Plans for Coltsville national park hit some bumps in first year

Two buildings in the Colt complex that may be transferred to the National Park Service.

Claude Albert / Ctmirror.org

Two buildings in the Colt complex that may be transferred to the National Park Service.

Washington – A year after the go-ahead was given to authorize the first national park in Connecticut, efforts to commemorate the industrial innovation of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt in Hartford have hit some stumbling blocks, including one that may require an act Congress to resolve.

Coltsville was established by legislation Congress approved in December of 2014. That legislation required that the National Park Service be given 10,000 square feet of space in the blue-domed East Armory.

But the park service and the company that has developed some of Sam Colt’s former properties, including the East Armory, decided two one-story brownstones next to the armory would better serve as offices for park administration and visitor services. The two buildings were constructed in 1855 and are all that remains of Sam Colt’s original factories.

Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt

“We got together and decided the two brownstones are best for everybody,” said James Woolsey, the superintendent of the Springfield (Mass.) Armory National Historic site. He will be running the Coltsville National Historical Park as well.

So Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, sponsor of the legislation that established Coltsville National Historical Park, has introduced another bill that would make it legal to change the location of the park’s headquarters.

The legislation failed to move in the last session of Congress, however.

Woolsey said “lawyers are looking at what needs to be done” to establish park services in the brownstones, with the hope that there may be enough wiggle room to move ahead without new legislation.

Jack Hale, the warden of the Church of the Good Shepherd, one of the buildings that will be within the park’s borders, is establishing a citizens group that would provide local input to the park service as it moves forward with the park. He’s concerned the tendency for Congress to deadlock and fail to act on even noncontroversial legislation, like the new Coltsville park bill, could hinder progress.

“Larson is going to have to be a little bit clever about it,” Hale said.

Pedestrian friendly

The bill authorizing the park set its boundaries around the complex of 19th century factories, the Colt residence called Armsmear, the Church of the Good Shepherd, Hartford’s Colt Park, the “Potsdam” cottages that once housed workers, and the James Colt House.

Colt East Armory

Mark Pazniokas / CTMirror.org

Colt East Armory

But the legislation also said the park cannot be formally established until three conditions are met. One is the transfer of space in the East Armory to the park service.

The second is the signing of an agreement between the park service and the city of Hartford for mutual management of Colt Park. That has been stalled by Mayor Luke Bronin’s defeat of Pedro Segarra. Woolsey said negotiations will have to begin anew with Hartford’s new mayor, but he doesn’t foresee a problem

As part of the agreement, the National Park Service wants to make Colt Park more “pedestrian friendly,” Woolsey said.

“We’ll work with the city so that (Colt Park) is utilizable as a national park,” he said.

The third requirement is that the National Park Service acquire “sufficient land or an interest in land within the boundary of the park to constitute a manageable unit.”

The park service has hired Van Alen Institute, a New York-based, nonprofit park designer. It has held two workshops in Hartford, one in October and one in November, to “bring together key stakeholders,” including historians, local residents and government officials, to help plan the park.

Despite the challenges, Larson is optimistic about the progress the Coltsville park is making.

“We’re still full-bore ahead,” he said.

Hale is also optimistic.

“I’m hoping we can get this wrapped up by this time next year,” he said.

Woolsey said he did not want to make any predictions.

He said if park service lawyers decide there’s a need for new legislation, things could be difficult. “It will depend on how the political winds blow,” he said.

A breakthrough

Once the park is formally established, the legislation calls for the formation of an 11-member advisory committee, composed of people recommended by the leaders of Connecticut’s General Assembly, the mayor of Hartford, the state’s U.S. senators and the congressman representing the 1st District, which is now Larson. Two members of the advisory committee are required to have experience with national parks and historic preservation.

An 1857 magazine rendering of Colt's Armory.

National Park Service

An 1857 magazine rendering of Colt’s Armory.

The National Park Service was resistant to creating the committee, saying their policy already requires input from local stakeholders.

Larson said a series of talks with the park service this year resulted in a “breakthrough.” The committee will be established, but limited to giving the park service advice.

There also have been efforts this year to establish a preservation easement on the outside structure of the Church of the Good Shepherd. The church was commissioned by Elizabeth Colt as a memorial to her husband, who died in 1862.

The National Park Service has been negotiating with the church, and with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, over the easement.

Woolsey said the deal would include promises the park service would pay for repairs and maintenance of the church.

Hale said the Church of the Good Shepherd “is happy to negotiate fully with the National Park Service, but we don’t have the authority.”

He also said those who have the authority, the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, are concerned an easement may make it more difficult to sell the church if that is ever needed. The diocese could not be reached for comment.

The model for Coltsville National Historical Park – a joint effort between the park service and private land owners – is much different that the model used for more traditional parks, like Yellowstone or Yosemite, where the park service owns all the land.

But the public-private model is becoming more common. Springfield Armory National Historic Site is one example; so is Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

“These cooperative parks are a fairly new concept, and the National Park Service is feeling its way around. And it’s tricky,” said Hale.

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