Why Ignore Our History?

A recent visit to Boston reminded me what an extraordinary case our neighbor has made securing national support of its cultural treasures. The Freedom Trail, conceived 40 years ago by Boston's downtown business community, symbolizes civic pride and the qualities that make Boston a pleasure to visit. Although Bostonians developed it, the National Park Service, which operates the trail's visitor center, has been a collaborating partner since 1974. Outstanding content and collaboration are what it's all about.

Today Massachusetts boasts 18 National Park Service outposts. They include the Lowell National Historical Park, the Boston African American National Historic Site, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, the Minute Man National Historical Park, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site. Industry and invention, famous authors and artists, America and the sea, the American Revolution, the quest for freedom - Connecticut has almost as much to show and tell and far more than we realize.

A century ago, Emily Holcombe, whose husband was the Phoenix Insurance Co. chief executive, was Hartford's most renowned champion. She saved Hartford's Ancient Burying Ground, raised the first private money to save the Old State House, helped develop founding father Oliver Ellsworth's Windsor home into the region's first historic house museum, established Connecticut's image as the Constitution State and organized path-breaking exhibits about Connecticut at the Chicago and St. Louis world's fairs. She was a nonstop go-getting agent for state pride and preservation. After 25 years of public service, Holcombe realized that fostering state pride was the purpose behind "all my aspirations and work." She called for "a fuller recognition of Connecticut's matchless achievements" and declared that "patriotism begins at home."

Leaders like Holcombe had something we need now more than ever: an abiding sense of place. More than anything we can design or build anew, landmarks like Colt's Armory and whole environments like Coltsville deliver something money alone can't buy. Nothing we do in and around downtown and the riverfront will have as much impact as what we don't do if we fail to preserve and redevelop Coltsville.

Elizabeth Colt's East Armory building, with its famous onion dome and rampant colt trademark, is one of Hartford's five most important landmarks. The Colt mansion, Armsmear, as well as the Church of the Good Shepherd and its companion Colt Memorial Parish House each belong in the top 20. The fact that most of the original Coltsville environment is still intact 150 years after Sam Colt began 19th-century Hartford's most audacious real estate venture is miraculous. Reconnect it to the Connecticut River at Sequassen Street, and it's practically beachfront property backed by 100 acres of underutilized, city-owned parkland. Imagine the possibilities: housing, specialty manufacturing, a museum experience that highlights invention and technology, a modest botanical garden and, finally, a decent Hartford visitor center.

Enter Homes for America Holdings Inc., intent on buying and developing the Colt's Armory complex. Their stated business plan identifies properties that can be profitably repositioned, opportunities that others dismiss, and neglected pockets with the capacity to be transformed. The commitment to market and manage the site by a firm that claims a billion dollars' worth of real estate experience is a hopeful sign. Business and political leadership should coalesce around this project, shoulder the burden of environmental cleanup and underwrite some affordable options so that the kinds of wonderful small businesses already there can stay and participate in the renewal.

It would be a mistake to pretend that anyone can do this job without serious public-sector support or that a National Park designation will be enough to anchor the kind of development needed - or that it is someone else's problem. Is it really too late to revisit the Adriaen's Landing vision for a "science attraction"? What part of "science" is more important than our nationally significant story involving invention, technology and Hartford's role in developing the Wild West? Moreover, tens of millions are already invested in industrial heritage collections and resources.

Hartford is fascinating in every way a place can be. Its heritage of four centuries comes alive through an array of cultural treasures unrivaled by any American metropolitan area its size. A more confident approach to cultural-resource development will make this city whole and wholly appealing to residents, conventioneers, travel writers and our kids, who deserve to know what this city has been and done.

Coltsville sparked the greatest prosperity this city has ever known. It's already half paid for. Let's get on with it.

Bill Hosley is executive director of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, based in Hartford. In 1996, he organized the Wadsworth Atheneum exhibit "Sam and Elizabeth Colt: The Legend and Legacy of Colt's Empire."