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Colt Complex Deserves Another Shot At Landmark Designation

October 22, 2006

Earlier this month, the National Park System Advisory Board's Landmarks Committee rejected the nomination of Hartford's Colt complex to become a National Historic Landmark. I was there at the hearing in Washington, D.C., and like others in attendance, I was dumbstruck. How could this happen?

The committee raised no objections to the historical significance of the Colt buildings. The nomination document, which I co-wrote, made clear that not only did Samuel Colt perfect the revolver, he created in the Colt Co. a pioneering combination of marketing, technological innovation, skilled workforce and an almost messianic faith in mechanization. After his untimely death, the factory, under the leadership of Elizabeth Colt, her brother Charles Jarvis and Gen. William Franklin, went on to produce such icons as the Colt double-action revolver, the "Gun that Won the West;" the Colt .45 automatic pistol, for decades the standard issue of the American military; the Gatling gun, a pioneering machine gun; and the Colt-Browning .50-caliber machine gun, a major weapon in World War II.

Equally important, Colt's served as a model for other industries. Machinists such E. P. Bullard, Charles Billings, Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney worked at Colt before founding their own famous companies. Other Colt "alumni" helped mechanize the first sewing machine factories and other precision-manufacturing enterprises. Agents for the Russian government visited the Colt factory and specifically modeled an armory on Colt's. Colt's even affected the American literary scene: Mark Twain made Hank Morgan, the protagonist in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," a Colt machinist.

So what went wrong? The committee rejected the Colt nomination because members felt that the building did not possess the "high degree of integrity" needed for landmark status. They specifically objected to the ongoing rehabilitation, which will subdivide much of the complex's interior space into residential units.

It did not help that the Colt presentation was given by a park service staff member who was lukewarm to the project, nor that a disgruntled person showed up to object to the nomination, claiming he was backed by prominent Hartford citizens (who have since denounced his claims). Still, the crux of the problem is the standard of integrity for historic industrial buildings.

The National Park Service is divided, if not schizophrenic, on this. The preservation division encourages the use of federal tax credits to rehabilitate historic buildings for new uses such as housing. The parks division is trying to move beyond the model of federal ownership for historic parks to one in which the park service is a partner with local government and private owners, as envisioned for Colt. Yet the landmarks division is stuck to a standard which, in effect, means that only historic industrial buildings preserved as museums, such as the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, R.I., can qualify.

Realistically, this means that the majority of nationally significant industrial-heritage resources will be left out, impeding their access to national park status and to funding programs such as Save America's Treasures. Old mills and factories are notoriously hard to preserve. They are often so large that it is difficult to find a practical economic use for them, to say nothing of making them into museums. Often, they are accompanied by hazardous waste issues.

And almost invariably, industrial buildings that have been around for a long time have undergone cycles of expansion and demolition that have left them in less than pristine condition. If the National Landmarks program is to recognize the important role played by industry in making American what it is today, it must exercise some flexibility in applying the standard of integrity.

Actually, the landmarks committee went well beyond the program's own criteria. Rehabilitated historic buildings are specifically acknowledged to be eligible so long as "historic materials and significant features" have been preserved. The proposed rehabilitation of the Colt building will do just that. Plans call for retaining and restoring all of its characteristic exterior appearance, including the signature blue dome.

Interior modifications will keep visible the distinctive brick walls, vaulted brick ceilings and iron columns, even while partitioning the once-open former manufacturing space. Public areas will include a lobby with the four large piston rods from the East Armory's Porter steam engines. One of the most significant interior spaces, the 1855 shop where E. K. Root installed his innovative drop forges, will be left unpartitioned and used for exhibits.

The park service's definition of a high degree of integrity does not require a building to be unaltered from its original appearance. Instead, a building must simply retain the "essential physical features that enable it to convey its historical significance."

Essential physical features are those without which a property can no longer be identified. Does anyone seriously think that the partitioned interior of the rehabilitated Colt Building will prevent anyone from recognizing it as a 19th-century factory? What other explanation could come to mind for the gilded rampant colt atop the blue onion dome? Clearly, this building not only says industry, it says Colt.

I think that the landmarks committee's extreme interpretation of integrity stems from its traditional focus on properties with artistic, architectural or landscape qualities, such as the mansions of Newport. In these cases, where it is the design that is significant, one justifiably expects the property to be virtually unchanged from what it looked like originally. Industrial properties typically are more significant not for their design but for their historical associations, which can be conveyed by the exterior appearance and by interpretive exhibits in a portion of the interior space.

Connecticut has a number of deserving National Historic Landmarks, including the Bowen House in Woodstock, Philip Johnson's "Glass House" in New Canaan, the Oliver Ellsworth Homestead in Windsor and the USS Nautilus. Yet the state that was once in the forefront of industrialization has only one landmark that includes manufacturing buildings, the Cheney Mills complex in Manchester.

This is problem not just for Connecticut but for the landmarks program itself. It cannot hope to include the nation's most significant industrial-heritage resources without acknowledging that some sort of economic use must be found for the properties to survive. Indeed, the program itself acknowledges that many industrial landmarks are threatened because they stand empty and are deteriorating. It makes no sense to bemoan the deterioration of historic industrial buildings but reject them because of plans for rehabilitation.

Efforts are underway to get a new hearing for the Colt complex. This will not only be a second chance for Hartford, it will also give the landmarks program an opportunity to re-think its conflicting attitudes toward industrial-heritage resources.

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.
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