Monday, May 22, 2017

Beaux Arts Congregationalists

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Even as a generation of American architects was seeking to solve the layout, structural and aesthetic issues of tall buildings, Stanford White was designing Beaux Arts temples and palaces to serve as libraries, train stations, banks, clubs, arenas, theaters, and mansions. They set the taste for the wealthiest people in the country. 

One of the treasured “City Beautiful” buildings of Naugatuck, CT, once “Rubber City,” is Stanford White’s Congregational Church on the green, designed in 1903. It was the year the Flatiron Building scraped the sky in New York City. 

What an interesting architectural juncture is represented here! It is the evolving tradition of white clapboard community meeting houses, re-imagined in White’s stylish classicism. It is lavish simplicity. If style is the outer form of spirit, what is the journey from those hill temples to this vaulted space in the valley?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Naugatuck Station

Slide-Talk this Sunday, May 21 @ 1 PM
sponsored by the Naugatuck Historical Society

Finding Brass Valley

A Place in Time that Has Almost Vanished

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Naugatuck’s city center is one of the jewels inspired by the City Beautiful movement which promised an orderly architecture would promote the moral rectitude needed for civil society. It became popular with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, called “White City” for its gleaming, white Beaux Arts pavilions, plazas, and fountains. Designed by the greatest architects of the age, it was a model of what a city should be and a reaction to what cities were becoming in the rush to build tenements and housing for waves of new immigrant labor. 

In Naugatuck, they remember John H. Whittemore as the leading force in creating the elegant McKim, Mead & White town center. Because Naugatuck is so small, the force of the City Beautiful movement is concentrated there achieving gracious grandeur as it organizes city life, and it survives intact today.

John Whittemore was still at it up to the end of his life. In 1907, the year before he died, Whittemore commissioned Henry Bacon, who would go on to design the Lincoln Memorial, to replace the old station with something worthy that might elevate those who rode the railroad. Today it’s quaint and empty, awaiting new life as a restaurant, replaced by a platform down the track with an awning and low maintenance.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Baltic Mill

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Manufacturing built Connecticut. In the west half of the state it was metals and machine tools; in the east it was textiles. Authorities tell me the Baltic Mill was at one time the largest textile mill in the United States. Baltic was built as a company town, and its vitality was always tied to the fortunes of the companies that owned the water rights and the mill site on the Shetucket River.

Baltic was founded by, brothers, Amasa and William Sprague. William was a banker and leading promoter of the Hartford, Providence, and Fishkill Railroad. Amasa was an innovator and expert in textile dying and printing. They sought a site along the new railroad for a textile mill, and in 1856 they purchased land and water rights on the Shetucket River at the village known as Lord’s Bridge. Workers would live in company housing, and the town would be run for the benefit of the business.

The town and the mill thrived and was expanded by Amasa's and William’s sons, Amasa, Jr. and Byron, and by 1870 the company had a work force approaching 1400 men, women and children making cotton yarn that was shipped to the company’s weaving mill in Cranston, RI. The workers were predominantly French-Canadian, and this ethnic unity permitted factory workers to advance to positions of leadership and to establish businesses in town. However, the depression of 1873 found the company over-extended. Bankers kept operations intact until the interior of the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1887, and Baltic became nearly a ghost town. 

A residual pool of talent remained, and in the 1892 Michael Donahue opened Shetucket Worsted and employed 100 men. In 1900 Frederick Sayles bought the ruins of the old Sprague mill and associated property and rights, rebuilt the mill within the old walls, restored the workers’ housing, and opened the Baltic Mill Company which kept expanding through the 1920s and continued manufacturing textiles until 1960. 

Among the remains of old, granite and brick walls one can still make out the elaborate systems that turned river power into textiles. Nothing remains of the main building but its foundation. It’s been that way since 1997 when an accidental fire sent asbestos dust over the region and gutted everything. Since then wind, rain and ice have been consuming what’s left. 

