Willimantic – Then & Now (Part 1)

While Willimantic, it its modern iteration anyway, is a mixed bag when it comes to arts and culture, the city certainly has a storied history and appreciable charm. I have generational ties to the city; one of my paternal grandfathers was Alderman-At-Large, then Mayor, and finally Housing Code Enforcement Officer. My other paternal grandfather was employed by the fire department for decades. My maternal grandfather worked at Brand Rex, a cable manufacturing company. I’m fairly certain that all of them worked at the American Thread textile plant at some point in their lives (Alfred Henry Noel as a sweeper and later foreman, for certain).

My return to Willimantic after a long absence has been a very opportune one, as far as exploring my family’s past and the general history of the town. It’s fitting that an area as poor as Willimantic has embraced me in my poverty, but perhaps also apt that the town once known for economic prosperity (a favorable work environment that made it a mecca for immigrants from France, Poland, and Latin/Central America) is the launch site for my new aspirations.

In my explorations and investigations, I’ve come across this fascinating website: http://www.threadcity.com/. There’s an extensive gallery of historical photographs, and while I was around town this weekend I decided to re-create a few of the shots for a “Then & Now” feature. I’ve desaturated the images and tried to recreate the “feel” of the originals. Vibrant images, I believe, would draw attention away from the differences in setting, the documentation of which is the primary intention of the work.


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Bridge/Main Street Intersection, 1960s. Note the Dunkin’ Donuts on the far left…
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…and the very same Dunkin’ Donuts, today.
Looking toward the town hall (center) down Bridge Street, 1960s.
The same view today.
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The historic Murray building, which housed Hurley’s haberdashery for many years (it was still in business when I was a teenager).
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The Murray building now. Mostly unused at the moment, it has been the site of several coffee shops and bakeries, none of which were able to thrive in the depressed economy of the area. Despite earnest attempts by the community to draw in local business and artisans, Wal-Mart and Dunkin’ Donuts always seem to win out.
Looking out on Main Street from the edge of the historic foot bridge, a pedestrian walkway that transverses the Willimantic River to connect Main and Pleasant Street.
A surprisingly similar view today. The buildings in the 1950s shot remain standing, though the businesses have changed. The town has allowed nature to reclaim some of the land, too, and more flora is apparent.
The Willimantic Post Office, completed in 1910, is shown in this 1960s photograph. The granite and limestone building with a very elegant interior was abandoned in 1967 and boarded up for nearly thirty years…
…until purchased by the Willimantic Brewing Company, who operates a bar and restaurant there to this day. With fine micro-brewed beers and many of the original post office accents restored, it’s a rare success story in the area.
A view down Main Street. Note The Capitol Theater at right, a vaudeville house turned cinema that was wildly successful in its early days (it put the now demolished Loomer Opera House out of business, regrettably). Opened in 1926, The Capitol was a lavish establishment filled with grand marble staircases, burnished brass details and seating for 1,200 patrons. Like the Post Office, it closed in the 1970s and sat in disrepair for three decades, until a $17 million renovation project turned it into The Arts At the Capitol Theater, a magnet school for high school students. The building itself has allegedly been haunted (or so say those who believe in such things). My own mother swears that she and a friend saw a terrifying specter in the balcony while viewing a film there in her adolescence. You can check out the allegations of supernatural events here: http://www.damnedct.com/capitol-theater-willimantic.
Present day view, including the marquee for the Capitol Arts school. Though cosmetic changes have been made, the two buildings opposite the theater remain standing.


20 thoughts on “Willimantic – Then & Now (Part 1)

  1. Does any?one know what happened to the bench that the Irish club donated to Willimantic where it is? and does anyone have a picture of what used to be hadDad’s olld store?

  2. Thank you for sharing! I actually live in the building across from the historic foot bridge. It’s wonderful to see the then & now. Also we can only hope the restore the old Hurley s building someday. I love history especially history my family was part of!

    1. The building you are speaking of that you now live in, is that the one that used to be Bruce’s Shoes? That was my aunt and uncle, Margaret Foote Bruce and Ray Bruce that owned that business. I graduated from Windham High in 1964. Our 50th h.s. reunion was just held in 2014. What a pleasure it was to return there. Also, I was married to Mike Cerreto, Class of ’63. His mother, Ann still lives in Willimantic, in the card home on Pleasant Street, which is very close to the foot bridge. In fact, Ann still walks nearly every day, very often crossing that bridge. Thanks so much for all the memories.

      1. Amy – I don’t believe we’ve never met, or even knew of the connection to Bruce’s Shoes. (diversion: I won a contest on WILI from Bruce’s when I was young). but it is great to have discovered you. Your former husband is my second cousin. His father, Uncle Mike and my grandfather Tony were brothers. I have great memories of family get-togethers at Mike and Aunt Angie’s house on Serwan Avene .My great uncles would be trying to out-do each other playing horseshoes. Angie was an “outsider” from Brooklyn…Unlike your WHS class, my class of 1975 has not had a reunion. I left Willimantic to go on to law school and then live in New York and try to visit whenever I can as I still have friends and some family in the area.

        Thanks to the blog for finding you and for bringing back the memories of Willimantic past.

        If you should ever see my aunt, please say hello to her for me.

  3. Great images of Main Street…recognize all of the places depicted. I grew up in The Capitol Theatre since my pop Russ Barrett ran it in its Golden Days…1940/50s

  4. Great photos, thanks for sharing! My bf’s daughter goes to the Act magnet school so I’ve been inside and must say I don’t remember it looking like what’s described in the article. What a shame that it’s not as grand as once was, but conversely it’s fantastic that the space was saved and is in use. I too remember Hurley’s being open and think that building is gorgeous.

  5. I lived across Harleys men shop, the newspaper printers were on the second floor, if I remember correctly, and on my wedding day ,October 3, 1959. When I came out of my 3rd floor apartment building, all the workers were hanging out the Windows, hooting and hollering… ( I was 18) , got married at Saint Mary’s Church.

  6. I’m not originally from Willimantic but it has been my home long enough for me to feel proud of it’s history. I truly enjoyed the pictures.

  7. The H. C. Murray building was a department store for many years before it was Hurley’s. I went there with my mother for many shopping trips for fabric for clothing and many other things. Finally I bought my wedding dress there (yes, dress, not gown. It was knee length).

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