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In the 1920s, when the Hall-Wilson Laboratory opened on Hartford Hospital’s campus, the brownstone edifice topped with a copper cupola was hailed as a center for medical research and experiments, placing the hospital among the most well-equipped in the country.
A century later, the stately Georgian Revival facing Retreat Avenue stands in the way of the 21st century needs of the hospital.
The hospital has plans to demolish the structure, replacing it with an expanded electrical power plant, now in the basement of a neighboring building.
Hospital officials say the power plant is sorely in need of an upgrade and needs to relocated above ground. The basement area, they said, is prone to flooding and where a major storm could knock out power to parts of the hospital campus.
After considering other alternatives, the site of the Hall-Wilson Laboratory — most recently used as offices — was found to be the most viable because that is near the existing transformer system and where high-voltage power lines enter the property.
Preservationists strongly oppose the tearing down of the 3-story building, which was originally a gift to the hospital.
“This is a massive, massive problem,” Bimal Patel, Hartford Hospital’s president, said. “We are trying to do something good for so many people with even them not knowing how important it is.”
“This is a significant piece of Hartford architecture,” Mary A. Falvey, executive director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, said. “There is nothing else like it.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said he is in discussions with hospital executives in the matter, and he said Tuesday he looks forward to continuing to work with them.
“The hospital is a vital institution in the city and we recognize the hospital needs to ensure that its electrical system is upgraded and made more resilient, and we also believe that it is important to do everything possible to preserve what is a very attractive, historic building on Retreat,” Bronin said.
The hospital said Tuesday one solution could be the city moving the high voltage lines. Bronin said he couldn’t immediately comment on the idea without more information on what it might involve and cost.
The tension between saving the past and redeveloping to move ahead is thrown into particularly sharp relief on urban hospital campuses — especially ones with long histories like Hartford Hospital, founded in 1854. In modern health care, there is a constant push for advances and innovation. Today, the laboratory is overshadowed by the hospital’s modern towers, including the new, $70 million expansion of the Bliss Building.
“We understand that you can’t save every single thing but we want to make sure the culture is that serious consideration is given to other options,” Falvey said.
Falvey said more options should be considered before a demolition erases the building from the landscape forever.
Hospital officials say they considered at least four other alternatives on the hospital campus in planning for the power plant upgrade over the past two years.
Tom Vaccarelli, vice president of facilities, construction and real estate at the hospital’s parent company, Hartford HealthCare, said the hospital had considered trying to use the laboratory building for the new power plant.
“When you look at the load of the transformers and the switch gears and everything that would have to go into it, we would basically be decimating that building to a point where we would never be able to hold the structure up,” Vaccarrelli said.
The Hall-Wilson Laboratory isn’t listed on any state or federal historic register so it does not have those protections and thus does not require the city’s historic preservation commission’s approval for demolition.
The hospital is seeking city planning and zoning commission approval for a 12-foot high wall it needs to build around the new plant. If it wins that approval, the hospital said it will apply for a demolition permit from the city. At ongoing commission hearings, the issue of the Hall-Wilson Laboratory demolition has surfaced, with commission members seeking more information on what other alternatives were evaluated.
The wall would be built from the locally quarried brownstone from the original building, as a nod to the laboratory, said Olusegun “Shay” Ajayi, the hospital’s director of operations.
Plans now call for saving the cupola and slate roof for use elsewhere on the hospital campus, Ajayi said.
Patel said the hospital works to be a sensitive as possible to its history while shaping a modern medical campus.
On nearby Jefferson Street, two Italianate-style homes were demolished but replaced with replicas using some of the original building materials. The new building now houses a community health center.
And farther to the east on Jefferson, the 1930s Barney Building — where the hospital’s nurses once trained — was torn down to make way for a $20 million expansion of Hartford Hospital’s Center for Education, Simulation and Innovation. But later this month, the hospital plans to open a meditation garden behind the new research center using architectural elements saved from the neoclassical-style Barney.
“If you can’t utilize the space in the same way that was done 50 years ago because of our modern health care needs,” Patel said, “we will do whatever it takes to celebrate somehow and extend it so we don’t lose the characteristics and the importance of what we inherited.”
Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at email@example.com.