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Fundraising Efforts Launched for Move of Conny, West Hartford’s Iconic Whale

Conny was built by hand in the mid-1970s by volunteers on the grounds of the Children's Museum in West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The Cetacean Society has launched a GoFundMe campaign and other fundraising efforts to move the iconic whale from its current site at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford.

By Ronni Newton

The Children’s Museum is in the process of moving from 950 Trout Brook Drive a few miles north to its temporary new home at Emanuel Synagogue on Mohegan Drive, and there is hope that the wheels will also soon be turning for the move of Conny, the iconic and life-size sperm whale sculpture that has stood sentry on the property since it was built by hand in West Hartford by the Cetacean Society and volunteers in 1975-1976 as a visible symbol of the organization’s “Save the Whale” effort.

Conny the whale under construction at the Children’s Museum in 1975-76. Submitted photo (we-ha.com file photo)

A GoFundMe campaign was launched Tuesday by the organization that is now known as Cetacean Society International, said David Kaplan, a West Hartford attorney who serves as president of CSI. The fundraising goal is $250,000.

An RFP was issued by the Children’s Museum to solicit bids for moving Conny, with the goal of relocating Conny – whose name is short for “Connecticut” – to a site on the greenway just across Trout Brook Drive. Kaplan said while the bid process is still open, he hopes the fundraiser will support not just the move but also the construction of some sort of platform or foundation for the whale, and other associated costs.

The Children’s Museum has been discussing a move for many years, but the plans were jump-started when Kingswood Oxford School, which has owned the property on which it is located since 2003, announced in January 2022 that it it would be selling the parcel to Continental Properties, which plans to redevelop it as a luxury rental community. Plans for that project are being finalized and the Town Council will hold a public hearing on Oct. 12 on the proposal to establish a Special Development District on the 950 Trout Brook Drive site.

The Children’s Museum Preschool has already relocated to what was formerly the Lollipop Tree Nursery School at Emanuel Synagogue, and the museum itself closed the Trout Brook Drive facility to visitors earlier this month. The complete physical relocation is expected to be completed by the end of September, with reopening of the temporary museum site in October, Executive Director Mike Werle said.

“Our original intent was to take Conny with us,” Werle told We-Ha.com Wednesday. Multiple moving companies were brought in to look at Conny and to determine how the estimated 40,000-pound sculpture, built of cement and structural steel, could be safely relocated. All said the same thing: “The complication is that if you’re going to move it any distance you’ll have to cut it up.”

The risk, Werle said, is irreparably damaging the whale. Cutting off the tail, which would be necessary if there was a need to go under any underpasses, could spring loose a lot of steel rebar, he said. “Do we dare take a chance?”

A crew from Direct Dimensions, Inc. uses various devices to take images of Conny in July 2022. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The Children’s Museum has been working closely with CSI all along, and realized that the best option was not to try to keep the whale with the museum. CSI said their original mission of “save the whales” still stands, and Kaplan said that includes saving Conny.

For the past several months, the focus has been moving Conny across the street, and Kaplan is optimistic that will happen.

“I’ve heard nobody say, ‘no,'” he told We-Ha.com on Tuesday. He doesn’t think the work on the site will begin before a move can be arranged. “We would like to have the whale moved by the winter,” Kaplan said.

Over the summer CSI commissioned a 3D imaging of Conny, to ensure that no matter what happens there will be a permanent record of the whale.

Werle said several bids for the move have been received, and range from $200,000 to $450,000. “I think it’s going to take between $200,000 and $300,000,” he said Wednesday. The move would be similar to moving a house, cutting it off the current foundation, lifting it with a crane onto a flatbed, constructing a new foundation and temporarily moving several electrical or other utility wires along Trout Brook Drive before lowering Conny onto its new foundation.

Members of CSI and others in the community hope that Conny will be able to remain in West Hartford and be relocated across the street to a greenway along Trout Brook. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The location along the Trout Brook Greenway would be ideal for many reasons – among them its proximity to the current site of Conny and the opportunity for the whale to be part of the park system and continue to provide educational benefit – but there is no confirmation from the property’s owner that the whale can be moved there. While extensive flood control measures were undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s on property along Trout Brook, ownership of the property is actually unclear, and officials are engaged in a title search. The type of permitting possibly needed will depend in part upon who owns the land.

Werle recalled that several houses were actually relocated within West Hartford from the west side of Trout Brook Drive as part of the flood control project, and he thinks Conny might even be bigger than a few of those houses.

While the state has committed funds for assisting the Children’s Museum with building a new facility – and Werle said there are three locations in East Hartford that remain in the running – the museum will need to match the state funds. Fundraising for a new location won’t begin until the site is identified, Werle said, but there is not any specific funding for moving the museum, or Conny.

The Children’s Museum is, however, committed to using its resources to support the CSI fundraising efforts to move Conny, and notification of the GoFundMe was sent Tuesday to more than 25,000 email addresses in their database, Werle said. “What we committed ourselves to is to help support that [fundraiser] as hard as we can,” he said.

“Conny the whale is a special part of West Hartford’s history and I’m ready to do what I can to ensure it stays in town and remains a treasure for our community,” state Sen. Derek Slap (D-West Hartford) said Wednesday. “If getting approval from the state for use of the land is needed, I know the West Hartford state delegation will do its part to get that done. We cannot let red tape deprive Conny of a new home here in town.”

Werle said the Children’s Museum and Kingswood Oxford have been “working together in good faith” as the move progresses. He thinks there is still time to figure out plans for moving Conny.

Regarding the museum’s temporary relocation, Werle said there is steady progress and they have been able to donate or relocate what can’t be moved, including the planetarium’s projector. He said Webster Hill Elementary School, which has traditionally supported raising monarch butterflies, may be able to use parts of the butterfly house.

“We are trying to find useful places for everything,” Werle said.

“All of our large animals have now been re-homed,” he added, all to places that have been carefully vetted. The remaining smaller animals are being moved to Mohegan Drive, and once that is complete the U.S. Department of Agriculture will inspect the facility to ensure everything is in compliance.

As of noon on Wednesday, a day after the “Save Conny the Whale!” fundraiser launched, there have been 57 donations, totaling $2,763. To view the GoFundMe campaign page, click here.

A “Save Conny” Facebook page that also launched Tuesday can be found here, and Kaplan said updates on the progress of efforts will be shared on that page.

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