March 5, 2018

An urbane, $100M visage for Sam Colt’s ex-Hartford gun works

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Developer Larry Dooley stands beneath Colt's iconic onion dome
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Dooley in North Armory
Map | Contributed
A map of the Coltsville Historic District, with Colt Gateway outlined in red
Colt's East Armory
The South Armory has apartments and a tap room
A residents' game room in the South Armory
Sam Colt’s portrait in the South Armory

Long before the first Texas oil gusher planted America firmly into the Oil Age and a century ahead of computer and technology innovations that birthed California's Silicon Valley, Connecticut's Farmington Valley was a manufacturing powerhouse.

And its epicenter was gunmaker Samuel Colt's sprawling, 600,000-square-foot Hartford armory complex in the city's South End, where its legendary "Peacemaker'' revolvers and "Colt .45" semi-automatic pistols were designed and mass produced. Nearly 1,000 men daily coaxed steel gun chassis and components from steam-powered presses and belt-driven lathes.

With its blue-onion dome, adorned with a prancing colt, visible to ships and barges ferrying raw materials and crates of finished guns up and down the Connecticut River, the Colt works' buildings today — though no longer churning out weapons — still stand as impressive, even as they assume a kinder, gentler mission in life.

A century-and-a-half after Colt's armories were destroyed in a mysterious fire and two decades after successor Colt L.P. crafted its last weapons there, the 20-acre Colt works site is entering the final stages of a nearly decade-long, eventual $100 million makeover into apartments, and office, retail and classroom space.

This spring, under the detailed eye of South Windsor investor-developer Larry Dooley and tens of millions of development dollars from Dooley's majority oil-company partner, the armories and adjacent tracts — now called Colt Gateway — will see the sixth phase of development get underway, with construction starting on 48 more market-rate apartments to go with the existing 129 units, which are 95 percent leased.

That's on top of the late February debut of Tom & Sam's Cafe by the owner of Bloomfield's Thomas Hooker Brewing Co., which last spring opened a 75-seat tasting room in the same South Armory housing the cafe and upstairs office space and apartments.

Thomas Hooker Brewing owner Curt Cameron said he had searched since 2008 for suitable space in Coltsville.

"I probably looked at that thing three or four times over the years," Cameron said.

Ultimately, he settled on a 3,000-square-foot former nursery school space, with its scenic outdoor patio. Since investing $350,000 to $400,000 to open the Coltsville tasting room, most of his patrons are from outside the city and are surprised when they see how the former armories have been redeveloped.

"People say, 'when did this change?' '' Cameron said, adding Colt Gateway's free parking also is a draw.

A chief reason Cameron chose Colt Gateway, and why he says it will be successful as a residential, workplace, leisure and tourism magnet, is due to the drive and conciliatory mien of Dooley and his CG Management Co. team.

Dooley, 55, is a one-time carpenter who over the years honed his development skills working on or with local landlords/developers, including Marc S. Levine, on various mixed-use projects, like downtown's The Lofts At Main & Temple.

Colt Gateway is his first major development project, one that came his way when the original developer, Homes for America Holdings, in 2008 bailed on the project.

Together, Dooley's CG Management Co. and his majority partner, Chevron Corp., acquired Colt Gateway in 2010 and resumed conversion of the vacant and underused armories into new spaces. Bloomfield's Bartlett Brainard Eacott Inc. has done much of Colt Gateway's restoration to date.

When fully completed, Dooley said, Colt Gateway will represent an investment of about $100 million, some of that funded with state loans and grants and millions in historic real estate tax credits bought by the oil giant.

In addition to retail, housing and office space, Colt Gateway is home to a pair of schools totaling 206,000 square feet run by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC): The Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a magnet high school, as well as classrooms housing courses in English language and other adult courses.

CREC previously was Colt's largest tenant, with administrative and other offices occupying about 200,000 square feet in a pair of buildings that it has since vacated. Space in those buildings eventually will be refitted and offered to other office tenants, Dooley said.

Urban renaissance

Touring the decrepit North Armory, Dooley giddily points to how sturdily it and the other steel-and-masonry armory buildings were rebuilt by Samuel Colt's widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, after the devastating 1864 fire. The nine-inch-thick reinforced concrete floors; ceilings high enough to accommodate 19th-century overhead belts and pulleys; and tall, broad windows for lighting the interior. Structurally, nearly every floor, beam and pillar is being incorporated into the remade buildings.

