When Samuel Colt, the gunmaker, returned to his native city in 1847, Hartford had little manufacturing. When he died at forty-seven, in 1862, the city was becoming a world leader, largely because of Colt's inventions, innovations, and spin-offs. As his six-gun tamed the West, his precision metalworking techniques helped turn the Connecticut Valley into the Silicon Valley of its day. One company started by ex-Colt machinists Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney evolved into United Technologies, Inc., the giant jet-engine maker.
Colt and his wife Elizabeth left their mark on the landscape. They donated a park, a church, and a wing of the Wadsworth Atheneum, the city's historic art museum. Colt also left his armory complex, a sprawling "factory village" of houses, parks, and factories built where he diked the Connecticut River. The centerpiece of the complex is the East Armory building, a ponderous red-brick structure on which Colt placed a large, Russian-style blue onion dome, to get the attention of steamboat passengers on the Connecticut River.
Today, drivers on I-91 glance up at the blue-domed factory, and it looks embarrassingly shabby, like a giant old piece of furniture left by the road. Two years ago, Colt's Manufacturing Co. consolidated its gun-making in a modern plant in West Hartford, leaving about half of the three-quarter-million-square-foot complex empty. Old New England factories often don't survive a lengthy vacancy.
The best hope is that the Colt Building, as it is known, will save itself. As space in the complex became available in the early 1980s, young artists and photographers moved in, attracted by the high ceilings and low rents. They both lived and worked in their studios. It wasn't exactly legal then, but now it is, and it's going great guns. All eighty-two lofts are full, and there's a waiting list. Another eighty artists and small business owners -- printers, design firms, recording studios -- have moved into day space. Many meet for breakfast each morning in the second-floor Blue Onion Cafe.
Still, experts say it will take a major tenant to make the building work. There's been some talk of a Colt museum. Now on exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum is a show entitled, "Sam and Elizabeth Colt: The Legend and Legacy of Colt's Empire." It is the largest showing ever of art, memorabilia, and firearms from the Wadsworth's Colt Collection and from others around the country. When the exhibit ends next year, it could be moved to the Colt Building as a permanent museum, if space and funds can be readied. If not, another big tenant must appear.
The man who diked the Connecticut River to build his armory would think of something; he would find an opportunity anywhere. When willow trees grew on his dike, he brought in German craftsmen to make willow furniture. The German-style houses he built for them still stand. His building, and his city, need a little of this spirit.
Tom Condon writes for the Hartford Courant.