Thursday, January 08, 2009

Watch This Space!

Lately this blog has been getting a couple dozen visitors daily looking for information about the mall closing down, going bankrupt, etc. I'm fascinated by how widespread this concern is, with the visitor IP addresses coming from all over the state, the region and even some from around this country and others. The comments under the Mall Future? post cover the issue pretty well (and no, the mall isn't shutting down--note that our Macy's is not even one of the underperforming stores being closed).

I'm not aware of any mall closing down except when the retail businesses all close or move out. Then you have a "dead" mall that can linger on for a couple of years before being demolished (think of the old Naugatuck Valley Mall). The function-specific design of a mall, and the "cheap" modern construction materials used to build them really does doom them to demolition once the shops are all gone.

The predecessor of the mall is the downtown. When malls were being built in the 1950s and '60s, the retail businesses and customers flocked to the new location, leaving the downtown storefronts empty. In Waterbury, many of the gorgeous downtown buildings were demolished, but many others were "upgraded" with relatively cheap new facades. While those facades might have appealed to the sensibilities of the '60s and '70s, today they show their age and are widely considered a defacement of beautiful architecture.

It would be wonderful if all the money that has been spent since the 1990s to construct new malls and big box retail stores were instead spent on rehabbing the downtown buildings, but that obviously wasn't meant to be. The good news, however, is that there are private developers working on rehabbing the buildings and there is now grant money available to restore the building facades to their early glory.

Main Street Waterbury has created a Facade Improvement Program, administered by the Waterbury Development Corporation, that has begun making grant money available to downtown building owners. The first round of grant recipients was announced recently, and it's very exciting news. Some of the oldest buildings downtown that were most defaced during Urban Renewal will be brought back to life later this year.

In no particular order, here are the grant recipient buildings and a little bit of their history, which I wrote for the press release:

471 West Main Street (Acero Lounge)

Note the hideous ground level siding, complete with decrepit '80s style shingling (completely inappropriate to the elegant and graceful style of the original building design) and the tacky and decaying bay window surrounds. 

At one of the main gateways into downtown Waterbury is the Georgian Revival style 471 West Main Street, constructed in 1908 or 1909 and known for most of the 20th century as Finnan’s Block. It was one of many apartment blocks or buildings that were constructed along West Main Street in the decade leading up to World War I. Waterbury’s population was increasing rapidly during this era, as more and more people came here to work in the factories. Finnan’s Block is a quintessential example of this type of building, originally with grocers, a tobacconist and a saloon on the first floor, providing the basic amenities for the apartment dwellers on the upper floors. The building is currently undergoing extensive interior renovations, improving the apartments and restoring the original hardwood floors.

142 Grand Street (The Turf)

This building has very obvious problems: missing windows, overly layered peeling paint, a cheap and ugly '70s style street level facade that is inappropriate for the rest of the building.

On Grand Street, the Bierce Block at No. 142 was constructed after the devastation of the 1902 Fire. A Georgian Revival style structure, it was built in 1905 for Edward E. Wilson, mill superintendent for the Tracy Brothers construction company, which was responsible for the construction of many homes throughout Waterbury, and sold to Russell Bierce in 1906. The building originally had two finials on top of the cornice. The first floor of the building became a restaurant in 1931 with the opening of the Brass City Grill, modeled after the Brass Rail restaurant on Broadway in New York City and boasting a 42-foot long mahogany bar and murals of the brass factories. In 1946, the restaurant re-opened as the Turf Restaurant. Although the ownership has naturally changed over the years, The Turf is still in operation today and has been recently renovated by its current owner.

77 Bank Street (Russell Building)

The hideous chaos of the storefronts speaks for itself.

77 Bank Street was named the Russell Building after its first owner, attorney James Russell. Russell was the father of actress Rosalind Russell, most famous for her roles in “His Girl Friday” (co-starring Cary Grant) and “Auntie Mame”. The Russell Building was constructed in 1929 in the Art Deco style, and remained in the Russell family until it was purchased by its present owner.

68-70 Bank Street (Warner Block)

On the corner of Center Street, is 68-70 Bank Street, which has already begun the process of renovation, most noticeably removing the concrete panels stuck on the buildings during Urban Renewal. This impressive building was constructed by the Knights of Pythias in 1905, to replace their Hall which had been destroyed, along with many other downtown buildings, in the Fire of 1902. Pythian Hall was relocated to East Main Street in 1913, and the building became known as Warner’s Block, housing an optometrist and retailers on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. As you can see from the banner image, the building is being renovated for luxury apartments--if only they had done this three years ago, when I was looking for a downtown rental!

54, 60, 64 Bank Street (three separate buildings)

The things that have gone wrong with these three buildings are so profound, I've included an 1888 photograph from the Mattatuck Museum. If you look carefully, you'll be able to match up 64 Bank Street in both photos by the triangular pediment that has survived mostly intact to the present day. In the historic photograph, you'll see what looks like one wide building next to it with a matching cornice, but it was in reality two separate buildings with facades designed to blend them together. I didn't crop the historic photo down all the way, because I think it is a treat to see what this stretch of Bank Street once looked like.

Two of the three buildings were constructed for John Milton Burrall, a cabinetmaker who came to Waterbury in 1849. Burrall built 60 Bank Street for his furniture and undertaking business in 1852. At the same time, James Ayers, owner of Waterbury’s leading jewelry store, constructed a matching building alongside Burrall’s at 54 Bank Street. Three years later, Burrall constructed 64 Bank Street.

54 and 60 Bank Street, while separate structures, were designed with an ornate cornice that made the two buildings appear as one. The cornice was similar to the one still visible on 64 Bank Street, but a little lower and without a pediment. All three buildings featured a row of three windows on each of the two upper floors. While none of the remaining visible windows looks exactly as they did originally (double-hung with a “grill pattern” of multiple panes), those at 64 Bank Street are closest.

Many modifications were made to these buildings over the years. By 1914, the second story of 54 Bank Street featured a central projecting bay window, while the windows on the second and third stories of 60 Bank Street were partially covered by signage. 54 Bank Street had become home to Adt Photography Studio during the late 19th century, and the upper floor of that building still boasts a remarkable and magnificent north-facing studio skylight, ideal for any artist. During the era of Urban Renewal in the 1960s and ‘70s, the fa├žade of 60 Bank Street was completely obscured by a concrete facing, while the second story of 64 Bank Street was hidden behind a large signage backing. These modifications were intended to give the buildings a fresh and modern look, but they obscure the true beauty of the buildings, making them look tired and worn.

The grant program requires that the facade improvement projects be completed this year, so check back at the end of the year for the "after" photos, or stroll downtown sooner than that to see the improvements in progress!


Anonymous said...

Memories! I went to the Turf a few times with some friends years ago, once we reached drinking age. It must've been the early to mid-1980's. It was a dive, but a good dive - they often had a special, draft beer for (seriously!) 25 cents.


Heather B said...

Thank you for the pictures of Bank Street. John Milton Burrall was my 3 Great-grandfather and I always wondered what the street where his business was looked like then and now.

Anonymous said...

Great images and people-filled history. I'm so glad to know these buildings will regain some of their proper features that make Waterbury such a special place. Thanks for pointing out the progress!