Business Government

Tale of West Hartford’s Whale Becomes the Tail

The Cetacean Society has decided to move just the tail of Conny (pictured in January 2023) to land across Trout Brook Drive in West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The Cetacean Society International announced Friday that the legacy of Conny – the life-size replica of a sperm whale that has been an iconic symbol of the Children’s Museum in West Hartford for more than 45 years – will remain through the whale’s tail which will be moved across the street.

Rendering of the vision for Conny’s tail on the greenway on the west side of Trout Brook Drive. Courtesy of Cetacean Society

By Ronni Newton

Yes, the tale of the whale is now the tail of the whale, or you could also say the tail of the whale will become the tale – and the lasting legacy – of the whale.

The plan announced Friday– and the hope of all involved – is for the tail of Conny to be safely relocated from 950 Trout Brook Drive across the roadway to a place of honor along the greenway that runs along the brook itself. But just the tail.

Whenever the plans for the Children’s Museum to move from its site at 950 Trout Brook Drive were mentioned, talk in the community immediately turned to the whale. “But what about Conny?” was a common refrain.

Jessica Dickens, who took over as president of Cetacean Society International (CSI) a few months ago, said after much discussion and consideration of the cost and the technical challenges, the decision was made at the beginning of 2023 to move just the tail, rather than attempting to relocate the entire structure.

“At the beginning of the year we had raised about $10,000, and we were looking to raise much more money,” Dickens said of the “Save Conny the Whale!” GoFundMe campaign CSI had launched in September 2022. As of Friday the total raised was $11,810.

According to Dickens, the quotes to relocate Conny were at least $200,000 to $250,000, and no one was completely sure it could be accomplished without damage.

“We thought about different ways we could move Conny,” Dickens said, and preserve Conny’s legacy.

Conny in January 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“I think it’s a great solution,” said Dan Barstow. “We originally wanted to move all of Conny, but it turned out to be too technically challenging and expensive.” And the tail is really the iconic symbol of a whale, he said.

Barstow is a board member of CSI. Barstow and the son of Dr. Robbins Barstow, the co-founder of the Cetacean Society and the original inspiration behind Conny. “My dad conceived of this and was really the rallying cry to make it happen.”

“This resolution to preserve Conny’s legacy demonstrates why West Hartford is such a special community,” Town Manager Rick Ledwith said Friday. “Everyone working together to find a home for Conny, from CSI, Kingswood, our newest neighbors at Continental Properties and the hundreds who have donated to this cause. We are very happy with this outcome.”

“So many people have memories of Conny and preserving the tail is a wonderful way to honor that memory,” Dickens said. “But at the same time Conny lives in our hearts, and we will also carry Conny with us.”

Members of the Cetacean Society at the completion of the construction of Conny in 1976. Courtesy of Dan Barstow

What is Conny?

Conny is a life-size replica of a giant sperm whale, that’s roughly 60 feet long and estimated to weigh about 20 tons. The whale was constructed – by hand – beginning in 1975 by an all-volunteer effort by what at the time was the Connecticut Cetacean Society, and is now known as Cetacean Society International (CSI). At the time the impetus for building the whale was to raise awareness about the plight of the whales and the global devastation being caused by the impact of whaling.

Sperm whales had been hunted to near extinction, and Dr. Robbins Barstow, a co-founder of the Cetacean Society, was the inspiration behind the creation of Conny.

With the advocacy of the Cetacean Society, the sperm whale was designated as Connecticut’s state animal in 1975. At the time, many members of the board at The Children’s Museum were also part of “Save the Whale” efforts, and embraced the opportunity to have the statue on the campus, which was owned by the Museum at the time.

Conny the whale under construction at the Children’s Museum in 1975-76. Submitted photo

Conny is a male whale, and the name “Conny” is a nickname for “Connecticut.” After the monument was completed in 1976 it was dedicated, and in 2016 Conny was celebrated by the Children’s Museum with a 40th birthday party.

Conny was constructed by cement applied to rebar (reinforced steel bars), and has never been moved.

The Children’s Museum sold the property to Kingswood Oxford in 2002, and continued to lease the space for the museum. Following a strategic visioning process that launched in 2019, KO decided to sell the parcel entered into a contract to sell the property to Continental Properties in January 2022.

The Children’s Museum – including the preschool – has been in operation since last fall in its temporary quarters on the Emanuel Synagogue campus on Mohegan Drive. Plans for a permanent new site are forthcoming.

Continental Properties received approval from the West Hartford Town Council in October 2022, following a lengthy public hearing, for plans to construct 172 luxury apartments, of one-, two-, and three-bedrooms units in an “S-shaped” building at 950 Trout Brook Drive. Nine of the units will be reserved as deed-restricted affordable housing for those with incomes at 80% of the area median income or less.

The sale of the property by KO to Continental was completed in March 2023.

How will the tail be moved?

Continental Properties is covering the cost of cutting off Conny’s tail, loading it onto a flatbed truck, and moving it to a temporary storage site at West Hartford’s Public Works facility on Brixton Street.

Once the permitting is in place with the town, the plan is for the tail to be moved back to Trout Brook Drive and installed along the greenway on the west side of the roadway, across from its former site.

“One of the many qualities that attracted Continental to West Hartford is the town’s strong civic engagement and sense of community. We welcome  the opportunity to work with CSI and all stakeholders and are grateful for the opportunity to help preserve Conny’s legacy,” Continental Properties spokesperson Chuck Coursey said Friday in a statement.

Significant efforts are being made to ensure that Conny’s tail is not damaged when it is cut off. Barstow said there are some “heroes” involved who have a special place for Conny in their hearts, and have given their time and energy to determine the best way to accomplish the work.

