The Armsmear name is said to mean “meadow of arms” — referring to the business that made Colt one of the country’s wealthiest men.
The house was built on land that was part of the Colt family estate, between the years 1855 and 1857. Even though it’s a historical building, the property now serves as a 51-unit retirement community.
For more about the mansion and its grounds, below is some text from the National Register of Historic Places nomination form from 1975, detailing the features of the residence located at 80 Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford.
Below that, you will find some excerpts from an article published a hundred years earlier, describing the mansion and its grounds in language that reads almost like poetry.
About the Samuel Colt Home in Hartford, Connecticut (as of 1975)
The James B Colt House sits on a half-acre parcel, fronting on Wethersfield Avenue and bounded north and east by Colt Park, the original estate of Samuel Colt, inventor; and manufacturer of the Colt 45 and first president of Colt’s Patent Firearms Company.
The site was originally part of the spacious Colt estate, and it commands a magnificent view from its ridge-top location over the Park and the Connecticut River Valley to the east.
Directly north, flanking the north side of the main entrance to Colt Park, is Armsmear, Sam Colt’s opulent Victorian mansion, the architectural “big sister” to the James B. Colt House.
Across Wethersfield Avenue from the Colt mansions is a unique but deteriorating grouping of Victorian mansions originally occupied by wealthy professionals and businessmen, some of whom were officers of Colt’s Firearms.
South of the James B Colt House along Wethersfield Avenue for several blocks is a fine collection of large Queen Anne-style homes which add a complementary grace to the neighborhood.
The building is a fine example of the Italian Villa architectural style, popular in the mid-1800s, and once prolific in the Colt Park neighborhood.
The front (west facade) is imposing, yet gracious, rising three full stories, tastefully flanked on either side by unenclosed porches. This facade duplicates nearly all the architectural details found in the front (west) facade of its sister Armsmear; Italianate arched windows, large overhanging eaves supported with brackets, stucco finish.
The north side porch wraps around the front of the house to the front door, its three wooden columns and modestly-carved wooden arched setting a comfortable rhythm.
The northwest corner of the house is capped with a peaked roof, approximately eighteen feet square and five feet high. The south portion of the front facade extends slightly forward of the front door, emphasized on the first floor by a “bay” with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The north facade, facing out on the adjacent Colt Park, reveals the full sixty-five-foot depth of the house, the generosity of which is hidden from the front view by dense landscaping. Here the northwest corner tower with peaked roof is fully apparent dominating the otherwise flat roofline.
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Full floor-to-ceiling arched windows rise one above another for the three floors, centrally located in the corner tower.
At the ground floor, the porch, wrapping around front and side of the tower, reveals through dense planting three semi-circular arches in porch woodwork, with ornamental brackets carrying a flat roof.
To the rear of the tower is a jog in the building line of the house, accounted for by a three-foot deep indentation twelve feet long, breaking what would otherwise be a rather massive facade. Toward the rear, a chimney is visible on the roofline, betraying the presence of fireplaces now hidden by successive layers of modernization.
The rear of the house, too, faces out on Colt Park affording fine vistas. Immediately apparent is the lack of stucco finish, revealing the true brick wall material.
From the rear, access is gained from massive ornamental cast-iron stairs into the back of the building where an interior stairwell serves the three floors. The full rear profile reveals the large protruding three-story bay on the south facade of the house.
The south facade, too, is broken into two masses, offering pleasant relief in the depth of the building. Toward the front, windows on all three floors are positioned above each other, offering more regularity than on the north side.
At ground level, a comfortable veranda, graced with an intricately designed wooden railing stretches from the building front, half-way down the south facade. To the rear of the veranda, the facade is broken by a substantial three-story bay.
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At the roofline, a chimney is visible in the middle of the facade, indicating the presence of four fireplaces inside the house. An iron fire escape has been added recently.
All facades remain as originally designed and built. The south facade has been visually disturbed by the iron fire escape, which can easily be removed. Certain brownstone carved details have eroded or chipped away, and the stucco exterior finish needs repair.
Woodwork in the verandas and eaves requires repair, but overall the exterior of the building, set on a massive stone foundation, is structurally sound and architecturally intact.
