A 1960s view of old Moodus
||Click thumbnail to enlarge
The Nathan Hale Plaza in the
Moodus section of East Haddam is clearly nobodys pride and joy. Exasperated town
officials have called the deteriorating conditions of the shopping plaza an unsightly
embarrassment to residents; the townspeople complain about the litter, refuse and the
muddy ruts that surround the seven-store building, as well as the inadequate variety of
goods and services available there; tenants complain about the lack of expansion space and
the level of maintenance; and the corporation that owns the property pleads poverty in its
It wasnt supposed to be like this. Nearly two decades after the start of the
project that gave birth to the 12-year-old plaza, folks around here remember what they
once had, what they were promised and what they received, and the blood begins to boil
It was to be a shopping center that was "modern in every way, its design
reflecting the ageless good taste of the rural and peaceful surrounding countryside."
What area residents got was something quite different. Today that plaza stands as a
painful reminder of promises forsaken. "They offered us a grand plan," says one
resident. "And then we built early aluminum."
On February 3, 1967, East Haddams citizens turned out to decide in referendum
whether to authorize the undertaking of East Haddam Renewal Project No. One. Conn R-100.
The residents decided for the project by 751 to 312 and approved funding of East
Haddams share of $166,827. It was, said then-First Selectman Charles Wolf Jr.,
"the most important decision that East Haddam has made in its 200-year history."
It certainly was a moment of triumph for the projects sponsors. For three years
they had labored hard on the $1.5 million plan, spending $100,000 to develop it and
another $10,000 to sell it to the townspeople in an aggressive public relations campaign.
The ambitious plan, which had as its goal, "to spur the rebirth of Moodus,"
involved the purchase and demolition of 33 of the 34 buildings within the 27.5-acre
project area, which encompassed the entire Moodus business district. Seventeen private
residences and 16 commercial structures were to be razed. The 20 businesses, 33 families
and 3 individuals in the area would be relocated. After demolition and clearance of the
land, area roads would be realigned to improve intersections and the agency would then
contract to erect a new business district.
All this was to be done with the help of the federal urban renewal program.
Urban Renewal Sweeps USA
Triggered by the Housing Act of 1949, the urban renewal program authorized the federal
government to pay municipalities [sic] from two-thirds to three-fourths of the difference
between the cost of acquiring and clearing a blighted area, and the price the land brought
when sold to a private developer for redevelopment, who would then follow a plan drawn up
by the local renewal agency. The Acts initial aim was to clear slums, but it was
soon broadened to finance redevelopment of the nations cities and towns by
authorizing clearance of land for non-residential reuse, and setting up funds for the
rehabilitation and conservation of old houses and neighborhoods.
More than 1,500 urban renewal projects were undertaken in some 750 U.S. cities and
towns. Across the country, the planners knife carved out new areas in which were
erected apartments, office towers, industrial parks, retail complexes and cultural
centers. Fueled by tens of billions of federal dollars, this euphoric, masterplan view of
economic redevelopment met with mixed results and aroused controversy everywhere it was
considered. Millions of Americans, mostly minorities, were forced to relocate, hundreds of
thousands of businesses were forced to close and ill-conceived projects became
Many urban renewal master plans did succeed in stimulating revitalization. Sometimes
the master plan failed. Moodus Nathan Hale Plaza is a legacy of one such failure.
Most observers here agree that what was billed as "progress" turned out to be
the exchange of one nuisance with a lot of charm for another nuisance with none. A former
Main Street merchant calls what happened, "the raping of the town." Mort
Gelston, the former director of the project, once its chief cheerleader, labels the
results, "the wrecking of Moodus."
"Rebirth" to "Wrecking"
How did we get from "rebirth" to "wrecking," what went wrong, and
why are there still matters of controversy. There are no easy answers; some of the key
participants in this small-town drama have since died, project records are incomplete, and
peoples memories are rubbed by time and prejudicial perspective.
What is clear is that what started as discussions about the parking and traffic
problems in the village mushroomed into a campaign whose main theme was that Moodus Center
was a rundown and hazardous area that was impossible to save. It was, all the experts
concluded, necessary to destroy the village in order to save it. This is the story of how
that destruction came about.
The Roots of Moodus
During the late 1800s, Moodus boasted of some 14 twine and cotton mills lining
the banks of the modest Moodus River. Mechanicsville, it used to be called, in honor of
its industry. It was on the river bank, hard by the mills, that the towns business
district developed in response to the growing number of workers settling in the area. In
the late 19th century, six merchants were situated in old Moodus Center, within
walking distance for the mills workers.
