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Swift Factory: Redevelopment Of Gold Leaf Factory In Hartford

Kenneth R. Gosselin

April 12, 2011

In the 1940s, Robert Kalechman's mother worked at the M. Swift & Sons gold-leafing factory in Hartford's North End, packing gilded purple hearts.

It was during World War II and Kalechman was 9 or 10, but he hasn't forgotten the factory he often walked by on the way to the neighborhood playground: the hum of the machines and the frosted windows that blocked the view inside. Once, he visited his mother at work.

"My mother was in a blue apron and, I think, she had a white hat," said Kalechman, now 78. "They must not have wanted any hair to fall into the purple hearts or on the gold."

Kalechman's neighborhood had grown up around the factory beginning in the 1880s, when the Swift family emigrated from England to Hartford. The business was family-run for three generations, once employing as many as 500, until it closed in 2005 after the death of M. Allen Swift at the age of 102.

Now, the building on Love Lane may again take its place at the center of the community. The Swift family has donated the old factory to the nonprofit organization Common Ground, which plans to renovate the space for artisans, small business incubators and perhaps even business co-ops.

New York-based Common Ground, which successfully rehabilitated Hartford's Hollander Building for apartments and retail space, expects to spend $8 million to $10 million on the Swift complex makeover. The group hopes to create badly needed jobs and spawn further investment in the neighborhood.

The disarray inside the main building doesn't bother West Hartford native Rosanne Haggerty, the nonprofit's founder. Ceilings are leaking, floors are buckling, machines too large to move stand silently. Paint is peeling everywhere.

It's a museum to the city's industrial past, she says, standing a few feet from a massive flywheel and belt.

"But doesn't it just scream possibilities?" Haggerty said.

New Jobs, Quirky Building

The 61,000-square-foot brick factory complex came close to being demolished last year, after plans to build a school there were scrapped amid worries about costs. Asbestos and 5,000-gallon oil tanks had been removed; demolition permits were pulled; and wrecking equipment was parked in a lot on the property.

But Haggerty, who gained national attention for her work renovating the dilapidated Times Square Hotel in New York City for supportive housing, stepped in last fall at the eleventh hour, after the state agreed to kick in a $600,000 grant to clean up further contamination at the site.

Redevelopment of the factory building isn't expected to begin until next year. But the conversion of the two Swift family homes on the property including the original 1880s farmhouse into below-market-rate housing for teachers in Hartford schools could begin late this summer.

And this spring, an acre to the rear of the factory will be tilled, partly with the help of Knox Parks Foundation, for an organic garden a model for neighborhood residents who want to start gardens of their own.

The Swift factory redevelopment will be new territory for Common Ground, which has focused on housing since its founding in 1990. Even before deciding on a vision for the redevelopment, Haggerty said she met with neighborhood groups.

"I didn't go in with a plan," Haggerty said. "I asked them, 'So what do you think?'"

The answer was clear, she said: "It has to have something with employment."

Haggerty said she is looking at two models for the project. One, a nonprofit in Brooklyn, rehabilitates old industrial sites for small businesses. Since the early 1990s, the organization has renovated six buildings encompassing a half-million square feet of space now leased to 100 small businesses that employ 500.

The second model is newer, out of Cleveland: "green" co-ops that fill niche needs for local hospitals, colleges, nonprofits and corporations. The first such co-op is an environmentally friendly laundry service.

The result may be a combination of the two, Haggerty said. Whatever the plan, "we see this as a catalyst for a larger neighborhood revitalization," she said, boosting Habitat for Humanity's 35 home-building projects on nearby streets.

Haggerty said she was attracted by the quirkiness of the factory, which was expanded three times after the original shop opened just after the Civil War. The first expansion involved lifting the original building and adding a second floor underneath it.

Subsequent expansions in 1929 and 1940 added staircases in unexpected places, creating a labyrinthine structure where it is easy to get lost.

The building includes huge vaults for storing gold. "There aren't long continuous spaces," Haggerty said. "Some the space could be used for display space to highlight the people's work."

A Resolute Owner

M. Allen Swift, the grandson of the founder, wasn't much for change. For nearly 80 years, he drove the same two-tone green 1928 Rolls Royce Picadilly Roadster until he stopped driving, just before his death.

"He didn't believe in getting a lot of new things," said Frank Gorman, who became the factory's general manager in 1999. "He didn't like new things. One day he got mad at me. I suggested he get a new telephone system to replace the old switchboard. He said, "It works just fine."

Once, gold leaf was high demand, gracing everything from the lettering on the sides of railroad cars to the titles of grade school textbooks. But with the soaring price of gold in the 1970s, gold leaf began falling out of fashion.

There is still enduring evidence of the gold leaf in Hartford, however, on the state Capitol dome a renovation job done by Swift in the 1970s.

Even though Swift was widely known for its gold leaf, it also produced hot stamping foil, some of which is still in the factory. The foil was used to emboss company names on products, such as the printing inside shoes.

That product, too, fell out fashion as new technology, particularly laser printing, made other alternatives cheaper.

By the time Gorman took over as general manager, he said employment had dwindled to about 50. M. Allen Swift wasn't about to give up easily on the business where he had worked ever since 1915 when he was still in high school.

"He was an owner that was going to keep those doors open no matter what," Gorman said. "The business had been started by his grandfather and it was always family held."

Fred Kaprove last drove by the old Swift factory a half dozen years ago, just before it closed. He was visiting the neighborhood where he grew up and where his parents had operated a store across from the factory for nearly 30 years.

Kaprove, now 88, remembers workers many of them women stopping in at the store.

"The girls would come over at lunchtime and get candy bars, packs of cigarettes," said Kaprove, who recalled the Swift factory in "Remembering the Old Neighborhood, Stories From Hartford's North End (2009, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford).

When Kaprove lived in the neighborhood, its residents were predominantly Jewish and Italian. Harry Gampel, the successful developer and namesake of the basketball arena at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, grew up there, as did the Greenbergs, who founded the now-defunct Coleco toy factory in West Hartford, whose claim to fame was the Cabbage Patch Doll.

"It was still there," Kaprove said, recalling the drive through his old neighborhood. "It was a presence that we got used to, and it was just there."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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