On the ground floor of the East Armory, Hartford designer JCJ Architecture occupies space studded with exposed cast-iron beams that support the upper floors. JCJ also white-washed the exposed brick, a nod to the space's gunsmithing days. The Hartford office of U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy and insurance-software and services provider Insurity also occupy the East Armory.

Colt Gateway's office and apartment rents, Dooley said, are about 20 percent less per square foot than comparable downtown spaces. Currently, CG is talking with three potential office tenants about taking on about 30,000 square feet of space. He declined to name them.

Foley Carrier Services moved into Colt Gateway five years ago, said Mike Every, vice president for information technology and operations. Last fall, it increased its footprint in the South Armory.

"We moved our office from our previous location in Glastonbury to make it easier to recruit new employees,'' Every said. "Being closer to Hartford and on a bus route has helped attract new employees. In fact, the bus stop is directly outside our front door."

The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) has so far only invested in CG's renovation of the North Armory into 48 apartments, said CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth.

Colt Gateway's presence and its housing, Freimuth says, complement CRDA's efforts to transform vacant or underused downtown office buildings into housing and retail.

"The area is a prime example of urban renaissance, slowly and methodically re-positioning itself as the economy and lifestyles change,'' Freimuth said, adding that the designation and conversion of Coltsville into a national park and the planned renewal of Colt Park and Dillon Stadium will further strengthen the area.

The State Bond Commission on Feb. 16 approved $10 million to CRDA for improvements to Dillon Stadium and nearby Colt Park.

Freimuth and Dooley say the success of Dunkin' Donuts Park also bodes well for Colt Gateway's future. Its tenants also may eventually benefit from the planned connection of Colt Gateway and Coltsville to Charter Oak Landing, fronting the Connecticut River. Interstate 91 bisects Colt Gateway-Coltsville and the river.

Cradle of industry, innovation

Two adjacent buildings are slated to be turned over to the U.S. Park Service, which will convert them into an interactive Colt gallery and visitor center, as part of the area's conversion into Coltsville National Park. Park Service guides eventually will lead tours of some of the old armories spaces, retracing their rich contributions to America's manufacturing lore.

Although Congress approved the national park designation in 2014, it took time for the Park Service to ink a pact with the city for Colt Park maintenance. In addition, the service and CG Management took time to craft an agreement in which CG ceded to the service two brownstone buildings to house the gallery-visitor center.

Any hard feelings over the delays isn't evident with Dooley, who sounds eager to have the Park Service as neighbors.

"When we get the Park Service here, those buildings will be hopping,'' Dooley said.

An early advocate of Colt's national-park status was Connecticut Congressman John Larson (D-1st District), who with the rest of the state's Congressional delegation pressed fervently for the designation.

"The redevelopment of the Colt armories, led by Colt Gateway, and the historic brownstones, ... will allow us to preserve history, while making use of historic landscapes,'' Larson said via email. " … Based on the interaction I've had with the community and the calls my office has received, people are eager to visit Coltsville and the surrounding destinations.''

Author-historian Luke G. Boyd, who has studied Sam Colt and his gunsmithing innovations and mass-production techniques, said the contributions of both to America's ascendance during the Industrial Age cannot be overlooked.

"The Connecticut River Valley has been a parallel to Silicon Valley as a cradle of industry and innovation,'' said Boyd, assistant manager of interpretive programs at The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. "The industrial technology in the Connecticut River Valley was really setting the standard for the age.''

Of Sam Colt, Boyd said the 19th-century entrepreneur saw bearing arms as a right, but he was first and foremost a businessman.

"I think he would be very intrigued,'' Boyd said, "by the politicization of the gun in general.''

Along with preserving a rich bit of Connecticut and U.S. manufacturing history, Dooley said restoring the Colt complex reflects today's sensibilities toward the environment. Colt Gateway's makeover is an example of recycling buildings with an eye for preservation and more energy efficiency.

"You're bringing a lot of life and activity to this area,'' he said. "I believe our tenants are going to absolutely love it.''

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