Later, during the early 1900s, area farmers began to take in summer guests eager
to enjoy the beautiful countryside and small-town atmosphere. Soon, a dozen or so resorts
were attracting 50,000 visitors a year. Several thousand summer residents added to the
bustle as they returned to their seasonal cabins and cottages. From the 1920s to the
1950s, Moodus Center grew with the towns vacation industry. By all accounts,
those days were the heyday of Moodus.
Downtown Moodus, as it was grandly called, was located at the intersection of Rte. 151
and Rte 149 opposite the villages town green. The Moodus River, more accurately a
canal at this point, flowed directly behind the string of 14 Victorian buildings that
comprised the business district. The buildings, located mostly on the north side of the
street, encompassed an area of about one-eighth mile long and contained some 20 commercial
establishments. The topography of the area was such that the buildings were constructed
with their back portions overhanging a deep ravine, through which the river flowed. In
many cases stilts were used rather than normal foundations to support the buildings.
Behind the stores, the drop from street level to the canal was 50 feet.
By the early sixties, however, Moodus Center was showing signs of its age. The resort
business was in decline and downtown Moodus looked somewhat weary in spots, shopworn and
dated. Traffic was sometimes snarled and parking space was at a premium, especially during
the peak summer periods. Many residents preferred to do their serious shopping in
neighboring towns, which offered a wider range of facilities. The situation in town
developed a certain sense of urgency when the river behind the towns shopping strip
began to stink. For years, the towns health director had warned about contamination
of the river by raw sewage. Now the stench was awful, especially during the summer months.
Traffic Was First Worry
It was at a June 1961 meeting of the
one-year-old Planning and Zoning Board that the subject of Moodus Center
first appeared on the public record. Board Chairman Julian Rosenberg
suggested that the commission start expanding its activities in the planning
area and that Moodus Center, where it was "commonly accepted that
traffic conditions aren’t as good as might be desired," would be the
likely place to start.
Over the next few months, the question of
what to do about improving Moodus Center was discussed among the town
leadership. Through the efforts of Rosenberg, and two popular town
politicians, local resort owner and state representative Jack Banner, and
First Selectman Sam Pear, a Moodus businessman, state urban renewal
officials were contracted and invited to speak to the zoning board.
On October 9, 1962, three experts from the
state urban renewal assistance program spoke to the board and its guests,
who included Banner and Pear. The officials spoke at length on the benefits
of a coordinated plan of community development and the urban renewal
program. This "workable plan of development" would be done by
professional planners of the town’s own choosing, with the U.S. government
paying most of the costs. If the study showed that an area was
"blighted" and eligible for the urban renewal program, the federal
government would pay three-quarters of the cost of such project, with the
town and state each paying one-eighth.
At this point, according to the minutes of
the meeting, there was a flurry of questions and comments from those
present, "which elicited the information that for such a program to get
federal support, it must provide for the razing of those buildings that were
designated as substandard." It was then suggested by Banner that
"the problem in Moodus Center is only one of parking; the buildings are
not in the main substandard, and could be made adequate merely by some
concrete shoring operations." The officials responded that under this
program federal aid to improve parking conditions was available only in
areas that were judged to be in need of redevelopment, which by definition,
includes substandard buildings that would need to be demolished.
Renewal Project Considered
After more discussion, those present agreed that the program was worth looking
into on a step-by-step basis, and it was decided to enlist the support of the towns
businessmen and professionals for the program.
Over the following months, urban renewal and redevelopment became the main topic
of conversation on Main Street. Many people agreed that something should be done and that
this was a chance to get it done at little cost. "We didnt have the choice but
to do the project," recalled Charles Wolf Jr., first selectman from 1966 to 1970.
"Everybody wanted to spend someone elses money. When the federal government
came down here, they really painted a rosy picture of what would happen. And we figured
that it was our money anyway. If we didnt take it, somebody else would."
The lure of something for nothing and the prospect of a vastly improved shopping
district proved a powerful combination. The towns leadership started lining up in a
bipartisan effort in support of the project. The business people in town, though skeptical
at the time, were reassured that the program would mean increased sales; the towns
property owners were told they would receive fair market value for their properties and
center. Everybody, it was emphasized, would benefit.
