Connecticut Landmarks You Must Visit Last Updated 2/19
We’re excited to welcome a new CT Ambassador, Deb Cohen of The Front Door Project, a blog dedicated to memorable and unique architecture, including the beautiful, welcoming appeal of front doors throughout Connecticut and beyond. Deb recently took a trip to a few of Connecticut’s most intriguing landmarks, and she shares her experience here.
What is a landmark, exactly? Is it a building? A statue? A rock? All of the above can be true! Among other definitions, Merriam-Webster describes it as “a conspicuous object on land that marks a locality”, or “a structure of unusual historical and usually aesthetic interest”. Like any state, Connecticut has its own unique set of landmarks and I set out recently to learn more about those both familiar and new to me. Although by no means comprehensive, the following are unquestionably high on the list of places residents and visitors alike should be sure to see as they explore all that Connecticut has to offer.
Colt Armory, Hartford
No one that travels through Hartford can miss the brilliant blue dome with gold stars that sits atop a massive brick factory building. It marks the location of the East Armory, one of many buildings comprising the former Colt’s Manufacturing Company complex started by Samuel Colt. Born in Hartford, Colt’s novel manufacturing methods put him and his company at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. The use of interchangeable parts and the creation of an efficient assembly line enabled mass production of revolvers, and Colt’s innovative marketing skills propelled the company to monumental success. In order to attract workers, he built housing near the factory creating a company town referred to as Coltsville. He provided amenities and services to his employees, keeping them close and ensuring their loyalty.
The Colt story isn’t complete without mention of Elizabeth Colt, who ran the company for over forty years after her husband’s death in 1862. Referred to as “The First Lady of Hartford” (perhaps the first female CEO?) Elizabeth rebuilt the factory in 1864 after it burned to the ground from suspected arson and oversaw the production of weapons used by the Union Army in the Civil War.
But what of the blue dome? The gilded wood original “Rampant Colt” that once graced the dome sits in the Museum of Connecticut History, with a gilded fiberglass replica in its place. Coltsville is poised for a bright future as legislation was passed in 2014 for the creation of Coltsville National Park, an urban park intended to commemorate the industrial ingenuity of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.
Saville Dam Gatehouse, Barkhamsted
Known and celebrated by those local to the Barkhamsted area for years, and often used as a backdrop for prom, engagement, and wedding photos, the Saville Dam Gatehouse became known to me via (surprise!) Instagram. Where was this fairytale-like, round, turreted building with massive wooden doors and an incredible lake view?
A Friday afternoon drive on windy roads through acres of woods had me wondering if I was still in Connecticut. As a lifelong resident I still marvel at all that I have yet to see! After one wrong turn due to poor directional instincts, I finally found myself at the Saville Dam. A massive, earthen embankment that flanks Route 219, the dam creates the Barkhamsted Reservoir which contains almost 37 billion gallons of water and is the primary water source for Hartford, CT.
While there is no parking directly next to the gatehouse, I parked in a lot about a quarter mile away and walked on top of the dam to get a close up look. While the walk wasn’t exactly peaceful due to the cars whizzing by on Route 219, I was rewarded with a magical view of the gatehouse and the reservoir beyond. Named for its chief engineer Caleb Mills Saville, the Saville Dam was completed in 1940 and the reservoir was filled to capacity by 1948, after flooding many buildings and farms, including the village of Barkhamsted Hollow. With every season offering a different perspective, I know I’ll be back.
Gillette Castle, East Haddam
A childhood visit to Gillette Castle loomed large in my mind as I made my way to this landmark again. Could it be as enchanting as I remembered? In a word: yes. And possibly even more so as an adult, recognizing the unusual construction and history related to the site which I’m sure held no interest for me as a child.
The former home of William Hooker Gillette, appropriately the stage actor who famously portrayed Sherlock Holmes for over thirty years, Gillette Castle sits upon one of the Seven Sisters, a chain of seven hills in East Haddam that lie aside the Connecticut River. Like a cross between a medieval fortress and a drip sandcastle, the 24-room mansion was constructed over a five year period with local fieldstone, cement, and an underpinning of steel. Stone walls with jagged edges greeted me as I walked from the parking lot to the castle grounds. Gillette designed the 14,000 square foot home and oversaw its construction, including numerous quirky details such as 47 unique doors and locks, a hand-carved bar which opens with a secret latch (built during Prohibition), and a series of mirrors built above the great hall allowing Gillette to view visitors from his bedroom.
The castle is open seasonally but the park is open all year. Walk the paths that were originally part of Gillette’s 3-mile personal railroad that traversed his property and enjoy the expansive unobstructed view of the Connecticut River below.
P.T. Barnum Statue, Bridgeport
With the incredible popularity of the recent film “The Greatest Showman”, I have become mildly obsessed with the fascinating history of P.T. Barnum, the man behind the Greatest Show on Earth. The film contains numerous historical inaccuracies, and sadly it fails to recognize that Connecticut, and Bridgeport specifically, were Barnum’s home for most of his life.
