Do We Try too Hard to Preserve the Past?


By Elizabeth Normen

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2003

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Built It/Razed It is the theme of the Winter 2003 issue, in which we look at some of Greater Hartford’s significant historic structures and their surprising sagas. 

The dust had barely settled after an SUV crashed through the front parlor of Hartford’s 221-year-old Butler-McCook House last August when a letter to the editor in The Hartford Courant seemed to pour salt on the freshly boarded up wound. The writer likened the situation to the story of grandpa’s hammer, the folk tale that questions the authenticity of an old tool after its worn handle and cracked head are eventually replaced. “Will the Butler-McCook House still be the old charming house it used to be if it is rebuilt with new materials and new ideas,” challenged the writer. “Do we try too hard to preserve the past when the present is knocking on our door and the future is waiting in the driveway?” (Hartford Courant, 8/9/02)

Ouch. Insult added to injury after the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, now Connecticut Landmarks, had only just reopened the Butler-McCook House after a $1.5 million and 4-year restoration effort and expansion of the Main Street History Center. But the point is worth considering.

I had similar thoughts when reading about Guilford’s Henry Whitfield House in the Spring 2002 issue of Connecticut History. Architect J. Frederick Kelly began the first restoration in 1935 of the then nearly 300-year-old building, with only 40 percent of the original structure intact, according to Deborah Rossi, the article’s author and curator of the Shelton Historical Society. Kelly, working without original plans, made many assumptions and leaps of logic we now recognize as being Colonial Revival in spirit but nowhere near authentically Colonial in fact. The stone house, now run by the state as a museum (and almost closed during last summer’s budget wars), surely begs the question, “Is it still grandpa’s hammer?” 

Do we spend too much time preserving the past while sacrificing our future? That is the central issue in the debate on whether CIGNA’s Wilde Building and Bloomfield campus should be preserved, as discussed in a pair of stories beginning on page 24. Our story on the saloons of Hartford’s no-longer-extant Front Street gives us hindsight as to whether urban renewal — in the form of Constitution Plaza in this case — isn’t sometimes the lesser of two evils. The urge to preserve has not even entered the discussion of the local public housing featured in this issue’s photo essay on page 12. Current trends are to tear down large-scale public housing with nary a backward glance, although historical forms are — with some irony — reflected in the neo-Victorian homes taking its place in Middletown. 

But what about Butler-McCook? Although severely damaged, the vast majority of Main Street’s last 18th-century home is intact, and copious documentation ensures its restoration will be true to the original. The community’s outpouring of monetary and in-kind support would also seem to send a resounding message that preserving this part of our past is working for our future, as we come to understand that our cultural heritage can be a powerful engine for economic development. 

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Winter 2003

We have several issues on the subject of historic preservation — scroll through Back Issue or purchase our special Collection of issues — and look for the Site Lines department in each issue which discusses an historic preservation topic through funding from the State Historic Preservation Office, Department of Economic and Community Development, State of Connecticut.



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