Building a Community
Historic Erector Square is a New Haven hub for artists
by Katherine Hauswirth
In 1917, the A.C. Gilbert Co. opened one of the world’s largest toy factories at Erector Square in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood. Its founder was Alfred Carlton Gilbert, whose inspiration for the famed Erector Set construction toy came from watching track and construction work during his train rides to Manhattan.
By the time his Erector Square location opened (moving from a smaller location on nearby Fox Street), the company had already achieved impressive success with the Erector Set, as well as magic and chemistry sets. During the slow season the company also manufactured fans, based on a design by Gilbert. The man had wide-ranging talents and interests: besides holding more than 150 patents, Gilbert studied medicine at Yale University and earned a gold medal for pole vaulting at the 1908 Olympics.
Gilbert’s company later acquired the American Flyer model train company, and by 1953 was producing $20 million in merchandise. Sadly, the company declined and ceased production in 1966, leaving quite a space to fill at the gargantuan brick complex that had once employed 3,000 men and women. According to facility manager Kathi Telman, artists began renting studio space in 1967. Fast forward to today: Erector Square LLC’s website describes its tenants as painters, potters, sculptors, performers, multimedia artists, photographers, and “the list goes on.”
Yes, that list surely does go on. Take, for example, luthier Kevin Chapin, who makes, restores, and rents stringed instruments. Or Fresh Yoga. Or Sarah Kennedy Ballet for Young People. Or A Broken Umbrella Theatre Co. and Collective Consciousness Theatre, both of which have performed to intimate crowds from the Square’s small stage.
Another tenant, the Kent Bloomer Studio, has its work on display at the Chemistry and Rosenkranz gates at Yale and on the exterior of the complex at 360 State St. The company specializes in architectural ornamentation and public sculptures. Colin Caplan, who previously worked at the studio and is a local jack-of-many-trades (architectural design and history, historical publications, guided tours, founder of Taste of New Haven and Elm City Party Bike, to name a few) has studied the history of Erector Square and appreciates how the Gilbert company helped the Fair Haven neighborhood grow and how its building is again engendering growth – this time as a key link in an engaged and thriving arts community.
Jennifer Rae Cherrington, of jennifer rae design, describes the space in a similar way. She and Christina Kane are the curators at Studio i, a space geared toward collaboration among all kinds of creative people. The pair is among the newer tenants; they have been in the space for just over a year. Jennifer and Christina describe their studio as an “intentional space for dreams, art, music and movement,” facilitating discussion and critique as well as collaboration. Artists may come when they’ve hit a wall in their creative process and may even discuss more practical matters like marketing strategies.
Besides fostering collaboration, Jennifer runs her design business from the studio and teaches classes and workshops. Christina provides a wide range of dance instruction and is also director of culture at The Grove, a local coworking space. Both are visual artists as well. Jennifer describes a mix of “newbies” and those who have been there for many years, sharing the hulking brick buildings. Tenants don’t always get to see each other, between the maze of hallways and hours that may or may not overlap, and Studio i’s curators have been thinking about promoting online connections between all the tenants, to get to know each other but also to share practical resources (such as surplus materials left over from a project).
Jennifer adds that another great venue for connections is the B@315 Café, which husband and wife Reggie and Michelle Sutton opened last autumn. The couple took the eatery over from a retiree and redid the place before they opened it. Michelle agrees that the café is a welcoming hub for the many creative artists and other tenants at Erector Square. The Suttons are fully committed to the space – they also own nearby R.E.S. Professional Fitness Training and Pro-Fit Judo, and all their businesses are in Building 4. Being fitness conscious, they strive to provide several healthier offerings at B@315, which accommodates locals who are vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free. But they also have plenty of fare for those who might not be especially diet-conscious.
Music Haven has also been at the Square since last autumn and may be best known for its world-class Haven String Quartet. Executive Director Mandi Jackson and her team love the historic feel of the building and the fact that it is in one of the neighborhoods they serve. Mandi appreciates “the beautiful light and enough room for all of our kids and their families to enjoy music together as well as great spaces for rehearsal and practice rooms for our…quartet (who serve as our teachers) and their students.”
Jackson adds that the space’s acoustics are great. The surrounding artists and other tenants have come in to hear the students and the quartet play. Music Haven’s nearly 80 students, who live in New Haven, come after school from more than 20 schools and, in addition to free music instruction, get homework help, snacks, tutoring, and free concert trips. Music Haven is grateful that the carrying sounds of music and gregarious kids have elicited kind words and support from neighbors.
Artist Kevin Stevens is one of the longer-term tenants. He has had his studio there for about nine years, using it to create spatial compositions rich in color and texture as well as evocative sculptures (primarily metalwork). He was drawn to the complex because of the affordable price and the high ceilings, as well as the collection of artists it promised. While the space has its challenges (high turnover recently on the third floor, where Kevin works, and a quite chilly studio in the winter), Kevin appreciates the overall friendliness of the community, both within the complex and in the Fair Haven neighborhood at large. He also enjoys the annual City-Wide Open Studios event, which he’s participated in every year since he moved in. He observes that “each one is different…It’s always great to be able to talk to the different people, usually artists and just people that appreciate art, [who] come through during the two days.”
The autumn Open Studios event is facilitated by the local nonprofit Artspace, which champions emerging artists and builds new audiences for contemporary art. This event, which celebrated its 20th year in 2017, includes more than 350 artists. It has helped to connect the tenants at the Square with the wider metropolis, and well beyond that. Artspace likens the annual exhibit’s scope to that of a small city, drawing thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Jennifer from Studio i appreciates the event and recalls how she and Christina transformed their space for last year’s edition, featuring large-scale paintings and a kid-friendly sculpture. But she also recognizes the sprawling former factory as central to the community even outside of the celebrated Open Studios.
“It’s a heartbeat that’s happening all through the year,” says Jennifer.
Exhibitors at Open Studios aren’t limited to tenants. Sarah Gustafson-Spaner, a mixed-media abstract artist who shared a studio there back in the 90s, now has a home-based studio in Deep River. But she is grateful that the Erector Square space is accessible each fall for annual exhibitors like herself. She’s been “importing” her studio into the building for about 10 years and looks forward to the reunion with artists who’ve exhibited alongside her in that bustling space, as well as new faces. Sarah relishes the opportunity to have a window into the work and studios of other creative types.
It’s likely that A.C Gilbert could never have guessed how his factory buildings would be used today. But, knowing how creative and industrious he was, it’s easy to imagine that he’d be intrigued by the goings-on in this lively location, maybe stopping in for studio visits or a coffee at the café. This “heartbeat” of the Fair Haven community is going strong, and it looks like it will keep building momentum and pulsing at the center of its neighborhood for many years to come.