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Hartford is a small city. There are two major north-south streets in the center of the city, Main and Trumbull and one significant east west local road, Asylum St. Asylum exits Hartford to the west, and splits into Asylum Avenue and Farmington Avenue. In the days before Interstates 91 (north-south) and 84 (east-west) were built, the corner of Asylum St, and Trumbull would have been a prominent address. Two buildings anchor the east side of Trumbull, The Charter Oak Bank Building and the Stackpole, Moore and Tryon clothing store. These buildings date to about 1861, although accurate construction records proved difficult to establish. The buildings were standing in 1862. The following segments have been extracted from the National Registry of Historic Places nomination form.
Built in the mid-nineteenth century, the Charter Oak Bank building is a fine example of elaborate, Italianate commercial architecture, and the only one of its type in Hartford. Free from alterations damaging to its elegance and integrity, the finely detailed classic fenestration and period cornice make the structure architecturally important. In addition, the Charter Oak Bank building’s association for three-quarters of a century with Hartford banking gives it an important place in the city’s financial history.
The stone was presumably quarried in nearby Portland, Connecticut, which furnished the famous Portland brownstone for many of the brownstone blocks in New York City. Hartford, though close by, used relatively little of Portland’s brownstone. Only a handful of brownstone front row houses were built, of which two rows remain. Of the half dozen brownstone faced commercial buildings still standing in the downtown area all have plain, unadorned windows. Only the Charter Oak Bank building has the classic window caps, acanthus consoles, and projecting sills which mark the palazzo mode and give this building its surface interest and stylish presence. The second, third, and fourth floors remain as they originally appeared, while on the ground floor original windows have been replaced in a compatible manner.
The first floor along Asylum Street was divided into two parts, with the bank occupying the western half. Entrance was through double doors under an arch in the bay just east of the rounded corner. Continuing east were three tall rectangular windows, completing the bank’s half of the facade. The eastern half was the Hartford One Price Clothing Company, which had large plate glass windows on either side of the central entrance, all under an awning.
The Charter Oak Bank building was home to a few banks over time, but even as far back as the late 1800s, life for a small bank in the northeast was precarious. Small banks were gobbled up by larger banks. Banks at this location became part of Connecticut Bank and Trust (CBT) which was a thriving bank when I moved to Hartford in 1981. From 1981 until 1988, I worked for consulting firms, and I was primarily involved with banks and financial institutions. In 1988, CBT was acquired by Shawmut National Corporation. The consumption has continued and, as many of you are aware, the US banking market is dominated by several large nationwide banks, many regional banks and a smattering of local banks.
Once again, from the nomination form. Equally as significant as this synopsis of banking history associated with the building is its demonstration of the popularity and problems with the use of brownstone as a building material. In his book Bricks & Brownstone Charles Lockwood points out that brownstone is a soft, close grained sandstone with a humble background as an inexpensive substitute for marble or limestone. Nevertheless, by a quirk of fashion in the late 1840’s it had come to epitomize luxury and architectural sophistication. To last, brownstone must be cut across the grain and laid with the grain running perpendicular to the building facade, but as these procedures were time-consuming they were ignored more often than not. As was rather common, here the stone was laid with the grain, allowing water to seep in over the years and, upon freezing, split the stone. The Charter Oak Bank building amply demonstrates the use of brownstone for high fashion and prestige, and the mis-use of brownstone whereby cost-cutting methods brought on deterioration, which now has been remedied by restoration.
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