The history and development of the city of Hartford has so many facets it could inspire hundreds of museum exhibits. Three that are opening on Friday at Connecticut Historical Society focus on three aspects of the city: its postwar development boom, the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper and the city's varied domestic and retail architecture.
"(Re)Building Hartford" is structured around the drawings of Richard Welling, who looked at Hartford with loving eyes and drew what he saw for 30 years. "The Hartford Courant, Connecticut, And The Country" spotlights the highlights in the history of The Courant. "Hartford Seen" is a broad look at the everyday Hartford of the 21st century as seen in the homes and businesses of its residents.
Welling (1926-2009) a Hartford native, worked as a professional illustrator. But his true love was drawing cityscapes. From the early '60s to the early '90s, he chronicled a constantly changing city in an age of urban renewal and seemingly neverending demolition and reconstruction.
"It's very unusual to have one person doing this in one city for such a long period of time," said Andrea Rapacz, head of interpretive projects at CHS and one of the organizers of the exhibit, "(Re)Building Hartford," which is made up of drawings that Welling's family donated to the CHS in 2012.
The exhibit focuses on "The Fourth Build," a phrase Hartford architect Jared Edwards uses to describe the changing landscape of modern Hartford. It refers to the four phases of the city's development: wooden buildings (1635-1780), brick (1780-1860), stone (1860-1945) and steel (1945-today).
Sometimes Welling's drawings were commissioned. Some were done for his own pleasure. "He just loved to draw. You can see it in the details," Rapacz said. "He liked being around construction sites. ... He loved to draw windows."
The city of Hartford gave him lots of construction sites to visit and lots of skyscraper windows to draw. As the city grew and changed, Welling followed it every step of the way. Some buildings he drew just once, but others he couldn't let go, creating ongoing series recording their gradual development.
'The CHS exhibit doesn't ignore the negative aspects of a changing urban landscape: hundreds of people displaced from their homes, and businesses forced to move. A biography at richardwelling.com reads "New construction often meant existing buildings had to come down. Welling lovingly drew the old buildings and bemoaned their loss, creating a record of what had come before — how Hartford had looked. He often sketched the demolition process underway."
Rapacz elaborated. "Richard had to move four different times. He said that every time he moved into a building it was that building's death knell," she said. "He finally moved someplace that didn't have to come down. He didn't just draw it, he lived it."
In at least one case, Welling recorded an unplanned building destruction: the roof of the Hartford Civic Center, which collapsed in 1978.
Late in life, Rapacz said, Welling moved on to other subjects to draw. "There were fewer buildilngs going up and fewer coming down," she said.
'The Hartford Courant, Connecticut, And The Country'
The Hartford Courant published its first issue 250 years ago this month, on Oct. 29, 1764. The CHS exhibit, which will be up for a month, features a printing press from the early 1800s; a 19th-century magic lantern used to project election results onto the side of a building; two printing plates from the 70s; a copy of the first Connecticut Courant; as well as delivery bags and honor boxes from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Many of the high points in Courant history are covered: the first issue, the reporting of the Declaration of Independence, as well as reportings of other big stories such as the Amistad, the 1944 circus fire, the Courant's first Pulitzer Prize, the closing of the Hartford Times, etc.
But the exhibit's charm is in the smaller stuff. The first illustration to appear in The Courant, in 1769, was a cute little drawing of a horse named Handsome Harry, which accompanied a classified ad. The first photo, in March 1889, showed the nation's capital, in a special section celebrating all our presidents, from Washington to Benjamin Harrison. The first editorial cartoon, from 1897, makes a point about steam railroads that will be indecipherable by contemporary readers. The first comic strip, from 1916, "Millie and Her Millions," ridiculed women's suffrage: "Millie" wanted to vote for the candidate with the most impressive head of hair. And what about that letter that is clutched in the bird's beak in the Courant's Page 1 crest? That symbolizes the speed at which the news is delivered each day.
The fall of the Charter Oak in 1856 inspired a panicked headline — "The Charter Oak Is Prostrate!" — and a woeful poem: "Oh then a hallowed tomb its shell for you should be, and the urn that holds your dust, this legendary tree!"
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 provoked an equally excitable reaction from The Courant. The headline read: "The Day of Jubilee Has Come! The Battle Fought and Victory Won! Lincoln Our Next President! Bring Out the Big Gun, Boys!"
"Hartford Seen: Photographs by Pablo Delano" is a series of 126 color photographs taken by the Trinity College art professor all over the city between 2009 and 2014. Each concentrates on one building, a home or a business, or a local landmark such as a cemetery, a park or a panoramic view.
"The buildings look one way when you drive by, then when you look at it dead-on, it's different," Rapacz said. "It makes you really think about the buildings in your neighborhood."
Some of the buildings are elegant. Some are more hardscrabble. A diverse blend of architecture is seen. As Delano says in a video in the gallery, "in addition to being a layering of physical materials, it's a layering of history."
(RE)BUILDING HARTFORD: A CITY CAPTURED BY ARTIST RICHARD WELLING and HARTFORD SEEN: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PABLO DELANO are at Connecticut Historical Society, One Elizabeth St. in Hartford, until March 14. "THE HARTFORD COURANT, CONNECTICUT AND THE COUNTRY" is up until Nov. 1. Details and information on satellite exhibits: www.chs.org.