An elegant, historic brownstone at the southern tip of Hartford Hospital’s campus will be preserved from a planned demolition for a new use in the 21st century: helping to keep the lights on at the hospital.
The Hall-Wilson Laboratory, which raised Hartford Hospital’s profile nationally in the 1920s as among the hospitals most well-equipped for research, will now be used as a key cog in a sorely-needed upgrade of the hospital’s electrical distribution system.
Last fall, there was an outcry from preservationists and the city’s Frog Hollow neighborhood when the hospital sought approval to demolish the distinctive, 3-story structure topped with a copper cupola to make way for the upgrade. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin also urged the hospital to “do everything possible to preserve what is a very attractive, historic building.”
“Recognizing the community had an interest to preserve this, we wanted to respect that and be part of the solution,” Bimal Patel, president, Hartford region, Hartford Hospital and senior vice president at the hospital’s parent, Hartford HealthCare, said during a recent tour of the building.
The hospital devised an alternative plan to put some of the new equipment inside Hall-Wilson, on Retreat Avenue near Main Street, as well as use land adjacent to the building, a project expected to be completed by the end of next year. The area will be “screened” to convey a favorable impression at what is a main entry to the Hartford Hospital campus.
Preservationists and community leaders praised the decision to preserve Hall-Wilson, most recently used for offices.
“We’re very pleased with Hartford that they found an alternative to demolition,” Mary A. Falvey, executive director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, said. “Alternatives are very often available if you just take a minute to look at it.”
The tension between saving the past and redeveloping to move ahead is thrown into particularly sharp contrast on urban hospital campuses — especially ones with long histories such as Hartford Hospital, founded in 1854.
In modern health care, there is a constant push for advances and innovation. At Hartford Hospital, the old laboratory is overshadowed by the hospital’s modern towers, including the recent $70 million expansion of the Bliss Building.
Patel said the hospital is talking with Bronin about “not just this project, but broadly about the master [hospital campus development] plan. We are working very, very closely with the mayor’s office to make sure than everything looks right for the city — and for us.”
Neighborhood leaders in Frog Hollow say they hope the debate over Hall-Wilson sparks a big-picture discussion about the future of historic structures owned by the hospital that are near its Seymour Street campus.
“We’re also very concerned about the 20 or so other buildings that Hartford Hospital owns that have been vacant for years,” Carey Shea, acting chairperson of the Frog Hollow Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, said. “Many of them are historic and in the historic district. They’re deteriorating, and it’s created somewhat of a ring of blight around Hartford Hospital. We understand the current leadership inherited this problem. We’re really hoping to work closely with them to solve it.”
‘A Million-Dollar Decision’
From the street, Hall-Wilson will appear much the same as it has since the structure was given as a gift to the hospital by wealthy benefactors in 1922. The building will get a new slate roof, window repairs and it’s rusting fire escape will be removed because it is no longer needed, according to Olusegun “Shay” Ajayi, director of operations and support services at Hartford Hospital.
But inside, the 3-story structure has been gutted and will now be equipped with modern electrical switching equipment, replacing existing ones in a building a short walk away that date to the 1940s.
To accommodate the historic building, the price tag of the $10 million upgrade will grow by between 10% and 20%, Patel said.
“It’s a million dollar decision,” Patel said. “But we said we’ve got to do that because it is possible.”
Patel said the hospital hopes the move to preserve Hall-Wilson will show it is willing to work with the city and the neighborhood to preserve historic structures as much as it can and still meet the demands of modern medicine, a fine balance to strike.
Bronin, the Hartford mayor, praised the hospital not only for preserving Hall-Wilson, but its heavy investments elsewhere in the city, including establishing Hartford HealthCare’s headquarters downtown at 100 Pearl St.
Hall-Wilson, Bronin said, “is a beautiful, historic building and in a city that has lost so much of its history, it is great to see that building preserved, and I’m grateful to the hospital for working through what I know is a challenging set of considerations.”
Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at firstname.lastname@example.org.