Old State House will lose historical memorabilia — for now

The Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington in the Old State House.

CT Office of Tourism

A Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington in the Old State House.

Connecticut’s Old State House in Hartford, recently closed to the public because of budget cuts, will soon lose the paintings, antiques and other historic memorabilia it has housed for years — for the same reason.

Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Klee, whose agency was ordered to manage the building on a significantly reduced budget, said he hopes eventually to work with private historic preservation groups to expand use of the building located in the center of Hartford’s downtown.

But given state government’s ongoing fiscal challenges, Klee made clear nothing is likely to get better in the foreseeable future.

“I think there is the potential for a future coalition for the Old State House,” Klee told The Mirror. “This a signature building and institution. I want to make sure in the interim that nothing happens to these treasures until we can transition to a new partnership model.”

What that means is that in the coming weeks, a host of memorabilia will be returned to the Connecticut Historical Society, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Connecticut State Library and other groups.

Several paintings, including a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the Senate gallery will go, as will a variety of antique furniture.

The Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities that has been maintained by the historical society will be removed as well. This involves memorabilia including the original G. Fox & Co. store sign, Katharine Hepburn’s golf club, a two-headed calf and Mark Twain’s high-wheel bicycle.

Klee said his department is still “in due diligence,” but tentatively plans to assume control of the building from the state Office of Legislative Management — the General Assembly’s chief administrative arm — on Sept. 1.

Though DEEP plans to maintain security on the building, it is uncertain whether its budget would allow for the precise climate control measures needed to safeguard fine art — and paintings in particular — worth tens of millions of dollars, the commissioner said.

The Old State House in Hartford

Old State House

The Old State House in Hartford

The Old State House was completed in 1796 and “these are not very efficient buildings to maintain,” Klee said, adding that, “We don’t know the full maintenance history” of the building, and its heating, ventilation and and sprinkler systems.

The building is owned by the city, and had been under the management of the Connecticut Historical Society. The state assumed control in 2008 through a lease with the city. The society also was a party to that lease, maintaining the historic memorabilia exhibition.

The Office of Legislative Management had retained the Connecticut Public Affairs Network to oversee the Old State House, which was drawing about 53,000 visitors per year.

But the state budget enacted in May for the fiscal year that began July 1 terminates that contract with CPAN, transfers oversight responsibility to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and reduces the appropriation for Old State House management from $500,000 to $400,000.

Klee estimates it would take between $800,000 and $900,000 per year for his department to properly administer the Old State House, preserve all of the antiquities within, and accommodate tourism as well.

“We’re disappointed that the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) was given the responsibility to run the Old State House but was not given the funds to do it, and we’ve had multiple conversations with the DEEP commissioner and with others to see whether there are any partnerships that could be forged to keep the Old Statehouse open,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said. “We’re going to keep pushing for creative solutions, but I also hope that this issue can be addressed in next year’s State budget. The Old Statehouse is a statewide and, indeed, a national resource.”

Jody Blankenship, executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society, said “We certainly think it’s a shame that the public will have no access to the Old State House.”

Blankenship quickly added, though, “We are very sensitive to the budget issues that are going on with the state.”

Connecticut finished each of the past two fiscal years in the red, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature approved spending about $800 million below the level needed to maintain current services in 2016-17 to avoid raising state taxes.

Decades of inadequate savings for public-sector retirement benefits are placing an increasing strain on state government finances — a trend projected to worsen over the next two decades.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis already is projecting a nearly $1.3 billion deficit, equal to about 7 percent, built into 2017-18 state finances.

Blankenship said the historical society already has reached out to Klee’s office and is prepared to discuss any options to partner with the state to preserve the Old State House and expand access to the site.

“The Connecticut Historical Society will be here to help out,” Blankenship added. “We would like to know whatever we can do to assist them.”

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