Thursday, March 20, 2014

Post 31: A Love Affair with Ruins

Photocollage Box  16"x13"x3"
Almost forty years ago, someone brought me to see the abandoned Yale & Towne factory in the South End of Stamford, thirty buildings dating from the 1860s to the 1930s. My first sight of the complex was its east elevation along Pacific Street, a brick wall, sixty feet high, punctured by rows of huge, industrial windows. Another row, not quite as old or as high stood at right angles along Henry Street. It reminded me of the ancient walled cities of Mesopotamia, designed to repel invading hordes. Since uninvited visitors were discouraged, I had to find a way to penetrate the interior courtyards, see what wonders lay inside. I was smitten, irrationally in love. All I could imagine was hundreds of artists’ studios, inexpensive, spacious, full of light, a thriving creative community that would bring a dead part of town back to life.

Photocollage Box  16"x13"x3"
The opportunity to see the interior of the complex presented itself in the form of an invitation from one of my art history students at the University of Connecticut. It turned out that her boyfriend managed a small company that manufactured foam-rubber brassiere pads. I saw table after table of foam bosoms, 32AA to 44DD, heat-formed on presses and then cut into individual breasts. It was an unforgettable sight.

The courtyards, I discovered, was filled with one or two story factory buildings Everywhere you looked, there were remnants of brick walkways, varied rooflines with distinctive skylights, arched brick passageways that led nowhere and a 100’ tall chimney that had lost its top ten feet and now said “ALE” (instead of “YALE”). I had died and gone to ruin-lovers’ heaven!

Within the next few years, my dreams began to come true: a forward-thinking rental agent decided that artists studios would be a good way to fill otherwise un-rentable spaces in the taller buildings along the perimeter. Light manufacturing and assembling could continue in the interior. Jamie Burt, a sculptor, was the first to move in; he was told that he could have a month’s free rent for every new artist tenant he brought in. Within three years, several floors of the buildings along Henry Street filled up with sculptors, painters, dancers, antique restorers; antique centers moved into the manufacturing sheds (like the one that had housed the falsie factory.)

But a thriving, mixed-use art center was not what the owner of the property, a big-time. real-estate mogul named Sam Heyman, had in mind. He made sure to inform everyone that artists were just  “temporary”; he also hired a lawyer to prevent the buildings from being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Worse yet, he had the older (more interesting) buildings along Pacific Street torn down to lessen the historic significance of the complex.

And so here we are, thirty plus years and several owners later. Only about 10% of the original complex remains, tarted-up almost beyond recognition. Instead of food trucks with ethnic specialties, we have the faux French “Pain Quotidienne” and a Fairway Market. Instead of rough lofts and manufacturing spaces, we have high-rent apartments for Yuppies who work in “financial services.” Instead of grungy hallways and paint-stained floors, dirty windows and a “take your life in your hands” self-service freight elevator, we have sterile passageways and sleek new “lifts”; if you got off on the wrong floor, you would never know the difference.

Photocollage Box  16"x13"x3"
Over the years, I took hundreds of photos of the neglected buildings – the ruins. In a fit of creative exuberance, I bought a hundred or so wooden “shadow” boxes, 16” x 13”x3”, and placed surrealist photo collages of Yale & Towne inside them. Just recently, I started a series of large oil paintings based on the boxes.

Nothing like making art out of ruins!


  1. Fascinating...I remember those old self-serve freight elevators,
    they almost seemed to say," step onto me if you dare !" DGP

  2. The work you have made, the collages in shadow boxes, are wonderful. You have such a way of bringing a glint of joy into everything you do. Those of us who were lucky enough to be part of the studio days thank you for archiving a very special place.

  3. Thank you, Renée. A most enjoyable blog for a Saturday morning. I fondly remember all those old buildings. Callahan.