Jacqueline Wattles photo
Amos Bull House (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

A historical landmark preservation group will break ground Thursday on a $2.45 million renovation to Hartford’s oldest brick building.

The Amos Bull House, located just east of downtown Hartford, was built in 1788 and previously served as the Connecticut Historical Commission’s administrative offices until Connecticut Landmarks, a non-profit group, acquired the building in 2008.

The renovations to the 225-year-old house will include installation of a geothermal heating and air conditioning system that will serve the Amos Bull House and the neighboring Butler-McCook House, Main Street History Center, and Aetna Gallery.

According to Connecticut Landmarks Branch Administrator Mary Cockram, installing a geothermal energy source requires significantly more upfront costs compared to a conventional HVAC system, but they chose a renewable source because of increased pressure for historical museums to adapt to modern energy concerns.

“The geothermal piece comes from a strong desire to be as green as possible and reduce energy costs,” Cockram said. She added that despite the steep upfront costs, using a renewable energy source will result in long-term savings.

According to a pamphlet released by Connecticut Landmarks in June 2011, the geothermal HVAC system is one of the first of its kind used in historical restoration and is meant to serve as a “national and community model for projects to come.”

A state grant, issued through the Connecticut Office of Culture and Tourism, will cover $120,000 of the $370,000 price tag of the geothermal system. The state also issued a separate $176,500 grant to help shoulder other construction costs.

Daniel Forrest, the director of arts and historic preservation at the Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state made a generous contribution to support the geothermal system because it was an opportunity to back sustainable energy, as well as revive a building with historical significance.

“Geothermal [systems] can be important for historical properties just as they are for other buildings and properties in the state of Connecticut,” Forrest said. Using renewable resources “is important for maintaining the long-term sustainability of these building. . .Our office is very excited to see this project move forward.”

Jacqueline Wattles photo

Cockram said because the building was previously owned by the state and has been closed to the public in recent years, it has fallen out of compliance with occupancy codes. The renovations will bring the building up to date with the codes as well as follow the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for historical restoration.

The renovation will include a second-floor community education center that Cockram and Connecticut Landmarks hope to use for after-school programs. The center would be open for public use and would host state history informational sessions or classes.

A first floor archive room will also house historical documents and photographs detailing Connecticut’s history.

“Currently, archival papers, maps, and documents are spread over the state because there hasn’t been a central, climate-controlled location to store them,” Cockram said. The archival room will be available for research by scholars and teachers.

After five years of fundraising, the group was about $200,000 short of the $2.45 million mark. Cockram said the William and Alice Mortensen Foundation matched the $296,500 in state funds the project received and the learning center will be named for the foundation.

The Mortensen Foundation bears the name of William Mortensen, who served as a Connecticut senator from 1941 to 1943 and Hartford Mayor from 1943 to 1945. Mortensen died in 1990 after serving nearly four decades as manager of the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall in Hartford.

Judge Alfred “Tim” Covello of the U.S. District Court of Connecticut sits on the Mortensen Foundation’s Board of Trustees. He said his mother was a lifelong friend and schoolmate of Mortensen, and in his old age, Mortensen formed the foundation with the fortune he made from his various business ventures.

“He came to me and said, ‘Me and Alice never had any children and don’t really have any extended family,’ and he asked if I would take on the foundation,” Covello said.

The foundation has been active since 1991, and Covello said the foundation’s board meets twice a year to review applications for grants and, because of Mortensen’s involvement with Bushnell, they make an effort to promote culture and the arts.

“We give away money to the poor,” Covello said. “But because of [Mortensen’s] background, we try to support cultural efforts, and we have continued to give money to Bushnell, the Hartford Symphony, and things of that nature.”

Jacqueline Wattles photo

Cockram said the renovations will also improve the building’s roof, gutters, windows, and electric wiring as well as install a new entryway and a handicap-accessible lift. Connecticut Landmarks has contracted with PAC Group, LLC to complete the construction project by the end of the year.

The house, which became the first building in the state to be listed as a national historical landmark in 1968, has been moved twice since it was built during the Revolutionary War era.

According to Connecticut Landmarks’ website, “the 18th-century Amos Bull House was built as a dry goods store and a residence and used as a hardware store, an auto dealership, insurance offices and a restaurant.”

In the 1960s, the building was threatened with demolition, but was preserved in response to a community-wide campaign. Cockram said the building found its current home at 59 South Prospect St. in Hartford in the early 1970s when Frances McCook offered to give it a home in her backyard.

McCook lived in the Butler-McCook House, which is now owned by Connecticut Landmarks and open as a museum, until 1971. The Butler-McCook House is located at 396 Main Street and is separated from the Amos Bull House by a historic garden designed by Jacob Weidemann in 1865 that is maintained by the West Hartford Garden Club.

Connecticut First Lady Cathy Malloy and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra will join Connecticut Landmarks at the Amos Bull House to break ground on the construction project at 4 p.m. on July 11. A “Cultural Cocktail Hour” will follow at 5 p.m.