The interior of the building has been “modernized” with dropped ceilings and wood paneling. However, above the dropped ceilings in several rooms, the original highly decorative plaster ceiling moldings remain.
Several fireplaces with original massive Victorian wood mantles and beveled glass mirrors have escaped damage. Much original door and floor molding remains undisturbed.
A walk through the mansion, and on the grounds of the estate (from 1876)
Beautiful and romantic Armsmear! How impossible does it seem for one who has enjoyed often its splendid and yet untrammelling hospitality, who has seen it in winter and summer, who has paced its halls with gay wedding crowds, or lounged in its retired boudoirs of a summer morning, inspecting its endless treasures of illuminated and illustrated books, its jewels, pictures, marbles, and objets de virtu who has wandered through its greenhouses, tasted its incomparable fruits, watched the cloud-shadows float over meadow, lawn, forest, and river, to describe it in cold blood!
A long, grand, impressive, contradicting, beautiful, strange thing — such is the first feeling on beholding Armsmear. An Italian villa in stone, massive, noble, refined, yet not carrying out any decided principles of architecture, it is like the mind of its originator, bold and unusual in its combinations.
Armsmear is situated on Wethersfield Avenue, about half a mile from the city of Hartford. The view from the street is perhaps the least impressive view — the covered archway into the grounds, though beautiful in itself, somewhat masking the majesty of the house, but seen from the south and across the lawn the house assumes all its beautiful and unusual claims upon the eye.
It is regal almost, with its delicate, Oriental, capricious dome in the rear contrasting with the lofty solid tower at the front, as if the owner had begun by being an English lord, and had ended by being a Turkish magnate, looking out on the Bosphorus.
Indeed, Armsmear was built at different epochs, and with different aims, and has been well called a ” characteristic type of the unique.”
There is no doubt that it is a little Turkish, among other, things, on this side, for it has domes, pinnacles, and light, lavish ornamentation, such as Oriental taste delights — in a compliment paid, perhaps, by the great inventor to his distinguished friend the Viceroy of Egypt, to whom he sold, in 1854, five thousand revolvers!
Inside the great house
Wandering over this great house, rich in all the appliances that wealth and taste can bring to bear, one comes back willingly to the octagonal boudoir, where the lady of the house spends her mornings; from these windows spreads the most lovely, serene, and English of views.
It reminds one of the view from Richmond Hill, so celebrated by Walpole and Pope. The lawn, the beautiful marbles, the artificial water — all bounded by an apparently endless wood, through whose green branches a fairy-sail is often seen, as the river, masked here by the trees, betrays itself as an angel might by its wings.
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Surrounding this room is a veranda, and finishes appropriately the Oriental end of the house. From this veranda or these windows, one sees Colonel Colt’s great work before him.
On this green and perfect lawn thirty men daily roll, cut, and trim nature to perfection; to the left lie those enormous greenhouses, pineries, graperies, which produce strawberries and cucumbers at Christmas, peaches and apricots at Easter, and figs and grapes all the year round.
Colonel Colt died at the early age of forty-eight, with such enormous works accomplished even then, that the mind pauses and reflects, “What would he have done had he lived longer.”
The visitor at Armsmear sees, through the beauties of lawn and grove, one shadowy place, whose monuments are not those of antique art, not the Apollo, or Canova’s beautiful ‘Dancing-Girl,’ nor the choice accumulation of European travel, but more recent and sadder acquisitions — a butterfly on a child’s grave, a beautiful boy in marble guarding his own ashes; another slab, which bids adieu to “kindest husband, father, and friend,” who here, in the midst of his vast possessions, asks but of earth a pillow, and of the unfading evergreens which watch over him a shelter.
The grounds at Armsmear, among their many other beauties, one wanders in undisturbed quiet through a shaded, impervious walk, or labyrinth of firs. The perfume, the solitude, the remoteness of this walk are perfect.
From many a point one meets with a splendid surprise, as, on emerging from the alley, a few steps bring one to the fairy lake, and a glimpse of Kiss’s ‘Amazon,’ and the marbles which add to that gleam of white, so necessary to this charming combination of color and highlights.
