Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Life and Death of a Factory

Waterbury has lost another historic factory building to catastrophic fire. The building most recently known as Ansonia Copper and Brass caught fire on July 30, 2018. The dramatic fire was covered by all of the area news media.

WTNH Channel 8 coverage of the factory fire, July 31, 2018

Amazingly, the fire was contained to just one building. Sadly, it was the oldest and most beautiful building in a sprawling complex of historic factory buildings, with a rich history that made it worth preserving.

Holmes, Booth, & Haydens

The first manufacturing operation on this plot of land was that of Holmes, Booth & Haydens in 1853.  Before that, the land was used for farming, part of the fertile pastures that ran along the rivers. As manufacturing grew, farmlands were replaced with factories.

The 1852 map of Waterbury below shows South Main Street running straight down the middle, with Benedict & Burnham factory buildings between the Mad River and the Naugatuck River. The Waterbury Jewelry Company can also be seen next to Great Brook, where Jewelry Street would someday be laid out.

Detail, H. Irvine & Richard Clark, publisher, Map of the Town of Waterbury, 1852
Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center,  Boston Public Library

Israel Holmes, the founder of the company, was already experienced in the running of brass companies in Waterbury, starting with an early iteration of Scovill in 1820. John C. Booth joined Holmes in starting the new business after two decades in the sales divisions of various manufacturers in Meriden and Waterbury. The Haydens portion of the name is plural, as there were two brothers involved: Henry H. and Hiram W. Hayden. Hiram W. Hayden was a prolific inventor whose patented spinning process opened up new possibilities for making goods out of brass. His brass kettle, made using the spinning process, can still be found at flea markets and antique shops.

Hiram Hayden's inventions also included photographic processes. In 1851, the Waterbury American newspaper reported that Hayden had figured out how to print a positive photograph on paper at any size (Waterbury American, 14 Feb 1851, reprinted in Anderson, ed., The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, p. 357). Hayden does not appear to have pursued this invention further.

When the new company started, their product line included daguerreotype plates, a brass plate with a highly polished silver surface on which the photograph appears. Hiram's brother Henry traveled to Paris, the birthplace of daguerreotypes, to find an expert in daguerreotype plate production to oversee their operations in that area. He came back with August Brassart, who would later gain fame in the U.S. for having made the daguerreotype possible by creating the polished plate requested by Louis Daguerre in 1838 ("The First Man to Make Daguerreotype Plates," The Photographic Times and American Photographer, Vol. XIX, 8 Feb 1889, pp. 73).

Brassart worked at Holmes, Booth & Haydens, living on South Main Street, before eventually opening up a photography studio in Naugatuck.

Advertisement in The Waterbury Almanac, 1854
published by Bronson Brothers, Waterbury.
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

The first factory buildings at Holmes, Booth & Haydens were, like most other factories, built out of wood, with brick structures following later. An 1876 birds-eye view of Waterbury shows a picturesque factory setting, surrounded by greenery despite the pollution from the smokestacks.

Detail, O.H. Bailey & Co., View of the City of Waterbury, 1876
Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center,  Boston Public Library

Fire was an inevitable threat: in February of 1880, the silver plate shop was burned; in October the same year, the rolling mill was destroyed (Anderson, The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, p. 353). Larger, brick buildings were constructed to replace the ones that were lost. A third fire, in 1893, destroyed their casting shop (William J. Pape, History of Waterbury, Volume I, p. 26). Additional structures, including an office building, were added over the years.

The building that was destroyed by fire this past week was most likely constructed during the 1880s. It appears in a photograph published in 1889 in the book Waterbury and Her Industries (written by Homer F. Bassett, the head of the Silas Bronson Library). The building faces the train tracks installed in 1868 by the Boston, Hartford & Erie Railroad. The tower was the stairwell, with a weather vane on top.

A site report done for FirstLight in 2007 speculates that the building was used for stamping work, with the heavy machinery on the ground floor. Lighter finishing work would have been done on the upper floors (Michael S. Raber and Robert B. Gordon, Documentation of Ansonia Copper & Brass, Inc. Plant, Waterbury, Connecticut, December 2007, p. 4).

Detail, photograph of Holmes, Booth & Haydens during the late 1880s.
Published in Homer F. Bassett, Waterbury and Her Industries, 1889

Holmes, Booth & Haydens during the late 1880s.
Published in Homer F. Bassett, Waterbury and Her Industries, 1889

Detail view of Holmes, Booth & Haydens showing the building destroyed this week in the back.
Anderson, The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, 1896, plate after p. 352.

