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Blue Onion: Can the Colt Complex Revitalize Hartford? | Hannah Rose

Speculation surrounds the bold, blue dome and prancing colt standing out against the angular Hartford city skyline. It’s not a mosque, it’s not a Russian Orthodox church, and it’s not “The Aladdin Building”. Actually, it’s the East Armory of the Colt manufacturing complex in downtown Hartford, an area appropriately nicknamed Coltsville. The iconic blue onion dome and gilded prancing colt design on top of the old factory causes all the confusion. The prominent Colt family helped establish Hartford as an industrial hub in the nineteenth century when its riverside factories were churning out firearms, employing thousands of people, and housing them on the grounds. The Colt factories were originally built in 1855 and produced “Peacemaker” revolvers and “Colt .45” semi-automatic pistols en masse. After a devastating fire in 1864 Samuel Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, rebuilt the factories.

Now, over 150 years later, Larry Dooley of Colt Gateway Manufacturing Company is overseeing the sixth and final phase of restoration and reconstruction. Colt’s gun factory has been made new as a space for apartments, offices, retail, and classrooms. The Thomas Hooker Brewery’s tasting room is already open for business in one of the several buildings on the Colt grounds. The manufacturing legacy of Hartford stands tall and prominent like the blue onion in Hartford’s horizon. As the redevelopment nears completion, citizens are hopeful for economic and cultural growth in a city desperate for a win.

“It’s the highest recognition a historic building can get.”

The current entrance of the East Armory has floor to ceiling sepia toned photos commemorating the old Colt factory. An eye-catching piece of nineteenth century machinery sits in the corner amidst modern furniture and a stainless-steel lobby call box. JCJ Architecture is one of the businesses in the East Armory under the iconic dome. The firm first moved to the Colt building in 2016 and began working with CG Management during their renovation. Obviously, the existing relationship between CG Management and JCJ made them natural partners for renovating the last limb of the complex.

The renovated JCJ space is a remarkable crossover of old and new. The high ceiling, open floor design, and living wall give the former oily gunsmith factory space a more breathable approach to teamwork within the company and a welcoming atmosphere for clients. The industrial steel beams are painted black, the brick walls have been whitewashed, and light from the massive factory windows reaches all sides of the long, open office. The company draws employees from all over Connecticut and the Northeast, some even relocated to the loft apartments in the Colt complex for Hartford’s most convenient commute to work; a walk across the parking lot.

In late afternoon there is a subtle hum around the East Armory. Backpacks bounce off the backs of school kids running across the asphalt to and from the two CREC (Capitol Region Education Council) schools on site. Student’s papier-mâché projects, paintings and inspirational billboards can be seen through the windows upon passing. Tenants from the lofts carry their groceries inside or walk dogs around grassy patches between buildings. The Thomas Hooker tasting room starts to buzz with young professionals entertaining each other over brews on the patio during one of the last warm evenings of autumn. Even the inside of the bar pays tribute to the iconic blue onion. The blue ceiling tacked with gold stars, that might look more at home in a classroom across the lot, mimics the dome design. The company goes so far as to use the architecture on a promotional t-shirt for their Hartford location.

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Hannah Rose for Blue Muse Magazine

It’s been said money flows toward good ideas. Dooley and CG Management have been working on this renovation since 2008 and when all the numbers are crunched and the ones carried they’ve put in an estimated one hundred million dollars. Financial help comes from a combination of state grants and loans. Dooley also shares the financial responsibility of this project with majority partner Chevron Corp.

In 2014 Coltsville was declared a National Historic Park, which Connecticut antiquarian Bill Hosley explained, “is literally the highest recognition a historic building can get in this country.” This designation comes with lucrative tax credits put to use by Dooley for his work in historic preservation. In full support of the Coltsville National Historic Park, CG Management has donated two brownstones to the National Park Service to be used as a visitor center.

This past February the State Bond Commission approved ten million dollars for nearby Dillon Stadium to get a face-lift too. Hopes are for the remodeled stadium to act as a venue for entertainment and sports teams. The stadium has a history of hosting great acts like Kiss, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and The Beach Boys. They now hope to include a new soccer team to be part of the United Soccer League. Hartford is definitely getting dressed to impress.

Samuel Colt and his family had their hands in a lot of building projects near the south end of Hartford including: the Church of the Good Shepherd and its parish house, Armsmear (the family mansion), and Colt Memorial Building (part of the Wadsworth Atheneum). The Colt’s philanthropic ventures were carried out not only for aesthetic beauty, but also for functionality that served the community. The Italianate-style Armsmear house is beautiful to behold from Wethersfield Avenue. Later it became a home for widows of war after the Colt family left.

The blue dome is a work of art amidst plain, square, city skyline shapes. It is also a landmark, drawing eyes and interest to the city of Hartford; Coltsville specifically. The notable shape and blue color is its own marketing. Some speculate the inspiration for the design was borne of international business Samuel Colt had with Czar Nicholas of Russia; a nod to the whimsical design of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. The rearing horse on top is a tribute to the family.

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

As musicians say when creating a hit song, something fishermen never leave home without: you’ve got to have a hook. The blue onion is Hartford’s standout billboard. As cars speed down the I-91 highway, traveling parallel to the river that used to carry passengers, provisions, and supplies to New York City via steamship, everybody stares. What is that doing in this little city?

“Colt is part of that, you know, wanting to make a statement and show what a little emerging city in Connecticut could do,” said Bill Hosley, who worked as a consultant on earlier phases of the reconstruction at Coltsville with Larry Dooley.

The community has much to gain from this project’s completion. Forty-eight apartments are to be added to the already populated 129 units, of which 95 percent are already leased. That means, get in line and take a number. Other spaces will be available for businesses, retail, restaurants, and more classroom space for the CREC schools. The goals of the renovation stretch further than preserving aesthetic beauty and an historical legacy. Colt is also shooting to uplift Connecticut’s capital. Hartford is a beneficiary of the Colt legacy, and it’s gunning for progress.


Headline photo courtesy of the Connecticut State Library

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

3 comments on “Blue Onion: Can the Colt Complex Revitalize Hartford? | Hannah Rose

  1. Joanna Michelle Heath

    As a kid, my parents would heap my brother and I into their Dodge Caravan and drive up the east coast from our home in Florida to spend summers in Connecticut at our grandmothers’ house, which was just a few minutes outside of Hartford. Instead of asking “Are we there yet?,” we would ask, “How much longer to ‘curly dome’?” — which had always been our indicator that we were officially back in CT. I remember reading in the backseat one year and hearing my father (alluding to its more proper designation) say, “Sit up or you’re going to miss the Colt building.” Except I was 11 or so, so what I heard was “cult building.”
    A couple of years later, after we had moved to Connecticut permanently and I was a freshman among a group of high school kids looking for something exciting and moderately-delinquent to do Halloween night, I suggested that we “go peek around that cult building in Hartford and see if anyone tries to, like, recruit us.”

    So glad to see Blue Muse is still publishing these great pieces on local quirk.

  2. Mary Collins

    Did you know that within weeks of securing the National Park designation plaque at the Colt site someone stole it and tried to sell the metal for cash. The police reclaimed it, though it had a crack in it that I’m not sure the NPS bothered to fix. So the space remains a concept that needs lots of love and care. The designation was just a start. I was super excited to see you write about this topic because it’s a great example of the sort of space in the capital that could be transformed into something really vibrant.

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