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Michael J. Daly The past as part of the future

September 19, 2018

In its drive to make itself fresh and new, the city of Bridgeport has lost any number of old beautiful buildings that spoke to the city’s history.

Most notable, perhaps, was the loss of the Gothic Revival Harral-Wheeler Mansion, which stood in the park that’s next to Bridgeport City Hall, 45 Lyon Terrace.

Henry Harral (he of Harral Avenue in the Hollow section of Bridgeport) got rich in the saddle and harness business and had the magnificent house built in the 1840s atop Golden Hill, with its panoramic vista of Long Island Sound.

(The Golden Hill Paugussett Indians, the original residents of this area, had thought the view was pretty good, too, until they were driven off the heights by an offer they couldn’t refuse from the new colonists.)

Harral, incidentally, went on to become mayor. In 1866, his widow sold the house to Nathaniel Wheele a Bridgeport industrialist.

Demolition of the house in 1958 was reportedly among the most meticulous ever, its ornate appointments finding their way into various officials’ hands and a few items eventually ending up in the care of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

To drive into the area today known as Downtown North is to visit the past, though less and less of the past remains standing.

The other day, for instance, the jaws of a steel claw ripped at the brick of the building that long was home to the Corbit’s Photography Studio, a downtown landmark for most of the 20th century.

The ghosts are still there, an empty lot is all that reminds of the notorious Hu Ke Lau bar. The recording studio where Paul Leka produced the works of the late, the great Harry Chapin, Stevie Wonder, Meat Loaf and a host of others is but a memory, though the building where the second-floor studio operated is still there..

Further up Main Street, the long-vacant hulks of the Loews Poli and Majestic theaters loom. Plans for their rebirths have bounced around since shortly after the theaters played their last twin features in the mid 70’s.

Their faded, but still stately interiors sit a’moulderin’ waiting for revival. Not much seems to be happening on what was touted as a $55 million boutique hotel and theater at the site.

Now the city has issued a call for proposals to redevelop a 1.5-acre parcel at the juncture of Main, Middle, Gold and Congress streets, where stands the huge, red-brick structure that housed the Davidson’s Fabrics store at 277 Middle.

So it is good news that the city is requiring that any plan for the property retains the Davidson’s building. The “Davidson’s” painted on the building’s north wall is a flaking, fading reminder of that landmark business.

The building opened in 1900 as the Middle Street Boys Club, where a generation of Bridgeport boys whiled awasy the years playing basketball and learning how to become a man.

In the weathered red stone over the shuttered doon on Middle Street, you can still make out the words “Bridgeport Boys Club,” bracketed by a pair of sculpted heads.

The city’s Office of Economic Development has called for a dynamic design that will “... add to the emerging character of downtown as a regional destination for recreation and entertainment and experiential retail.”

Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

The planned $25 million conversion of the Jayson & Newfield buildings at the corner of Congress and Main into apartments and grounhd-level retail got started... and then stopped, leaving the hollow-eyed windows of the structures staring off toward the horizon.

It’s a long slog, to be sure. And it’s a delicate dance to move the city, particularly its downtown, into the future and not discard everything from its past.

Michael J. Daly is editor of the editorial page of the Connecticut Post. Email: mdaly@ctpost.com

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