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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 1999 /21 Kislev, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Here's looking at you -- now hand over the cash -- 'YOU LOOKIN' at me?"

It sounds like a tough-guy line, suitable for a movie. But, it turns out, that sentiment is being used in Connecticut as a way to bring in tax revenues.

You may recall, several weeks ago, a column that appeared here about the Window Tax that once was in effect in England. Considered by some to be the meanest tax in history, its basis was this:

If you had windows in your house, you had to pay a tax on each of them -- give money to the government for the privilege of being able to look outside.

Levied in the 1690s, in the era of King William III and Queen Mary II, the Window Tax caused many poor people to board up or brick up their windows. They couldn't afford to get by if they had to pay the Window Tax -- so they made the sad decision of doing without sunlight in their homes.

The point of the column was that such a tax would never be levied today -- no politician would have the temerity to tell the citizens that they must pay a tax on each of their windows.

But as soon as the column appeared in print, several readers let us know about the Window Tax in Hartford, Conn. -- which might more accurately be called the "You-lookin'-at-me?" Tax.

In downtown Hartford sits the Old State House. Constructed in 1796, it was a traditional seat of government -- the Connecticut General Assembly met there. Almost a century later, a new capitol was built.

The Old State House then became Hartford's City Hall. That lasted until 1915. The historic building was almost torn down several times, and eventually became a museum.

But the world has changed. Office towers now surround the relatively tiny Old State House; insurance companies, law firms and financial-services corporations have their headquarters in downtown high-rises. The officers and employees of those companies look down on the Old State House--so quaint and full of history, such a lovely view.

"You lookin' at me?"

That -- or words to that effect -- are what occurred to the executive director of the Old State House, Wilson H. Faude.

Faude thought that it was nice that all of the Old State House's prosperous neighbors had such a pretty view of the building -- the view seemed to make everyone in the downtown area feel good.

And feeling good, he reasoned, should not necessarily be free.

Thus, 20 years ago, he instituted his own Window Tax. He didn't ask the permission of any elected body or public official -- he just did it. He counted all the windows that faced the Old State House.

The number he came up with was 4,153.

He sent out notices to the owners of all the surrounding buildings, asking the owners and tenants to pay a yearly tax of $10 per window.

"People pay the tax with no complaint," Faude said. He jokingly theorizes that the high-rise owners know that an antique cannon outside the Old State House is fired twice a day, and that if the neighbors don't come up with the tax money, "we'll start shooting out windows."

And in fact, although some of the Old State House's neighbors decline to pay the Window Tax--and although there's no way Faude can force them to do it--most do. The tax brings in more than $25,000 a year, Faude said, money that goes for the upkeep and preservation of the old building.

What do those neighbors in the glass towers think?

"We have this wonderful view, 365 days a year," said Jim Williams, a partner at Kuzmak-Williams and Associates, Hartford real estate brokers. "We pay $150 a year. I think that is a small price."

"I like to let people around the office know that we do pay the tax," said Maura Melley, a senior vice president of Phoenix Home Life. "It's very hard to say no to Mr. Faude, because he has the cannon."

Lawrence Gavrich of United Technologies Corp., which also happily pays the tax, said, "It's a very respected building. It's, in my perception, like the Alamo. A beautiful piece of history amid more modern buildings."

This could conceivably start a trend -- if looking at attractive sights warrants taxation, we might begin to see certain sunbathers hand out tax assessments to gawkers on the beaches during the summer -- but for now the Old State House seems to have this idea all to itself.

"No one likes to be looked down upon," Wilson Faude said.

At least not without compensation.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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