Like all of us, Barnum had his admirable and less admirable qualities. Though he may have been deemed a huckster that some say took advantage of both the public and those that worked for him, he had a generous side that benefited the people of Bridgeport tremendously, including Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb of circus fame. Barnum was elected Mayor of Bridgeport in 1875, and symbols of his long life there are scattered about the city. Perhaps the most meaningful is the bronze likeness of him that faces Long Island Sound in Seaside Park, a 325-acre gem that exists because Barnum donated a large portion of his own land to the cause. He also built housing, helped working class residents find ways to buy homes, and brought development to the city.
On a Saturday morning drive to White Plains, NY via Bridgeport, I found myself speechless traveling down Soundview Drive at the park, delighted by the stunning early morning skies, the squawking of the seagulls, and the peaceful stillness of the place. I could imagine the real P.T. Barnum standing where his statue sits today, overlooking the same view.
Traveler Restaurant, Union
If you have ever driven the stretch of I-84 that crosses the state line between Connecticut and Massachusetts, no doubt you have spied the massive sign that simply says “Food and Books”. Well, until you get closer and realize it says “Traveler” in very small print above the word “Food”.
Since food and books are two of my favorite things, and I have often wondered what this place was but was always too busy to stop, I visited the Traveler Restaurant in Union with the family in tow one day over Christmas vacation. Turns out the sign belongs to a low-slung, blue building with a bright yellow roof.
The interior of the Traveler Restaurant gives a cabin meets local library meets diner vibe: rustic, cozy, and with shelf upon shelf of used books. Run by Karen and Art Murdock, the restaurant is open seven days a week for all three meals, and their trademark is the gift of books with every meal. In researching the restaurant, I learned that it has been featured in “O”, Oprah’s magazine, and many celebrities have visited including Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, and Bruce Springsteen. So perhaps I was the last in Connecticut to hear of it! But if not, head out there yourself and enjoy some comfort food and free books. If you can’t find something on the restaurant shelves, you can always visit the used bookstore downstairs which houses another 60,000 volumes.
The Frog Bridge, Windham
Perhaps the strangest place on my list to visit, at least judging by the name, was The Frog Bridge in Windham, formally known as Thread City Crossing. Approaching its 20 year anniversary, the bridge has quickly become a local landmark in the borough of Willimantic.
After a long delay and much debate, construction on the bridge was completed in 2000, replete with four gigantic bronze frogs sitting on four gigantic concrete spools of thread. This was accomplished only after local residents begged the state to engage an architect to improve what was considered to be a bland design. But why frogs? Why spools of thread? The spools of thread are the easiest to explain as Willimantic has long been referred to as Thread City. The Willimantic Cotton Mill Company was once one of the largest thread manufacturers in the nation. But the frogs? Local legend speaks of the Great Windham Frog Fight of 1754 when armed townspeople rushed outside in the night to hideous shrieking from an unseen source. The next morning, they found hundreds of dead bullfrogs that had fought to the death over the sole remaining puddle in a local pond.
You have to see this bridge to believe it. Walk across it for a striking view of the old mill and the Willimantic River, then walk back and venture down to Main Street. I enjoyed a cup of coffee and pastry at Grounded Coffee, a cafe that opened in 2016 and is part of the revitalization happening in town today.
East Rock Park, New Haven
Although I can reach New Haven in about 45 minutes, I rarely find myself there unless I am going to the train station. I set out on a Saturday morning with a podcast queued up for the drive and a bottle of water and made my way to East Rock Park with the promise of a commanding view of the city from above.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a landmark memorial within the park, can be seen from all of New Haven and was visible in the distance as I reached the outskirts of the city on I-91. It was a beacon that came in and out of view as I navigated the streets of the East Rock neighborhood and made my way up the winding access road in the park. I saw many individuals and groups walking, running, and cycling, many with their pets. While some chose to use the hiking trails, after parking I opted to walk the access road enjoying partial views of the city below at each bend. While I knew that I would get a good view of New Haven, I was astonished by just how far my eyes could see. All of the city lay at my feet, along with a placard in the park that highlighted the major sights below.
The long trap rock ridge, part of the Metacomet Ridge that runs from Long Island Sound in New Haven to the border of Vermont, rises over 300 feet above the city below and is a fitting location for the 112-foot memorial to New Haven residents who gave their lives in four of our greatest wars.
Visiting these places, whether again or for the first time, reminded me once again of the treasures that lie within our state’s borders. If you were to make a list of Connecticut landmarks, what would you include?
Deb Cohen is a lifelong Connecticut resident with a passion for architecture, history, and local travel. She also believes that a good front door adds instant curb appeal and is a focal point of a home, and through her photography provides inspiration for others to create the curb appeal of their dreams. When she isn't busy traveling, taking pictures, or writing, she keeps busy with family, friends, and her two beautiful golden retriever rescue dogs. To see more of Deb's work, visit www.thefrontdoorproject.com or find her on Instagram @thefrontdoorproject.