Contractors removed the tail of Conny the giant sperm whale from the rest of the body on the property of the former Children’s Museum in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
The director of construction chuckled when asked if he had ever supervised a project like the one that unfolded in West Hartford Tuesday morning.
Tom Albright, director of construction for Continental Properties, said the closest thing to it was being on “extreme home makeover” about 15 years ago, when he was given three days to complete an entire project, including dealing with the unexpected.
Nothing really could be compared to slicing through cement and rebar to remove the tail portion of a life-sized giant whale, load it onto a flatbed truck, and move it across town to temporary storage. For starters, Conny – the 60-foot, 20-ton replica of a giant sperm whale that has stood sentry in front of the Children’s Museum since the mid-1970s – was a one-of-a-kind structure.
No one knew for sure if it would be able to be removed cleanly and if it would be able to survive the process – but everything went smoothly and less than four hours after the first cut was made, Conny was unloaded at a storage area at West Hartford’s Department of Public Works facility, where it will remain until the permanent site for its relocation is ready.
The work began around 9 a.m., and while members of the media were allowed to observe and take photos, in accordance with OSHA regulations had to remain a safe distance from the actual construction site.
Tuesday’s efforts were a true collaboration, led by Cetacean Society International (CSI), Continental Properties, the Town of West Hartford, the Children’s Museum, and Kingswood Oxford School. Crews from Zarrella Demolition did the actual cutting with a standard circular saw, and Walker Crane & Rigging Corp. handled the physical move, and built a frame to support the tail while it was being transported across town on the flatbed.
Connecticut Landscape Solutions – whose owner Paul Pylypyszyn attended the Children’s Museum Preschool and played in Conny as a child – helped determine the best place to make the cut in the tail and will handle the landscaping of the chosen site along the Trout Brook greenway. Aram Deratrahamian from Connecticut Landscaping Solutions was among those onsite Tuesday morning, and the team followed his recommendation that a slightly larger portion of the tail was cut off than what will ultimately be installed.
The Cetacean Society “had this audacious idea to build a full-scale model of a sperm whale,” said Dan Barstow, whose father, Dr. Robbins Barstow, was co-founder of what was then the Connecticut Cetacean Society and is now CSI. Barstow’s father led the effort to build Conny – nicknamed for “Connecticut” – using all volunteers, and donated materials. “And now 47 years later, we’re going through a transition,” Barstow, a member of the organization’s Board of Directors, said Tuesday.
“Sure, we’d love to save the entire whale, but it’s just too expensive and too risky, but the tail is a wonderful solution,” Barstow said. “We’re really pleased,” he said, noting that Continental Properties, the current owner of the parcel which formerly housed the Children’s Museum and on whose campus Conny was built, is taking care of all of the costs of removing the tail and transporting it. The Town of West Hartford Department is allowing for the tail to be stored at their facility for no cost as well, Barstow said.
“And then we expect to move it just across the street, to have it look like Conny’s just swimming away to freedom and the spirit of Conny stays alive,” Barstow said. “We’re going to have it landscaped to look like waves are going around it, to really keep that spirit.”
CSI has not finalized the precise location along the greenway that borders Trout Brook, and has hired a surveyor to assist with that process, Barstow told We-Ha.com. There is a cement tunnel that runs through the area, and they need to ensure that Conny’s placement doesn’t interfere with that. The hilly area behind Whole Foods, or perhaps land at the corner of Trout Brook Drive and Farmington Avenue, will likely be the site of the installation.
“The thing that has struck me the most is that almost everyone who is working on this saw the whale as a child or went to preschool here and played inside,” Barstow said Tuesday. They estimate more than 100,000 people have visited Conny over the years.
In addition to the tail, Barstow said the teeth from the jaw are being saved and given to donors or those who have been involved in the efforts in other significant ways. The eyes – which are made from blown glass – are also being preserved. One of the eyes will be used in signage where the tail is installed and as for the other eye – he was only slightly joking when he said maybe an eye doctor will give a large donation and receive it to hang in the office.
“This is a symbol of our environment, our connection with the world around us,” Barstow said. In Connecticut’s past whales were hunted, but then the focus became it’s plight as an endangered species and the fight to save the whales.
“I’m happy that Conny’s legacy will continue, and we will preserve a piece of Conny,” said Jessica Dickens, the president of CSI. She said Conny is a symbol of the organization’s work to preserve all whales, and a symbol “of our love of whales,” and of the sperm whale, which in 1975 was proclaimed the state animal by the General Assembly.
Dickens said saving the tail “is a wonderful solution” a way to “be able to continue to honor Conny’s legacy for generations to come and inspire environmental awareness and action.”
She said she was worried that once the cutting began that the entire whale would collapse, but was very happy that 30 minutes into the process things were proceeding smoothly.
The piece of the tail that was removed is roughly 15 feet long, by 6 feet wide, by 10 feet deep, Barstow estimated. According to the scale on the rigging, the tail weighs 8,500 pounds.
— We-Ha.Com (@WeHartford) April 11, 2023
Albright of Continental Properties said most of Conny is about 1.5 to 2 inches thick. Cutting the eyes out took only about 15 minutes, he said. The crane arrived yesterday and the rigging was put up Tuesday morning.
At 11:51 a.m., the flatbed truck carrying Conny’s tail, the jaw, and the eyes departed, and headed south on Trout Brook Drive to the surprise of motorists in the area. By 1 p.m. the same crane and rigging that had removed the tail had safely unloaded it on the Public Works campus.
— We-Ha.Com (@WeHartford) April 11, 2023
Alright said other work has already started in preparation for the future construction of Continental Properties’ 172-unit luxury apartment building, plans for which were approved by the Town Council in October 2022.The complex of one-, two-, and three-bedrooms units will be constructed in an “S-shaped” building at 950 Trout Brook Drive. Abatement has been completed at the former preschool building, and is underway at the administration building. Some selective demolition has already started on the main building as well, and there has been some site work on the rear portion of the site, primarily removal of soil that’s unsuitable for use.
“We’re hoping by June,” Albright said of the groundbreaking. He said the concrete from the museum building will be recycled for use on site and commingled with new materials.
“I’m so pleased that everyone was able to come together and work hard to find the best solution for insuring Conny’s legacy into the future,” West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said in a statement. “This effort exemplifies the spirit of West Hartford of collaborating with all to meet challenges. also want to thank CSI for their strong leadership and commitment to Conny, and to Howard Rappaport and Continental Properties for their generosity and community minded values.”
Rappaport, in a statement, said he and Continental Properties were attracted to West Hartford in part because of the town’s “strong civic engagement and sense of community … We welcomed the opportunity to work with CSI and all stakeholders and are grateful for the opportunity to help preserve Conny’s legacy.”
Children’s Museum Executive Director Michael Werle said, “The Children’s Museum has been honored to have provided a safe harbor for Conny for nearly 50 years and commends CSI for its extensive and successful efforts to establish a new home for Conny. Through CSI’s partnership with Continental Properties, The Children’s Museum and Town of West Hartford, Conny’s legacy as Connecticut’s State Animal will be preserved for many years to come.”
A “Save Conny the Whale!” GoFundMe campaign was launched by CSI in September 2022, and continues to welcome donations to cover the remaining costs of installing the tail, as well as to sustain CSI’s environmental education, outreach and research.
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