Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Brass Skyline

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  Anson Phelps played an important role in the creation of three of Brass Valley’s industrial mill cities: Torrington, Derby, and Ansonia, but because he was a metals trader and therefore also often a banker, he was known, and his influence was felt everywhere in Brass Valley. However, this city, which takes his name, was his consummate enterprise, and he died in 1853, before the end of Ansonia's first decade, but the beginnings of skyline were not far off.

The skyline of a city has many secrets known to its residents, but out of reach to those, like me, who never “skinned" their knees as children there. Other secrets lie hidden in plain site to locals, and it sometimes takes the outsider to at least give them a nod. When I speak of “Ansonia’s Skyline,” if listeners don't pass the phrase over as idle nonsense, they ask, “Ansonia has a skyline?” 

Ansonia’s skyline is a history of it’s creation. The stack at the back marks where Anson Phelps put his brass mill when the canal was dug in 1845 (still there), that once passed all the way through the middle of town. The next stack marks the back edge of the Farrel Foundry & Machine Company. Anson Phelps hired Almon Farrel to build the canal from the Kinneytown Dam to provide reliable power for his community of entrepreneurs. The railroad was coming, and the future of the valley looked bright. Almon Farrel put his own mill here, and Farrel Foundry & Machine Company grew prosperous manufacturing industrial equipment for the Valley and the world, and it is still at work inside the brick sheds near the center. However, the brick sheds partially conceal wood sheds that were already arming soldiers as the town grew through the Civil War. Peel the skyline like an onion and find layers of stories.

By the 1870s the town was in need of a meeting room. Immigrants were arriving, the town was growing, and a group of townsmen saw a chance to provide a service the town needed and maybe earn a profit, and they hired a rising young architect to build the town a finely detailed Opera House of red brick with a whimsical cornice, seen here from the back. It provided a large space for everything from roller-skating to weddings and high school graduation and became the essential meeting place in town. At the same time, up the street, newly settled Irish workers, having finished long shifts in the mills, spent the hours afterward digging a foundation so Ansonia could have its own Catholic church. In a generation the church had become cramped even after the Italian Catholics moved to their own church. The second Church of the Assumption, which stands above town, was completed in 1907 and tells the world how Ansonia had changed.

Just below the Church of the Assumption is the Ansonia Armory, built between 1919 and 1921. The town was growing; the Opera House was too small, and there was so much more one could do with an armory. Local newspapers reveal it was a valuable town facility in times of war and peace, a place for policemen’s balls, Veterans’ dinners, and automobile shows, for expositions on progress and for food banks; it was a place for the drills of EMTs, brass bands, units and brigades, and it was the home of the Purple Heart Association. It’s worth noting that it was built at a time of union busting and civil unrest with barracks to house troops to do what they had to do to prevent a repeat of the 1919 strikes.

Of skinned-knee memories, few can be passed on, they lie in our nostrils and on our tongues and at the edges of our eyes and are harder to convey. Those who were ten and remember antediluvian Ansonia are my age now, and these things are far older. However buildings from the past that were built for the ages connect us with time, lest we scatter like weeds.