The Colt project wants to be a national landmark. It may not deserve the designation, but it has some powerful friends. A decision may come next month.
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
November 29, 2007
Work on Colt Gateway, the plan to convert the former Colt armories into apartments and retail, remains stalled as developer Robert MacFarlane struggles to untangle himself from the $60 million he owes to a bankrupt Las Vegas lender and pay his delinquent city property taxes of nearly half a million dollars.
But MacFarlane's supporters, and MacFarlane himself, still hold out hope that some aspect of Sam Colt's gun factory, built in the 1850s and generally acknowledged as the birthplace of precision manufacturing, may some day become a national park and draw tourists from around the nation.
For that to happen, it needs national landmark status, however, which was denied by an advisory committee to the National Park Service last year because of concerns that MacFarlane's plans to commercialize the property essentially ruin it, taking away any historical interest.
Next week, though, the advisory committee meets again in Washington D.C. to again consider Colt. The Advocate has learned the project now has the support of the new chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program, J. Paul Loether, Connecticut's former deputy state historic preservation officer. Sources who asked not to be identified said Loether wants the Colt designation to go ahead.
Indeed the change at the top of the landmarks program could benefit Colt. While Loether is a pragmatist, his predecessor, John W. Roberts, was a purist, according to sources. The purists want to see the Colt buildings preserved in as close to original condition as possible to play host to a museum; the pragmatists have conceded that for the buildings to survive at all some sort of commercial enterprise has to move in.
The 10 members of the national historic landmark committee, which includes members from both camps, are meeting Dec. 4 and 5 in Washington D.C. to consider landmark designation for 18 properties around the country, including Colt for the second time.
This time around the smart money says the gun factory built by Sam Colt will get the thumbs up by expanding the borders of the landmark designation beyond just the factory complex to include the surrounding park, former Colt mansion and other features of Coltsville, the factory town that emerged around the armories.
When the committee rejected the nomination to designate Colt as a national historic landmark in October 2006, the deciding issue was MacFarlane's plans to convert the complex of buildings into apartments and retail space. Those were the purists talking.
Since then, two members of the advisory committee — Ron James, state historic preservation officer in Nevada, and Cary Carson, retired executive director of Williamsburg — spent two days in Hartford in February visiting not only the factory site, but also the other elements of Coltsville. In addition to the armories, James and Carson toured Colt Park, Armsmear, the former Colt mansion, the church and parish house built by Elizabeth Colt, the memorial she raised to her husband's memory, and even the remaining factory housing.
The pair of experts came away believing the 2006 nomination focused too narrowly on the remaining factory buildings, and in particular the East Armory with the famed blue onion dome topped by a replica of the golden Colt charger.
"It's fair to say a purist's perspective won out in the original nomination," said James.
"We were overwhelmed with all the other resources," he said. "The park is beautiful and gives a feeling of how the Colt family wanted their workers to have green space. The church and parish house weren't included before. We believe they should be now."
The rejection of the Colt nomination last year was a real blow to its supporters, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Mayor Eddie Perez. Both fired off letters of protest in its wake.
At the center of the controversy that erupted from the rejection was an unlikely villain named Jim Griffin, a West Point graduate, and "Bristol businessman and a pretender to the Colt legacy," according to an editorial in the Hartford Courant.
Griffin, who founded a nonprofit called The Sam and Elizabeth Colt Industrial Ingenuity and Cultural Center that may or may not include any members other than him, is the purest of the purists, and envisions a fate for the East Armory far different than Homes for America's.
The vast, rough-hewn interior of the East Armory, where a phalanx of machine tools gave birth to the six-shooter and precision manufacturing, is the "defining feature" of Coltsville, Griffin told the advisory committee last year, saying the interior spaces of the East Armory were "the only real place left to tell the story" of Colt. Griffin envisioned a museum.
"Lose [the interior spaces] you lose the essence, the very heart, of the Colt legend," he said.
The Courant, a backer of MacFarlane and his plans for Colt from the get-go, was incensed.
In an Oct. 13, 2006 editorial, the paper placed the failure of the Colt designation squarely at Griffin's feet, saying he had "played spoiler by traveling to Washington and presenting the Park Service committee with a letter asking for a deferral of its decision, claiming present plans for housing in the domed east armory compromise its historical integrity."
The committee had given more weight to a "last-minute smoke bomb" launched by Griffin than the recommendations of their own staff — the National Park Service employees who prepared the nomination, said the editorial.
But according to James, Griffin made very little difference.
"The outcome would have been the same without Griffin's testimony," said James.
The real problem was coming from the purists on the National Park Service staff.
"There were problems with the nomination itself, it had nothing to do with any outside dissent," said James. "We were getting mixed signals from National Park Service staff."
Mixed signals from the pragmatists and the purists. Only this time around, the purists are mostly gone.
While no one would discuss it on the record, sources told us the power shift in the Park Service in the past year involved a new job description for Roberts, former acting chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program, as chief archivist, no longer in charge of the Colt nomination.
Roberts' replacement — about a month after the fateful rejection — was Loether. Because of his ties to Connecticut, Loether is prohibited from commenting on Colt until the end of January.
James puts himself in the pragmatists' camp as well. He calls developers like MacFarlane the "lifeblood of conservation," who save buildings like Colt that might otherwise succumb to demolition.
"We would love to see those factory spaces wide open the way they were, opened up for interpretation and tourists and all that, but is that pragmatic, can it keep the windows being replaced when they're broken, can it sustain itself just on that?" said James. "It's quite clear the answer is no."
And what about MacFarlane's financial woes, detailed by the Advocate — the $60 million owed to Las Vegas-based USA Capital, the city property taxes not paid on time?
James was unaware of those details, but said that even if MacFarlane fails, Colt will go on.
"You wish them well, but if they can't [do the job] you hope their successor succeeds," James said. "None of us occupy a structure forever."