By: Bob Rinker
In 2021, CSEA will be celebrating its 80th anniversary as a labor organization representing public and publicly-funded employees. CSEA’s beginning was originally in 1939 as a local of AFSCME. A split between CSEA and AFSCME occurred in 1941 led by Bernard McCusker (for whom the scholarship fund is named after). Much like CSEA, the building that now houses CSEA has a story to tell as well.
CSEA headquarters is located at 760 Capitol Avenue in Hartford. It was originally built as a police precinct for the West End of Hartford. It was built within the neighborhood surrounding Hartford High School which is the second oldest secondary school in the country. The school was founded in 1638 by Rev. Thomas Hooker to prepare men for Puritan ministry.
The CSEA building still has reminders of the police precinct including an engraving of the symbol of Roman centurions above the main entrance to the building. Centurions were officers in charge of foot soldiers in ancient Rome. You can also see the former anchors where the blue light posts stood in front of the building indicating it was a police station. In the back of the building there is a half wall that is the remnants of the garage where officers parked their police vehicles. Back then, there were few police cars as most officers walked a beat. Inside the building and to the back, were holding cells for those that were taken into police custody. Until recently, you would have been able to see the bars on the windows from the parking lot. The bars came down when we replaced the original windows a few years back as an energy saving measure. In the lower level of the building there was a shooting range for the officers.
Nearby is the most interesting room, a fallout shelter. What is unique about this room is that it is underneath the parking lot. For those of you that don’t remember a fallout shelter, it was the place you were to go in case there was a bombing by a foreign adversary. The room has a hatchway leading into the parking lot in case the building was demolished and it provided the only means of escape.
While the original building has a brick facade, the structure of the building is poured concrete including the I-Beams that support the floors. The structural concrete walls are 12 to 18 inches wide. The building was built along the Park River, a.k.a., the Hog River or Little River that ran through Hartford and empties into the Connecticut River. The river was west of the original building and today it would be under the addition added to the building that contains our large meeting hall. The river was diverted just south of the building when I-84 was built through the middle of Hartford. Today, most of the river in Hartford remains underground. Because the former river ran next to the original building and through the main meeting hall, the water table is very high. As a result, the current building has three active sump pumps and wells to keep us dry.
After the City abandoned the police precinct, it was used for Russian war relief following World War II. This was before the Cold War when the Soviet Union was an ally in our fight against Nazi Germany. Also in the 1950s the Police Athletic League used the building for boxing. There was a full sized boxing ring on the second floor. The Friday fights were broadcasted on local television and cables ran out of the second floor to the broadcast truck on Capitol Avenue. Through the years, ex-boxers have shown up at CSEA to reminisce about the old days.
When I-84 was built, the Department of Transportation (DOT) used the building as a staging area for the construction. Following the construction, DOT gave the building back to the City of Hartford. CSEA bought the building from the City. After some renovation, the CSEA offices were located there including an office for the CSE Credit Union. The CSE Credit Union was formed by CSEA in 1946. It is currently the 2nd largest credit union in Connecticut with $2 billion in assets. The only item left over from Credit Union is a large safe in one of the offices, but it no longer holds any money.
In the late 1970’s, the leadership of CSEA decided to build an addition to the west side of the original building. The addition includes a large membership meeting hall, a kitchen space, and bathrooms. On the lower level are CSEA’s print shop and additional staff offices. The most recent improvement to the building was the construction of a paved parking lot. CSEA went from a paved parking lot that could hold about a dozen cars with the rest of the parking on a dirt lot underneath the on and off ramps for I-84 to a paved lot with 66 marked spaces.
Our building has been the site of many historic negotiations with the State; it has hosted retirement parties and legislative receptions; and has honored our children and grandchildren that have received a McCusker scholarship. So on our 80th anniversary, we also celebrate our nearly 60 years in a building that is part of our history and the history of the labor movement in Connecticut.
Bob Rinker is the Council 400 Eastern Area Vice President and former CSEA Executive Director.