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Make Colt The Collegiate Armory


December 30, 2007

Even with its National Historic Site designation all but assured, the rejuvenation of the Colt armory, a prominent landmark in Hartford since the mid-19th century, appears to have stalled.

This is not necessarily bad. It offers a chance to change the mix, with an eye toward the armory's historic role in the city.

The armory was the birthplace of Hartford's industrial age and spawned numerous spin-off businesses including Pratt & Whitney and ultimately Untied Technologies. To remain true to this legacy, the complex should again become a place of innovation and invention.

Bringing a center of higher education to Coltsville would return the armory to its roots and give it a new important role in the 21st century.

When Samuel Colt completed the armory in 1855, it would soon become a cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution. Colt built housing there for his workers, as well as halls and grounds for play and social congregation.

The armory quickly emerged as a manufacturing giant and an informal place of learning and innovation for precision machining and interchangeable parts. Skilled machinists such as Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney got their start at Colt and went on to form their own companies. By 1861, Coltsville was a bustling community of industrial development, the same year Boston Tech (now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was formed. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., was then coming into its prime.

During this time, Hartford was showing all the signs of becoming a great New England college town. Although Hartford lost out to New Haven in 1716 to become the home of the Connecticut Collegiate School, later renamed Yale University, Washington College (now Trinity College) was formed in the city in 1823 on the grounds of what would become the site of the state Capitol.

During the early 1860s, Washington College was a burgeoning academic center on the edge of the Hartford's nascent urban renewal project, Bushnell Park. The Colt armory was at its zenith along the Connecticut River. Had Colt created a formal school, one is left to speculate on its effect on Hartford's urban core.

That was the plan.

According to Marion Hepburn Grant's "In and About Hartford Its People & Places," Colt planned to leave a large portion of his estate to found a Hartford institute of technology. However, Colt was constantly quarreling with the city fathers of Hartford, who believed Colt's industrial community was becoming too strong, stronger than the city itself. So antagonistic were the short-sighted city leaders that Colt changed his will. So after his death, Elizabeth Colt, Samuel Colt's widow, made many other bequests to the city, including today's Colt Park, but not a college.

That seemed to set a pattern for downtown education in Hartford. Trinity College moved to the city's South End in 1878 to make room for the state Capitol. In 1955, Rensselaer created a small branch on the northern edge of downtown Hartford to accommodate United Technologies' need for skilled workers and to fill the technology-school void in the state.

In 1957, the city's two-year Hillyer College, Hartford Art School and Hartt School of Music merged to form the University of Hartford. The new university could have been built downtown, but instead chose a suburban setting on the western fringe of the city. The University of Connecticut created a Hartford branch in 1964, but by 1970 moved it to West Hartford.

From this point on, downtown Hartford continued to struggle, in part because it lacked a collegiate presence. Rensselaer was still running its graduate center just north of downtown and I-84, but United Technologies was regularly looking outside the state for skilled personnel. Trinity College began to make made some headway in the South End, as did the University of Hartford in the Blue Hills/Upper Albany area.

The collegiate void in downtown was still apparent, however, which led to an initiative dubbed "College Park" in 2003 to promote the open parcels north of downtown as a great place to create a campus in the city. Unfortunately, no schools were willing to move into the no-man's-land still detached from downtown by I-84.

Some progress was made nearby: Capital Community College completed a successful move into the former G. Fox department store building, and the University of Connecticut graduate business school moved into space on Constitution Plaza. Both are welcome additions to the educational landscape, but neither is the major educational institution that could change the face of the city.

Today the Colt armory is a rich collection of buildings, parks and open land on the fringe of downtown waiting for a new purpose. It's a perfect school setting, and already is being used as such. The Sports and Medical Sciences magnet school is moving to a new building on the south end of the Colt complex, and the Capital Region Education Council has a highly regarded school for autistic children, as well as its administrative offices, on the grounds.

By adding a college, Coltsville could become a great academic and mixed-use campus similar to several in the Northeast.

Pratt Institute's main campus in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a fine collection of industrial buildings and new contemporary structures in the core of the borough.

Duke University recently moved some of its components into the refurbished American Tobacco Historic District in Durham, N.C. This is the complex and company that vaulted the Duke family to wealth and prominence and led to the creation of the university.

Mount Holyoke College recently established a partnership with Open Square, a major new adaptive reuse complex in downtown Holyoke's Canal District.

In addition, Hartford can look at a variety of newly converted industrial districts that have turned into hot spots for young professionals, such as Hoboken, N.J., Lowell, Mass., and New York City's meatpacking district.

A new technology-oriented school could form at the Colt campus, or one could be assembled from a merger of programs at existing schools that would benefit from being on the edge of downtown Hartford and near United Technologies' facilities. In addition to this iconic campus, an academic entity here could form a partnership with nearby Rentschler Field as an extension of its campus.

By rethinking the Colt armory's role as an academic center, the historic complex would have an important new purpose and could transform the face of the city.

Nicholas Caruso is working on a master's degree in architecture at Yale.

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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