Coltsville's place in Hartford history has long been secure.
Under the blue onion dome occurred a revolution in firearms manufacturing that won the West and helped the Union triumph in the Civil War. It was where Sam Colt and legions of workers flexed the nation's 19th century industrial muscle, and where Colt and his wife, Elizabeth, left a lasting imprint.
With Wednesday's action by National Park Service officials, Coltsville moved closer to gaining a place on the national historic map, a step Connecticut officials hope will spur the long-awaited redevelopment of the one-time manufacturing village into a national park.
More than a year after an unsuccessful first attempt to get federal recognition for Coltsville, backers of the Colt Gateway Project got what they were looking for Wednesday: an important decision en route to designation as a National Historic Landmark.
"We got it," said Rebekah MacFarlane, an official at Colt Gateway LLC. "We're a landmark."
A couple of administrative approvals are needed before Wednesday's decision by the National Historic Landmarks Committee takes effect. But this was the most important step, according to Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who was among the local, state and federal officials backing the initiative in Washington, D.C.
"It's a long time coming, and it assures us that we're on the right path," Perez said in a phone call from Washington after the decision. "It's a great thing for the neighborhood." Perez said the committee's approval was unanimous.
The Colt Gateway project has grown into a $180 million plan to turn the old brick Colt firearms complex, standing just west of I-91, into apartments and commercial space. As part of that development process, the project sought recognition as a historic landmark and has been working on that with the National Park Service.
U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman hailed Wednesday's decision by the landmarks committee as "not only good for Connecticut, but for the nation as a whole." U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, said the decision was the result "of a great communitywide effort." Gov. M. Jodi Rell called it a "major victory for preservation and a big win for Hartford's continued revitalization."
It certainly was welcome news for a project that has stalled on the ground. Money troubles halted work in May, and last month one of the project's lenders — USA Capital — threatened foreclosure on some of the complex's buildings.
Developer Robert A. MacFarlane said the threatened foreclosure was a negotiating tactic. Colt officials have since said that a deal to take USA Capital out of the project is imminent.
As of Wednesday, though, there was no formal agreement.
In October 2006, the effort to get landmark status stalled when federal officials denied the request, saying the conversion of factory space into apartments wouldn't preserve the "integrity" of one of the site's major buildings. Weight had been given to strenuous objections from James L. Griffin — an advocate for a museum in the Colt facility dedicated to Samuel Colt's legacy, an idea MacFarlane had rejected.
Two months later, the project got a reprieve from the National Park Service. And Wednesday, almost a year later, the landmark status was approved by the historic landmarks committee. The National Park System Advisory Board must now sign off, then the proposal goes to the secretary of the interior for final approval.
Rebekah MacFarlane said landmark status "could possibly bring money" into the project, but financial considerations weren't what brought her company to push for the recognition.
"It's more about marketability," she said. "You get the signs from the highway. It's an honor, a distinction, and it's really the stepping stone to becoming a National Historic Park."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at