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A Landmark Gets Its Due

Editorial By Courant

December 09, 2007

At the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C, hangs an impressive work titled "Men of Progress," painted in 1862 by Christian Schussele. It depicts American scientists and inventors "who altered the course of contemporary civilization."

Of the 19 men who posed, separately, for the monumental painting, at least four made their mark in Connecticut, testament to the state's prominence as a crucible of industry. None stands out so indelibly as Hartford's own Samuel Colt, a titan of precision manufacturing whose innovations included the revolving pistol.

His place among the most distinguished inventors of this country is well-documented, but his impact is not fully grasped in the state where he built his empire and created the community known as Coltsville. Nor are the contributions of his wife, Elizabeth, widely known.

On Wednesday, in a room a short taxi ride from the portrait gallery, the weight of the Colt legacy was officially acknowledged. A committee of preservation experts, architects and historians who advise the National Park Service voted to recommend the district of Coltsville as a National Historic Landmark.

It is the highest honor the federal government bestows on properties of historic and architectural significance. It means that the 100-plus acres of Colt-related sites are closer to joining the company of the Grand Canyon, Valley Forge and Ellis Island as a National Park.

The Campaign

That idea was proposed by The Courant five years ago in an editorial campaign to save the blue-domed gun factory vacated by Colt Manufacturing in the 1990s. The complex sat neglected and dilapidated. "It would be a crime to let a treasure like the Colt community, legacy of one of the nation's best-known risk-takers, suffer the fate of inertia or indifference when it could be the spark that ignites the city's rebirth. Make Coltsville a national park," urged the first of dozens of editorials on the subject.

So Wednesday's unanimous vote to recommend landmark status is cause for celebration here. It is a major step toward realizing that vision.

The process of seeking landmark status for Coltsville began 35 years ago, shortly after Armsmear, the Colt mansion on Wethersfield Avenue, was named a National Historic Landmark. Many efforts to expand that designation to the rest of the Colt empire including Colt Park, the Church of the Good Shepherd, its parish house and Colt worker housing have ended in withdrawal or defeat. Last year's National Park Service landmarks committee meeting resulted in a no vote. But that vote was wisely reconsidered when the proposed district was expanded and the application was further documented.

Understandably, there was a lot of audible exhaling Wednesday in the boardroom of the National Trust for Historic Preservation headquarters after the historic affirmative vote.

The Champions

It took dogged persistence by many passionate advocates to make this happen, from the property owners to the Connecticut congressional delegation, state and city officials, preservationists and neighborhood activists. All can be proud that they have brought about proper recognition for Sam Colt and especially his widow, Elizabeth, whose contributions to the business and to Hartford beg to be recounted on the national stage.

U.S. Rep. John Larson testified eloquently in favor of the landmark application and the importance of contributing to the nation's "fortress of knowledge." Gov. M. Jodi Rell had a statement read into the record. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman weighed in. Mayor Eddie A. Perez traveled to Washington in a snowstorm to speak about the historical value of this national treasure to his city and to the neighborhood of which it is a vital part. Colt scholar William Hosley painted a vivid picture of the scene 145 years ago remarkably still intact.

Robert MacFarlane, the developer who is restoring the Colt factory complex to federal standards, talked about his plan to establish one of the oldest buildings on the site, a brownstone forging shop, as a center for interpretation of the Colt story. It would be the start of a trail to Colt collections housed in several institutions around the city. The volume of art, firearms and other Coltiana available for public view in Hartford is extraordinary, estimated at $250 million.

Support For Developer

Securing landmark designation is not like winning the lottery. Yes, it is a jewel in the state's crown and validation of the value of preserving places that make Hartford unique. If handled correctly, it could be a huge boost for Hartford's economic development prospects, especially if it leads ultimately to the National Park designation that Connecticut deserves. But it won't provide direct relief to the redevelopment project now stalled for want of cash.

Gov. Rell hailed the federal designation as "key to our state's collective efforts to bring the facility back to prominence."

Her next step is to make sure that the developers get the support they need to complete what up to now has been a meticulous job of redeveloping the factory complex to practical use while preserving its architectural integrity and bringing jobs to the neighborhood.

The bankruptcy of a major investor threatens the project. The developer needs a commitment from the state of $9.6 million to secure a bank loan, pay overdue taxes and restart construction.

Greasing the wheels of progress is imperative. There is a National Historic Landmark to protect.

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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