Holmes, Booth & Haydens in the 1890s
Anderson, The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, 1896, plate after p. 352.

Maps show the evolution of the factory site over the years, indicating the footprints of the buildings.

Beers, Ellis, & Soule, Waterbury City Plan, 1868. Historic Map Works Rare Historic Maps Collection

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1884.
Burnham Street was later renamed Washington Avenue.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1890.
Burnham Street was later renamed Washington Avenue.

Detail, Landis and Hughes Map of Waterbury, 1899
Retrieved from Library of Congress

In 1895, in the entire country there were eighteen brass mills, six in Waterbury. Holmes, Booth & Haydens was the third largest employer with just over a thousand employees; Scovill was the largest employer, with 1,600 workers, while Ansonia Brass & Copper in Ansonia had 1,135 workers (William G. Lathrop, The Brass Industry in Connecticut, 1909, p. 119).

American Brass Company

In 1901, Holmes, Booth & Haydens was bought out by the American Brass Company, which was started by Ansonia's Charles F. Brooker as part of a scheme to become the largest brass holding company by acquiring as many manufacturers as he could. Benedict & Burnham, located next to Holmes, Booth & Haydens, was also bought out by American Brass, which merged the two companies as a single subsidiary.

By 1909 American Brass was the largest brass company in the world. William G. Lathrop’s book, The Brass Industry (1909), stated that American Brass produced more than two-thirds of all the brass used in the United States, in addition to other copper and alloy products, while using roughly one-third of all the copper consumed in the U.S.

In 1911, the American Brass Company was found guilty of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Brooker was fined, and American Brass was reorganized as an operating company, with each subsidiary becoming a branch of American Brass. The new headquarters for American Brass was built facing the train station in 1912.

By the end of World War I, American Brass was undisputed as the world’s largest consumer of copper, controlling 40% of the industry and melting down as much as 600,000,000 pounds of copper and zinc (the two main components of brass) annually.

In 1921, American Brass merged with Anaconda, a Montana-based company with copper mines in Montana and Chile. Anaconda bought out American Brass, the largest consumer of copper in the world, guaranteeing an outlet for their mining operations. American Brass retained its individual identity until 1960, when it was renamed Anaconda-American Brass.

When Brooker died in 1926, his obituaries dubbed him the "Copper King" or "Copper Baron," as he was believed to have purchased more copper (used in the production of brass) than anyone in the world.

Anaconda-American Brass underwent additional corporate restructurings and buyouts in the later 1900s. In 1986, the parent company spun off what was now called Ansonia Copper & Brass, which included this factory building in Waterbury.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Volume II, 1922
Collection of Beinecke Library, Yale University

Waterbury Brass Goods Corporation

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1922 shows the Waterbury Brass Goods Corporation as a tenant at the former Holmes, Booth & Haydens factory, partly in the building that was destroyed this week.

Waterbury Brass Goods was a subsidiary of American Brass operating as an independent corporation (Moodys Manual of Railroad and Corporation Securities, Volume II, 1916, p. 2040). Incorporated in 1904, Waterbury Brass Goods was run by John A. Coe, Jr., John P. Durfee, and Gordon W. Burnham. The company produce various brass goods, including kerosene burners, lamps, hinges, and chains. Originally occupying space at Holmes, Booth, & Haydens, Waterbury Brass Goods added four of its own buildings on Washington Avenue between 1909 and 1912 (William J. Pape, History of Waterbury and the Naugatuck Valley, Volume I, p. 217-218).

In 1919, Waterbury Brass Goods merged with another branch of American Brass, taking over all consumer product manufacturing, including products made from sheet brass and products made from brass tubing ("Change in Organization," The Metal Industry, September 1919, p. 447).

Ansonia Copper and Brass

Ansonia Copper & Brass was incorporated in 1986 with its primary address at 725 Bank Street in Waterbury. The company, formerly part of American Brass, traced its history to the founding of Ansonia Brass & Copper in 1845. 

Ansonia Copper engaged in a variety of copper-alloy manufacturing services, making tubing products in Waterbury and rod/wire products at its factory in Ansonia (Vin Calcutt, OldCopper website, accessed 4 Aug 2018).

