By STEVE GRANT, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant
April 17, 2013
Like so many other small cities in the Northeast, Waterbury has endured decades of economic stress because of the decline of its industrial backbone.
But this city, pretty much in the middle of the state, is worth a close look, worth a healthy springtime morning or afternoon walk. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, this city had swagger, and city leaders wanted nothing but the best.
There are far more notable and historic buildings and monuments in the Brass City than one might expect, and many of them can be seen walking a loop of about a mile in the downtown business district. That you can drop into a restaurant for lunch or dinner is part of the appeal.
The place to start a walk is the Mattatuck Museum on West Main Street, which couldn't be better located. It is across the street from Waterbury's Green. You can't miss it.
The staff is enthusiastic and helpful. There is art, of course, featuring Connecticut artists and well worth a look. But make sure you visit the extensive, permanent exhibit of Waterbury's history, tracing the city's origins from pre-European, Native American settlement to modern times in text and artifacts. It informs your walk.
That Waterbury was known as the nation's brass capitol is well known. But the exhibit puts some meat on the bones of this story of growth, dominance, prosperity and, finally, the economically painful collapse of the industry.
While brass mills dominated the city landscape — many still remain, shuttered - Waterbury also is known for its button, clock and watch industries. An entire museum exhibit room is devoted just to displays of often-ornate and richly detailed Waterbury-made buttons.
Having absorbed an overview of the city's history, step outdoors and walk over to the Green. On a traffic island just off the west end is an elaborate stone and bronze memorial, nearly 50 feet high, erected in the 1880s to honor the soldiers from Waterbury who fought in the Civil War. It includes four bronze statues representing people from different walks of life and is topped by an allegorical image of Victory, her countenance facing west.
At the opposite end of the Green is the Welton Fountain, dating to 1885. It was the gift of Caroline Welton, the daughter of the president of one of the brass companies and a lover of animals, especially horses. The fountain, with multiple basins for horses or dogs to get a drink, is about 15 feet high and is topped by a 2,500-pound bronze horse in the likeness of "Knight," Welton's favorite horse.
Befitting a city with a notable clock history, a stately clock tower, nearly a century old, rises from the center of the green. Across the street on the north side of the green you can't miss what was known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a massive stone structure that in 2008 was named a minor basilica by the Pope and is now known as the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
After circling the Green, continue east a block for a view of the Palace Theater on East Main Street, built in the Second Renaissance Revival Style. It is considered a fine example of an architectural niche, the highly decorated 1920s movie theater. To say the interior is ornate is an understatement. The Palace was renovated in recent years and is now a venue for Broadway shows and other events.
Walk back toward the Green and head south on Bank Street to the aptly named Grand Street, the hub of federal, state and city facilities.
Remember, Waterbury in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a major American manufacturing center, a flourishing city bursting with civic pride. Corporate and municipal leaders hired the best architects, insisted upon the best materials. Swagger.
City Hall is a good example. It was designed by Cass Gilbert, a famous American architect who also designed the Woolworth Building in New York and the U. S. Supreme Court building. Supported by Henry Chase, one of Waterbury's manufacturing moguls, Gilbert also designed four other buildings in the Grand Street area of Waterbury. The area was designated the Cass Gilbert Historic District in 1978.
City Hall was built for the ages in a Georgian Revival style of brick, marble and limestone, set back from the street by a public garden. The interior has more in common with a grand old hotel lobby than today's typically utilitarian municipal buildings and includes a massive chandelier and a sweeping staircase to second floor chambers and offices.
By the late 20th Century the building was in serious disrepair, however. City leaders debated what to do for years — one idea was to demolish the building —- but in the past decade it was renovated at a cost of around $36 million.
On the west side of City Hall is the Silas Bronson Library and Library Park. Look here for the bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin. It was designed by Paul Wayland Bartlett, a renowned sculptor of the time. When the work was finished, it was taken on a 22-city tour with celebrations at each stop before it arrived at its permanent home.
Across Meadow Street is Union Station. Motorists traveling on Interstate 84 may not be aware it is part of the station, but they recognize the 245-foot-high clock tower, perhaps the single most distinguishing feature of the Waterbury skyline. The station was designed a century ago by a leading architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White, and stands as another example of Second Renaissance Revival.
From Meadow walk north two blocks to West Main, then another block or two easterly to the Museum, where the walk began.
Contact Steve Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant