Coltsville is our Grand Canyon, an Old Faithful in the Connecticut River Valley.
It is our almost National Park in Hartford. It could also be another lost Hartford dream.
For those of you who just drive by, this is the historic factory complex with the blue dome and the broken windows, where they once manufactured guns that changed the world in what Mark Twain called "a dense wilderness of strange iron machines."
The federal government announced this week that the old Colt Factory and the 260-acre complex of historic buildings and city park could be something great again — but government, banks and developers must reach a development agreement before it can become a National Park.
At this tarnished gem the other day, I walked around and through the historic gun factory buildings, now home to a school, loft apartments that are nearly fully occupied, a software firm and vast empty factory floors.
It's no Yellowstone, but this is where the fabled "American System of Manufacture" germinated and flourished.
Near his Armsmear estate on the far side of the park, I sat for a moment next to old Sam Colt, his statue marred by obscene graffiti. I walked by the old "Potsdam" cottages, built to make 19th-century immigrant craftsmen at Colt feel more at home. On Wawarme Avenue, I stood at the overlook beside the "Our Lady of Hartford" shrine — where, more recently, the devoted have seen images of the Virgin Mary in an old tree — and gazed at the emblematic and majestic blue onion dome, our most recognizable local feature.
Inside the East Armory, beneath the same blue dome, I saw an aging, slowly deteriorating, 150-year-old landmark.
Are we ready to let all this just fade away — and become our own version of Detroit — a relic along the river that we try to ignore?
"This is an international story that is ours," author and historian William Hosley explained when I called. "The story is the advent of industrial technology, and this was Silicon Valley of the 19th century. Connecticut was the place that taught the world how to mass-produce complex objects with machinery. Everything descended from it. It is the biggest story in Hartford's history."
I'm told it will take millions of public and private dollars to make all this work, to turn Coltsville into a National Park where people live, work or visit to learn about Hartford's precision manufacturing past.
Finishing renovations that were begun, and then halted, when a previous developer pulled out, could cost $50 million or more. All parties say that U.S. Rep. John Larson, a former history teacher, has been critical to keeping the project alive.
"Right now the stars are aligned, but you can see them moving out of sync," said Lance Robbins, the developer who took over the tangled financial mess of the Colt property earlier this year. He's hustling to get the banks who've lost piles of money, the city of Hartford and the state around a deal that could revive the development.
"I've done developments all over," Robbins said. "This is the most complicated one I have ever seen. I have very little doubt that this can be a tremendous success."
So far, there's no agreement. Which means there's no space for a National Park museum. National Park designation would require approval from Congress.
"We are trying to put together a deal in the middle of the Great Recession," Harford Chief Operating Officer David Panagore said. "The question is whether or not in this economy there is a deal."
A National Park, with a museum in the East Armory building, could attract tens of thousands of visitors annually. Hosley, who wrote a book about the legendary Samuel Colt, reminded me that Coltsville is a real place, not a cooked-up museum or shopping mall, that has deeply affected who and what we are.
It deserves to be an important part of Hartford's future. Go and see for yourself.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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