Asylum Hill is a quintessentially 20th century urban neighborhood. It’s walkable, diverse, densely populated and home to some of the state’s largest institutions. But originally it was Hartford’s first suburb. When the city began expanding beyond Downtown in the mid 19th century, Asylum Hill was the fashionable place to go for those with the means to do so. Like most suburbs, the neighborhood has rural roots. In the early 19th century, farms dominated what is now Asylum Hill, and many of those farms are honored in the neighborhood’s street names, such as Inlay and Niles.
A major early property owner in the area was Captain Richard Lord, son of Thomas Lord, one of Hartford’s original founders. Lord’s estate was located on the hill just west of what is now known as Downtown Hartford. The estate became famous for its gardens and the road that ran along it was – and still is – called Garden Street. The hill was known as Lord’s Hill until the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford) was built at the top of the hill along what is now Asylum Avenue in 1821, and soon it became known as Asylum Hill. The Asylum would remain on “The Hill” for over a century, but by then the neighborhood had changed dramatically.
The big changes began with the arrival of the railroad in Hartford in 1839. Hartford’s main hub of transportation gradually shifted from its port on the Connecticut River to the new railroad station at the foot of Asylum Hill. Around the same time, the city’s manufacturing and industries began to expand rapidly, as did its population. In 1800, Hartford’s population was only 3,523. By 1850 it had risen to 13,555, a decade later it had almost doubled to 26,917. Farmland was given over to housing in the areas immediately outside of Downtown Hartford, such as South Green, Clay-Arsenal, Frog Hollow, the North End and Asylum Hill. These rapidly became true neighborhoods, with churches, schools and shops as well as residences, and each developed its own character.
Asylum Hill’s early character began to take shape in 1853 when Attorney John Hooker, a direct descendant of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker, and his brother- in-law, Francis Gillette, purchased the 100-acre Imlay Farm. The Inlay property was bounded by what is now Imlay Street to the east, Farmington Avenue to the north and the Park River to the west and south. It is hard to imagine today what the area looked like at that time, since the Park River south of Farmington Avenue was placed into an underground conduit in the 1940s as a flood control measure.
Hooker and Gillette built expansive homes for themselves on the Imlay tract, which became known as “Nook Farm” after a sharp bend in the river just south of Farmington Avenue, and encouraged other prominent Hartford families to move to the area. Many did, as Downtown Hartford was by then acquiring all the hustle and bustle of a modern American city. Nook Farm and the rest of Asylum Hill offered more bucolic surroundings, as evinced by street names like Forest and Woodland. The neighborhood soon boasted several mansions, many with extensive grounds and auxiliary buildings. Only a few survive, such as the large Perkins-Clark House at 49 Woodland Street, built in 1861 for Samuel Clemens’ lawyer, Charles Perkins, and the imposing Charles Boardman Smith House at 66 Forest Street.
Nook Farm soon filled up with prominent political leaders, reformers and writers. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the ground-breaking novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, came to Hartford in 1864 and initially lived on Sigourney Street but moved to Forest Street in 1873. A year later, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and his family rented out the John Hooker House on Forest Street and began building their famous mansion facing Farmington Avenue on a bluff above the north branch of the Park River. The family moved into their new home in 1874, although it was not fully completed until 1875. Both the Stowe and Twain homes are now public museums and rank among the region’s most popular tourist attractions.
Asylum Hill’s Heyday
In the decades following the Civil War, as Hartford continued to grow and trolley Lines extended out along major thoroughfares like Farmington Avenue and Asylum Avenue, Asylum Hill started to become a mecca for Hartford’s rapidly expanding middle class, as well the very rich. Smaller homes on smaller lots began to fill up streets such as Ashley and Sargeant. The ornate Victorian architecture of these homes has become a trademark of the neighborhood. Sigourney Square Park, located on the site of the former graveyard for the Hartford Alms House, was developed to attract new residents.
Numerous institutions opened to serve the neighborhood’s rapidly growing population. The first major church built in the area was Trinity Episcopal Church. The church purchased the old Unitarian Church in Downtown Hartford and moved it brick by brick to Sigourney Street. The present church was built in 1892. Trinity Episcopal was soon followed by Asylum Hill Congregational (1865), Asylum Avenue Baptist (1872), the Cathedral of Saint Joseph (1892) and Immanuel Congregational Church (1899). These churches and others that came later continue to be a prominent force in Asylum Hill. West Middle School was built in 1873 (the current building was constructed in 1930 and recently renovated and expanded). In
1883, a magnificent new building was constructed for the second oldest secondary school in the nation, Hartford Public High School. It was located at the eastern end of Asylum Hill on Hopkins Street. In the early 1960s, both the school and the street were demolished to make way for Interstate 84. Hartford Public did remain in the neighborhood though, and is now located on Forest Street next to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House.
