Vanished Downtown Hartford

By Daniel Sterner

(The History Press, $19.99, 176 pages, Including a 16 page color-photo insert)

Who is this author?

Daniel Sterner is a lifelong resident of Connecticut. He majored in history at Wesleyan University and earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, and he has an undying love for historic buildings. Sterner has served as a historic interpreter at the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses in Hartford and the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. He runs the website, Historic Buildings of Connecticut, and also is the author of “A Guide to Historic Hartford, Connecticut,” both of which have won awards from the Hartford Preservation Alliance.

Sterner will give a free talk about “Vanished Downtown Hartford” on Thursday Oct. 3, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the West Hartford Public Library, 20 S. Main St., West Hartford and another on Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. at the Mandell Jewish Community Center, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford.

What is this book about?

Where has historic Hartford gone? Some of it, dating back to the 18th century, remains, but much has been lost to misguided urban renewal schemes, contemporary replacementss (some beautiful, some not so much) and most shamefully, to make way for parking lots. This book reproduces 19th-century illustrations of bygone buildings. The city has evolved….some would say devolved…architecturally and culturally, and while some historic buildings have found new life (the Old State House became a museum, some old banks became new ones), but much of the face of historic Hartford has been lost. Sterner’s book brings it back and documents how and why things changed.

Why you’ll like it:

Sterner’s amply illustrated book will rekindle memories for many who grew up in the Insurance City and  stayed  or left for the suburbs or other cities or states, and it will stir up a wave of nostalgia for those who fondly remember and still miss G. Fox & Co. and the other downtown department stores, the elegant movie theaters, hotels and ornate banks that graced the city back in the day. If you lived here then, you will be flooded with memories. If you are a newcomer to the area, you will be amazed by what the city used to be.

What others are saying:

Says Ken Gosselin in The Courant: “In 1990, a local Hartford bank reassured city leaders that plans for an office tower at the corner of Main and Asylum streets were real and the 45-story edifice would be built.

Just one thing stood in the way: the 78-year-old Hartford-Aetna Building, the city’s first skyscraper. Over the protests of preservationists, the 11-story building came tumbling down.

Today, nearly 25 years later, there is no tower, only a parking lot.

Hartford’s first skyscraper isn’t alone in its departure from the downtown skyline. Architectural gems like the New Palace Theater, the original YMCA building, the hotels Heublein and Garde, are all no more.

“Hartford is famous for having so much torn down,” Daniel Sterner, the author of a just-published book about lost buildings in downtown Hartford, said. “It’s one thing if you replace one building with another, but when it becomes a parking lot, that’s another thing.”

Sterner’s book, “Vanished Downtown Hartford,” provides a tour through the downtown area, chock full of engravings and photos tracing the city’s development — and redevelopment — beginning in the early 1800s. He paints a history of a living, breathing downtown area with old buildings being torn down and new ones going up.

But the book quickly raises the thorny issue — and not just for Hartford — facing cities in the 21st century: what should be demolished and what should be saved.

“Not every vanished building from the past could have been saved or even necessarily should have been saved, but by thinking about the great landmarks of Hartford’s past, we can better reflect on what should be built in the future and which of today’s historic treasures should not be lost,” Sterner writes.”

Says Elaine Grant, writing in Hartford Magazine: “So, which of today’s historic treasures should be preserved? In addition to the obvious landmarks and monuments, Sterner says he hopes some of the lesser-known historic buildings are spared the wrecking ball. “Maybe even some of the buildings that people might consider to be nondescript,” Sterner says. “I hope that those would be preserved. They may not stand out as masterpieces, but they give a sense of the city in an earlier time.”

When is it available?

“Vanished Downtown Hartford” has reappeared on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills, Goodwin, Mark Twain and Ropkins branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.