Hartford. Even if the story isn’t exactly what I wish it were, the journey can be amazing.
While searching recently, I came across a series of 20 photos in the City’s Department of Engineering collection. They were all marked as being buildings to be torn down for the extension of Hudson Street. What struck me was how much life was still present in an area about to be demolished:
The bookcase next to the front door has a sign reading, “Books for sale, 5 cents”…
Women were conversing on a porch…
A child stood on the stairs watching the photographer…
And there was plenty of laundry.
Hudson and Elm have ended up being a microcosm of urban renewal in Hartford. Housing was destroyed in favor of automobile pathways. The Park River was forced underground. And after years of neglect (parking lot creation), developers are now trying to reinvigorate the neighborhood.
Using both the Historic Hartford Courant and the Street Commissioners records within the Hartford Town and City Clerk archives, I was able to ascertain that in his 1916 inaugural address, Mayor Frank Hagarty proposed an extension of Hudson Street from Buckingham Street to Elm Street. A bridge would be built over the Park River to connect the new road to Wells and Trumbull Streets to the north. Combined with South Hudson Street and the existing Hudson Street to the south, this would provide a route parallel to Main Street from one end of downtown to the other. The hope was it would reduce backups on Main Street.
The new route would require demolition. On August 14th, 1916, the Commission on the City Plan wrote to the Court of Common Council, recommending the extension. They provided this map, with the path (faintly) outlined in red:
In January 1917 the Hartford Courant wrote that the extension “is to start at Buckingham street and traverse back yards and marooned spaces until it gains egress just north of the old armory, there to plunge across the river opposite the bend in Wells street.” By June 1917 the plan had been approved, including the award of the following damages to those owning back yards and marooned spaces:
While many of these property owners lost their house/land, Bessie M. Beers and her mother, Martha P. Skinner, went for a different angle: a 90º angle. The 12-family house they owned originally ran east and west. To make room for the new street, the building was jacked up and turned to run north and south. The brick, three story structure was thought to be the largest house moving ever in the city.
There certainly were some innovative approaches. This row of houses was split in half, with one portion being moved to the other side of the new road. The eastern portion still stands, the western portion is now a marooned space we call a parking lot.
Less than two years later, the bridge was operational. In early January 1919 there were 1000 cars crossing it daily. The Courant believed “Mayor Frank A. Hagarty was justified in his recommendation.”
At this point in the story we begin to learn some of the City’s insurance history. In 1924, Connecticut General Life Insurance began preparations for their new headquarters on the block bordered by Elm Street, West Street, Capitol Avenue, and Hudson Street. During a rain storm in February 1925, the foundation of the 12-family Skinner-Beers house threatened to collapse. An estimated 125 people were living in the structure at the time. All were able to find a place to stay, and Connecticut General pledged to cover expenses. Workers were able to remove the tenants’ belongings, and soon the structure was razed.
Excess rain is a recurring theme in the Hudson-Elm area. An article in the Courant in April 1936 stated that $90,000,000 worth of stocks and bonds had to be dried out after the Connecticut General building was flooded the previous month.
The bridge itself had a short lifespan. In October 1942, three months shy of its 24th anniversary, removal began in order to make way for the Park River conduit. The flooding was used as an excuse to snuff out something natural in favor of concrete.
In 1957 Connecticut General Life Insurance (known today, following a merger, as CIGNA) moved to a new headquarters in Bloomfield. The next April, Aetna Insurance moved into the Elm Street building. Aetna – not to be confused with Aetna Life Insurance – was a property and casualty subsidiary of Connecticut General. Known as “Little Aetna,” they remained on the site until 1982. CIGNA sold the building a few years later. Most recently it was leased by the State of Connecticut for the Comptroller, Treasurer and Attorney General offices.
Today 55 Elm Street is under construction, being transformed into residential apartments (and a few other uses). Neither housing nor business ever fully left the Hudson-Elm area. But between the new road, the encapsulated river, and the continued creation of parking lots, it has become more of a shrine to the automobile than a place where books are sold, people converse on porches, and wet clothes are hung to dry. Maybe that will change.