At the other end of the neighborhood, on Woodland Street, one of Asylum Hill’s major institutions, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center got off to a modest start in 1897. The hospital originally had room for only 30 patients. It now occupies two full blocks and several adjoining properties.
Into the 20th Century
Up until World War I, Asylum Hill remained primarily residential. Private homes continued to dominate the area, although large apartment buildings were starting to be built. One of the earliest examples, built in 1899, still stands at the corner of Farmington Avenue and Imlay Streets.
Asylum Hill began to change dramatically in the 1920s. The Hartford Fire Insurance Company, now The Hartford Insurance Group, opened its new headquarters on the site of the old Asylum for the Deaf in 1921. Connecticut Mutual soon followed suit, moving to Garden Street in 1926. Within a few years, Aetna Insurance began building its massive headquarters building on Farming ton Avenue, opposite Saint Joseph Cathedral. When built, the imposing structure was the largest office building in Connecticut and is considered the largest colonial-style building in the world. The thousands of people employed by these insurance giants stimulated commercial development along Farmington Avenue. Many of Hartford’s most iconic businesses opened to serve “the insurance crowd” as well as local residents. Arthur’s Drug Store, located at the corner of Farmington Avenue and Sigourney Street, was known throughout the region for its radio jingle, “Arthur’s, Arthur’s, always open, never closed.” Scoler’s Restaurant was considered among the best in the city and the Aetna Diner opened in 1948, a masterpiece of the streamlined architecture that was all the rage after World War II.
Changes and Challenges
As affluence had flowed into Asylum Hill following the Civil War, it began to flow out after World War II. Hartford’s outlying towns became the place to go for the well to do, a trend greatly encouraged by the new interstate highway system. In Asylum Hill, private homes began to disappear, replaced by apartment houses constructed in a utilitarian, cost-effective way that was a far cry from the architectural masterpieces of earlier years. Even the first home built in Nook Farm, the Beecher-Hooker House on Hawthorn Street, was soon surrounded and nearly closed off from view by faceless apartment houses.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of decline for Hartford, and for Asylum Hill. Social unrest speeded up the move to the suburbs. Factories which had once employed thousands moved outor closed down. Hartford’s population and per-capita income declined sharply. Scoler’s and Arthur’s closed.
But Asylum Hill rebounded in the closing decades of the 20th Century. Crisis brought unity. Asylum Hill’s residents, corporations, churches and other stakeholders joined together to reduce the neighborhood’s problems and highlight its many assets. These efforts met with varying degrees of success, but the general trend has been upward.
Asylum Hill Today
One major challenge facing Asylum Hill is the lack of homeownership. The primary causes of this is the nature of the neighborhood’s current housing stock. More than 90 percent of the occupied housing units are in multi-unit housing buildings, mainly one-bedroom units. Increasing homeownership was the driving force behind the formation of the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA) in 2004.
Supported by local corporations, NINA has renovated and sold 25 of the neighborhood’s handsome homes and also built new ones (see page 37).
The large influx of refugees and immigrants into Asylum Hill over the past two decades was seen not as a challenge but as an opportunity. The Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association (AHNA), in partnership with Hartford Public Library, formed a welcoming committee for the newcomers to help them adjust to life in America. Since then, these immigrants, primarily from Asia and Africa, have provided a stabilizing force in the neighborhood and greatly added to its cultural richness.
Today, Asylum Hill remains one of the most unique neighborhoods in the region. NINA’s efforts have become a model for the nation. AHNA is one of the most active neighborhood organizations in the city. As more and more young people begin to appreciate the advantages of living in a diverse, vibrant and walkable urban neighborhood over the car-dominated suburbs, it’s very possible that Asylum Hill’s best days are yet to come!
Where We Are
Asylum Hill’s boundary is defined as: Westerly by the north branch of the Park River. Northerly by Albany Ave to the railroad tracks south of Homestead Avenue and Walnut Street. Easterly by the railroad tracks running to the west of Union Place. Southerly by railroad tracks from the corner of Huntley and Walnut Street, to the south of 555 Asylum Avenue, up to the intersection of Capitol Ave and to the Park River.