Hartford: The “Middle Child” of Cities

twainhouseYesterday we returned to old stomping grounds, meeting up with friends in seldom-visited Hartford, CT — not exactly a destination must on people’s bucket lists. Me, I pity Hartford, a “middle child” sitting between the egos and privileges of Boston and New York.

New York City loves to lord it over rival Boston, but at least considers Beantown a worthy foil. As for Boston, it takes out its New York inferiority complex by ridiculing Hartford or sometimes the entire state of Connecticut.

When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft threatened to move his football team to Hartford (a transparent ruse to get his new stadium in Foxborough, MA), Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy ranted and raved about the indignity of such possibilities. He called Hartford a mere “file cabinet” infamous for its collection of lowly insurance companies. (In a grave somewhere, Wallace Stevens shifted with other-wordly disgust at such ignorance).

The purpose of our visit to Hartford was not to tour file cabinets or purchase insurance policies but to get a little culture, Hartford-style. We visited (or re-visited, in my case) the Mark Twain House for starters. You simply cannot find a better literary destination than Twain’s house on Farmington Avenue. It is, inside and out, one gorgeous piece of brick and window and wood. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s thumbprints are all over the place, thanks to Mrs. Twain’s (Olivia Langdon’s) family wealth from timber and coal.

Sam Clemens married well, shall we say, and this house is still-living proof (if you believe in ghosts who still make a “home” of a “house”).

My favorite places in the Twain house are as follows:

  • The dining room fireplace. Twain faced it from his end of the table. Instead of a standard flue, this fireplace featured a huge, lead-glass window above it and flues that forked to either side. The effect in winter? Snowflakes that appeared to barrel down into flames leaping up — a marriage I’d love to watch on a cold winter’s day.
  • The library. It’s anchored on one side by a then-fashionable conservatory with windows all around and above and myriad plants throughout. When you read how many houseplants “filter” bad stuff in our building materials (Madonna had it wrong — we are not living in a material world so much as a chemical one), you will see how this Victorian fad is worthy of a modern resurrection in house construction today.
  • The pool room on the 3rd floor. Not only did it have doors to two balconies looking over the grounds and the then-unburied Park River, it had a pool table and a desk for Clemens to write on. It’s where he went to write, play, swear, and drink. It’s where the menfolk joined him for a long night of bonding. And in turkey-red (Twain’s favorite color) splendor, its walls and mood were decidedly “man-cavish” (if you accept that a “cave” can be in the skies and devoid of 85″ color screens).

From 351 Farmington Avenue, we ventured over to Hartford’s jewel, the Wadsworth Atheneum, where we were treated to a grand reopening after renovations. Turners and Calders and Wyeths, oh my! Also Magrittes, John Singer Sargents, Warhols, Caravaggios, Van Dycks, Picassos, Gauguins, Trumbulls, Coles, and Rockwells, In short, quite a haul hidden in the heart of a drive-through town connecting bad-boy Boston and big-shot New York.

What I liked best about the grand reopening was not the price of admission (free), but the clientele. The museum was multi-culturally alive. The people of Hartford’s streets had coursed into the halls of high art, taking it all in, having fun, marveling. Museums should not be stuffy and dead. They need lifeblood coursing through the rooms and halls that are their veins. Maybe residents should get free admission as a matter of policy. Let out-of-towners like me help defray costs of collections.

Overall, a day well spent — something we should say of every day. How many, after all, do we have? On the vast canvas of history, but a dropped speck of paint on the drop sheet-covered floor, I’d say….


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