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Parklife: A Garden Blooms in Colt Park

A master plan to build a botanical garden in Colt Park along Wethersfield Avenue is nearing completion. Could it be the piece in the puzzle that makes Hartford a destination?

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

August 22, 2007

Before it was a gathering spot for Hartford residents to play ball, swim, or just sit on the grassy shoulder of Wawarme Avenue and watch the world go by, Colt Park was Sam and Elizabeth Colt’s back yard.

And what a back yard it was, stretching from a high point at Armsmear, the gun magnate’s ornate mansion on Wethersfield Avenue, to the Colt Factory near the Connecticut River, covering some 250 acres of former floodplain known as the South Meadows. From their towering brownstone home, reminiscent of an Italian villa, the Colts could see the distinctive blue onion dome of their armory in the distance, beyond the manicured confines of their extensive gardens.

“It was the most spectacular garden that has ever been built in Connecticut, just a tour de force,” said William Hosley, a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum who is now the executive director of the New Haven Museum and Historical Society.

A plan to build Connecticut’s first botanical garden on some of the same ground Colt cultivated — 18 acres along Wethersfield Avenue on the western edge of the park — is now entering its final stages. Lisa Musumeci, board president for The Hartford Botanical Garden Project, met with local architectural firm Tai Soo Kim Partners last week to put the finishing touches on the master plan.

“We’ve been working hard for about 18 months,” said Musumeci, who added she hopes to kick off a fundraising campaign in six months to a year.

The garden will be centered on the Colt memorial and the former stables and gardener’s cottage of the Colt estate and won’t interfere with the heavily used ball fields at the park. It will feature culinary, shade and ornamental plantings, among others, but won’t have the water features and statuary the Colts’ garden had.

Along the north border of his property, now marked by Stonington Avenue, Colt built a collection of greenhouses the Hartford Courant proclaimed in 1869 was “equaled by few, if any, in the country” for its fruits and flowers. The Colts famously were able to provide their own pineapples for dinner parties.

The Courant story goes on to describe the ponds, walkways, and “clumps of rare foliage” that made up the estate, where in good years Colt produced more than 2,000 pounds of grapes of many varieties, plus peaches, nectarines, figs, strawberries and cucumbers.

Hosley, who put on a popular Colt show in the Wadsworth a decade ago, said Colt wanted to “dazzle everyone” with his own version of Versailles in his back yard, complete with fountains, sculptures and a deer paddock. Beyond the six acres or so of manicured grounds, open fields with apple and pear orchards and grazing livestock formed a bucolic buffer between Armsmear and the gun factory.

The Colt gardens, dating to 1857, were so extensively photographed by the turn of the century that they could be recreated down to the smallest detail today — with enough money. Hosley figures it would take about $20 million. But that’s not what the folks behind the botanical garden have in mind.

“There is a wonderful history to tell and we will tell it, we just won’t recreate what was here,” said Musumeci.

Long-range plans call for a conservatory, the main attraction at most botanical gardens where year-round indoor displays of rare plants are mounted, but the initial phase will focus on cleaning up and planting the areas near the existing Colt buildings at a cost of $1 million to $2 million, according to Musumeci. Phase one will also restore the existing “avenues” of trees planted by the Colts.

Musumeci estimates the total cost of the botanical garden, complete with the conservatory and plantings stretching to Wawarme Avenue on the southern edge of the park, at $10 million.

To raise that kind of money, she is counting on the momentum that would come from national landmark designation for the Colt site, including Armsmear and the former armories. A committee charged with making that decision will meet in Washington, D.C. in October.

“I’m very confident about the landmark designation,” said Musumeci.

Just last week, the Hartford City Council allocated nearly $25,000 to help defray the approximately $150,000 cost of creating the master plan for the garden.

“It’s a great project for the city so we want to help out any way we can,” said City Council president John Bazzano.

Bazzano said he hoped the botanical garden would create the kind of draw the Mark Twain House does today, and believes it will if the Colt properties are designated as a national park, a step that could follow designation as a national landmark.

If that happens, a museum or visitor’s center may be built as part of the Colt Gateway project, a plan to turn Colt’s former factory buildings into commercial and residential space at a cost of more than $100 million.

As is typical for Hartford, the road has been rough and twisting for believers in a Colt renaissance. Colt Gateway has had cash flow problems that have slowed construction.

The national landmark designation process has suffered from a frustrating lack of momentum thanks to differing visions of what should be done with the remaining Colt buildings.

And the Colt memorial — a statue of the Colonel himself, along with a smaller version of him as a young, seagoing lad carving a prototype for his revolver — is sporting a new collection of purple graffiti, as Musumeci noted on a recent walking tour of the site.

Jack Hale, executive director of the Knox Parks Foundation, is intimately familiar with Hartford’s graffiti, since Knox recently took over responsibility for ridding the city of it outside of the downtown area. Knox, who serves on the board of the botanical garden, is one of the project’s most ardent supporters, and brushes aside concerns that it could tread on some of the same ground Knox cultivates, such as promoting community gardens.

“Any time you do anything meant to improve the circumstances in a city or anywhere else you have to assume that’s a good thing and may actually have a broad positive effect,” said Hale. “The alternative is to say ‘This place looks like hell,’ and run the other direction. You may as well just kill yourself now if that’s the way you take these kinds of things.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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