Two grand hotels on historic Main Street of Willimantic, Connecticut, hosted movers and shakers from New York and Boston during the golden age of train travel. The hotels fell into disrepair when travelers took to the highways. Cheap rooms, cheap heroin and social services drew addicts, sex workers and the unemployed. A plan to demolish the buildings may force the town to reconcile its grand history and troubled past.
Today, historic Willimantic has all the markers of an up-and-coming neighborhood: a craft brewery, a high-end coffee shop – even a food co-op. State Representative Susan Johnson says north Main Street still struggles with homelessness, unemployment and empty storefronts.
“Walk on this side of the street because there’s a crumbling building over there,” Johnson warns.
Johnson belongs to the Victorian Neighborhood Association, so it’s a bit surprising that she wrote legislation that would let owners demolish historic properties.
“I don't know what anybody would try to preserve here,” she says as she points out two vacant buildings that inspired the bill: the Nathan Hale Hotel and the infamous Hotel Hooker.
She stands in a cinder block entryway to the Hotel Hooker that covers the yellow brick building and a terrazzo floor. The Hartford Courant – and CBS "60 minutes" – immortalized the hotel-turned-flophouse in a series called Heroin Town about 15 years ago.
“We had a place here for people with addictions. We had been dealing with addictive problems for years and years and years. So we knew about that and the article did nothing but help ruin the town,” Johnson said.
Johnson says her bill would demolish the hotel’s troubled legacy and make way for market-rate housing.
Resident Jean de Smet opposes that plan.
“I like mixed housing better than a flophouse, but that’s part of our history,” de Smet said. “To me that’s part of the history of our town and it’s okay to say, ‘Yeah look what happened.’”
de Smet gathered more than 500 signatures to petition the state to keep the buildings. She got preservationists to inspect the hotels and see if they can be rehabbed.
“We need to think about what good development looks like and good development in my mind includes saving old buildings and integrating them into the new.”
Willimantic was the center of the textile industry and that’s one reason Hotel Hooker was the first in the region to have electricity in the 1880s. It looked rundown by the 1920s, so the townspeople funded a new hotel next door. Windham town historian Jaime Eves said they built the Nathan Hale Hotel as a show-off building.
“When you do that you put neat things into it. So you make a lobby with a polished granite floor, they had a dining room that had a skylight that stuck out the back of the buildings,” Eves said.
The Hale building was last used as a dormitory and office by Eastern Connecticut State University. The Hotel Hooker closed to low-income residents nine years ago.
“They are relics of a time in the past,” Eves said. “I think it would be really nice if Willimantic had at least one of its grand old railroad hotels left in existence, but I don't know if it is possible or not.”
Town Manager Jim Rivers envisions one future for the buildings. Rivers points to a drawing of the proposed apartment complex where the hotels now stand. It includes a parking garage that just got more than $6 million in state funding.
“It would be a tremendous boost to the economy here,” Rivers said. “The image of the culture over the last 30 or 40 years had not been that great – and I think we have finally gotten past that – but we had a reputation of being a rough town and at the center of that reputation was the Hooker Building.”
The town also has money troubles. It’s home to the region’s drug treatment and recovery centers, hospitals and homeless shelters – properties exempt from taxes. Rivers says the high tax rate and low rents have scared away developers before.
“We finally have somebody that wants to do something with that site and other sites in the area to get the scale that he needs to make the numbers work and it really comes down to the economics,” Rivers said.
He worries the apartment developer will walk if the state says he has to repurpose the buildings. The state Historic Preservation Council recently voted to let the attorney general decide the fate of the hotels – and possibly Main Street.