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A Garden Blooms in Colt Park

May 15, 2005

Remember the idea for a botanical garden that we all thought was deader than last year's impatiens?

It just poked its head up and suddenly looks healthy and strong. If all goes well, an 18.5-acre swath on the west side of Colt Park will become the Hartford Botanical Garden and Conservatory. There is a very good chance to pull this off. The city owns the land, which lowers the cost considerably. There are potential funding sources that aren't part of the usual touch. It's got strong people behind it. It's a good idea.

The garden would offer a great resource for Hartford adults and students, enhance the Coltsville project, provide a major tourist and convention attraction, and preserve some historic buildings to boot.

It's also fitting that the project begin this year, the 100th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, who gave the park and so much else to the city. When Elizabeth and her husband, Sam Colt, owned the 105-acre greensward, it contained a world-renowned estate garden.

The idea for a new botanical garden surfaced in late 1997, amid the swirl of plans for downtown development. Some prominent people formed a committee and engaged Toronto planner Kenneth Greenberg, who said, in effect: Great idea.

Greenberg's 1999 feasibility study concluded that a well-conceived and well-run garden would draw 100,000 to 125,000 visitors annually and create or stimulate the creation of 110 jobs. Most botanical gardens are ``cultural treasures in their communities,'' Greenberg reported. Most include a glasshouse or conservatory in the midst of an outdoor garden, as is the plan for Hartford.

The committee then went looking for a site. They were interested in the sawtooth building on the Colt property, but the timing was wrong; the factory restoration project was then unsettled. They looked at a site in the Asylum Hill neighborhood. It was bordered by Hawthorn, Laurel and Forest streets, which seemed fortuitous for a botanical garden, but a variety of issues made it unobtainable.

The group kept plugging away, however. With Coltsville now moving ahead, the convention center about to open and the Dutch Point housing project gone, Colt Park now made sense. Neighbors and park advocates loved the idea. Mayor Eddie Perez warmed to it and the project leapt ahead.

If all goes well, the garden will be behind Armsmear, the former Colt family home on Wethersfield Avenue, and will include three little-known historic buildings that were once part of the Colt estate.

The cook's house, just off Stonington Street, may become a visitors center and shop. The carriage barn is built with heavy wooden trusses that leave a wide, clear space in the middle, suitable for weddings and other celebrations. The wood-paneled ice house would also become part of the complex.

There will be a glass conservatory and a system of paths through the outdoor gardens. Importantly, the project doesn't interfere with any of the heavily used athletic facilities in the park.

I walked through the historic buildings one day last week with Lisa Musumeci, president of the garden project board of directors, executive director Frank Chiaramonte, board member Linda Osten and city parks official John Kehoe. The city has used these buildings, along with a newer park building on Stonington Street, for storage and office space for years.

The bad and good news is that not much has been done to them. They need work, but they were well-built by the Colt family and can be rehabbed. Because they've been left alone, the buildings still have remarkable details. In the loft in the barn, for example, is a cockfighting ring, a square floor with a wooden railing around it where the Colt children were entertained by fighting birds. In the icehouse are plaques that were placed on elm trees in the park in honor of every Hartford veteran who died in World War I. Though the trees were lost to blight, all of the plaques, except a few that were given to families, remain.

With expected approval from the council, the committee will begin the process of selecting a master planner for the project. They've hired marketing and development consultants to begin the fundraising. Musumeci envisions a three- to five-year development, with the funds coming mostly from private and foundation sources. She said the facility will cost ``$10 million on the outside,'' thanks to the city's land donation, and she thinks the parks trust fund will be one of the supporters. The state's many horticultural organizations may support it as well.

Let's do this. It will be another reason to come to Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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