On September 19, 1963, the first public hearing was held. A second hearing was
held on February 11, 1964. About 150 people came to each meeting. Although transcripts
were made, the full minutes cannot be located and available minutes of the hearings are
sketchy. But the presentation was apparently persuasive. It was explained to questioning
residents that they would approve all steps of the projects planning in a
step-by-step process. The hearings ended, according to the minutes, with the people in
"considerable agreement that East Haddam should look into redevelopment."
Plans were formulated by the Zoning board to establish a local renewal agency
and on July 30, 1964, the five-member East Haddam Redevelopment Agency, was approved by
voice vote at a special town meeting.
The agency immediately contracted with the New Haven consulting firm of Raymond
and May, specialists in urban renewal projects, for help in preparing its application for
planning funds. Preliminary maps were drawn up and basic data were collected.
On October 28, 1964, the Workable Program for Community Development, the first
requirement in applying for urban renewal funds was completed by Raymond and May. It
emphasized the importance of the retail center in Moodus and stressed the need to
modernize the area to compete with commercial development in outlying areas. The
modernization of Moodus Center, the plan stated, would help develop a better community,
which would in turn foster economic and cultural growth.
Area Deemed "Blighted"
Ninety days later, the renewal agency and its consultants completed the
application for surveying and planning funds. It found that the proposed project area was
indeed blighted. Fifty-two percent of the 33 buildings in the area were found to be
structurally substandard and in need of clearance. Forty-one percent had minor
deficiencies that could possibly be rehabilitated if the plan warranted. Seven percent
were found to be standard. Although the actual survey of buildings is missing, an
examination of the criteria used to judge the buildings and recollections of townspeople
suggests that the "substandard" buildings were judged to be so mostly because of
their wooden stilt foundations. In order to qualify as a blighted area eligible for
renewal, a minimum 20 percent of the buildings within the area had to be of substandard
construction, warranting clearance.
In addition, the application found that the proposed project area suffered from
several environmental deficiencies: overcrowding of structures due to severe topography;
buildings inadequately converted for new use; a poor mix of residential and commercial
use; severe traffic hazards due to steep inclines and acutely angled intersections;
inadequate parking facilities; deficient curbs and sidewalks; and a polluted brook,
"whose odor contributes to the unsanitary and unhealthy atmosphere which prevails in
much of the project area."
In the three and one-half years since the problem of traffic was brought up at a
planning and zoning meeting, the area had, according to the application, taken on the
atmosphere of a slum. On December 2, 1964, the Redevelopment Agency issued its first
resolution: "The proposed urban renewal area is a slum, blighted, deteriorated, or
deteriorating area appropriate for an urban renewal project."
The survey and planning application was approved at a town meeting and submitted
to the Federal Housing and Home Financing Agency (HHFA) in January 1965. The application
was approved in September and HHFA advanced $106,163 to finance the preparation of a
detailed urban renewal plan.
Selling The Project
Raymond and May began work on the plan in October 1965. Buildings were
thoroughly inspected, residents and businesspeople in the area were surveyed and
topography drainage and market studies were undertaken.
While these activities were taking place, the members of the agency, its
consultants and the 10-member Citizens Advisory Committee began an all-out campaign
to sell the project to townspeople before the February 1967 referendum, then about a year
A model of how the area would look after renewal was commissioned and brochures
were printed to be distributed to all residents. A series of six newsletters sent to all
residents and a string of more than 50 press releases published in area newspapers
repeatedly pointed out the advantages of the project: progress and modernization at no
cost to local taxpayers. The most important component of this sales effort was the series
of open meetings held with all the civic, religious and social organizations in town.
A January 15, 1966 story in the Middletown Press reported one typical
presentation, this one at the St. Bridgets Ladies Guild.
The first agency member to speak was the Rev. Eugene
Solega, the local Roman
Catholic priest. Talking about the harmful effects of deterioration, Solega pointed to the
success of the Constitution Plaza in Hartford, built in an area, "that previously
resembled a little Bowery." Such communities, said Solega, "contribute to moral
decay, family breakdown, delinquency and crime." It was a theme that would be
repeated by Solega at every opportunity, including pulpit moralizing on the project during
religious services. Former project director Mort Gelston credits Solegas efforts as
a key factor in convincing townspeople of the proposed renewal projects worth.
Solega later resigned from the Agency when he was transferred to Old Saybrook by his
superiors, who were concerned about his local politicking.
