August 11, 2013

Collapse threatens mill renovation

By ALEC JOHNSON Springfield Republican-American

THOMASTON, Conn. - A swath of slate roof, 150 feet across, gave way and crashed. Bricks shot out for 20 yards. Timbers splintered and steel twisted. On June 15, a section of the sprawling former Plume & Atwood brass mill collapsed, casting doubt about the industrial property's future.

click image to enlarge

This Aug. 6 photo shows a section of slate roof that collapsed June 15 at the former Plume & Atwood brass mill complex in Thomaston, Conn. Efforts are under way to remove the debris, said a commercial real estate agent involved with the site.

Photos by Alec Johnson/Springfield Republican-American

click image to enlarge

This photo shows the facade of the former Plume & Atwood brass mill. Over a decade, the owner spent more than $5 million to purchase and clean up the historic complex.

Volunteers enjoying a hot dog and hamburger cookout at the nearby Railroad Museum of New England heard a rumble, then saw a cloud of smoke.

In a minute, another of the Naugatuck Valley's brick industrial buildings fell closer to a likely demise. The mills and factories that employed thousands through the late 19th and 20th centuries have burned, fallen apart or been torn down.

Examples abound. The former American Brass complex in Waterbury's South End is slated for demolition. Nova Dye, a former knitting mill in Waterbury, went up in spectacular flames, leaving a charred hole in the neighborhood. Along Franklin Street in Torrington, the former Torrington Manufacturing Co. was razed in 2010. Weeds grow through a stubble of broken bricks, behind a chain-link fence, a scar along the Naugatuck River.

Others sit in graffiti-sprayed hulks, including the former Bristol Company building in Waterbury. A former employee touring the dilapidated site a few years ago warned he might cry at the sight. It stands there, 310,000 square feet across 6.5 acres declared an environmental mess.

What happens to Plume & Atwood remains a question. The collapsed section can be seen from the East Main Street bridge or from within the 10-acre compound. The collapsed section of roof rests in a pile of snapped wood and crushed bricks inside. A window-lined exterior wall, just 20 feet from the railroad tracks, appears undamaged.

Still, the fire marshal and building inspector have halted northbound trains because vibrations might rattle the unstable building and cause further collapse. The Naugatuck Railroad runs sightseeing trains north to the Thomaston Dam, where the trains reverse and return to the station after a trip to the Waterville section of Waterbury. The closed tracks cut the ride about 10 minutes short, said Celeste Echlin, president of the Railroad Museum of New England.

Vance Taylor, a commercial real estate agent who has been involved with the property for more than 10 years, said efforts are underway to remove the portion of the building that collapsed. He said the owners are working through state and local approvals and permitting.

"The owner and I will reassess once the structurally unsound part is cleared away," he said.

Plume & Atwood owner Jay Horowitz, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, has spent more than $5 million on purchasing the complex and cleaning up its contaminants over the past decade. Between 2005 and 2006 asbestos was removed from pipes, oil and tar from walls, trenches and pits, and soils and groundwater were tested for contaminants.

Taylor said he has sought assistance for redevelopment from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Taylor said the trust has a structural engineer who will look at the property and ensure there are no further collapses.

"It would be the owners' desire to ensure its preservation and adaptive, creative reuse," Taylor said.

Renovation of northwest Connecticut's industrial sites has generally left few original buildings standing. The former Scoville Brass Mill in Waterbury is now the Brass Mill Center mall; Seymour Brass Co. in Seymour is a Stop & Shop, and the site of Ferrell Brass Mill in Derby is now a Home Depot.

Torrington's Warrenton Mills, a former cloth mill turned into apartments in 1987, is a rare example of success.

"They make for very impressive buildings ... but those are very few and far between," said Samuel Gold, a senior planner for the Central Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.

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