Thursday Doors – Sad Story

Somersville Mfg
Somersville Mfg (west side).

There are three major mill buildings in the Somersville section of Somers, Connecticut. The Picking House at 49 Maple St. The Somerville Manufacturing Company, across the street from the waterfall, and the much smaller workshop/warehouse behind Somersville Manufacturing Company. That smaller building is the building in which I had my cabinet shop in the mid-80s.

Last week, when I brought you the doors from 49 Maple Street, I was very careful not to include any photos of the other side of the street. That’s where today’s sad story is told.

Somersville Manufacturing was established in 1879 by Rockwell Keeney. The company grew quickly to be a major manufacturer of wool and woolen products. Army blankets by the thousands rolled out of the mill during the World Wars and, at the opposite extreme, high-end women’s fashions were produced during the mill’s 90-year span. After the mill closed in 1969, the property changed hands and cycled through periods marked by the optimism of eager developers and the despair of financial and environmental setbacks.

Ad for wool' suit
Ad for wool suit

The long term plan(s) for the complex was for it to be converted into retail and housing. Straddling Scantic River in Somers, with views looking out over the mill pond, waterfall and the meandering river, the complex could have been a wonderful addition to a quaint little Connecticut community known for horse farms and New England charm.

When I opened my cabinet shop in 1985, the Maple Street level of the main building was occupied by another woodworking shop. The shop made waterbeds, which were sold in an attached retail store. I remember the manager of that shop coming over to welcome me to the neighborhood. He even offered access to their much large capacity machines, if the need ever arose.

The waterbed factory wasn’t going to be in the complex very long. The then new owners were trying to obtain financing for a full retail / residential conversion. My landlord assured me that his building was not part of the plan. That building sits adjacent to the lower level businesses, including State Line Lift, a fork-lift sales and repair outfit run by two comical characters whose periodic company I very much enjoyed. Rent in the large mill complex was far less than what I was paying, but the future was uncertain at best.

The financing plan ultimately fell through, when the EPA ruled that the lower levels could not be converted to residential use, because they were in a flood plain. In addition, the challenges of a true mixed-use space were daunting, as described in this article in the Ellington Patch which was written by a descendent of the original owner. In case you’re wondering about the today’s title, let’s borrow the opening paragraph from the Patch:

With one simple event, over 130 years of modern industrial development and 43 years of struggle to repurpose the complex came to an end. The mill’s demise not only was a crippling blow to Somersville, but also showcased Connecticut’s reluctance to utilize its growing list of abandoned historic structures and their inherit sustainable properties.”

In 2012, a group of twenty-year-olds broke into the abandoned mill, for a late night tour. A carelessly discarded cigarette set the complex on fire. Oil soaked floors fed the flames for hours. Units from local and several surrounding fire departments battled the blaze for hours, to no avail. The heat from the flames caused the structural steel to melt under the weight of the brick walls.

Very little remains of a once proud textile mill and a once promising suburban project. The area might still be attractive. The holding pond, waterfall and natural drop of the Scantic River still can support a small hydro-power project. Portions of the historic building remain and the area along the river is attractive for recreation. The Town of Somers has recently received a $1.8 million Brownfield grant to clean up the property. First, they have to acquire it from the owners, which is likely to happen through a tax sale. Once the Town owns the property, they can start thinking about its future.

Since, once again, there are a lot of photos, I’ve grouped them into sets (before the fire, after the fire, photos from others). Thanks for visiting.

The pictures in the first gallery are from various points in time, but none date back to 1985. Some are from a tour when my English friend, David Pennington visited prior to our attending an event in New York City. Others are from when our daughter Faith was on an Art School photo shoot.The building was in bad shape, but it still had potential.

The photos showing the fire damage are from our recent visit.

I’ve taken the unusual step of including a few photos from other sources. I’ve given credit, when available.

This post is part of Norm Frampton’s amazing weekly series – Thursday Doors. Pop on over to Norm’s place, check out his doors, then click the blue button to see all the other doors. You can add a door, too!

73 thoughts on “Thursday Doors – Sad Story

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  1. Wow! That was definitely ah intense fire. I trust nobody was hurt? It’s always a shame when a building with history is lost in such a devastating way though many simply crumble away through neglect and decay over a longer period. I think just from an environmental standpoint we have to get better at converting buildings already standing rather than knocking down and constructing all over again.

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    1. The article in the Ellington Patch talks about all the things we (here in CT) do wrong, that ultimately get in the way of productive reuse. That complex had so much potential, but people just couldn’t make it happen. No one was hurt in the blaze, although the people were charged with arson.

