I had first heard of Armsmear about three years ago when I started at The Commons. Bishop Laura Ahrens has a binder on her bookshelf with the word “Armsmear” on the spine, and for three years I would find myself looking at the binder thinking “what a weird name, I wonder what that is.”
Fast forward to now, when I was looking for this week’s blog post, I decided I would do some research into the name on the mysterious binder (now two!).
Armsmear is the former homestead of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt, and now a place that “provides affordable independent living for women of limited income who are 60 years of age of older,” says Melinda Schoen, Executive Director of Armsmear.
I drove to Hartford and met with Melinda to learn more about Elizabeth Colt and Armsmear. Armsmear means “The Meadow of Arms,” which makes sense when looking at historical photos; the house is at the top of a hill overlooking the Colt Factory and what is now Colt Park.
The outside of Armsmear is just as mysterious as the name. It is an Italian villa just outside downtown Hartford, with spectacular gardens and two stone dogs guarding the entrance.
History of Armsmear
Built in 1857, Armsmear was commissioned by Samuel Colt for his wife, Elizabeth, and inhabited by both shortly after their marriage. However, Samuel Colt died five years after they were married, leaving Elizabeth with the estate, one three-year-old child, and the Colt gun factory.
“In that time, a woman would not be in charge [of a company],” Melinda said, “so she established board members for the Colt factory, and she ‘advised,’ but really, behind the scenes she was running the company.”
The loss of her husband (and her 4 children who died very young) and newly acquired responsibility left Elizabeth to care for her husband’s legacy, the Colt business, the Armsmear estate, and to establish her own will.
As a daughter of an Episcopal priest, Elizabeth “knew that if you were a woman and your husband (especially clergy) died, there was nothing for you if your family was not wealthy,” Melinda said. So, to help widows for the years to come, Elizabeth established a trust for after her death. She appointed trustees to oversee the financial wellbeing and future of the Armsmear estate and the near-by Church of the Good Shepard and parish hall, which she also commissioned.
“Faith was at the center of her life,” said Melinda. “And she made sure her faith would continue to support the buildings, grounds, and people. Therefore, in her will, one bishop of the Episcopal Church of Connecticut has to sit on the board of Armsmear.” Hence Bishop Laura’s binder.
And in 1911, six years after Elizabeth’s death, the estate became a city park, and Armsmear became a home for widows of clergymen. “This is very much keeping to her character,” Melinda said about Elizabeth, “she was philanthropic – a community activist for faith-based organizations, and very quiet about it. She was dedicated to creating a culture of kindness.”
Today, Armsmear is a home for more than just widows of clergymen, and it includes three other buildings on the property. It is still a home for women-only, but a woman does not have to be a widow of a clergy person. “Armsmear is a safe haven for women who are 60+ years old and are single, divorced, widowed facing financial difficulties,” Melinda said.
This isn’t a retirement community, however. Some women may be retired, but some still work. Every person living in one of the 51 unfurnished one-bedroom apartments is asked to contribute to the life of the community. “It is like a college dormitory for senior women,” Melinda said. Armsmear offers trips to museums and concerts, they have a gardening club (that does a spectacular job keeping up the grounds), there are exercise programs and speakers.
There is an active chapel in the former parlor, that has services twice a week with a chaplain, currently the Rev. Valarie Miller. The chapel was built around 1910, and is named St. Elizabeth’s chapel, named after well… Elizabeth Colt.
Residents at Armsmear usually live there for a long time, so no two rooms are the same, and residents have the freedom to make their space unique. “We work really hard to remind people that this is their home,” said Melinda.
If Armsmear is like a college dormitory for senior women, or rather like a sorority of senior women, then Melinda is the house mom. “I notice when someone isn’t feeling themselves, and I will check in on them,” she said.
Melinda’s office is in the main building, right across the hall from the chapel, and is easily accessible to all residents. Melinda told me that it is not uncommon for residents to pop in and out of her office several times a day, she has even started keeping lollipops in her office for the resident’s grandchildren.
Melinda was a nurse for 30 years working with seniors in hospital settings before coming to Armsmear. “Having Armsmear be all women is very different [than her previous work], and has proven to be one of the most meaningful things – to think about how as women we can help and support one another,” she said. “It is not just about providing a roof and an apartment, it is about advocacy and becoming a bridge for these women.”
Armsmear has been open as a home for women since 1911, one year after Elizabeth Colt died, and it has served countless women from diverse backgrounds. “Every woman, no matter who they are or where they came from, has the capacity to care for one another,” said Melinda.
Armsmear is a community built by a woman for women, and it is thriving.