From the Hartford Courant
May 23, 2004
Ellsworth S. Grant
The last major area of the city to develop, Albany Avenue served for two centuries as the highway route from Hartford to the west. In 1678, it was laid out by the General Assembly as the Talcott Mountain Turnpike. From 1792 to 1872, six chartered turnpike companies controlled all the main arteries in and out of Hartford, charging for the right to travel them. Eventually, the turnpike extended all the way to Albany, N.Y.
A stage line owned by the enterprising James Goodwin of Hartford ran 40 coaches and more than 400 horses not only to Albany, but also to Boston and Providence. Goodwin owned much of the land on Albany Avenue. In 1854, the Talcott Mountain Turnpike Co. deeded the stage road to Hartford, and in 1962 it was added to the state highway system as Route 44.
In the early days, travelers, most of whom were peddlers, could not cover more than 8 miles an hour and were discouraged from riding at night or on the Sabbath. Conveniently located taverns provided for the needs of man and beast. In 1828, In t opened a tavern at the junction of Albany Avenue at the corner of Prospect Avenue. The tavern's sign, reading "S. Wadsworth's Inn" and featuring an eagle on one side and a lion on the other, was a welcome sight to the weary peddler. His horse would be stabled and fed, and in the taproom, he could enjoy a couple of rum toddies before a blazing fire. The rules of the house were strict, such as "No more than five to sleep in one bed, no boots to be worn in bed, organ grinders to sleep in the wash house."
The Wadsworths' tavern survived until 1862. The house still stands. There was also a tavern at the corner of Albany and Blue Hills avenues, operated by the Adams family.
The earliest housing dates from the 1870s, after James Goodwin's land was acquired by the Connecticut Western Railroad. At the corner of Albany Avenue and Vine Street, James G. Batterson, founder of the Travelers Insurance Co. and builder of the state Capitol, erected an imposing stone residence. Other substantial homes rose along Vine Street as far as Keney Park. A wealthy wholesale grocer and bachelor, Henry Keney had left his entire fortune for the acquisition of some 600 acres of farmland and woodlot, the largest of Hartford's six public parks. The Keney Park trustees opened Westbourne Parkway from Albany to Ridgefield Street in 1909, a section of the "ring of parks" conceived by the Rev. Francis Goodwin.
Building houses for the influx of newcomers from abroad was stimulated by the opening of the trolley line in 1895, which enabled workers to take advantage of the boom in downtown jobs. (During the last decade of the 19th century, the city's population jumped 50 percent.) Single- and multifamily framed houses in shingle, colonial and Queen Anne styles proliferated along Albany and Blue Hills avenues; many featured store and church fronts. At 1240 Albany Ave., Northwest District School opened in 1885.
Twenty-one new streets were created that fed into the avenue. In 1900, the Homestead Park Corp. laid out a residential development encompassing Irving, Magnolia, Burton, Edgewood and Cabot streets. The construction was done by Irish and Italian contractors along with Jewish carpenters who had emigrated from Russia. Running parallel to Albany from Garden Street, Homestead Avenue attracted various industrial concerns on its south side.
The best-known landmark is the former Horace Bushnell Congregational Church at the corner of Albany and Vine. It had been built on North Main Street in Hartford in 1850 as the Fourth Congregational Church. But in 1913, the parish decided to sell its property for a movie theater and move westward. The "new" church was designed by the Hartford architectural firm of Davis & Brooks, which fortunately persuaded the congregation to preserve the elegant portico and steeple, modeled after New Haven's famous Center Church on the Green. Now the home of the Liberty Christian Church, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Among the earliest enterprises were the Hartford Trotting Park & Fairgrounds on the south side of Albany and, on the opposite side, Bernard McGurk's wagon and blacksmith shop. At 17 Albany Ave. stood the Hartford Lumber Co., still in business. For many years, the New Method Laundry thrived at 61-67 Albany. It was owned by my grandfather, Albert deBarthe. When he died in 1917, the laundry had 60 employees and seven teams of drivers and wagons. Until recently, one prominent business was the Thomas Cadillac dealership, which will soon become the University of Hartford's performing arts center.
For too long, Albany Avenue was viewed as a cluttered and run-down commercial strip. It took an aggressive black real estate investor to start a resurgence of growth. In 1973, the Rev. Collin B. Bennett, a Jamaican immigrant and city councilman, erected a modern office building, which now bears his name, at 1229 Albany. Its neighbors were the North United Methodist Church and the Weaver Building, which recently underwent façade improvements. What the late Rev. Bennett begot, Dollie and Jackie McLean have built on with their landmark Artists Collective building across the street.
There is no doubt that the Albany Avenue neighborhood will soon become one of Hartford's rising stars.
Ellsworth S. Grant, a former mayor of West Hartford, has written more than 20 books about Connecticut. His most recent is "A Connecticut Journey" (Wood Pond Press, 2004).