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      1. I loved the positive elements of this, hope for renovation, upscaling a lovely majestic building with a fine history. . . in a perfect, beautiful setting, too. Finally, that the company, the people had good intentions. I wish a movie could be made of your woodworking shop (the cabinet shop) and the characters would-be so cool to develop.
        The sad elements, thoughtless flames and the flood plain rendering dreams asunder were another one. What a strange, unforgettable story here to tell for posterity, Dan. Beautiful doors and weird remains of an iron sculpture. I can see why Faith would love to capture it’s “bones!” :)

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        1. You have a very interesting way of looking at this, Robin. I think all these buildings have a story to tell. Imagine all the families this building supported in its heydays. I look at that waterfall and think “that powered an industry that supported a town” and it’s hard not to get lost in thought.

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    1. Thanks! When I worked in my cabinet shop, I was keenly aware of how quickly that place could burn. The building I was in had sprinklers. I don’t know if the larger complex did, or if they were working at the time.

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  2. As a reader who lives in an area surrounded by old mills, I find this post very sad. The mills here in town have all been converted and remain important parts of our community – lofts, shops, restaurants, gyms, studios, and breweries. I always look at these beautiful buildings and think of all our ancestors who worked on those buildings using their unique skills to create a large structure that has lasted through the years only to be abandoned by us. Thanks for the tour, Dan. :-)

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    1. Thanks Judy. The complex was such a unique structure, with two large sections actually spanning the river. It could have made for a great mixed-use establishment, but there were too many roadblocks. I’m happy to hear that the ones around you have been flipped into a productive state.

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    2. I agree, Judy. I love converted old buildings, enjoy seeing the details that made many of them so wonderful and the usually stellar workmanship. I don’t understand arsonists, whether of buildings or vast stretches of forest. Abandoned or burned buildings hurt my soul to see.

      janet

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      1. The people who destroy history and nature, either on purpose or out of sheer laziness and apathy, really make me wonder. How hard would it have been to make sure a cigarette was out? How hard would it have been to walk through (a building you broke into) without smoking? I have nothing but contempt for those people. 20 years old is old enough to know better. As for people who start forest fires, I can’t even begin to understand.

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  3. A very sad story, Dan. It must be heart-breaking for you to see the devastation now.

    The one photo showing the building span over the river illustrates the potential issue with the flood plain for the lower level. I’m curious … was the issue with the flood plain real or hypothetical? This building had been there a long time … did it have a history of flooding?

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    1. Thanks Joanne – it is sad. I couldn’t find much information on the history of flooding, but tons about the fear. FEMA revised the flood plain map in 1995 (after the financing had been secured and renovation work had begun) which brought the project to a halt. The building not only spanned the river, it physically constrained the water flow. There was talk about remediating that by lowering the river bed by about a foot.

      Right after I opened my shop, we were hit by Hurricane Gloria. We had a lot of rain, but very little flooding. You’ll see next week (in the last doors post from Somers) that my shop was much further into the flood plain. We had a little water in the parking lot, but I had no problem driving in and finding dry ground.

      From what I read, the larger issue was regulations that wouldn’t allow a broad mix of use. Given the right mix, they could have kept residential units well above the flood threat but still could make a profit from renting the lower levels.

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      1. I think this is where they are misguided. Many cities are embracing mixed use zoning – including Toronto. There is a recognition that by allowing retail, commercial, and residential integrated together, it provides for a better tax base and gives an overall better community feel.
        As someone who lives in an old 1970s style suburb, I have to drive EVERYWHERE. Even the nearest convenience store is a mile away.
        Neighbourhoods become more livable when there are amenities close by like coffee shops, restaurants, markets etc.

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        1. You make a good point Joanne, especially for the area where this building was. It’s probably 5 miles from the nearest shopping area. They simply have to be more open-minded about the kind of development that would work. And it wouldn’t hurt if FEMA got their act together and didn’t change the flood plain maps in the middle of an active large-scale project, Thanks!

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  4. That’s too bad about the fire and the EPA ruling. It’s a wonderful spot for something that will bring out the beauty of the river and location. It will be interesting to see what happens once the land is cleared…if they find a really great use for it.

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    1. Thanks Mary. The town should own the property before the end of this year. They are already talking to some planners about what could be done. The first thing is to clear the site and remove a bunch of hazardous material. I hope they can use some of the standing sections of the building. It’s small by comparison, but it could still make a nice place to live.

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  5. That IS a sad story. Here in Corydon, the old Keller (furniture) Manufacturing building WAS acquired by the town, and the town just got a major grant to develop it into a mixed-use facility. It’s in the flood plain, too, so I don’t know how that’s going to work, but it’s wonderful to see a proud old complex preserved and put to good use. I hope the same fate is in store for your mills, and even the site of the destroyed one. In Louisville, Kentucky, a historic block called Whiskey Row burned before its rehabilitation had barely started, and they braced up the remaining walls and are rebuilding, incorporating them in the new structure! So here’s hoping for you!

