Hartford has had both good and ill fortune in its long history, but rarely both at the same time. That is what happened, dramatically, on a cold, snowy morning 35 years ago today.
The previous evening, in the building then known as the Hartford Civic Center, the UConn men's basketball team beat UMass 56 to 49, as a snowstorm raged outside. Everyone went home. And at about 4 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1978, the roof of the center's Veterans Memorial Coliseum collapsed; tons of steel crashed down on the very seats that just six hours previously had held 5,000 fans.
It could have been the worst single-event disaster in American history. But we got very lucky.
Miraculously – a word much used at the time, and still apropos today — nobody was hurt. Not a player. Not a fan. Not a Civic Center employee. The 14-ton, 108,000-square-foot experimental "space frame" roof buckled under the weight of ice and snow, plummeted some 80 feet, and hit absolutely no one. Investigators blamed design flaws for the collapse.
What followed was, in its way, almost as miraculous. Within hours, city leaders vowed to rebuild the coliseum "bigger and better." Mindful of the economic shot in the arm that the Civic Center had given the city's fading downtown, local business executives and state officials got on board. The rebuilt facility opened two years later.
The XL Center, as it was re-christened in 2007, has served the city well but is again seeking a rebirth. The arena and its facilities, now owned by the city and operated by a private firm under a contract with the Connecticut Development Authority, are out of date: the seats are too narrow, the restrooms too few, the concession stands too remote. A study last year estimated that between $30 million and $90 million worth of renovation is needed. Several entities have submitted bids to renovate, then manage, the facility. Both public and private money probably will be needed.
The day after the 1978 collapse, a Courant editorial urged, "as for the rebuilding, it should not be whether, but when." That is as true now as it was then: This key downtown — and regional — asset must be kept viable.