Mixed Use

D rive past the old New Haven Clock Company factory on Hamilton Street, and you may not even notice it. Most of its windows are boarded up. Chain link fencing surrounds the side yard, and its back walls are covered with graffiti as high as a person can reach. The red brick structure’s most identifiable feature might be a segment painted white with a sign for Scores Gentlemen’s Club and Steakhouse, which closed last year.

The New Haven Clock Company, for its part, ran out of time some 59 years earlier, entering bankruptcy in 1960. For a short while, the surviving factory complex, which the company built starting in 1866, was rented to other light industry. Then it was abandoned.

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But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, it’s where the story begins for Factory, a new exhibition at New Haven Museum that explores the industrial structure’s countercultural afterlife, which included squatting artists, skateboarders, a troupe of mimes, live music, poetry readings, partying Yale students, strip clubs and “the largest and most elaborate LGBTQ club in Connecticut.” Telling their tale is a chance to “update our recorded New Haven history,” curator Jason Bischoff-Wurstle says.

Covering nearly two city blocks along Hamilton Street, the massive space, where untold New Haveners produced and assembled timepieces, became the perfect place for those who preferred to fly under the radar. Among them were the Papier Mache Video Institute (PMVI), founded in 1978 by Paul Rutkovsky, an artist and a fellow at Harvard’s Institute for the Study of the Avant-Garde, and later taken up by experimental artist Beverly Richey. She created a legendary one-day exhibition at the factory in 1983 titled 1984, which 700 visitors lined up to see. PMVI took on the issues of the day—issues not likely to be addressed by mainstream galleries and museums—including “feminism, war, capitalism, elitism, Urban Renewal and ‘TV mono-culture.’” Artifacts of the group’s life inside the factory are on view in Factory, including video footage of multimedia installations (made, in part, of papier mâché), a performance piece on “how to draw a sink” and artists at work and in video portrait closeups.

Among other artifacts on view in Factory are reminders of clubs beloved by locals and out-of-towners alike. One wall is papered with colorful gig flyers from the Brick ’N’ Wood International Cafe and topped by its original sign. The Brick ’N’ Wood was home to hardcore punk throughout much of the 1980s, hosting punk poet Jim Carroll, who can be viewed on video at the exhibition, as well as the performer GG Allin and bands like Corrosion of Conformity and GWAR. Simultaneously, Brick ’N’ Wood hosted an upscale R&B dance club “packed with thousands of people, with lines down the block” and patronized by the likes of Bobby Brown, Carl Weathers, Cornel West and bell hooks. In the 1990s the space was converted into Kurt’s 2, a short-lived but mighty LGBTQ club with VIP parking and hot tubs in the courtyard.

Other artifacts of the factory’s past remain in the building itself. Photographs document paintings on the walls done by Yale School of Fine Arts students for the School of Architecture’s Beaux Arts ball, the conversational graffiti of strip club dancers left on the pink dressing room walls of Club International and the ghostly shadow of a clock that once hung over a fireplace in the front office when the factory was still a factory.

Five video clips in the exhibition come partly courtesy of filmmaker Gorman Bechard, who’s working on a documentary, also titled Factory. “Stories of sex, vice, music, art, and a couple of incredible fires,” promises the trailer. A Kickstarter campaign for the film cites an estimated release date of December 2020.

In an interview at the exhibition filmed by Bechard, factory tenant/squatter Todd Andresen walks through the fourth-floor space where he and a carpenter friend built a half-pipe skateboarding ramp with a couple of extensions. The seven-foot-high platform remains among piles of discarded lumber. During one period in the 1990s, 30 skateboarders routinely showed up on Tuesday nights. “I started to get nervous,” Andresen says, because then-owner Tony Yagovane didn’t know about the ramps. “He [was] cool, but no one’s that cool.”

The time is ripe for a look back at the clock factory’s second act, Bischoff-Wurstle says, because Bill Kraus, described by one exhibition panel as a “mission driven entrepreneur and historic real estate development consultant,” has plans for the building: 130 affordable live/work lofts for artists and others, which, if constructed, will fulfill a dream for the space that was first conceived in the late 1980s by Yagovane but never fully realized. Kraus led the effort to convert the former Read’s department store in Bridgeport into 61 units of artist housing, among other projects. He’s also a producer of Bechard’s film.

In the meantime, the closest most of us will get to being inside the old clock factory is the exhibition, whose design cleverly suggests the interior of the building itself, with industrial lights hanging from the ceiling and life-sized photo panels in the windows that display views from the factory looking out on the city. Partitions mimic the temporary and ever-changing configurations of the factory’s spaces.

Factory documents a place both lost to time and timeless, constantly improvised and reinvented since the end of its manufacturing days and now awaiting its next incarnation. In one display case, the wild swings of the building’s history are neatly summed up in the juxtaposition of two small wooden clock cases with two high-heeled platform shoes. Laying equal claim to the clock factory, they represent the breadth of life lived within.

New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm through August 31, 2020
Adults $4, seniors $3, students $2, under 12 free
(203) 562-4183

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-4 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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