Armsmear is the perfection of landscape-gardening, for more than three times the extent is indicated by the judicious laying out of the walks, carriage-drives, and plantations, which are really only one-third of a mile in breadth and two-thirds long.
It seems — as one sweeps through the drive, catching glimpses of deer-park, flowers, shrubs, trees, lofty house, extensive greenhouses, beautiful lake, then only woods, blue mountains, and river, then again a glimpse of armory, and Swiss village, and church, to return to the hospitable door without having retraced one’s steps — to be miles and miles in length and breadth. There is not one disagreeable object to be seen in this beautiful domain.
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And Colonel Colt did it all in the marvelously short time of seven years. From May 1855 to January 1862 did this wonderfully energetic genius plan, build, execute, and finish this great work.
Nature has perpetually seconded him; his trees have grown, his work has flourished, and the hand which he so fondly loved has faithfully carried out his wishes. Few men have so conquered fortune, few have been so happy in leaving behind them a custodian so wise, so faithful, and so competent.
The name Armsmear was an artificial combination, fitted to the genius of the place. Its gardens and grounds have been compared to those fabled gardens of Armida, of which the author of the “Jerusalem Delivered” gives us such a fascinating description. They are, indeed, in their beauty, affluence, and defiance of the seasons, like the work of enchantment.
The lake on the Armsmear grounds
Perhaps no lovelier spot than that view of the lake which the artist has chosen exists here — the rustic bridge, the fountain, the lake itself, and the weeping- willows, the distant view of the “Grove of Graves,” of which we have spoken; the swan, ever the most poetic and beautiful adjunct of water, sails loftily, while that bird of luxury, the peacock, struts gaily on the bank.
South, one sees the orchard and ornamental trees beyond the dyke, that wealth of greenery, and the spire of a church, that view which so much recalls Richmond Hill; to the north, the city reveals itself captivatingly through the trees, just near enough to be reached in an easy drive or walk, just near enough to make us feel all the charm of our own remoteness in this delicious quiet, just sufficiently far way to relieve us from its atmosphere of excitement, struggle, and activity.
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Here, by these serene waters, in presence of yon marble kid, so sportive with its marble mother, here, where beauty steals on every sense, and music adds its charms, we would linger, for it is the acme of this cultivated elegance, the point where Art marries Nature.
Colonel Colt’s devotion to his city was very beautiful. He loved Hartford first and always. He gave it a square mile of territory, rescued by his dykes from the floods, and brought five thousand working, useful inhabitants to her borders.
He was attached to her old traditions, loved her Charter-Oak, and tried to save it. A chair, carved for the “city fathers” out of those historical fibers, became by purchase his property, and one of the most flourishing of young Charter-Oaks, raised from an acorn of the old tree, grows on the lawn at Armsmear.
A man of extraordinary genius
He named an avenue through his property “Charter-Oak Avenue,” and gave a splendid hall to the city, called by the same honorable name. His schemes for the benefit of the town which had given him a birthplace, but scarcely anything else, were liberal and wise, far-seeing and noble, beneficent and just.
And now the fine, old, aristocratic city has no prouder sign and seal of her energy and thrift, aye, and of her taste and elegance, than this home of her whilom errant son — this man of extraordinary genius, and of an executive force and will equal to a thousand men.
And Colonel Colt had taste as well as force; not only was he pursuing the useful with greatest energy, but he was noticing and encouraging the beautiful.
His taste in laying out Armsmear was as conspicuous and real as was his gigantic labor in building his dyke.
This delicate Oriental fancy, which crops out in his domes, pinnacles, minaret effects, balconies, draperies, and profusion of beautiful objects, seems a fitting but unusual fringe to those titanic labors which took the great Connecticut at its highest flood, and bade it retire and be still. His dyke is seventy feet broad at the base; as broad at top as the streets of Hartford.
It extends two miles along the threatened land, and is bound by a green ribbon of willows. It is higher than the highest flood that the melting snows or the abundant rains can send, and within its protecting arm lie all these great interests, and Armsmear sleeps quietly in its beauty within — the blossom on the mighty tree.
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