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Gilbane Restores Historic G. Fox Building in Hartford

Wed April 10, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Sharon Cohen

In 1917, the G. Fox Department Store at 960 Main Street in downtown Hartford outshone many of the surrounding buildings. The multicolored brick facade, carved terracotta and canopied revolving door exemplified the best of the Art Deco style.

Years came and went and the building grew shabby and run down. Finally the doors closed completely in 1993 and the landmark stood empty.

The state of Connecticut’s decision to use the approximately 300,000 sq. ft. in the front of the building for the Capital Community College literally gave the property a new lease on life. The building’s additional 500,000 sq. ft. in the back, owned by developer 960 Main LLC, will be used for retail and office space. Not including the Main LLC work, the total cost of the project is $60 million; $3.3 million of that is earmarked for the building’s front exterior.

Since the Gilbane Building Company of Glastonbury began work on the community college site, the building has steadily returned to its original condition. “It gives me personal satisfaction seeing it take shape into something so beautiful,” said Gilbane Project Executive Rob Van Akin. Gilbane is one of the oldest construction management firms in New England, opened in Providence in 1873. The firm now has 20 offices across the United States.

Van Akin is challenged by the building’s historic register status. Throughout the project, the city’s Historic Preservation Society has made it clear that as much of the property’s original design and materials as possible be kept intact.

After viewing several different bricks from antique masonry specialists around the state, Gilbane purchased 80,000 white and yellow and white bricks from NER of New Haven to repair damaged areas. This firm restored and pointed all the bricks as well. Restoring the ornate terracotta was a very labor-intensive job, said Van Akin. “What really made a major difference in appearance was a good washing by NER, with a hydro and glass bead process instead of caustic cleansers. The building probably had not been cleaned since it was first opened.”

Capital Restoration of Hartford restored 100 wood windows and frames. Massey Plate Glass and Aluminum of Branford, CT, repaired the 150 steel and aluminum windows. The steel and porcelain canopy, which is 20 by 170 ft. is to be restored by Silktown Roofing Company of Manchester. The canopy covers the front door and entrance and leads into the college’s spacious lobby — once the main foyer of the department store.

The inside of the building, of course, is undergoing major renovations that are also in keeping with the time period, such as replastering of walls and ceilings and repair of the round steel and plaster columns throughout the floors. The new design additions include a 20- by 60-ft. atrium that stretches from the roof to the seventh floor. Looking up from the seventh floor, one can see all the way to the skylight. Marble and wood design from the department store is retained throughout the building to further maintain the original look and feel.

Several high-speed elevators are replacing the escalators and the entire facility will be fully equipped with the latest telecommunications and security systems. Plans call for Internet service in the classrooms and an internet cafe at the base of the atrium. Other expected features include corporate meeting rooms, numerous computer labs for both business training and academics, 80-seat community room, 350-seat auditorium and extensive library. Other hands-on labs will be available for art, video, photography, CAD, engineering, nursing and physics.

The renovation of the G. Fox Department Store is expected to greatly enhance the downtown Hartford area. By being on Main Street in the heart of the city, Capital College will have this retail and office area as an extended campus. Students will be in walking distance of cultural events and internships at neighboring businesses and organizations. The construction also includes a 500-stall garage for students in order to remedy any parking problems.

When students go to school in the fall, they will enter a building that is once again the grande dame of Hartford establishments.

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