Progress VS Deterioration
Other agency members, according to the Press article, compared the lack
of progress in Moodus to the redevelopment going on elsewhere and the depressive effect
this had on property values and future development. It was emphasized that studies showed
that nothing could be done with the present center due to the limiting topography and that
to best plan for future growth a new center should be built. It was further stressed that
the local business people would be given preference in the new development and that all
but one merchant in the present center had indicated an interest in relocating. After Old
Moodus Center was razed, the project area would then be beautified with landscaping and
planting and a park would be established in open public land.
When the project came up for a vote, concluded the agency representatives, the
townspeople would have a choice between the revitalization of the entire community, or the
continued depreciation of the already obsolete section, with a corresponding decrease in
values throughout the town.
Perhaps the single most powerful factor in convincing the townspeople of the
projects value was the three-dimensional scale model that appealingly showed the
project area after renewal. The full-color, four-foot-by-five-foot model, which cost
$4,000, was attractive indeed, complete with lots of landscaping and a modern, small
community feel about it.
The model was on continuous display throughout the town. "It looked like
Venice, Florida," said Don Klinck, owner of an East Haddam insurance agency.
"When you saw that model and how beautiful it looked, it was hard to be opposed to
To augment the appeal of what was promised, color slides of a successful urban
renewal project in Washington, Connecticut were concluded in the Agencys
presentation. The community of 2,600 had erected an impressive, Colonial style complex
after their old shopping facilities had been destroyed in a flood. Thirteen stores were
located in the beautiful plaza which looked quite similar to what was depicted by the
In October, 1966, Part One of the application, the renewal plan and relocation
program, were submitted to the HHFA. The sales campaign now moved into its final stages.
An eight-page, illustrated brochure was distributed to all residents detailing
parts of the program and itemizing what East Haddam would receive for its estimated
$166,827 share of the project cost:
-- Elimination of blight and hazardous conditions.
-- Nearly $2 million in public and private improvements, consisting of $964,000
as the federal and state share of the project and an estimated $1 million in new, private
-- Opportunity for new growth and new business for merchants due to the
modernized facilities, good circulation and adequate parking.
-- Increased shopping facilities for residents, providing additional goods and
-- Open land for public use as a park.
-- A substantial increase in the towns Grand List of taxable property.
Opposition Was Scarce
The message had been made clear to the community. The present business center
was inadequate, couldnt expand and would continue to deteriorate. Through urban
renewal, a modern shopping center could be built at no cost to the town and with increased
Few people questioned the veracity of any of this. As New Era columnist
Bernie Brennan, a resident of the renewal area, wrote, "This urban renewal project
has some pretty good backing. It has the federal government behind it. Thats good
enough for me and the next guy."
Bob Kulpa, a local real estate agent and an early critic of the project,
recalled the feeling of most townspeople at the time: "The normal person was a
believer. They believed the model. They assumed that the government was going to follow
through. What the government took away, it would give back. We assumed it was some great
It was a thoroughly persuasive pitch. And for those people who didnt think
that the project would be a panacea for all the real or imagined ills of Moodus, speaking
up was to oppose the forces of progress, modernization, patriotism and expert authority;
an awesome combination. Many people who had second thoughts on the need for the project or
what was planned were intimidated.
"At the time, my husband and I were against demolishing Moodus,"
recalled Martha Monte, a town librarian, "But the model looked so good and everyone
at the meeting was so gung-ho. So we didnt speak up."
On January 19, 1967, the last public hearing before the referendum was held,
with 150 residents in attendance. The slides were shown, the model was on display and the
array of benefits were restated in detail. It was indicated that the taxes generated from
the redeveloped area could be $20,000 a year rather than $7,000 received from the present
property owners. It was also indicated that the center would contain a post office, bank,
supermarket, hardware store, drug store, clothing store, paint shop and restaurant. Once
more, townspeople were promised a public park, improved traffic conditions, elimination of
the Moodus River contamination and a revitalized economy. It was, as one resident put it,
"a real rosy picture."
On February 3, 1967, the townspeople approved the project by a two-to-one vote.
Just six days later HHFA notified project director Mort Gelston that the project was
approved and that $770,000 of the federal share was being reserved pending receipt and
approval of Part Two of the application, which were the legal commitments and other
necessary paperwork. On March 17, 1967, the state committed to its share. Six months
later, the local agency finally completed Part Two and submitted it; approval was granted
on September 22, 1967.
The Redevelopment Agency was now ready to begin the execution phase of the
project. It began to make preparations for the acquisition of properties, clearance and
site preparation, relocation and redevelopment.
It was then that things started to fall apart.