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Constitution Plaza was built for $42 million and completed in stages from 1962 to 1964. Its planning and construction were spearheaded by a committee of local corporate leaders and business interests, beginning in the late 1950s. After running into financial turmoil in its early stages, the project was eventually completed by Hartford-based Travelers Insurance Company.
It was the first substantial urban redevelopment project in Hartford and replaced a run-down, working class, ethnic neighborhood known as Front Street. Subject to periodic flooding (before the construction of riverfront dikes and Interstate 91) and in serious physical decline, this neighborhood was nostalgically known for its large Italian-American population and its eclectic collection of local restaurants, businesses and shops. The merit of its wholesale demolition to accommodate Constitution Plaza is still locally debated nearly five decades after the decision was made. (The name "Front Street" is so well-gilded through years of lamenting its demise, it has been resurrected as the official project name for a large mixed-use development to be built adjacent to the new Connecticut Convention Center complex, although this project has experienced numerous delays and has lost a number of sponsoring developer partners over the last several years.)
Situated at the eastern side of Hartford's downtown area, near Connecticut's landmark Old State House, this complex of office towers, commercial buildings, parking garages and a hotel covers three city blocks, and is connected by a series of elevated pedestrian plazas and bridges.
The present state of Constitution Plaza could be considered an example of "the great-but-unfinished planning idea". Set on a gently sloping site, the design originated from the idea that the raised plaza would be set at the elevation of Hartford's Main Street shopping area, a block west of the project, and would (eventually) be connected by overhead bridges. For various reasons, the bridges were never built. A proposed arena and convention center to be sited east of the plaza were also eliminated from the original plan and moved west of Main Street, and became today's XL Center. As a result, this vast complex sits high above the cityscape, disconnected and mostly devoid of pedestrian life except during workdays. This is also the primary reason that the plaza's original "retail court" was never successful. However, as later office tower developments occurred on adjacent blocks, in particular to the east and south, additional pedestrian bridges were built to connect them to the plaza. Most successful was the culmination of a 25-year effort through the much-regarded Riverfront Recapture initiative. Fulfilling a long-held planning goal, Constitution Plaza is now connected to the river's edge via a new (also elevated) pedestrian space that crosses over (a vastly reconfigured) Interstate 91 to a large waterfront amphitheater and walkways up-and-down river, and then across the Connecticut River to East Hartford.
Constitution Plaza is a fine example of mid-twentieth-century commercial design and has sustained minimal alterations. Its three largest office towers showcase various styles of glass-and-spandrel panel systems, with the glass areas recently replaced with more reflective and energy-efficient systems.
Of particular note is the blue-green glass, two-sided Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Building. Referred to locally as "the boat building", especially when viewed at its two bowed "corners", it is the largest and last of the plaza's original tenants and is regarded as the signature building of Constitution Plaza, and considered one of Connecticut's finest modern architectural treasures. For many years, its claim to trivia has been that it is the only "two-sided building" in the world. In addition to that, the Connecticut Science Center & Conference Center is adjacent to Constitution Plaza with Adrien's landing and walkway to East Hartford, Connecticut.
The three-level (abandoned in 2008 and demolished in 2009) Broadcast House building was the home of local CBS affiliate station, WFSB-TV, (formerly WTIC-TV) since 1962, which moved to a new building in the southern suburb of Rocky Hill in mid-2007. The squat square structure sat mostly below plaza level, and was noted for its cantilevered waffle-like roof parapet, with a roof garden space in the center of this feature. The site is slated to house a research and development building.
Other structures include a U-shaped (former) retail court at its northern end, which has been altered with a new office complex 'piggybacked' on its eastern side. At first, it contained such upmarket specialty stores as Brentano's bookstore and a branch of W & J Sloane furniture. Also built was a 12-story, 300-room hotel building that has been abandoned for over a decade. Originally opened as Hotel America in April 1964, it later was operated for almost twenty years as an upscale Sonesta Hotel property, then finally as a Clarion hotel before closing in the mid-1990s. The property was then owned by an investment group tied to religious order, several recent renovation attempts have been thwarted, due in large part to the high asking sale price for the property. The building reopened as luxury apartments known as Spectra in 2015. A freestanding pavilion structure on the plaza level was programmed to be a restaurant, but is used only as office space. (This is due to city fire codes that did not allow for issuance of an occupancy permit, since the structure did not exit directly onto an actual street.)
Tying all these buildings together are well-detailed, large pedestrian spaces and overstreet bridges that showcase stylish walkways and paved areas, planter beds with professionally maintained landscaping, large potted trees, a modernist clock tower, reflecting pools and fountains. The entire plaza area sits atop a 1,600-car, multi-level parking garage.
Viewed as a period design ensemble, it is a handsome if austere complex. A precursor to later megastructure and now more integrated mixed-use complexes, its construction was heralded as the future of urban design. But, considering recent trends that emphasize more traditional streetscapes, this self-contained urban environment seems outdated. It shares its design "brotherhood" of multiple-style buildings connected by large, above-grade pedestrian spaces with two similar but much larger renewal projects, Charles Center in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, and the Prudential Center complex in Boston, Massachusetts, although these two developments have been significantly altered and have also experienced varying degrees of economic and planning success.
Widely viewed as a classic example of the fallibility of urban renewal, Constitution Plaza was for many years a well-celebrated aesthetic and economic success, as it stabilized the initial decline of the downtown business district and, in combination with the later XL Center complex, sparked a modest downtown revival and office building boom that began in the mid-1970s. In recent times, multiple ownerships, the demise of several of its corporate tenants, the closure of the hotel, and the severe recession of the early 1990s have called into question its long-term viability.
Events at the plaza
Constitution Plaza was the site of many annual public events, such as the popular Festival of Lights during the holiday season (which has since been relocated to nearby Bushnell Park), and a number of concerts and sing-alongs. In its earlier years, it hosted several outdoor Easter Sunday services and the Taste of Hartford food festival.