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Economic Development, Urban Planning, Project Management

By Tricia Ennis on

If you’ve ever traveled down Farmington Avenue in Hartford, you’ve probably seen it. A squat building at the corner of Farmington and Laurel, its aged aluminum structure a time capsule of an era of sock hops and soda parlors. Back then, it was a centerpiece of a bustling neighborhood. Now, residents hope it can bring that neighborhood back.

Depending on when you came to Hartford, you might know the building by a different name. The sign out front says Dishes but it has been called the Aetna Diner, Hog River, Oasis, and, perhaps most commonly, the Comet Diner (or the Comet Lounge) since it was first brought into Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood in 1948. Now, 74 years since its arrival, the building has laid empty for more than a decade, and the multi-year effort to bring it back to its former glory continues.

The last big fight to save the diner ended with a change of heart. Wayne Benjamin had been brought on as a consultant for the previous owners who were looking to tear the building down. They met fierce opposition from the neighborhood association and the Hartford Preservation Alliance who saw the diner as a landmark of local history.

“The neighborhood is behind us,” says Mary Falvey, Executive Director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance, who added the building to their first list of endangered properties in 2015. “The neighborhood felt very strongly that the diner had to stay, that it was definitely an important part of who they are, who they wanna be.”

“Asylum Hill is all about history, that’s our stock and trade, and the diner is all about history,” says Bernie Michel of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association. “They don’t make them anymore and the few places that have them, they are really a delight.”

After much back and forth, Wayne ended up purchasing the building himself in 2017, hoping to work with the HPA and the neighborhood to bring it back to life.

“I kinda, as I tell folks, I got religion,” says Benjamin. “And I thought about it carefully, and I knew for a fact that it has a lot of history, and it’s a very iconic building.”

Benjamin says he actually visited the diner himself back in the 80s and has fond memories of it as a spot where he could stop by to see friends, grab a drink, and get some good food. He wants to make it that again.

“What we’re we gonna do is to rehab the building,” he explains. “Make it functional as we can and preserve historic artifacts that the building actually possesses and bring it back to, one, a diner, and hopefully launch some kind of dining facilities on the lower level.”

After much effort, they were able to get the building added to both the National and State Registries of Historic Places, which offers opportunities to apply for government grants and loans. That dream, though, is still far off. After years of vacancy and vandalism, it will take a huge investment to repair damages and bring the building up to modern standards.

“Given its age, you can imagine that there are a lot of environmental issues,” explains Benjamin. “We already removed the 1,000-gallon storage tank from the rear of the building. There’s also lead in the building, there’s asbestos in the building. So, we have to deal with those … Once those issues are taken care of, the next step is to start the re-habitation of the building.”

Benjamin says they’re already working with a designer and architect and are in conversations with the City of Hartford and the State of Connecticut. When all is said and done, they’re hoping to keep as much of the historic charm intact as possible.

“That is clearly a draw in the city, in the state of Connecticut,” says Benjamin. “That’s what people like. They like their history, they like to come and celebrate what is here and what’s part of the city and part of the state.”

The diner made a splashy entrance in Hartford, at least by today’s standards. The building was literally trucked into the city, a common practice for the style of prefabricated train car diner it was. It was placed, already built and ready to go, on its foundation. Owners would build an extension on the back some years later.

Its location near the Aetna insurance building, and among some of Hartford’s many other insurance companies, made it a prime spot to attract young professionals during its heyday. Members of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association (AHNA) say the neighborhood itself changed around these companies and their need for a large workforce. Where large homes once stood now came apartment buildings made to house single women working in the secretary pools. Then, in the 50s, everything started to change again.

“The residents changed,” explains Jackie McKinney, of the AHNA. “The neighborhood economically changed.”

“Part of the problem was, along came Xerox and they didn’t need carbon paper anymore so they didn’t need all the women that were typing things with carbon paper,” says Bernie Michel. “So I think a lot of the apartments that they built with one bedroom and efficiency units got emptied out.”

In the decades since, other Asylum Hill touchstones like Scolers Restaurant have moved away and closed down. New businesses have come and gone and while the big attractions like the Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center remain a core of the neighborhood, what once were bustling streets have fallen on tough times.

Still, members of the Neighborhood Association recall fond memories of a diner that brought people together.

“It served as an informal and casual meeting place for people within the neighborhood,” recalls Paul O’Mara, who stumbled upon the diner while searching for a good old-fashioned breakfast one Saturday morning. “You have a circle of friends and neighbors and people that you know. Well, this expanded that circle. It allowed you to talk and meet with people, reconnect with people that you might not see ordinarily. It was another way to revive connections and to keep those connections going.”

“It wasn’t exotic or anything, it was basic food,” says McKinney. “But it was good.”

“The difference between that facility and like a Scolars was that Scolars was for the upscale people,” adds O’Mara. “The three-piece suit guys from the state Capitol, the people who had money to spend. And the diner, that was more a people’s place. It was for the neighborhood, the common folk, just the average Joe.”

Now, the diner stands as a beacon of hope that the neighborhood can be turned around again.

“When I first came to work for AHNA the first thing I noticed was this block from Laurel down to Marshall Street which was basically blighted buildings except for the one chicken place,” says David MacDonald. “And that’s basically the center of our neighborhood. So until we turn around that block, Farmington Avenue is not going to be the great place that we want it to be.”

“We’re trying to recapture our youth,” says O’Mara. “We wanna recapture all those fond memories that we had and we’re thinking that maybe by saving this building and reinvigorating it, maybe we will be able to reconnect with days gone by.”

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