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    1. We have some very nice mill buildings that have been re purposed, but mainly as residential, not so much mixed use. They need to open up the view a little bit here. There are portions of this building that still could be used or at least incorporated into a rebuild.

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  6. I love old buildings like this. Sad that they are not in use anymore but at the same time you can feel the history of them. It’s kind of an exciting feeling don’t you think? What a beautiful surrounding area this mill has to it. I just love it. Very sad story. Couldn’t have been easy for you to stand there and take all of those pictures of the destruction that the fire caused especially knowing how promising the property was to be. Makes a heart heavy a bit Im sure. Even though it is a sad story you told it very well and the photos are excellent. I hope the clean up goes quick and new life to the space is just what is needed! :)

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  7. A sad story indeed Dan. I hope they find a practical use for the site eventually, though I’m afraid it’s going to cost a small fortune if you factor in all of the clean-up costs, into anything they decide to build.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Norm. The state gave the town a grant for the clean-up. Hopefully, that means that they will be able to get it to a point where they can hand it over to a developer and let them start toward a new end, without having to worry about the past. That’s the only way anything good will come of this because you’re absolutely right about the costs.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That is a sad, sad story. What a beautiful building. I love the way it crosses the river.
    After reading Joanne’s comment, which I completely agree on, I wonder why they can’t let the lower floor be a patio lobby or something? Seems such a waste. I love the conversions here in Indy. I get really excited about new life in old buildings. Such a shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. the original plan was not going to be completely residential, but FEMA changed the map, mid-project and the financing no longer was adequate. Then lawsuits, then vandalism, then delay, then fire :( They could have done a public/private deal and put a museum in the lower levels, with classrooms and public rooms, and… Why is it so easy for ordinary people to see the answers and so hard for government ? Sorry…ranting now.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Indeed, a sad story when dreams go up in flames…. still thanks for sharing -it needs to be told!
    But you had a cabinet shop once! So, at least you will understand the story of the pulley I’m trying to explain on my blog post:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I understand that. I had taken some pictures about a year ago. As we were driving by, my daughter saw it and proclaimed: “we’re stopping here on the way home!” I haven’t seen her photos yet, but I’m curious. It is disturbing and fascinating at the same time. If things go well, the ruins will be cleared before next summer.

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  10. The building looks like it had so much character. It’s sad that it met with that demise. There are a lot of revitalization projects that go on here in Virginia. I love to see old buildings brought back to at least some of their former glory. -Amy

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    1. Thanks. The fact that it spanned the river made it very interesting, and also would have given a lot of residential units a wonderful view of water, waterfalls, woods, etc. It’s so sad. It seems the various players couldn’t get out of each others way. We have many success stories up here, and, like you, I love to see those buildings come back to life. This one may still have some life, just not what it could have been.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Deborah. I love looking up the river and seeing the building cross over. We had to walk out in to the river to get that shot, but the water level is very low, so we found lots of rocks. I hope the town can make something good happen here.

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  11. wow – that must have been extremely hot to melt the structure – and glad you included the fire photos – it is a sad story – but who knows – maybe the building had harmful chemicals (or mold) and it was unfit for humans – who knows – but glad there was grant money to help with some of its future – 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – it’s hard to prep these buildings for human use, that’s for sure. Having a grant for the clean-up will give a new owner a clean slate and a fresh start. We’ll have to see what can be done.

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  12. Interesting, but sad, story. What a grand building it was! So tragic to see it destroyed and left to rot. Maybe one day someone can come along and still do something with it…maybe.Thanks for sharing.

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  13. That’s not just sad, it’s tragic. I hate to see old buildings with such potential go this way. I live in a city with a strong link to sheep farming and wool production. The Wool Exchange is now a museum and night club. The old wool stores are a campus for the local university and one of the woollen mills is now a brewery. It’s wonderful to see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This building could have been so many good things. The sheer size and the unique location was not only interesting, it’s something that will never be able to be replaced. Thanks for letting me know on Facebook that these were stuck in spam-jail. I don’t understand why that would have happened.

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  14. The story broke my heart completely. It also reminds me of the Bombay Mills that once dominated the economy of the city, but now crumbling into pieces. While many of the mills have been converted into shopping malls and offices, few mills still remain in dilapidated conditions. As I keep learning more about places and events there, I realize that things here are no different. Few mills here have been caught under fire, it’s hard to tell whether it was an accident or a conspiracy to shut them down in order to achieve a bigger profit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to bring sad thoughts to the surface, Sharukh. It’s so sad to lose these places, because they will never build buildings like this again. It would be totally illegal to build a building that spans that river. That feature is simply lost to time.

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