Manufacturing buildings in the west half of the state betray the scrappy roots of their machine and metals heritage. Those in the east wear their textile pedigree like palaces. However, it’s hard to discern a palace in the remains of the Baltic Mill.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind

Shop friends, grazing memories,
roads traveled, stompers gone.
The stain of the world is upon us.
All numbering, numbered,
All torquing, wrenched.
We are out of gas and gone with the wind.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Metro Van

The Metro Van

Metro van, the happy van, 
all steel and streamlined
brought bread to the Valley,
cake to the hills,
milk, meat, and mail
to driveways and doorsteps,
filled neighborhoods with music
and ice cream and cotton candy.

A multi-stop, walk-thru  cabin, 
designed for democracy, 
with the cab high up 
over the engine and 
a smiling driver free 
to sit or stand as he 
rounded the corner,
or lurched along Main Street.

The Metro body was designed in 1937 
by the  the Metropolitan Body Co., of Bridgeport, CT.
It remained little changed into the 1960s.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Vehicle

The Vehicle

Cheap heap
Cracked heads
Valves leak
Pistons rattle
Stops dead

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Blacksmith's Heart

next slide talks:
Finding Brass Valley: A Place in Time that has almost Vanished

Mar. 20 @ 7 PM - Milford Public Library, Milford, CT (Come also to see the exhibition)
Mar 27 @ 6 PM - Cheshire Public Library, Cheshire, CT

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The Lenswork podcast below has gotten me thinking about the place of metaphor in art photography and the role of culture in determining the photographs we make. In the podcast Brooks Jensen points out, I think correctly, that what distinguishes documentary photography from art photography is that documentary photography is about the subject; art photography is always about something else - he says that's metaphor. He then talks a bit about how metaphor is culture-bound. I especially recommend this link to other photographers.

Because I strive to make “art photographs,"  in places that need to be documented, I must ask of every picture I choose to process: Why? And for whom? My publisher describes Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry as an ode, not a history, and I hope it is about something more than Brass Valley. What does “The Blacksmith’s Heart," mean outside the culture of smiths and smithing? 

Brooks Jensen’s discussion makes references to one of the great photographs of all time, Dorothea Lange’s, "Migrant Mother.” I hesitate to mention it on a screen with my own photograph in view. What is it that catapults that picture to being a metaphor of an era, over the other images Lange took that day?

I had always thought that music was at an opposite pole from metaphor; that, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” And the “condition,” as Walter Pater termed it, was that music touches us directly through the raw force of silence and sound arranged in harmonic, rhythmic, and timbrel patterns, without the use of metaphor. But how is it that raw forces such as intensity, timbre, harmony, and rhythm combine to touch the deepest levels of our spirit making us laugh, grieve, yearn, or find solace and balm? What part of our reaction is metaphoric and culture-bound, though primal and species deep? Where do those harmonies and dissonances lie?

I think it’s correct to see these musical forces as analogous to the photographer’s ability to communicate directly through composition and tonality. What distinguishes “Migrant Mother” from other photos of the series is not simply the inscrutable expression of the migrant mother but the powerful chord struck by the tonalities of garments, bunting, ringlets, necks that swirl around an axis and upon a compositional scaffolding of crumbling stability? What part of this picture is culture-bound? How deep in the heart does metaphor lie?


Half way down the “nave” of the Farrel Foundry is the transept. That is where the metal was poured into molds made of sand. Workers associated in any way with the Farrel foundry usually have stories to tell. Grime, danger, and heroism seem to be widely remembered, and there is a special regard given those who poured the metal. Founders, casters and molders are the priesthood of the metals and machine industries. Once theywere alchemists whose coveted secrets imparted the spirit to the metal and on whose crystal magic all future success depended. 

