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.