An Icon Of New Haven's Manufacturing Past Celebrates Its Avant-Garde Revival | Connecticut Public Radio
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An Icon Of New Haven's Manufacturing Past Celebrates Its Avant-Garde Revival

Feb 19, 2020

The New Haven Clock Company Factory opened on Hamilton Street in the mid-1800s. At its peak, it was the largest timepiece manufacturing facility in the world. Hundreds of Connecticut workers built clocks and pocket watches -- and later fuses during World War II. 

By the late 1950s, the company had filed for bankruptcy, but the sprawling structure remained. And in the 1970s, it began to attract the attention of visual and performing artists.

The factory became an alternative space for New Haven’s counterculture. People found ways to live and work there. Later, a string of nightclubs moved in.

The building is now being renovated into artist-based and affordable housing.

A new exhibit at the New Haven Museum will celebrate the factory’s avant-garde past. The idea, said curator Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, is to shine a light on those years when passers-by may have had no idea what was going on inside. 

Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson met Bischoff-Wurstle in the upper rotunda of the New Haven Museum as he was setting up the show. 

About the show

The point of this is celebrating a history that I’ve labeled an alternative history, if you will. An underground history of a postindustrial era of a manufacturing icon here in New Haven.

New Haven Clock Company, World War I Armistice Day, 1918
Credit Courtesy: The New Haven Museum

The building’s industrial past

This building for generations had housed workers, mostly immigrant families who would spend generations working here. It was the corner piece for this neighborhood, that grew rapidly, that was multicultural, and within, say, 20 years, was gone. Most of the neighborhood was unrecognizable, except this, still left.

Why it declined

Urban renewal was happening, and New Haven -- next to Newark, N.J. -- received the most federal money to build and change and alter the landscape. The [new] highway, I-91 is what set this building apart from downtown. 

A "ghost" wall clock imprint in the New Haven Clock Company
Credit Jessica Smolinski / The New Haven Museum

How it found new life

There was a series of clubs in the space, in the factory, up until just last year [when] Scores, a strip club, closed. The Brick ’n’ Wood International Cafe was a club that started in the early ’80s [as] the underground punk movement was taking off. And for a brief moment, the Brick ’n’ Wood was really well-known as an underground, punk-centered club. On the weekends, for a time it was the premier urban R&B club of Connecticut.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle with a mural of flyers from the Brick 'n' Wood International Cafe
Credit Diane Orson / Connecticut Public Radio

A center for queer culture

The club that formed around that point [in the 1990s] was Kurt’s 2, and there’s a convoluted backstory there between the battle of Kurt’s 2 versus the Copacabana, the entertainment complexes, the sort of Las Vegas for the LGBTQ population of Connecticut at that point. So it was burlesque, it was drag queens, it was go-go dancers. It was something for everybody.