As city, state and federal transportation planners assess the need for rebuilding Interstates I-91 and I-84 through Hartford, and with public consensus overwhelmingly in support of repairing the mistakes both expressways imposed on the capital city’s physical and cultural fabric over the last half-century, Hartford has a unique opportunity to assign new meaning to the city’s identity through public infrastructure by celebrating prominently two of its most important local heroes: the prolific 19th century park planner Frederick Law Olmsted, and the late 20th century Hollywood screen legend Katharine Houghton Hepburn.
Creative giants in their respective eras, both hailed from Hartford, yet conspicuously no appropriately scaled local public memorials celebrate their contributions to national culture.
Regarded as the founder of American Landscape Architecture, Olmsted (1822–1903) was the son of a prosperous Hartford merchant who encouraged young Frederick’s education and skills as a writer. His career as a journalist had national impact reporting on the scourge of slavery in the antebellum South prior and during the civil war.
Later, as the preeminent park planner of his era, he was widely lauded for designing New York’s Central Park, the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the United States Capitol Grounds, and scores of public parks across the nation.
Indeed, this year landscape architects nationwide are celebrating the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth. A presager of ecological diversity and sustainability, Olmsted promoted his parks as a refreshing refuge from the toil of urban living.
Olmsted is interred in a nondescript family plot at the Old North Burial Ground. The City of Hartford maintains his tomb, where recently the city parks department placed a handsome marker detailing his life.
Although Olmsted’s broader memorial can be assessed in the work he produced –his verdant park spaces serve millions of citizens and stand the test of time– celebrating the Hartford soil from which he grew in a more outwardly visible, nationally significant manner is in order.
Many civic design possibilities will emerge as the Hartford400, I-84/I-91 planning effort unfolds. As part of their replacement, new parkways anticipated along the banks of the Connecticut River are projected to cap I-91, extending from Colt’s Armory south of downtown and north to Riverside Park, eliminating noise and shadow now blighting the city’s gateway riverfront near State Street and Columbus Boulevard.
However, interpreting these improvements as a new Frederick Law Olmsted Memorial Parkway would give Hartford the iconic, signature boulevard the genius park designer deserves and that Hartford residents and all Connecticut can be proud of.
Likewise, the city owes tribute to Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907 -2003). The “local gal” –as she herself ceremoniously scrawled it on the walls of the Bushnell Auditorium — was born to a suffrage-activist mother, and physician and public health advocate father. Raised primarily on Hawthorne Street in Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood, Katharine’s liberal-minded parents encouraged their daughter to be heard and to use her independence of mind to explore the world of arts, letters, and athleticism.
Like Mark Twain before her, she applied self-determination, eccentric wit and artistic talents to inspire fans over a career that lasted decades. She holds the record for the most Academy Awards won by a single actor in roles often reflecting obliquely or directly the challenges overcome by woman and people of color through the latter half of the 20th Century.
A small garden on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where she maintained a townhouse honors Hepburn as does an art gallery in Old Saybrook where she famously summered. However, the emphatically proud Hartford native has no local signboard.
Ways to commemorate the screen legend include boldly spanning a revamped I-84 Expressway via a greenway overpass extending, potentially, from the West Boulevard to Frog Hollow east, Parkville south and the Asylum Hill neighborhood not far from where she grew up, linking residents to Pope and Bushnell Parks.
Imagine a wide, landscaped bicycle and pedestrian connection prioritizing people over cars, with a sculpture park and belvedere traversing rail and bus right of ways below as it replaces the aging eyesore Sisson Avenue ramps now looming over Capitol Avenue; a psychological barrier between communities where no less, the north and south branches of the long-entombed Park River merge. The overpass could also include the East Coast Greenway Project, offering cyclists an alternative to commuting about Hartford in something other than an automobile.
Rebuilding the civic cohesion these highways weakened will take strident public policy through determined advocacy. However the area’s rich ethnic, institutional and business abutters make it fertile ground for thoughtful reinvention and place-making.
With President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill now established law, U.S. Rep. John Larson, Gov. Ned Lamont and the Connecticut Department of Transportation –using input from local stakeholders, environmental advocacy groups and real estate developers– have the tools to bring forth a vision that supports and promotes local history and culture.
Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway offers successful precedent. A key environmental outcome of that city’s Central Artery (I-93 replacement) Project, and taking over a decade to realize, the verdant parkway is well programmed; an environmental and cultural bonanza now paying handsome dividends after attracting a cascade of new urban investment.
Were they alive today Olmsted and Hepburn would recognize the challenge and ask what kind of world is Hartford planning for? Are its citizens and leaders engaged in making the city greener, more just, and more beautiful? Honoring Olmsted and Hepburn through a legacy parkways project can help achieve that end.
Michael J. Tyrrell, a former Hartford resident, is a Boston-based Consultant in Architecture, Planning and Landscape Design. He is organizing a tour to explore the proposed Hepburn Parkway corridor this June. Interested participant-stakeholders may reach him at Onetyrrellplaza@gmail.org