Monumental: Part 1 1/2

Sometimes disaster strikes. But it also comes with some silver linings.

Recovery is going to take a long time, and my co-workers and I have been spending our days securing our collections. After Friday we will not be allowed in the building till further notice.

Today I was finishing boxing up our vertical files. These files contain a variety of information, much of it published material that serves as background information. Other items, such as the one I found today, really should join the archival manuscripts.

If you are unsure of this significance of this piece, please re-read the end of Monumental: Part 1.

Had it not been for the flood, I may never have found this bit of family history (but I still would have preferred if it hadn’t happened).


Hudson and Elm

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”…

Hartford History Center image. View on the Connecticut Digital Archive:

Women were conversing on a porch…

Hartford History Center image. View on the Connecticut Digital Archive:

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:

Hartford Town and City Clerk Archives, Box 74, Folder 4, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

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:

Hartford Town and City Clerk Archives, Box 74, Folder 4, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

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.

Rear of the Skinner-Beers house. Hartford History Center Image. View on the Connecticut Digital Archive:

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.”

Hudson Street Bridge, Hartford History Center image. View on the Connecticut Digital Archive:

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.

Flood of 1936. View south toward Hudson Street from Jewell Street. The Connecticut General building is on the corner of Hudson and Elm. Hartford History Center Image.

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.

55 Elm, October 2022

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.

Hartford History Bike Route

Rose Garden, Elizabeth Park, July 2016

This coming week I will be attending the National Council on Public History’s annual conference, here in Hartford. I am very excited to be attending a national conference right here at home. Having followed the twitter feed, and read the conference-specific blog posts, I decided to write one that I would be looking for, if I were traveling to Hartford for the first time.

Yes, it involves a bicycle.

If you are bringing a bicycle (or have access to one, as well as a helmet, appropriate attire, etc. etc.), or want to walk/run 13.5 miles (🥵), this route will bring you past a number of interesting spots in the city. This is a completely urban route, so you must be comfortable riding on city streets with traffic. There are a couple of painted bike lanes, but no protected bike lanes. Often you will have to share the bike lanes with the city buses (among others 🙄). I do ride these streets, and am comfortable doing so, but like everything in life, there is risk involved; you are responsible for your own actions. I have not accounted for any construction that may be in progress; please re-route yourself if necessary. Attempt to follow the “same road, same rules” adage. Sometimes it’s easier than others. You are allowed to ride when the walk sign is on.

You could also do this by car. If you do, please do not drive through an intersection when the walk light is on.

However you travel the city, I hope you enjoy your visit!

View the map and cuesheet here.

These are the points of interest you will encounter. The distances shown are approximate, and cumulative from the Convention Center:

Alexander Calder’s Stegasaurus, with the Wadsworth Atheneum and Travelers tower, March 2018.

0.3 miles Stegasaurus by Alexander Calder, adjacent to the Wadsworth Atheneum (the country’s oldest continuously-operating public art museum).

JFK spoke from the portico of UConn’s building across the street.

0.5 miles Next up is the Old State House. Lots of things have happened here over the years.

[Oops…I left the Isham-Terry House out of the route. You could take a left onto Walnut St (at 0.9 miles) then a right onto High St. to go past it. You will return to the route at the intersection with Main St (straight-ish) and Rt. 44, when the route has just gone past the Keney Clock Tower.]

1.2 miles Keney Clock Tower. A tower dedicated to Mr. Keney’s mom.

1.6 miles Old North Cemetery. Frederick Law Olmsted is among those buried here.

The SAND School is across the street from the cemetery. You may notice the
Ropkins Branch of Hartford Public Library is located in the school. During riots
over Labor Day weekend in 1969, the library (then located in another building
right near by) was fire bombed. The Hartford History Center holds one photo
of the library after it burned. Among those in the photo is a priest. When
researching the fire recently, I found out the priest was the branch manager
that year! No one currently working for library had been aware of this.

2.9 miles Circus Fire Memorial behind Wish School. A lifelong Nutmegger, I visited the memorial for the first time last year. The weather is taking its toll on some of
the pieces, but it’s still an incredible experience. So many people attended, or
were supposed to attend, or have a story about the fire. It’s hard to put into
words the impact this event had on the city. Continues to have, really. The trees
indicating the location of the tent helped me put into perspective how the
chaos ensued. The structure was small, and the number of people was not.

6.1 miles Chick Austin House. Only 18 feet deep inside! It’s amazing.

