Covering almost four acres of Hartford’s eastern downtown area, Constitution Plaza was built as part of the urban renewal initiatives that swept the nation’s cities in the 1950s and ’60s. Hailed as Hartford’s first major redevelopment project, developers essentially razed an entire neighborhood to build the mixed-use complex consisting of office towers, parking garages, a hotel, fountains, and walkways. In its heyday, Constitution Plaza hosted the city’s Festival of Lights during Christmastime and the annual food festival, Taste of Hartford, as well as other civic and social events. Today, improvements link the plaza with the city’s riverfront, helping further Hartford’s ongoing 21st century revitalization efforts.
Redevelopment in the Mid-20th Century
The 1950s brought national legislation and federal dollars (The Housing Act of 1949 and the Highway Act of 1956) for urban renewal projects across the United States. Both federal and state governments allocated funds for the removal of slums and blight in inner cities. The purpose was to replace distressed areas with office buildings, parking garages, hotels, retail shops, and industrial areas that enhanced and revitalized faltering cities. Connecticut cities proved vital spots for urban renewal projects and by the late 1950s, Hartford city leaders, including then-Mayor James Kinsella, supported these projects. Considered a slum due to damage from flooding in the 1930s and a lack of general maintenance, Hartford’s East Side (which included the Front Street and Market Street areas) became a prime location for renewal efforts. The planning and building of Constitution Plaza—the first comprehensive renewal project in the city—began shortly afterward.
Constitution Plaza Comes to Life
The razing of the 12-acre neighborhood for the project began in 1958, and by 1964 Constitution Plaza stood in all its grandeur. First called the “Front Street Development” project, negative connotations with the area warranted a new name for the area. A contest held to name the project ended when a local waitress (named June Sawyer) won with her idea, “Constitution Plaza.” She beat out 9,000 other entries and took home a $500 prize.
The project, coordinated by architect Charles DuBose, cost $42 million dollars. While experts point to its design as a good example of mid-20th century commercial architecture, what stands out is its foundation. The plaza is constructed on a continuous aboveground podium, raised above street level. It is noted that developers and architects designed the elevation so that it was level with nearby Main Street’s retail center at the Richardson (that included Sage Allen, G. Fox, and other prominent businesses). The original plan called for a land bridge to link the plaza to this retail hub, thus connecting the two city centers, but it never came to be. The elevated podium design, however, has since been copied in other American and international cities.
The plaza boasted two major open spaces; one home to a large modernist clock tower and the other a specially designed fountain, both by Japanese designer Masao Kimoshita. The open areas hosted many social and civic activities as well as offered a place of reprieve for downtown office workers. Constitution Plaza was also once home to the three-level Broadcast House building that held Hartford’s local CBS affiliate station from 1962 to 2007, when the station moved to the suburbs of nearby Rocky Hill. Officials authorized the demolition of the Broadcast House building in 2009.
Constitution Plaza in the 21st Century
Today the plaza remains largely occupied by commercial enterprises. Throughout the years, additional office towers were built, as were additional pedestrian footbridges. Multiple owners and the departure of major corporate tenants called into question the longevity of the plaza in recent years. As recently as 2015, however, New York investors purchased six buildings on Constitution Plaza for $71.1 million and have plans to finally integrate it with the rest of downtown.
There is still a contention among some that mid-century urban renewal and redevelopment destroyed the historic and ethnic fabric of major cities—including Hartford—and that mid-century architecture failed to sustain its relevance over time. There are others, though, that find an appreciation in it and work toward 21st century renewal efforts. Constitution Plaza fits the latter belief, with active efforts in and around the plaza as part of a larger citywide enterprise to revitalize Hartford’s downtown neighborhoods.