Landscaper Paul Pylypyszn, who attended the Children’s Museum Preschool and played in Conny as a child, will be preparing the landscaping at the site along the greenway, but although he is on crutches from a recent injury has been instrumental in determined the best place to make the cut of the tail.

Landscaper Paul Pylypyszyn examines the tail of Conny to help determine the best place to cut. Photo courtesy of Dan Barstow

While there’s no guarantee this is going to happen without damage to the tail, Barstow said that Kevin Dalton of Walker Rigging is building a framework to support the tail as it’s being cut off and loaded onto the truck.

Ledwith said the town has been working with CSI on the application process to obtain a permit for Conny to be installed on the greenway along Trout Brook. That process will be ongoing this spring. There had initially been some question about the ownership of that property, but it was determined that the land is in the purview of the town, not the state.

The solution

Dickens said those who have already donated to the GoFundMe will be notified Friday about the change in the plans for the creative solution, to move just the tail. Since the nature of the plans have changed, donors will be able to request a refund.

“This has been a remarkable community effort,” Dickens said. “So many people have helped with the challenges, donated funds, and come up with creative ideas, at each step of the process. Moving just the tail is a fine solution. It retains Conny’s symbolic power and will continue to inspire children and others who visit Conny.”

The efforts are such a wonderful collaboration, Barstow said, noting there has been so much support of residents and stakeholders.

“We are pleased to be part of the solution to move Conny’s tail to a new home on the Troutbrook Greenway, and to help preserve this iconic symbol for our town and community,” said Kingswood Oxford Head of School Thomas Dillow. KO was a generous donor to the move.

“The Children’s Museum has been a proud caretaker of Conny’s legacy these past five decades and commends CSI, Continental Properties, Kingswood Oxford and the town for working together to find a solution for maintaining Conny’s legacy for generations to come,” Children’s Museum Executive Director Michael Werle said.

Barstow said CSI is extremely grateful to Continental Properties Principal Howard Rapport for the company’s funding the cost of cutting off the tail, supporting it, and moving it by flatbed to Brixton Street, and he’s also thankful to the town for their support and for providing the storage site on Brixton Street.

“No one wanted to see a wrecking ball, and it’s been very invigorating to see so much support from residents,” Barstow said.

Conny on the greenway

When Conny is in its new location, the intent is for it to appear as if Conny is “diving away to explore the world’s oceans.” CSI sees this as “a fitting next step in Conny’s inspiring journey as a beloved icon to many and a symbol of protecting the environment for all.”

The town has been so supportive, Barstow said, and CSI is very excited about the new plans. “We want this illusion of Conny diving into the ocean to swim freely,” he said. Landscaping will add to the illusion.

Barstow shared an image of the imaginary vision of Conny diving under the ground along Trout Brook.

Dan Barstow shared this rendering of his vision of Conny “swimming” beneath Trout Brook. Courtesy of Dan Barstow

Barstow said he hopes Conny will be installed by this summer.

Dickens said there will also be educational signage developed and installed at Conny’s new home. “We would like to develop an app to include the history of Conny and the history of sperm whales.”

Last summer CSI also commissioned 3D imaging of Conny, in case moving the entire whale might not be possible or so they would be able to repair any damage that might occur. The images can also be used to create true-to-scale duplicates of Conny in various sizes, and using other materials. Dickens said those images will not be wasted. “We do have plans for other ways of using the 3D images, so there will be more Connys.”

“Conny is an inspiration for these great animals of the sea, but also for the larger environmental movement,” Barstow said, and West Hartford has long been supportive of efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues. Conny, he said, is not only a local but also a statewide and a national symbol of support for the environment.

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

The following is the text of a statement issued by CSI on Friday:

“We anticipate submitting our permit application for installing Conny on the greenway to the town later in the spring.  We appreciate West Hartford Planning and Zoning for their assistance and guidance as we navigate this process.

“We are so very grateful to those who have donated to our efforts to save Conny. Our supporters can be assured that their donations will continue to go toward preserving Conny, including the application, installation and ongoing maintenance for his new home, and help us continue our work in environmental education. If a donor is not aligned with this new, more feasible approach, they can ask for their donation to be returned.

“We are also most appreciative to Continental Properties, the new owners of the former Children’s Museum property, who will cover all costs to remove and transport Conny’s tail to the West Hartford Public Works storage facility on Brixton Street, where it will remain until permitting approval.

“We also understand that removing and transporting Conny’s tail is an extremely delicate process that, even with a large team of professionals, could result in damage to the tail. If this occurs, we will not hold Continental accountable and thank them for their willingness to help us preserve Conny’s legacy.

“We also want to thank Kingswood Oxford for their financial donation towards the cost of installing Conny’s tail in the Greenway, and to the over 200 people who made individual donations. CSI welcomes further support, through our GoFundMe site: https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-conny-the-whale.”

CSI said they will share the date for the moving of the tail in the near future, and the organization looks forward to “to the successful preservation of Conny’s legacy.”

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  • Considering the expected profit for the developer, they should fund the move to promote goodwill to the town. That has been a local landmark for decades.

  • I agree with the first comment. It’s going to cost something to demolish in the first place. I know moving it would be more costly and problematic, but I also wonder why no one started a Go Fund Me page. And where are all the philanthropists when you need them? If this is so important to the town I don’t get the lack of a better solution than this.

  • What a shame. This is what happens when the Democrats are in charge. You get it in the tail. The museum should have moved to the old Uconn property. Instead we are getting 720 apartments. What a great idea for the last open space in town!

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