7.7 miles Elizabeth Park contains the country’s oldest municipal rose garden. Most of the park is actually located in West Hartford. Connecticut has 169 separate cities and
towns, and no county government.

Ana Grace playground, December 14, 2017.

8.5 miles Ana Grace “Love Wins” playground, also in Elizabeth Park. Very relevant to
the repair work theme of the conference.

9.6 miles Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Both are worth visits.

10.5 miles Memorial to Alice Cogswell.

10.8 miles Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. It’s architect is buried inside! Also, it was dedicated on my birthday, so very cool in many ways.

About to win the Hartford Marathon! Ok, maybe it was the next day. Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, October 2017.

11.4 miles Butler-McCook House. The house will be open for tours on Saturday. It was home to four generations of one family, and is the only 18th century house remaining on Main St.

11.6 miles Charter Oak Cultural Center is Connecticut’s oldest synagogue building.

11.9 miles Church of the Good Shepherd was commissioned by Elizabeth Colt in memory of her husband and four of their children.

12.7 miles Colt Armory. Formerly the site of gun manufacture; now being turned into a national park.

I know I left places out, none of them intentionally. There is pretty much another entire route I could (and still may) put together focusing on the southern portion of the city. And even though Kevin the Turkey is no longer there to greet you, it is worth going a couple extra miles to visit Old Wethersfield. If it were a few weeks later, I would encourage you to ride to Rocky Hill and take the nation’s oldest continuously operating ferry over to Glastonbury. There you would ride past farms, and visit Nayaug, before continuing up to Main St and past the Old Cider Mill; the nation’s oldest continuously operating cider mill.

One time, while attending a conference in Chicago, I borrowed a bike from a fellow attendee and got in a few miles along the lakeshore. It was a great way to start the day. I also brought my bike to a conference in Burlington, VT a little over a year ago, which was equally fabulous. Depending on your needs, I might be able to help you out. You could also check with BiCi Co.

And if you’re looking for something to read, before, after, or during the conference, check out the news from the Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest, continuously published newspaper. See a theme here?

Surviving Un(der)employment

This is my story. It will inevitably be different than yours. It is not so much a guide as a giant thank-you note.

As of Monday morning, I have returned to full time employment. I am incredibly excited to be the new Digital Cataloging Specialist at the Hartford Public Library. I will be splitting my time between maintaining the classical music collections and working with the collections of the Hartford History Center. Though I have spent much more time working with historical collections, I am equally excited to be working with the music collections.

Altogether, I am incredibly fortunate. My un(der)employment only lasted six months. I was able to work part time, so I was never completely unemployed. Financially, it wasn’t easy, but I made it through without any permanent damage. The worst was the perfect storm of heating bills (I advocate summer underemployment), Christmas credit card bills (again, no pesky Fourth of July presents), and the property tax bill for my vehicle (hmm, that does happen in July, too). I could have lived quite happily without January.

There is so much that I thought about doing during the lull in my employment. I considered trips to the beach, museum visits, taking the train to New York for the day. If given a choice, I would have chosen to be out of work during the warmer months of the year, those more conducive to cycling. It doesn’t really matter which half of the year a person is out of work, though. While underemployment provides plenty of free time, it is rather stingy with the spending money. I constantly faced the emotional tug-of-war of wanting to leave the house, but not feeling that I could afford to. Fortunately, I live in a great place, with highly talented people, and plenty of affordable entertainment. Over the past six months I attended Envisionfest, Nightfall, Other People’s Stories, The Ear Cave, and two events at The Hartt School, most recently the Women Composers Festival. I even attended the Colgate Women’s Basketball game at UConn, which added to my alma mater’s [thirteen] minutes of fame. All of these were free! Ok, the Colgate game was free with four years paid tuition, but I digress… I volunteered for The Connecticut Forum and was able to attend their events, too (the Vision & Brilliance panel was phenomenal). Without a steady paycheck, I managed to be happier and do more things than in the past when I had much more money.

While events are fabulous, the emotional support of my family and friends has been priceless. My parents did everything from sending me home with leftovers to making sure I could attend my nephew’s first birthday party. My sister put her son in front of the webcam whenever I needed a smile. A giant hat tip to everyone with whom I regularly interact on social media, as well.

