David Ransom, Hartford historian

Hartford lost one of its best historians with the recent death of David Ransom, at age 100.

Visitors to HartfordHistory.net may recognize Dave as the co-author, with Gregory Andrews, of  “Structures and Styles: Guided Tours of Hartford Architecture,” an indispensable (though, sadly, out-of-print) book that gave thumb-nail sketches of every significant building in the city, including ones even most Hartford denizens took for granted. I had the great pleasure of interviewing him for this article on the book.

Dave also wrote a biography of Hartford architect George Keller and worked closely with just about every preservation group in the region. But in reading his obituary, I’m struck most of all by the fact that Dave turned his focus to architectural history relatively late in life. He had been international sales manager for M. Swift & Sons Inc. of Hartford when, at age 50, he retired and embarked on a new life. The accomplishments after that move speak for themselves:

He was the author of “George Keller, Architect”, the definitive biography of the celebrated Hartford architect. This book is also the acknowledged study of Keller’s vast architectural legacy, which included designs for monuments, houses, institutional buildings and bridges. Dave also wrote “Structures and Styles: Guided Tours of Hartford Architecture”, co-authored with Gregory Andrews. He worked closely with The Connecticut Historical Commission, and was instrumental in establishing historic districts in Hartford, particularly the areas of Congress Street and Lewis Street. In addition, he was a visiting lecturer at Trinity College and served as a board member with several organizations, including Cedar Hill Cemetery, The CT Historical Society, CT Preservation Action, and the West Hartford Historic District Commission. He received the Harlan H. Griswold award, Connecticut’s highest award for historic preservation, from the Connecticut Trust for History Preservation in 1991.

A life well-lived.

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Speaking of flooding

The hurricanes and resulting flooding in Texas and Florida reminded me of a photo I took eight years ago in Riverside Park. Near the Bulkeley Bridge, there was a pillar that hosted a series of markers for the high-water points in Hartford’s most severe floods, at least since 1936:

To stand before that pillar and then look across the path at the Connecticut River is to send your imagination reeling:

To see the effects of these disasters, check out the photos at the Connecticut Digital Archive. Here, for instance, are search results for the 1936 flood. It’s easy to see why so much was invested in building the dikes that have protected the city since the 1940s:

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Listen up! There’s a Connecticut history podcast

If you need to tune out the everyday world for a little while (and who doesn’t?) listen to “Grating the Nutmeg,” a podcast about Connecticut history.  A co-production of the magazine Connecticut Explored and the Office of the State Historian, “Grating” already has an archive of 34 episodes, and some center on Hartford. The most recent of them: Episode 32, entitled “Hops, Beer, and Hartford’s 1902 Brewery Strike.” Guest Steve Thornton of the Shoeleather History Project tells what happened when workers at Hartford’s four (yes, four!) breweries went on strike. There’s also “The NEW Harriet Beecher Stowe Center” (Episode 31), “Art, Agency, Legacy: Amistad Center for Art & Culture” (Episode 29), and “The Smithsonian’s Eric Hintz: Hartford As a Place of Invention (Episode 22), among others.

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Learn all about Sam Colt

The life of Samuel Colt, the pioneering industrialist behind Hartford’s Colt firearms factory, will be the subject of a free noontime talk at the Old State House on Thursday, August 17, by Bert Barnett, the National Park Service ranger assigned to the Coltsville National Historical Park.

“Through providing efficient arms required during the 19th century, Colt revolutionized the arms industry and, though not alone in this role, he was unique and undeniably controversial,” the Old State House says in its announcement.

Registration for the talk isn’t required, but it is encouraged: http://bit.ly/2uuh70k.

Congress created the national historic park in 2014. The official opening is expected soon, but Barnett already gives walking tours of the component properties, including the factory complex, the city’s Colt Park (formerly part of the Colt estate), and the Church of the Good Shepherd, which Elizabeth Colt commissioned as a memorial to her husband, who was only 47 when he died in 1862.

You can keep up on Coltsville news in a variety of places, among them:

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Props for the Polish National Home

For a while, it looked as though the Polish National Home on Charter Oak Avenue had settled into hidden-gem status. Architecture buffs loved its circa-1930 Art Deco facade and beautiful ballroom; lovers of pierogies and beer always had a home in the unpretentious dining room. But even Hartford boosters would forget to list the Home as one of the city’s attractions.

Fortunately, that appears to be changing. The Hartford Courant has taken notice of a new generation of leaders at the Home. One of them, board president Rob Kwasnicki, told the newspaper that the Home aims to boost membership by not only remaining loyal to Polish heritage and culture but also becoming an engine of progress for the Charter Oak neighborhood and the city as a whole. Steps so far have included sprucing up the rooms new members are most likely to use, like the dining room, and loading up the calendar with community events.

“We have an opportunity for the Polish National Home to be be what it has always been: an anchor in the community,” Kwasnicki said. “We can be a focal point, a gathering place, a beacon or central point of informational disbursement.”

 

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Still Missing the Whale

Amazingly, it will be 20 years on Thursday since the Hartford Whalers played their last game. On April 13, 1997, they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Civic Center, 2-1, then decamped for Raleigh, North Carolina and changed their name to the Carolina Hurricanes.

It still hurts.

The Whale began life in 1971 as the Boston-based New England Whalers of the World Hockey League. The team moved to Hartford for the 1974-75 season,  playing its first game in the brand-spanking-new Hartford Civic Center Coliseum on January 11, 1975. The team thrived in Hartford, which led to it becoming one of just four WHA teams accepted into the National Hockey League in the WHA-NHL merger of 1979. Along with the new league came a new name: the Hartford Whalers.

Software entrepreneur Peter Karmanos Jr. bought the Whalers in 1994 and soon began pressing the state of Connecticut, which owned the Civic Center, for a bigger and better facility, along with better lease terms. (Increased luxury-box seating and similar “revenue streams” figured prominently here.) Negotiations with the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland broke down. In March 1997, Karmanos announced that the current season would be his team’s last in Hartford.

Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs, who began covering the Whalers in 1984, wrote a tribute to the Whalers last Sunday, making sure to eviscerate both Karmonos and the recently re-imprisoned Rowland. One line in particular was news to me:

Rowland, from Waterbury and not a hockey guy, didn’t love the Whalers enough to do everything to save the team. General manager Jim Rutherford later told me if he had offered Karmanos anything resembling what he offered Robert Kraft to move the [New England] Patriots [to Connecticut], the NHL would still be in Hartford.

Argh!

So we are left with nostalgia. To that end, enjoy the great photo gallery that accompanies Jacobs’ column. It might also make you feel better to follow the indefatigable Hartford Whalers Booster Club on Facebook.

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