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September 8, 2014

UConn, architects plot reconfigured Hartford Times building

Rendering | Contributed A rendering of the front entrance of UConn's new Downtown Hartford campus near the Front Street Entertainment District. The main campus building will maintain the outside facade of the old Hartford Times building, including the six columns that define the structure's historic look.
Renderings | Contributed The top rendering shows the front of UConn’s new Hartford campus fronting Prospect Street. The middle and bottom renderings show the rear entrance facing Main Street.

When UConn begins construction as early as next June on its new downtown Hartford campus, perhaps the biggest challenge will be preserving the historical feel of the old Hartford Times building.

Considered an architectural gem, it's the site where UConn has chosen to relocate its West Hartford campus, with the goal of creating a collegiate environment that also has easy access to the Capital City's businesses and cultural institutions.

Leading the effort is Laura Cruickshank, UConn's master planner and chief university architect, who joined the school last year from Yale University where she was the chief university planner.

The Hartford Times building on Prospect Street was designed in 1920 by New York City architect Donn Barber, who also designed Hartford's Travelers Tower, the Connecticut State Library and the Connecticut Supreme Court; the Times building's six granite columns were rescued from the demolished Madison Square Presbyterian Church in New York City.

New York's Robert A.M. Stern Architects is being paid $7.8 million to design UConn's main campus building and will go to great lengths to preserve key elements of the Hartford Times building, Cruickshank said. The goal is for the campus to form a figurative gateway linking the school and the larger city; it will have an anchor courtyard with a vista of Hartford's public library.

If form follows function in design, the courtyard emphasizes what UConn hopes to produce: A small campus alive with people coming and going, with its own architectural ambiance but effectively integrated into Hartford life.

“[UConn] President Herbst said early on that the exterior should be permeable,” Cruickshank said. “Permeable is defined by the courtyard because it opens up to the corner where the public library is. It literally opens to it, so it's very welcoming to people who want to come in and see what UConn Hartford is like, whether they are residents or visitors to the city.”

Stern sought a similar result for interior spaces in designing the building around a central, three-story atrium, said the firm's partner Graham Wyatt.

“The way I describe that atrium is the living room of the Hartford campus,” Wyatt said. “It is flooded with natural light, so at any time that it is light outside, it will be beautifully lit on the inside.”

Wyatt and Cruickshank said the atrium will act as a natural magnet for people as they move through the building, helping UConn build a sense of community among students, many of whom commute and are pursuing degrees by taking classes on a part-time basis.

With more space needs than the initial campus can accommodate, UConn is working out deals with nearby institutions to offer some of the typical services expected of a university campus. The Hartford Public Library on Main Street, for example, will offer student's library access, while the Wadsworth Atheneum will offer an auditorium for larger events.

As UConn readies for construction next year, lead developer HB Nitkin will continue to work to attract other tenants to the Front Street district, which is almost full following the recent opening of Infinity Music Hall and Nixs seafood restaurant. HB Nitkin is also constructing a 121-unit apartment complex nearby and has been given clearance to build 20,000 square feet of additional retail, restaurant and entertainment space on UConn's campus.

Firm chairman Helen Nitkin said she hopes the UConn campus will elicit the vitality of New York University where she earned her master's degree. She wants the school to retain a campus feel while offering students the perks of a metropolis like New York City.

“What you hope is that the students stay beyond their classes,” Nitkin said. “We just had Infinity Music Hall open … Hopefully kids will stay or go listen to live jazz or go to the movies. Without UConn having to create that, we have created that for the students and hopefully they will take advantage.”

Ellen Morelli, who led events for UConn's Greater Hartford Business Association in the 2013-14 academic year, said she is excited about the new campus and hopes it will grow over time.

“I think that having classes in many different buildings will allow students to experience more of a college environment,” Morelli said. “Many West Hartford students want to transfer to Storrs as quickly as possible because the campus is so much larger.”

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