A growing part of my life, particularly since the fall, is my relationship with the Mandell JCC. I am in awe of how much more than a gym marionmembership it has become for me. Toward the end of the summer I was invited to participate in the Stavis Leadership Forum (a joint program with the JCC and the Jewish Federation) and asked if I would like to be on the Hartford Jewish Film Festival committee. I can’t do justice to either in this paragraph, but both have been great experiences. For the film festival I suggested a Kickstarter campaign, and the committee was willing to try it. The extra time I had allowed me to put together our project (please watch the video and support us!). Most recently I was recommended to help with a project for the JCC’s centennial. In the process, I found out my Great Aunt was an Executive Director of one of the agencies that became the JCC. I guess I’m meant to be involved!

Sure, these six months were not entirely puppies and rainbows. There were job interviews and rejections. Weeks went by without there being any positions posted that grabbed my attention. Evenings out with friends were far more likely to include a glass of ice water than wine. As a contractor, if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid, which took away from the glamour of hurricane and blizzard days. I’m also still recovering from the fear that I wouldn’t get this job, and would eventually find myself in a nightmare situation, such as unemployed. In Greenland. But I survived by having a strong, supportive, and varied network that allowed me to enjoy life as much as I could. This had the possibility of being a very dark period, but my community kept it light. Certainly there were days when my spirits were down, but those days were the exception. I don’t wish un(der)employment on anyone, but if you do find yourself there, I hope you have plenty of community support to see you through.

We “Hava” Liftoff!

It has been a few cold, snowy months since I last wrote about the Hartford Jewish Film Festival. With opening night on April 4, we are springing into action! The website is live, tickets are being sold, and apparently someone is even prepared to kosher-ize the popcorn machine at Spotlight Theatres (this announcement left most of the committee with puzzled looks on our faces and at least one of us heading to Google for an explanation).

This week’s new and exciting announcement is the launch of our “Hava Hartford” Kickstarter campaign. Many of you have probably already seen my postings about this on Twitter and Facebook. For those who are unfamiliar, Kickstarter is an online fundraising tool that relies on crowdsourcing. Our goal for this project is $1000. We have to secure pledges of at least that amount before we will be awarded the money. With the contributions, we plan to exhibit a collection of Hava Nagila photographs, mostly collected from those who pledged to the campaign. Watch the video I made explaining it further!

A few things I hope you will keep in mind:

  • You don’t have to be Jewish to support the project!
  • Any pledge amount is welcome.
  • Supplying a photo is optional, though we certainly hope that if you have one, you will.
  • When the exhibit is in place, you are all welcome to view it at the JCC.
  • Please share the Kickstarter link with your friends and family!

I truly enjoyed making the video, working with the JCC staff to get the project launched, and continue to enjoy being a part of the HJFF Committee. As I said in the video, thank you for your “uplifting” support!

hjff hava kickstart-1

Film Festival!

Where can you find a movie featuring Leonard Nimoy, Harry Belafonte and Regina Spektor*?

The Hartford Jewish Film Festival!

As some of you know, I am currently on the committee for the Hartford Jewish Film Festival. In its 17th year, the festival is produced by the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford. This year’s committee has been screening films since May (I joined in August) and has quite a line up planned for April.

All of the films are award winners, premieres in this area, or both. Opening night will be held at the new Spotlight Theater in Hartford. Closing night will include a dance party at the JCC. Theaters in Bloomfield and West Hartford will host the nights in between. Among the titles I have enjoyed so far are a documentary about legendary New York Mayor Ed Koch (NYT article); Numbered, a documentary about Auschwitz numbers (NYT article); and The Day I Saw Your Heart (trailer), which has some lighthearted moments.

As you might imagine, in order to pay for the films, theaters, etc., we need to raise some funds. Will you consider donating? Any amount is welcome, but  in the Sponsorship Opportunities brochure you may read about perks for donating at certain levels. You don’t have to be in Connecticut or be Jewish to donate! Please consider a gift in honor of or in memory of someone, as well.

Even if you are unable to give at this time, we hope you will be able to join us in the Hartford area, April 4-15, 2013.  More information will be available in January, including on the HJFF website. If you leave a comment on this blog, I am also happy to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you!!

*Leonard Nimoy, Harry Belafonte, and Regina Spektor are featured in the closing night film, Hava Nagila (includes 10 min. clip).

The Hidden Plot

One woman, one bicycle, and a search for dead relatives.

I am not a genealogist. I used to work with a woman who was fairly intent on finding a connection between herself and everyone else in the building. That is a bit intense. I believe it is good to have some knowledge of family history, but grandparents, great-grandparents, and a layer of cousins or two is good enough for me. However, combine anything with bicycling and exploring Hartford’s history, and I’m game.

