The effort to turn Coltsville into a national park is not dead, not by a long shot, but it has been dormant for some time. A federal study released last week may be just the giddyup it needs.
The "special resource study" is a legal requirement to determine whether a proposed new park meets four criteria: national significance, suitability, feasibility and need for National Park Service management. The study found, to no one's surprise, that the great Colt Fire Arms Co. factory and surrounding industrial village is of major historic significance.
The factory town that 19th-century industrialist Samuel Colt developed in South Hartford, run for years after his death by his widow, Elizabeth, was a focal point of invention and precision machining, of the "American System of Manufacture," which emphasized machine production of standardized parts.
Samuel Colt arguably invented modern American branding. So well did he promote his products that "Colt" became synonymous with "handgun."
Coltville's Unique Significance
A new park is considered suitable if it presents a theme not already represented in the national park system. The study determined that no other site "fully interprets precision manufacturing or the large-scale, private-sector firearms manufacturing that developed during the last half of the 19th century."
Along with the Colt Armory, whose earliest buildings date from 1855, the site includes Armsmear, the National Historic Landmark house that was the Colt family home; the family acreage that became Colt Park; the Church of the Good Shepherd, with its firearm decorations; the ship-like Caldwell Hart Colt Parish House, built by Elizabeth Colt as a memorial to her yachtsman son; and worker housing, including the "Potsdam houses" built for German workers.
Where Coltsville is not yet ready for prime time is in the final two categories.
To be feasible as a national park, enough of the site must be open to the public to make the experience worthwhile. Though dozens of historic buildings connected to Coltsville survive, it's not yet clear which of them will be available to visitors. With that question unresolved, "it is impossible at this time to determine if a need for NPS management exists," the study says.
The Ownership Quandary
The reason the park plans aren't further along is the changing ownership picture at the complex. Homes For America Holdings Inc. had the property for six years and rehabilitated some of the buildings. But the recession forced it to give up the property, and the developer Urban Smart Growth took a controlling interest in the factory complex this year.
Urban Smart Growth is still negotiating with lenders to transfer ownership, particularly of the East Armory building, whose blue onion dome is a prominent landmark.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, a champion of the Coltsville national park proposal, has called a private meeting with the developer and banks, as well as city and state officials, to resolve the ownership issues. The National Park Service will hold a public meeting on the study on Dec. 15 at 5:30 p.m. at Gray Hall in the South Congregational Church, 277 Main St., Hartford.
The Courant has long supported a Coltsville national park. It would not just draw tourists to the city and spark development in the surrounding neighborhoods. It would remind the country that Hartford used to be ingeniously superb at making things, and perhaps could be again.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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