Dotha Bushnell Hillyer

Dotha Bushnell Hillyer

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1843

Died: 1932

Inducted: 2003

Town: Hartford

When Hartford native Dotha Bushnell Hillyer set forth to commemorate her father, the Reverend Horace Bushnell, for his years of faithful service to the capital city, she also strengthened her own legacy of patronage and commitment to the public. While instituting and financing the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall, Hillyer declared the theater a “center for the benefit of the public,” a nod to her father’s core values. Through her generous gift of the theater, her most well-known public work, the philanthropist and reformer continued her own tradition of giving.

Dotha Bushnell was the youngest daughter of Reverend Bushnell and his wife, Mary Apthorpe. She followed the path of community building that her father had paved with similar resolve and dedication. Horace Bushnell was admired in Hartford as a civic leader. In 1853, he declared his vision for Bushnell Park, which he saw as a means of unifying the community. He hoped that the park would speak to wholesome, feminine ideals. These values hinted at the social purity movement that was just beginning to enter the political landscape. By the 1890s, his daughter Dotha Bushnell became an active reformer in this movement by leading a fight for tenement reform and against prostitution.

Reverend Bushnell passed away in 1876. Shortly after, in 1879, Dotha Bushnell married Appleton Robbins Hillyer, a well-known philanthropist. With the help of her husband, Hillyer began to realize her dream of creating the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall, now commonly known as the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts or simply “The Bushnell.” Just as her father had built Bushnell Park around a dream of community unity, Hillyer sought to build a community venue where people could gather, celebrate, and feel inspired. In 1919, she decided to invest $800,000 in the project and set the money aside in an investment account. Soon after, however, ill health forced a delay in the project. The economic boom of the 1920s caused the money to more than triple to $2.5 million by the time construction began in 1928. The account was liquidated to pay for the project—and just in time, as the stock market crash of 1929 would have wiped out the fund! On January 13, 1930, the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall opened its doors. The venue’s success was staggering, but Hillyer was unable to join in the festivities due to her poor health.  In fact, the woman who had made it all possible would only see the final product once before her death in 1932.

Since its grand opening, more than 25 million patrons have enjoyed Hartford’s beautiful and stately Bushnell Theater. Many talented performers have graced the Bushnell’s stage, including Katharine Hepburn, who performed Without Love in 1942. In addition to providing the city of Hartford with the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall, Hillyer and her husband were also the principal benefactors of the Science Museum in West Hartford and the original Hartford YMCA, which later became Hillyer College and then the University of Hartford. Ultimately, there was very little of the city’s fabric that remained untouched by the generous nature and civic mindedness of Dotha Bushnell Hillyer.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform