Hartford, Connecticut: Landmarks~History~Neighborhoods | Constitution Plaza. All photos ©Karen O'Maxfield. All Rights Reserved.

Article by Herbert J. Stoeckel, The Hartford Courant, October 25, 1959

Constitution Plaza emerges from the ruins of East Side “Broadway’

The sword of Damocles—figuratively the ball and crane, bulldozers and crowbars of the wreckers—is hanging ominously over three still surviving old landmarks in Hartford’s newly created Constitution Plaza development

With the plaza’s extension south of State Street, the venerable structures, possessing especially noteworthy pasts and redolent of the city’s colorful yesterdays, are destined to become mere bricks and mortar.

Located between American Row and Front Street on the south side of State Street, the East Side’s onetime “Broadway” demolition of the trio is not immediate since they yet house active business enterprises. However, in the near future the landmarks will have vanished forever from the local scene. Meanwhile, there they stand, somewhat incongruously in the otherwise level Constitution Plaza area, seemingly holding out to the end as if loathe to depart.

First, let’s take the erstwhile Bange Mansion at 165 State Street whose mellowed latter years have been spent incognito since few in Hartford today know its true identity of kaleidoscopic—one might say lurid—history. Pity that this early 19th century architectural gem whole splendid facade is embellished with seven white distinguishing pilasters, is doomed.

All that is known about Frederick Bange, who built the house in the 1820s, is that he was an important factor in the Hartford West India trade which flourished on the East Side on or near the Connecticut River wharves in those days. Said to have been a native of Amsterdam, Holland, he was one of a group who, combining the roles of wholesale and retail grocers, importers, ship owners and charterers, shipped Connecticut provisions, livestock and lumber in fast-sailing schooners or other vessels direct from Hartford to the West Indies and beyond. On the return voyage would come sugar, molasses, rum, salt and other tropical cargoes. The river front between Morgan Street and Dutch Point was an exotic locality then, with an atmosphere all its own.

An advertisement in The Courant dated Sept. 25, 1820, shows how extensive were Bange’s operations and typifies the character of Hartford’s foreign trade in that period. He wanted “good yellow butter, lard, hams, hoops, oats, corn, prime pork, mess beef in half barrels” for his schooner Mary rose, bound for Mantanza, Cuba. There was still space open for freight and for “a few good horses.” Previously, on Nov. 5, 1816, the Mary Rose, due to leave Rocky Hill for Martinique and Guadeloupe, sought 20 horses and 100 barrels as cargo. The schooner was described as being “110 tons burthen, new and built of the best materials.”

Around 1827 or so, Bange left Hartford, and it is almost certain that he transferred his activities to New York City, for The Courant of July 12, 1831, carried this death notice: “In New York last Friday evening, Mrs. Ursula Bange and daughter of the late Mr. Thomas Bull of this city, aged 37.” Ursula Bull and Bange were very likely married here; the Bulls were a prominent Hartford family.

At the turn of the century and for some years later, Hartford was a lusty, sporty, wide open town, and State Street, not unlike Manhattan’s old Tenderloin, the center of the city’s tolerated “red light district.” The Bange mansion had lost social caste, and the upper floors became “May Howard’s place.” May will go down in Hartford history, police and otherwise, for her imperishably classic slogan that she ran “the most reputable house of ill repute in town.”

It was May Howard’s that the local police and Pinkerton detective, assigned here, closed in on George Collins, a Hartford Dutch Point boy gone wrong, and his bandit pal, William Rudolph, the “Missouri Kid.” The melee took place on a Sunday afternoon. March 1, 1903. Collins was nabbed outside as he was leaving the house; the “Kid” upstairs. Both fought like demons. The two desperadoes were wanted in Missouri for the murder of a Pinkerton man and for a sensational bank robbery. Both were hanged in Missouri for the murder. Their capture put Hartford on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

This writer recalls vividly a traveling wax works museum of the sensational sort, depicting the effigies of noted criminal, among them Jesse and Frank James and Harry Tracy, “the Oregon Outlaw,” which exhibited briefly in an empty store at 165 State. Collins and Rudolph were also represented. The creepy display, plus other gruesome features, gave East Side gamins several sleepless nights. Later the mansion was occupied entirely by Chinese, there being the nucleus of a Hartford Chinatown on State Street. Hartford’s pioneer Chinese restaurant was on the second floor. Neighborhood kids fancied that something mysterious, sinister and Mr. Wu-ish went on in the secluded recesses of No. 165.

Now let’s visit the three-story oldtimer at 177 State, almost next door below No. 165, and occupied by Morris J. Rozinsky, Inc. Since 1911, this firm has engaged in loans and sales of diamonds, watches and jewelry, besides stocking an extensive and varied line of merchandise, with emphasis on cameras and photographic supplies, binoculars, musical instruments, luggage, sporting goods, radios and TV equipment. Carl Rozinsky, present head, says that the establishment has been at No. 177 since it was acquired the entire building some years ago. The exterior galaxy of sparkling electric lights, distinctive of the busy Rozinsky store, is soon marked by the visitor to State Street.