Garden Street Synagogue. Jacob Richman was a founding member of the congregation.

Regular readers of this blog (*chuckle*) will recall a post from earlier this summer in which I discussed my great-grandfather, Jacob M. Richman. Recently, a cousin found that post. On Friday evening I had a phone conversation with him, during which he told me about the work he is doing on our family tree. He asked me what I knew about when Jacob came to Hartford, and if we have any idea when he actually came to the country. None of this information is easy to find. When the cousin sent me the link to the information he has gathered, I admit, I was hooked.

The timing was really perfect. I need things to focus on in between sending out job applications. If I had called the cousin when he originally contacted me, I would have had all the resources of the CHS at my disposal. Alas, having waited a couple weeks, I had to sign up for the free two week trial of After reviewing much of the information on the tree, I decided it was time I did some exploring.

I have visited my maternal grandparents grave many times; it is quite nearby. Never, though, had I seen the graves of my their parents. Locations in hand, helmet on my head, and camera in my pocket, I set out for the cemeteries.

Hartford’s first cemetery, now known as the Ancient Burial Ground, has always been in the heart of the city. As the years went by, the residents of the city came to the conclusion that living so close to death and disease might not be the best policy, not to mention the cemetery was filling up. For their next burial ground, the residents went north, starting Old North Cemetery. Later, Hartford’s first Victorian era cemetery, Spring Grove, would be put into place a few blocks away.

United Synagogues Cemetery, F. D. Oates Ave., Hartford

The Jewish cemetery where Jacob and Hannah Richman are buried is adjacent to Spring Grove. It is one cemetery, occupied by three Jewish organizations, one of which is now known as the United Synagogues of Greater Hartford.

From what I had found on Ancestry, I knew Jacob’s grave was “X53.” Unlike some cemeteries that label their sections, the only markings visible were on the stones themselves. I had no idea where to start. Looking back, I’m fairly certain I started at Row A. It took a while to get to Row X, but eventually I did. Walking up and down each row, I found a few other cousins as well. There was plenty of room between rows for me to walk with my bike. In most cases, there is so little space between headstones, everyone underground must be pretty cozy.

Jacob and Hannah Richman

Next I rode south to Zion Hill Cemetery. I have passed Zion Hill countless times. I couldn’t get to my graduate courses at Trinity College without going by. Yet, I had never been in there. Part of the reason for this is the surrounding fences and gates do not make it appear very welcoming. I entered through the first open gate I found, only to realize later that there were many open gates, and a main entrance.

Zion Hill was too large to employ the start-at-row-A method. Luckily as I rode around, I was able to find the portion of the cemetery occupied by the Hartford Workmen’s Sick Benevolent Association. Even more

Workmen’s Sick Benevolent Association Cemetery, Zion Hill, Hartford

fortunate was that Morris and Paulina Scharr were in the first row I walked down. Since they were “G32” and “G31,” respectively, I then knew which direction to head to find their daughter and her husband, Bessie Scharr and Jacob Zwillinger.

Even though this morning I had found an obituary for another daughter of Morris and Paulina, Ida Scharr Zwillinger, I had somehow missed the fact that she is buried next to her parents. I was glad her headstone caught my eye as I was heading back out of the cemetery (it seems that Bessie Scharr’s first husband died, and following Ida’s death, Bessie married Jacob Zwillinger; it cuts down on the relatives at Thanksgiving).

Jacob and Bessie Scharr Zwillinger

Ida Scharr Zwillinger and her parents, Morris and Paulina Scharr.

Within two hours I had biked through the city, located the markers for several relatives, and visited two Hartford cemeteries I’d never explored before. It was a great way to spend a crisp, late summer/early fall day. Overall, finding the cemetery plots was fairly easy. Some of the roads were a little sketchy, but being on the bike reinforced to me how close these memorials have been to me. I love living in a place that I know so well, yet there is always someplace new to explore.

I was left with one unanswered question. Why did we give the dead people such a great view on the city?

View of the Hartford skyline from Zion Hill Cemetery.

Prison on Pearl

Did you know that Pearl Street in Hartford used to run to a prison? Tonight I read the minutes of the Court of Common Council’s meetings in 1812. I am preparing a magazine column (short, only 150 words) and it looks like I will focus on the naming of streets that year. I hope I can find a map at work tomorrow from the era. Most of the streets are described using landmarks that few of us would be familiar with today. For example, do you know where the late William Ellery’s store was? Neither do I.