October 13, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
It's been more than a year since James Griffin said he'd stop trying to bring a museum to the Colt Gateway complex in Hartford if the building's owner would tell him to go away.
It's also been more than a year since that owner threatened to get a restraining order to keep him away.
But as the National Park Service in Washington was considering granting the Colt complex the National Historic Landmark status prized by its developers, Griffin wrote a letter blasting the bid - a letter that includes what appears to be the signature of a board member who told The Courant he isn't a board member, and he didn't sign anything.
Wednesday, a committee of architects, historians, archaeologists and preservationists rejected the bid. According to John W. Roberts, the acting chief of the National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmarks Program, six members of the service's landmark committee voted to reject the designation for the site; one opposed the rejection and another abstained.
The decision, which can be appealed, now goes to the service's advisory board, which will consider it and send a recommendation to the secretary of the interior.
The rejection was condemned by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman and Christopher J. Dodd and Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District. And although few believe Griffin drove the ruling - even a Smithsonian curator opposed the bid because of concerns over planned changes to the building's integrity - those who have been working to convert the former gun factory into apartments blasted Griffin's decision to wade back in.
"I was really chagrined that someone didn't say, 'Gee, wait a minute, all these people are for it, and this guy supposedly writes a letter?'" said Robert A. MacFarlane, whose company owns the Colt complex. "I'm going to ask the attorney general to pursue this more vigorously and ask Mr. Griffin to stop ... and ask Mr. Griffin, how much money did he collect in Colt's name, and what did he do with it?"
Anthony Autorino - whose name appears on the letter Griffin sent to the park service - was equally baffled.
Autorino, who is listed on the letter as board chairman at Griffin's Sam & Elizabeth Colt Industrial Ingenuity and Cultural Center, said he has given Griffin money for his organization, but there is no board, he isn't chairman, and he never signed the letter. The signature over his name on the letter, he said, is not his.
"I cannot see for the life of me any reason why Jim Griffin would have done what he did," said Autorino, a city developer. "Why would you do this? There could be only downside and no upside for all concerned."
"This guy is a loose cannon, I think we all can appreciate that," Autorino said. "But I truly believe his motives are pure. ... This is like such a burning desire, do you know what I'm saying? This guy eats and sleeps this."
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said his office would likely look into the matter. "We have certainly some factual basis to investigate and we probably will," he said. "And these claims - if made - would be very troubling."
Reached late Thursday evening, Griffin acknowledged that he signed Autorino's name, but that there was nothing unusual about that. "I had signed for Tony hundreds of times letters that have gone out for us," he said.
Griffin said he didn't show Autorino the letter because he drafted it in haste.
Asked whether Autorino was the chairman of his organization's board, Griffin said, "He knows he's on there as the board chairman. ... Tony has never directly told me that he's not the board chairman, even the other day as we were talking strategy."
Asked how Autorino was selected to the post, Griffin said, "I asked him if he would be the board chairman, and he never said anything to the contrary."
Griffin stressed that what was important was the landmark committee's ruling, not the status of his organization's board.
"It's not about Jim Griffin, it's not about the nonprofit I put together ... it's about whether or not ... Hartford, the citizens of Connecticut and the American people are able to protect the soul of the Colt legacy and what it meant to the American experience."
The Colt Gateway project is a $115 million effort to turn the hulking complex with the trademark blue onion dome just west of I-91 into apartments. As part of its development process, the project sought recognition as a national historic landmark and has been working with the National Park Service to that end.
To get the landmark designation, a property must have proper historical documentation, historical significance and integrity. The final element means the building must retain the physical elements that demonstrate its historical significance, Roberts said.
Because of the conversion to apartments, integrity was the issue Griffin and committee members had with the Colt complex, Roberts said.
"The interior integrity, some [committee] members thought, was compromised by the fact that some remodeling was occurring in some of the buildings that were not really consistent with the historical use of the buildings," he said. "So you couldn't really see what the buildings would have looked like at the time when they were historically significant."
"No matter what, this probably would have come up," Roberts said. "This is the sort of thing they discuss."
MacFarlane said his organization would consider reapplying for the landmark status. Although he said the rejection would have a negligible effect on the plans for the project, he said it would have made it easier to win designation for the Colt site as a national park. That, he said, is important for the continuing growth of the area.
"Economically it's important not only for Colt but also the entire city," MacFarlane said.
He said he plans to continue pushing for national park designation.
Griffin - who has likened himself to Frodo in the "Lord of the Rings," a lonely man on a lonely mission - has been pushing to put a museum inside the Colt building for years. His quest put him at odds with MacFarlane because Griffin wanted to put the museum inside the complex's East Armory - where apartments are planned.
"I've lost my whole life savings trying to do this stupid thing so that Hartford doesn't make a dumb mistake," Griffin told The Courant last year, adding that what best fits in the historic factory is a museum. "Because we have so much to lose if this remarkably legendary building becomes [an] apartment complex."
In a letter dated Oct. 4, Griffin told the landmark committee that "the directors, staff, and state, national and international supporters" of his organization opposed the landmark designation.
"It is thus our reluctant position that even a cursory, but measured consideration of the result of the owner/developer's plans for widespread commercialization of the Coltsville site will...place the property well outside conformity" with landmark standards, "if that designation is to mean anything at all."
When presented with the letter that bore a signature over his name, Autorino was incensed.
"This is nuts," he said. "I will no longer be in any way shape or form associated with this kind of behavior."
Autorino recalled his conversations with Griffin several months ago. Among other things Autorino told him to think about putting the museum someplace other than the Colt facility. He also said he told him to "stop going out to people and saying we have a board, and people don't even know they're on the board," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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