Unger’s Auto Body, New Haven

Dead Ends

Unger’s Auto Body stayed in business for roughly 50 years. It was a sizable operation, with a large garage at 105 Water Street and a separate tow yard on Chapel Street. It was relatively prominent, too, holding a longtime towing contract with the city. And its closure remains fresh, having occurred just this past July. That’s according to former 30-year employee Noel, who now runs Professional Auto Body on Chapel, and who adds that Unger’s “did quality work” and had “a lot” of clients.

Somehow, a mere 10 months after closing, Unger’s appears utterly abandoned, in both space-time and memory. Windows are boarded up. Loose asphalt and broken glass splatter the parking lot. Where there’s metal, there’s rust. Paint is faded, cracked and peeled. Inside, water pools in spots when it rains. Through broken windows in the building’s eastern facade, bathed in skylights’ eerie glow, the ghosts of a once-busy Unger’s can be seen. Hanging on a far wall above a couple of VW hubcaps, a sign reads “No cars released until payment is made in full.” Specialized electrical rigging graces various pillars, like IVs for injured vehicles. A disconnected car bumper lies near a pink toy Jeep with purple seats and wheels. Until late last week, a black 1980s Trans Am, plus another vehicle covered with a plastic sheet, had been left behind. (Turns out at least one of the cars was Noel’s; he’s now retrieved them.)

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Documentation that could help illuminate the story behind Unger’s is virtually nonexistent. In the past 30 years or so, the New Haven Register never gave the company more than a passing mention. A search for “Unger’s” and variants on the New Haven Independent’s website yields zero relevant results. Even the city assessor’s database yields no direct result when querying about 105 Water Street. A call to the assessor’s office solved the mystery, for a moment: the property is listed as 99 Water Street, despite the “105” over the front door. Searching for that address yields a property owner, Vito A. Luciani of Woodbridge, who purchased it outright in 2005. But his contact info’s not listed there—nor anywhere else on the web, it would seem. Calling a phone number that popped up among various inquiries returned an automated out-of-service message.

I only found Noel because a waitress taking a smoke break outside Cody’s Diner happened to know of him, mentioning that he now works at a different auto body shop with a mobile barber out front, though she didn’t know the new shop’s name or address. Driving around, I lucked out and found the barber, which led to Professional Auto Body and Noel. But even after three decades at Unger’s, Noel wasn’t sure how to spell the shared last name of the co-owners, whom he identified as Louie and Johnny—the last name sounded something like “Wardie”—and he didn’t have contact info for them either.

It was another dead end, but not without morsels of insight. “They were real nice people,” he says, though he doesn’t seem inclined to say much more. After the closure, “ scattered. I went my way,” he states matter-of-factly, as if to say, That’s just how it goes. No use crying about it. By the end, he adds, the owners were simply tired, ready to put Unger’s behind them.

Knowing that, it stands to reason they might not want to be found by someone like me. My dead ends? Their new beginnings.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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