In 1731 quality iron ore was discovered in Salisbury, CT, and by the mid-1740s they were producing pig iron in East Canaan, Salisbury, Sharon and Kent, and the Northwest HIlls had become the center of America's iron industry. By the time of the Revolution there was hardly a community in the region that had the power of a good stream that did not also have a puddling furnace for refining the impurities from the pig iron produced in blast furnaces. Local farmers forged the purified wrought iron into the tools they needed, and the region developed an expertise in metal working. But forging and founding were different arts, and the most precious secrets belonged to those who poured the metal.

With ores and metals of uncertain purity and the fluctuating heat of charcoal, coke or, later, coal, they learned to make fires that would sustain the high heat required and relied on their senses, knew by the sound or smell, when it was time to add ingredients or mix or pour. The region developed an experimental curiosity about making and working metal that grew to expertise and drew the metals industries to the Naugatuck Valley and to Connecticut.

I’ve been told that existing journals of Barnum & Richardson, with furnaces in East Canaan and Salisbury show deliveries of iron to the Farrel foundry right up through WWI and deliveries still being made as late as 1925, two years after the smelting operations had shut down. The last delivery of Connecticut iron came in 1941, exclusively made up of old pieces of salamanders probably for a widening Second World War. The superintendent who kept those journals was reportedly, "proud that ‘Salisbury' iron had served the country from the Revolution through WWII. 

The people of the Lower Valley are also quick to talk about Farrel’s past importance to the nation’s defenses, and I’ve been told the foundry was hidden in camouflage during WWII. Pigs of iron, whatever the source, were delivered here, to the transept, where the metal was poured.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cathedral Space

4 slide-talks in March

“Finding Brass Valley, a Place in Time that Has Almost Vanished”

exhibits also in Millbrook, NY and Milford, CT
Brazen Grit: Images of Brass Valley

photographs by Emery Roth

Mar. 4 @ 2 PM Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY (Come also to see the exhibition)

Mar. 12 @ 4 PM - Wilton Public Library (part of series: "Finding our Place: Evolving American Identity")

Mar. 20 @ 7 PM - Milford Public Library, Milford, CT (Come also to see the exhibition)

Mar 27 @ 6 PM - Cheshire Public Library

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Foundry Collapse! The news of the building collapse at Farrel Foundry came with the city's commitment to demolish it. The story seemed to pass through the news cycle causing barely a blip, even among those of us who care about such places. By the next day it was gone. 

Demolition is probably long overdue, but it seems irreverent to let it pass without memorialization of some sort. Farrel Foundry was recognized as “the archetypal foundry building of its day,” and it was probably the largest machine tool foundry in New England. It was surely the Valley’s grandest industrial cathedral.

The foundry was built in the early 1890s by the Berlin Iron & Bridge Co. The enormous basilica was the culmination of the family company that Franklin Farrel inherited from his father in the town whose dam and canal they had built together in the employ of Anson Phelps almost a half century earlier. Almon Farrel was a millwright who had been building millworks and mill dams for new industry up the river in Waterbury, when he was asked by Anson Phelps to build the millworks for an industrial village that would be named Ansonia. 

In 1847, two years before there was a railroad, Almon Farrel acquired a tract of land from Anson Phelps, plus “one half square foot of permanent water,” from the canal the Farrels had built. Farrel began by making brass and iron castings, wooden mortise gears and parts for water-powered plants.

Essential to industrial growth in America was the ability to cast the metal parts needed for the machines of manufacturing. Soon Farrel was manufacturing the rolling mill equipment for the rapidly expanding copper and brass industries up and down the valley, and as the river valley became famous as Brass Valley, industries that used brass parts wanted to be near the companies that made them, and some of them would need machines that Farrel made. 

The central aisle of Farrel's foundry is 55 feet across with wide side aisles. From the start, an important feature was an immense traveling crane that spanned the central aisle and traveled the full 300 foot length (soon extended) of the shed. By the 1890s, this was the key to moving the heavy rolls that Farrel was making and assembling in calenders for rolling paper, rubber, and metal, and for crushing stone, ore, sugar and grain; anywhere large, hard, metal rolls were needed in giant sizes. 

The crane girders were carried on unusual, round, iron columns, three feet in diameter and tapering gracefully. But for their color, one might expect to find them on the portico of a Congregational church. One of these columns can be seen clearly on the right. The crane at the back of the picture, one of two that were there when this picture was made, is rated at 60 tons.

At the midpoint of foundry nave is a transept, just behind where the duct is broken off on the right. That is where the heating and pouring of the metal happened in three great casting pits. The art of heating, mixing, pouring and, especially, cooling the metal required secrets coveted by the alchemists who ran the casting furnaces. From the beginning, the men who cast the metal and the places where they cast it were regarded with a special reverence. What should be said at its passing? What token of its existence should be passed to future generations?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Sterling Opera House, Birmingham

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The Sterling Opera House stands on the Birmingham Town Green. The opera house was a gift of the Sterling Piano Company. It was the age of the piano, and the Sterling Piano Company was Birmingham’s largest employer. The town needed a gathering place and the piano company needed a recital hall. But the Sterling Opera House contained far more than a hall, and it played a significant role in creating the culture of the region. 

From the tower of the Sterling one can look down on the Birmingham Town Green. The Green was a gift to the town by Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith who had founded the town of Birmingham by building a reservoir and canal along the west side of the Naugatuck River and by selling mill sites to promising entrepreneurs. It was the early 1830s, a time of growth.

Unlike hill town greens, this property was given on the condition that no animals graze on the green and with other restrictions in accord with propriety.

Smith and Phelps also gave land on three sides of the green for the construction of Episcopal, Congregational, and Methodist churches. It was a vision of how a free society might come together. The opera house was built fifty years later.

From one entrance at the corner of the building patrons purchased tickets and climbed a grand stair to the first level of the opera house.

From a different entrance at the center of the building one entered City Hall. On the streets around the green, named for the wives and daughters of Smith and Phelps there were fine fine homes and families with parlors and pianos. The problem was, neither Derby nor Birmingham were cities. The nearest city was Bridgeport. Birmingham was a borough of the town of Derby, a town that contained no cities.

Towns generally have a selectmen. Only cities have mayors.

Birmingham was a powerful community. The dam on the Housatonic was owned by Birmingham businessmen, and the profits and taxes that resulted benefitted Birmingham though they were earned from the industries in Shelton, just across the Housatonic River on the west, and from Ansonia, just across the Naugatuck River on the east.

The opera house complex has a fascinating layout in which spaces serving the opera house and those serving the city hall are woven over and under each other but rarely connect. As one descends to the back of the city hall section, one eventually comes to the small police station and the jail with three cells.

However, for most people the building's feature is not the city hall but the opera house. The grand stair that rises from the ticket window continues to two balconies with plenty of room for intermission, a time to climb to the top of the tower and look for Long Island Sound.

The hall was a place for theater and for town gatherings and it was a recital hall for concerts featuring Sterling pianos, of course. 

The Sterling piano was commended and advertised by the foremost piano virtuoso of the time, Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Paderewski retired from the concert stage after WW I to become prime minister of Poland and to represent his country at the Paris Peace Talks. It is likely he played to these benches.

The age of the piano! Virtuoso pianists were idols. There were “Monster Concerts” featuring a hundred pianos playing at once. If a well-off middle class family wanted music, they bought a piano and invested in piano lessons for their children. I have a letter written by my grandmother to my great grandfather in which she talks about her chores being done by her siblings so that she might play music for him. 

The hall was designed after principles devised by Richard Wagner for his opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, and its perfect acoustics may have helped its architect, H. Edwards Ficken, become co-architect of New York's Carnegie Hall.

John Philip Sousa stood here and rattled the walls; Houdini disappeared through the trap door in the floor boards; Bing crooned to adoring teens. before it closed after WWII.

But when I think of Sousa and his gleaming brass, I imagine them marching here on the Common that Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith gave to the town.

Smith and Phelps had started a brass mill here, and because pianos used lots of brass parts, the largest industry in Birmingham and Shelton was pianos.