Wednesday, February 07, 2007

983 New Britain Avenue; West Hartford, Connecticut

Following our report on an uncovered former Caldor in Groton revealed by a Connecticut local, and a forecast of slow reporting this week due to ridiculously chilly weather in the Northeast which prevents me in my idle time from shooting much of anything new. So, we've decided to dig into the best of 2006 archive and introduce a segment on The Caldor Rainbow; a half-vacant site I had visited repeatedly last year.

983 New Britain Avenue is now home to fallen retail stardom. A plaza most formerly belonging to department discounter Ames has seen brighter years of the past, but not too much since. Ever since its final vacancy in 2003 the building stands devoid of retail traffic today in a mostly dilapidated area in the outskirts of West Hartford. While not originally, it's most notably known as having once been home to Caldor, which was later purchased by Ames.

Signature green of Ames logo peeks from behind the black-out.

Located just no more than three miles from Westfarms Mall, the plaza is located on New Britain Avenue, along Route 71, near some mainlines into the southern end of the capitol; New Park Avenue being one, which trails right into central Hartford, but too far off easy and/or more direct access via Interstate 84.

Apart most of West Hartford’s flourishing historic retail scapes, whether it be the Main Streets, upscale West Hartford Center, the Northernmost shopping parkades including Bishop‘s Corner, and big box areas surrounding the [Westfarms] mall, even going further into Hartford with the brand-new Charter Oak Commons, there could be more than obvious reasons why this neglected, islandic defeated property continues to degenerate into forgotten territory. It would appear the dowdy town is quite ashamed of it's Elmwood side, often times forgetting the somewhat isolated retail beyond the old railroad track underpass.

Within the lesser glamourous sectors of West Hartford, often referred as being more apart of the suburb Elmwood and bordered on the southern end of Hartford, amidst a rustic industrial landscape of the Southern tier of the town, this is an area less traveled by most anyone looking to shop. But it's got a history, maybe one that has shifted demographics over the years into a servant of scrap and alternative retailers, auto centers, government and commerce businesses nearby.

Apart from the town’s otherwise richer population on the other ends, this shopping district tends to cater more towards lower-eschelons; may it be lower-income or minority ethnic groups of the neighboring Hartford and Elmwood. Today, the location is more or less a testiment to poor location versus a sunken socio-economic consumer and collapsed retail plane dominated by big box survivors of the post-millennium. Factor that into an overall uninvitingly doomed and
degenerating landscape and you're up against the current situation.

Dollar Dreams; self-proclaimed "Largest $1.00 Store in Conn." operating a former Waldbaum's supermarket.

Built in 1961, this unique structure was not quite the self it promotes today. Originally housing a local department store chain, Family Fair and in 1962 was purchased by the Star's Discount Department Store chain which hosted a Popular Super Markets within. Star's was more or less a typical discounter of its time ranging in many goods you might find at a Target today. This particular location was branded Star's Family Fair.

An elusive Star's Family Fair advertisment from the January 5, 1964 edition of The Hartford Courant (click to see full size).

An "Opening Sale" of Star's Family Fair from the September 2, 1962 edition of The Hartford Courant.

The chain, who shared it's heyday in the booming discount era of the 1960's, presumably had a few other locations across Connecticut, but fell down by the early 1970's. The building style, however, belongs to later tenant, Caldor, with once evident identical buildings in New Britain along Farmington Avenue, and Southington along Queen Street; both long-demolished homes to the mammoth Wal-Mart who was once successor who snatched up a bevy of fallen pinnacle Caldor sites around their falling.

Not too much is known about Star’s legacy, apart from being an department retailer much within it’s own time, sharing mostly forgettable, scattered history today, and was eclipsed by emerging Norwalk, CT-based discount department store Caldor, who purchased a few of their shuttering locations in the area by the early 1970’s. In its time, Caldor, like Wal-Mart currently, sprawled in the discount department store market and had the advantage for snatching up some of the best locations for retail traffic commonly located in highly visible areas which included along major routes and highways. This store wasn’t entirely the case, but in it’s own time, it might’ve been serviceably stationed for the other end of West Hartford but not less travelled areas.

The enormous pebble-faced, concrete-looking box still surely sets itself apart from a long-gone architecture with a decidedly eccentric design; namely rhombus and triangular-shaped scaffolding pillars as a frontal façade. Remarkably, the former super-sized discount store building has no easily identifyable label scarring from before Ames, whose rectangular logo shadows the bulding’s furthest right end today. It's hard to imagine any significant improvements over the years beyond a few paint jobs.

There are plenty of ghastly elemental scars from weathering, including immense amounts of water damage on the building's frontage, most likely seeing a few paint jobs and subtle patch works over the years. Today, the building can't hide its dilapidation with pockmarked walls, gaping holes, and an overall degenerating façade.

Along the sides and rear of the complex show more dire circumstances as most vacancies share; dumping grounds, graffiti-laden, and other unusual items and litter. Along with the rest of the plaza, tenants on the outskirts, all of which have fled years ago include a former Piper Brook Restaurant, and a now dilapidated vacant auto center from the 1960’s.

The remaining neighboring tenant, whose home was once a Waldbaum’s Supermarket, shuttered all Connecticut stores around the departure of Caldor, now houses a Dollar Dreams; a self-proclaimed “Largest $1.00 Store in Conn.” who's patched some local vacancies of past with other locations in New Britain and Manchester. Despite the current anchor woes, Dollar Dreams is the only one left keeping parking spaces filled - and they are in fact fulfilling the objective. Even their property has signs of elderly distress.

When both Caldor and Waldbaum's collapsed around the turn of the century, the entire plaza was soon falling into alarming vacancy rates. It wasn't too soon when an overzealous Ames snatched the site in 2000 in their attempt to house themselves in one of many various former Caldor locations, finding overspaciousness to ensue. The gargantuan complex, which housed a volumous girth, was apparently too large-scale for Ames’ stock causing them to purge unused store space by a good 25 percent.

Ames, who purchased the troubled site, eventually adopted the curse of the Caldor closure in 2003 causing the building to become what's now a borderline vacant eyesore with an equally hazardous parking lot. When last I visited Ames in the store's final week before closure in 2003, it was evident the place was destined for bulldozing. The surrounding area smelled of something rotten just within the parking lot and beside a distressed creek.

Currently the building has an owner; and one that seems to have legal troubles of their own. In 2005, the building was converted and gutted to suit a climate-controlled storage facility seeing the property had no forseeable progressive future beyond demolition. Despite this, the building resembles it's former retail occupants with no alterations done to the original exterior.

A plaza which was serviceable at one point in time seems to be living on the brink of an expired contract. The times have changed, and long beyond the years of the plaza's structures. Hindered today by it’s inability to attract and adapt to both developers and patrons. Drudgey surroundings or the lack of retail support keep it down, adjacent to a branch of the Postal Service, or beside it, Shield Street and its other commerce. Shield Street Plaza neigboring it, once a destination center, is now dominated by an alternative array of Asian commerce including an unusual ethnic otherworldly A. Dong Supermarket who might not be seek your average demographic either (like Stop & Shop of the third, alternate world).

How much longer will the plaza at 983 stick around? Perhaps until the building itself falls.

See more photos of 983 New Britain Avenue on Facebook. All pictures were taken in Summer to Fall 2006.

EDIT (July 8, 2007): Vintage advertisments for Star's Family Fair added.