If these walls could speak, their reminiscences would enliven and enrich the all too scanty annals of early variety theater days in Hartford. But first a brief account of S. D. Chamberlin & Sons, original owners of No. 177.

Hartford’s Chamberlin “beef house,” whose salesman for generations covered Southern New England and beyond, has long been out of business, its good will and traditions perpetuated by Arnurius Dunn & Co., of Pleasant Street. Chamberlin’s was founded in 1837 at No. 177, which gives an idea as to the building’s remote construction. “Chamberlin’s Old-Fashioned New England Cured Dried Beef” was the company’s principal and most highly publicized product. The Chamberlins never tired of stressing that their beef was cured the real, old Connecticut way and positively was “not smoked.” Still visible on the facade of No. 177, twice prominently painted thereon, is the oft-repeated Chamberlin motto that their beef, cured in the rear of No. 177, was “not smoked.” To cure beef otherwise, according to the Chamberlin credo, was heresey. Arnurius Dunn & Co. is still curing its beef by the same process.

Should you stroll down there for a curious look, you will also be gazing at what was once Hartford’s first regular variety theater. Newton’s Varieties, which flourished in the 1870s until the final curtain was rung down in 1877. The Rozinsky building now has only three stories; there were originally four. The Chamberlins rented out the upper three floors to Joe Newton, a Hartford man and the city’s pioneer variety impresario. The fourth floor was the gallery, the third floor the stage and orchestra. On the second floor was that vitally necessary prop, the bar.

Patriarch Billy O’Brien of 68 Ashley Street, the nation’s oldest Elk, both in age and membership, (he will be 99 next May) is about the only person in Hartford, it is believed, who can tell what Newton’s Varieties was like. In his newspaper-carrying boyhood, Billy was a faithful gallery patron there. We are indebted to him for these facts.

The theater was tiny, capacity only about 500. Although women performers appeared on the stage, the audiences were strictly stag. One apocryphal version has pictured Newton’s as a sort of honky-tonk where no “lady” would be seen, even with a male escort. Not so, avers the omniscient Billy; Newton ran clean shows, ever mixing propriety with variety. The Sage of Ashley Street adds that he first saw and hard the great Maggie Cline sing “Throw Them Down, McCloskey,” the hit song of her long career, at Newton’s. Again, many of the acts which Tony Pastor booked into his fabulous New York variety house also worked for Joe Newton. One reason why women avoided the theater was that the audience could drink beer and smoke during the show and intermissions. Hence the atmosphere became pretty thick and hazy. A six-ounce mug of beer (no hard liquor served) cost a nickel. The dexterous waiters would juggle 20 mugs at a time as they circulated through the audience, proffering the beer and cigars. Billy says, too, that Tony Pastor, the Jove of American variety, married a Hartford girl and liked our town, visiting often.

Undoubtedly, the most famous blackface minstrel of all time, the very symbol and embodiment of American minstrelsy, was Lew Clapp, born and raised in Hartford, who won renown as Lew Dockstader. Early in his career, Clapp, as sole propietor, took over the theater from Newton, calling it Calpp’s Adelphi for a brief period in 1876-77, also doubling in brass as a performer. Clapp’s Venture wasn’t a success, however, and he sold out to Add Weaver, a fellow minstrel. The Adelphi soon went into limbo, a rival variety house on Market Street offering serious competition. Clapp subsequently teamed up with Charley Dockstader, the minstrel, took his name and reached the heights as a burnt-cork artist.

No. 127 State, the third East Side landmark destined to disappear, iks the present warehouse of Nemrow Bros., Inc., which moves to expanded quarters at Washington and Park streets. This organization, with three other warehouses in Waterbury, New Haven and Bridgeport, is the largest wholesale distributor of candy, tobacco and kindred merchandise in Connecticut. Under the executive leadership of Barney Nemrow and his son, Richard, of Boston, the Nemrow headquarters being in the Hub, the organization’s far-flung operations include a chain of warehouses in Springfield and other Bay State cities. The managers of the Hartford warehouses, however, are Francis X. Gunning, a Frog Hollow alumnus, and Francis “Red” Siegel, another Hartfordite and a popular personality in the wholesale field.

Frankly, we do not know much about the history of No. 127, aside from the fact that from the 1860s until 1916 it was the headquarters of Smith, Northam & Co., which sold flour, grain and feed by the carload over a wide area in New England. It also had an immense elevator, mill and warehouses on Windsor Street. However, the State Street warehouse, for that is what it actually is, looks as if it can be dated far earlier than the 1860s.

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