The View From Main

Nature's Great Getaways
Rebecca Taber-Conover says it happens all the time: As she leads a tour down Hartford's Main Street, people are bowled over by its history and architecture - once it is brought to their attention.

"A lot of folks - and I was this way, too - you drive down the street to pick somebody up at Travelers, and you don't see the great architectural details that are there," she says.

Everyone has experienced this: seeing without really seeing.

Conover is among the leaders of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society's "Discovering Hartford's Main Street" walking tours, the next of which will be May 6.

"Going by foot is a nice way to do it, especially as we hit the warmer months," she says.

With the nearby Adraien's Landing revitalization project progressing apace and expected to draw more people downtown, the Main Street tours are a natural complement, helping put the entire area in historical context.

The tour takes in nine blocks from South Green to what is today Capitol Community College, a stretch of eight-tenths of a mile that includes an extraordinarily rich mix of Hartford heritage, with notable buildings dating from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

For a newcomer, it's an essential introduction to Hartford history. For those who've lived in the area for years, it's a chance to take the blinders off.

"We do have our treasures here in Hartford," Conover says. "And often ... we don't explore what is in our own backyard. Our walking tours are a way to do that, for people who work or live near Hartford."

One example is the bridge over the Little River, or Park River, as the river is known today. Whether walking or driving on Main Street the bridge is easily overlooked - not to mention the river beneath, which for more than a half century has been hidden from view under the blacktop of the Conlon-Whitehead Highway.

The tour usually takes 60 to 90 minutes and involves a walk of about 1.6 miles on sidewalks over flat terrain. It begins at the society's historic Butler-McCook House, which was built in 1782 and was lived in during four generations by the same family, until 1970.

The Butler-McCook House is an oasis today, the only 18th-century residence remaining on Main Street, and it serves to underscore how Main Street has changed over the centuries.

Main Street north of the Park River was for years the epicenter of city life, but once a permanent stone bridge was erected over the river in 1833, the area south of the river developed in earnest. Churches were built; elegant Gothic-style homes went up; apartment buildings appeared.

The tour stops, for example, at St. Peter's Church, south of the river, which was built from 1865 to 1868 to serve the city's growing Irish population. The first wave of Irish immigrants arrived in the 1820s, and another followed in the 1840s. Many of them worked in Hartford's factories or as domestics for wealthy city families.

The Ellery Hills House, a Greek Revival residence dating to about 1842, still survives. Its four towering columns are duly noted on the tour.

South Green is the southern boundary of Main Street, once used as a place for cattle to graze but made into a park in the 1860s. It was designed by Jacob Weidenmann, a landscape architect who also designed Bushnell Park. Look for the original iron fencing along the west side.

North of the Park River is Center Church, dating from 1807 and the fourth meeting house in a line that goes back to the Rev. Thomas Hooker and the city's first settlers. Next door is the Ancient Burying Ground, said to be the only historic site in the city dating to the 17th century.

Taber-Conover, who is the society's director of education, says the cemetery is often overlooked by people walking or driving Main Street because the gravestones are set back a distance from the street, though they are in plain view.

"It is a wonderful site, and you can learn about some of the first people that lived here in Hartford," she says. "And gravestone art is one of the first forms of folk art. New England graveyards are renowned; people come from all over to look at them - and here we have one right on Main Street."

On the east side of the street is the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which Taber-Conover says was a one-stop shop for culture in the 19th century. At that time, the Atheneum also housed the Young Men's Institute, a forerunner of the public library, the Connecticut Historical Society and the Natural History Society.

The tour takes in 19 notable structures in all, including the Travelers building; Christ Church Cathedral; the former G. Fox & Co. building, which is now Capitol Community College; the Old State House, designed by Charles Bulfinch; and the elegant Cheney block, designed by one of the preeminent 19th-century architects, Henry Hobson Richardson.

The May 6 tour begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Butler-McCook House & Garden, 396 Main St. Reservations are required by calling 860-522-1806. Cost is $6 for society members, $8 for non-members. The society also offers other walking tours in Hartford on the second Saturday of each month from 10:30 a.m. until noon, also beginning at the Butler-McCook House & Garden. This Saturday's tour is "Discovering Hartford's Urban Parks and Outdoor Sculpture." Contact the society for reservations and information on other walking tours available.