The Ugly Buildings of Hartford Tour

by admin

Hartford’s reputation as a cored-out shell of an old New England factory town is largely undeserved. In fact, the city is packed with historic and downright pretty structures. The State Capitol, the Twain house, and The Linden, just to name a few. In fact, with urban revitalization running rampant, the city’s ugly buildings are rapidly becoming an endangered species. 

Oh, sure, Hartford still has the usual urban trouble spots: boarded-up projects, busted-open vacants, but so does pretty much every city in America—and let’s face it, nowhere else competes with Detroit. Even their darkest moments, Hartford’s home-sellers never lose that spirit of entrepreneurial New England.

No, what I’m worried about are the loss of unspeakable, mastadonic eyesores. Perhaps it’s best to start with the old H.B. Davis Department Store, otherwise known as the “Butt-Ugly Building”. Architecturally, it’s not devoid of style, but in terms of raw decay, its tough to beat—an effect enhanced by its remoteness from other structures; the last rotting tooth of an otherwise gummy smile.

Now, as far as downtown blight goes, this isn’t so bad. Its isolation makes it more ignorable than you might otherwise think. Despite close proximity to the interstate, view of it is blocked by coming into the city from the east, and in the other direction, you can only just catch a glimpse as you head into the downtown underpass.

But its catchy nickname and involvement in the corruption trial of a former mayor have made it something of lightning rod, and sadly, it’s slated to be purchased by the city and demolished ASAP; given its current state of disrepair, it might be cheaper to do it 313 style and let mother nature finish the job. Regardless, its days are numbered—see it while you can.

Another landmark, and one that I’ve never found particularly awful, is the old Clarion Hotel. While a wince-inducing monument to the cultural and stylistic values of 1960’s America, it’s not decaying—at least not externally—and its eyesore status is rooted in boring design rather than outright offensiveness.

It’s also shielded from Hartford’s three major thoroughfares by better-looking buildings. In fact, the only reason I know it exists is because it’s very close to the pedestrian/bike overpass that runs from downtown across the river to East Hartford. This being Connecticut, that puts it smack dab in the daily routine of, oh, seven or eight people. 

No, the problem with this particular building is that it lies in what the city would like to label as an exciting, mixed-use development area; with a big, old, empty, white, dull building sitting in the middle of it, that’s going to be an increasingly tough sell with each passing year

For me, there’s one Hartford eyesore that is simply without equal—the Capitol West Office Center. Forget being near the interstate; this hulking turd of concrete and steel is so close you can reach out and touch it—a sensation one experiences in both directions, thanks to a near-overlap of eastbound and westbound lanes at its doorstep. 

The facade has completely eroded at the building’s closest pass to the Interstate. It’s sort of thing that’d make you think a tanker truck or two had careened over the jersey barrier and exploded into it, but that still wouldn’t address how every single window on the structure managed to get blown out. 

Even in pristine condition, I can’t imagine there was much to say about Capitol West. What’s left of its front door—long since fenced off, boarded-up, and papered-over—looks like the result of an unholy union between a bomb shelter and a Chevy Corvair. A large, semicircular dong of a staircase protrudes from the crotch of its otherwise L-shaped footprint, as if the architect had thought “Anyone can build ugly, anonymous buildings—I want mine to get noticed.” Mission accomplished, jackass.

The real tragedy is that, the cacophony of I-84 not withstanding, Capitol West is bogarting some seriously ideal real estate. It’s right next door to an Amtrak station that’s soon to be part of both a commuter rail line and a high-speed rail corridor, and all the downtown attractions are a block or two beyond that. In the other direction lie Aetna, Hartford Financial, St. Francis Hospital and a bevy of other big-deal employers. 

Depending on who you asked and when, Capital West is about to become housing, or a transportation center [pdf], or offices—then again, it’s been slated to be something else for the majority of its existence. Until then, it remains an unmistakable festering wound. Despite recent efforts on the city’s part to gussy it up, it’s the best example of what a dying breed.

Like what you see? Looking to extend your tour? The City of Hartford has a few other post-apocalyptic gems still tucked away amongst its various streets and alleys.