Before the fire: Google Maps view of the factory

At the start of the new millennium, Ansonia Copper and Brass began losing business to foreign competitors. By 2007, the company had laid off the majority of its 200 employees in Waterbury and Ansonia, reducing operations to just copper-nickel tubing. Six years later, Senator Chris Murphy cited Ansonia Specialty Metals (the remaining operation) as "a poster child for the Buy America clause... The reason Ansonia needs TAA [Trade Adjustment Assistance] is because they've lost defense contracts to foreign companies." (Mara Lee, "Former Mill Employees Lost Jobs to Mexican Competition," The Hartford Courant, 25 July 2013)

In 2008, despite community objections and concerns about air pollution, the FirstLight electricity generation plant was built on two acres next to Ansonia Copper. The plant runs on natural gas with oil as backup ("Power Plant Gets Boost," Republican-American, 14 May 2008).

Ansonia Copper & Brass, 2009

Ansonia Copper & Brass, with the FirstLight smokestack in back, 2009

When I took photos in 2009, the FirstLight plant was wrapping up construction.  I spoke with a security guard, who stared up wistfully at the old brick factory. When he was growing up, back in the 1960s and '70s, everyone he knew assumed that the factory jobs would always be there. He didn't bother going to college, because he knew he could get a good-paying job at a brass factory.

The security guard is far from alone. An entire generation of people in Connecticut grew up thinking they would be able to make a living as factory workers, only to be laid off repeatedly as successive factories closed. The New York Times published a compelling story about this in 2007 (Jennifer Medina, "Mill Towns of Connecticut Lose Factories, and Way of Life," The New York Times, 18 February 2007).

The top of the stairwell tower, with a turkey vulture perched where the weather vane used to be, 2009.

The once-beautiful windows with stone ledges; stars decorate the sides of the building, 2009

Ansonia Copper & Brass cut its operations to the bare bones in 2012, renaming itself Ansonia Specialty Metals.

Ansonia shut down its operations the day before Thanksgiving in 2013 (Jean Falbo-Sosnovich, "Ansonia Copper & Brass property to be auctioned," New Haven Register, 23 March 2017).

The company brokered a deal with the town of Ansonia in 2014 for their factory buildings there. In exchange for demolition and brownfield remediation of the site in Ansonia, the town would forgive as much as $400,000 of the back taxes his company owed them. Demolition was started, but not completed. As of June 2017, CEO Raymond McKee owed more than $1.3 million in property taxes and Water Pollution Control Authority fines for the factory in Ansonia. (Michael P. Mayko, "Former Ansonia Copper and Brass site to be auctioned July 19," New Haven Register, 12 June 2017)

John Barto, who was president of Ansonia Copper & Brass from 2009 until 2014, has overseen the dissolution of the business and has worked with state and local officials to repurpose the land along the Naugatuck River.

In 2014, Barto placed the blame for the company's closure squarely with foreign competitors: "Any foreign competitor can come in, use predatory pricing and dump their products here and there's nothing an American company can do." (Michael C. Juliano, "Not made in America," Republican-American, 4 July 2014)

Photographers Emery Roth and Lazlo Gyorsok captured Ansonia Copper just before it shut down in some spectacular images, part of a series . Roth's book, Brass Valley, is well worth having, filled with images of what might very well be the end of the brass age in Connecticut.

The Ansonia Copper site in Waterbury is currently owned by 725 Bank Street Development Inc., based in Cincinnati, Ohio. They purchased the property from Ansonia Specialty Metals in 2015.


While manufacturing continues to wither in Connecticut, we're left with blighted, contaminated properties (brownfields) that need expensive cleanup in order to be safe for new uses.

In 2016, Senator Chris Murphy proposed a bill to allow developers or owners to claim the full cost of brownfield remediation and demolition as a tax deduction in one year; Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty introduced a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cleaning up brownfields remains a priority for Senator Murphy. His latest legislation on the matter is the CLEAN UP Act, offering tax incentives for developers to clean up and redevelop brownfields.

The fate of several Waterbury brownfields has been decided by fire. Ansonia Copper is the latest in a series of devastating fires that have destroyed abandoned factories in Waterbury.

After the fire: the ruins of the former Holmes, Booth & Haydens factory, 2018

Although the walls are still standing, the building was gutted and will be torn down.

There are numerous other factories that have been abandoned, a source of blight and potential danger in the center of our neighborhoods. The challenge is to convince someone -- developers, government, whoever -- that the cost of cleaning them up is essential to the well-being of the city and its residents.

Another former American Brass building in the South End, full of graffiti and broken windows, slowly being taken over by nature.

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