Where can you find a two-headed calf, Mark Twain's bicycle, and an alligator dangling from the ceiling? At Connecticut's Old State House, of course. It took us a while to “discover” this museum – because sometimes it’s difficult to persuade kids that anything featuring the word “old” in the title can be enjoyable – but once we visited, we realized that this Hartford County attraction is a historical treasure and a fun destination. In fact, the kids became so immersed in one activity (keep reading) that only a bribe persuaded them to leave.
Located in downtown Hartford since 1796, the Old State House has been the crucial setting for many historical events, and it is easily recognizable by the golden statue of Lady Justice standing atop its dome. At this time, the exterior of the building is undergoing renovation, but don’t let the scaffolds deter you – the interior is beautiful and welcoming.
Visiting this National Historic Landmark certainly provides plenty of opportunities to learn. For example, older children interested in architecture will note the different construction styles: the exterior of the building features Federal style, the chamber is Victorian, and the halls and courtroom are Colonial Revival.
I recommend that you begin the tour with the legislative chambers, found on the second floor, especially if you have young children. They will probably quickly breeze through “the boring stuff” before sprinting to the nearby Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities. Though it’s a small room, the place makes a big impression: in addition to the two-headed calf (kids thought that was “cool”), you’ll see a two-headed fetal pig (simultaneously disturbing and intriguing) and an assortment of taxidermied animals and birds.
Next, you can quickly browse the main level, which features a few oversized and historically important paintings, the old courtroom, and the gift shop. Then, head to the last and best area.
On the lower level you will find the Holcombe Center, a colorful space where children can explore hands-on history activities, design their own state house at a Lego table, and play in a replica of the Charter Oak. And it gets even better: on the same level you will find the Mortensen Gallery, where younger children will spend the most time.
Most of the exhibits here are interactive, such as designing a hotel sign, creating a quilt design, or playing dress-up with uniforms of Connecticut teams, including the Huskies, the Whalers and the Wolfpack.
The interactive “History is All Around Us” exhibit allows children to explore more than 300 years of history. They will be able to see the evolution of toys and housewares, learn about influential residents, and use wooden blocks to build Hartford through the centuries. The latter was by far my kids’ favorite activity. They spent nearly an hour imagining the city through the years, and it took an ice cream bribe (have you checked out the Harvest Country Store in West Hartford?) to get them to leave.
Overall, we enjoyed our visit to the Old State House and the morning spent here went by quickly. If you’re interested in spending the day in Hartford, there is plenty to do in the area. You can take a lunch break in the State House Square Food Court (across the street) where you can find Mexican and Chinese cuisines, pizza, a Dunkin Donuts, and fruit smoothies. Then you can continue your adventures at the nearby Wadsworth Atheneum (closed Mondays and Tuesdays), the Connecticut Science Center, or the Riverfront. All are just a short walk away.
A visit to the Old State House costs $6 per adult ($3 for AAA members) and $3 per child (free under age 6). Parking in the State House Square Garage at 55 Market Street and having your ticket validated in the museum will set you back $5 for the day. Overall, this is a really great deal for the opportunity to explore and enjoy our Capital City.
Connecticut’s Old State House is located at 800 Main Street, Hartford.