On Hartford’s Vine Street: 1920s Apartment Buildings Get New Life

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Downtown Hartford is getting a lot of attention for its housing conversions but in the city’s North End, nine historic apartment buildings in a row at a pivotal corner off Albany Avenue are getting a $20 million makeover.

Daniel O. Merida, executive director of Sheldon Oak Central Inc, outside apartments now under renovation. Photo by Kenneth R. Gosselin/kgosselin@courant.com

Daniel O. Merida, executive director of Sheldon Oak Central Inc, outside apartments now under renovation. Photo by Kenneth R. Gosselin/kgosselin@courant.com

Sheldon Oak Central Inc., a non-profit developer of housing in city neighborhoods, expects the first building at the Horace Bushnell Apartments on Vine Street to be ready for tenants by May with the entire renovation of 74 apartments wrapped up by the end of August.

“If you want to live around here,” Daniel O. Merida, executive director of the non-profit, said, “this will be the one.”

The buildings, constructed between 1922 and 1925, have long been an eyesore, the majority boarded up and vacant for several years. Now, Merida said the interiors are being completely gutted and apartment layouts are being reconfigured with more modern open floor plans. The building closest to the corner of Vine Street and Albany Avenue will be outfitted with a community center on the first floor for use by tenants.

Sheldon Oak Central has cobbled together funding for the project from various state and federal programs, the largest being $13 million in federal historic rehabilitation tax credits. The units will be mostly income-restricted with 15 that are market rate. Twenty-three of the 26 first-floor units will be leased to seniors who qualify for Section 8 subsidies.

The units will average 670 square feet for a one-bedroom apartment and 1,250 square feet for a three-bedroom apartment. Rents will range from $375 for one-bedroom units leased to tenants at the lowest-income level to $1,100 for the three-bedroom units.

The buildings were constructed in  on the former estate of James J. Goodwin, a prominent railroad and insurance magnate who was a cousin and business partner of J. Pierpont Morgan. The three-story masonry structures are similar. But they have slight differences because they were designed by five architectural firms to speed their construction to meet the renting demands of a growing population.

The exteriors will be restored to their original condition. Although the facades are spare, there is stone ornamentation above entrances in floral and other designs. Some of the roofs have parapets.

Stone ornamentation above entrance to 8-10 Vine St. Photo by Kenneth R. Gosselin/kgosselin@courant.com

Stone ornamentation above entrance to 8-10 Vine St. Photo by Kenneth R. Gosselin/kgosselin@courant.com

Andrea Pereira, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Harford, said the project is an important one for the stretch of Albany Avenue, dominated by the former Horace Bushnell Congregational Church. LISC, which promotes the stabilizing of communities, helped pay for pre-development costs with nearly $120,000 in grants and loans.

“That’s really a key area for us,” Pereira said. “We’re working with a couple of organizations that area.”

On a recent morning, Merida and Bruce Ring, a supervisor for Klewin Construction, climb down narrow steps into the basement at 4-6 Vine St., which has already been gutted down to the framing.

“Everything inside is gone,” Merida said.

Merida stops and shows off the cleared out basement: “You couldn’t walk in here two weeks ago.”

Basements of all the buildings were stuffed with tenant cast-offs, including large pieces of furniture. One of the first tasks was to clear out all the basements, he said.

Outside, vast areas of concrete will be removed and replaced with landscaping.

“We’re going to make the 1920s proud,” Merida said.

Merida acknowledges the poverty in the neighborhood, but he said he has always taken on projects a block at a time.

“I can fix this,” Merida said, pointing the apartment buildings.

Looking out at the neighborhood, he adds, “I can’t fix that.”

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