If you were opening a custom furniture shop, you might think “27 Quality Avenue” would be a pretty perfect address. That’s what I thought. I remember that thought lasting just long enough to apply for a commercial loan. When I told the loan officer the address, the excitement disappeared from my voice with his reply: “I guess it’s better than 27 Shoemaker Lane (1).”
The attitude of the banker wasn’t the only challenge with the 1,500 square feet (139.35 sq. meter) that was to become Wood Designs. One of the biggest challenges was the entrance.
Make no mistake, in 1985, the space I was moving into was low quality warehouse space. The doors to my shop were latched with a padlock and hasp. That meant that there was no easy way to lock the doors from the inside, or even keep them closed. It also meant that the doors had a little wiggle room when locked. Wiggle room is fine, except when you’re paying to heat the space and when you’re trying to install an alarm system. The doors were about 3” (7.6 cm) thick. i.e. much thicker than most locksets. So, my first task at my brand new wood shop was to fabricate a few metal pieces to allow me to adapt a standard commercial entrance set and deadbolt to fit such a massive door.
Once inside those doors, I was surrounded by wood. 10” square Chestnut posts that were carrying 10” x 14” Chestnut beams in a grid pattern. Thick oil-stained wood planks made for a comfortable floor on which to work all day, as well as a fire hazard, a thought that was never far from my mind.
The grid wasn’t an ideal layout for the machinery used in woodworking. The most difficult machine to locate was my table saw. I needed to be able to run 4×8 foot sheets of plywood across that, in every direction. Everything else was configured to support the way the stock flowed over the machine. I don’t have photos, but I remember the layout pretty well.
One disconcerting thing about the layout of the shop was the fact that those doors were the only way in or out. 10 feet away from the doors was the oil-fired furnace, which drew oil from a tank under the loading dock.
One winter night, the furnace developed a problem. The burner stopped its precise atomization of fuel and the controlled flame became a burning puddle of oil, much like the scenes in the movie “PT 109” with the oil slicks burning on the ocean surface. The fire was being fed by a pump that had to bring oil from that outside tank. By the time I was able to get to the tank and shut off the oil supply, my shop was filled with heavy black smoke.
I tell that story because, like the Picking House, the building my shop was in had been built a “safe” distance away from the main mill building, due to a risk of fire. It’s ironic, that the two buildings that were separated so a fire in them wouldn’t spread to the mill complex, are the only bits to survive, after the mill burned to the ground.
After I closed my shop, 27 Quality Avenue deteriorated for a while. Eventually, the owner found enough money to renovate the building. He dropped the lower level floors (removing the oil soaked planks) to grade level, creating 12’ high spaces. He replaced the windows and added windows in the walls of the upper level to better match the design of the main mill building.
The building has had several tenants in the nearly 30 years since Wood Designs closed, but it still appears to be a viable mixed-use space. Today, it is home to an engineering firm and a daycare center, among other things.
Scantic River runs behind the parking lot at 27 Quality Ave. One of the best things to come out of the shop experience, was Oreo – our first Tuxedo cat. Unlike the river cats who never got close to people, this little guy wandered up to me during one of my last days in business. He followed me so close that my heel was kicking him as I walked. I remember picking him up and saying: “just what I need, another mouth to feed.”
I couldn’t leave him behind. Despite my wife’s objection (she was allergic), I took him home. When I opened our side door, he jumped into my wife’s arms. As I reached to pet him, he slashed at me as if to say: “you brought me to my mother, you can go now.” My wife didn’t protest her new role as mom cat.
This post is part of an enjoyable ongoing series, Thursday Doors, by Norm Frampton. Scoot on over to Norm’s place. Check out his doors and click the blue button to check out the others or add your own.
(1) I’ve never understood why “shoemaker” has a bad connotation with respect to workmanship. It seems it should be the other way ‘round.
If you want to see that oil fire: