Parish Hall Reborn. Next: Bigelow?

The performance of these lovely young dancers helped dedicate BRAMS (Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School) Hall, formerly the parish hall of St. Peter’s Church, in the culmination of a five-year long preservation fight. The festive event inspires an idea for a new campaign—how about restoring the Bigelow Boiler complex on River Street and making that a school building, too?

The once-endangered parish hall on Kimberly Avenue was officially dedicated as a glorious new public space at a ceremony Sunday.

It is now a soaring, light-filled new architectural treasure for New Haven, a multiple-purpose space that is at once a billowy-as-a-feather performance venue for the talented dancers and musicians of BRAMS to play Brahms and much else, and also a community meeting house, museum, and all-purpose center.

IMG_0717.JPGThe 100-year old former parish hall of St. Peter’s Church across the parking lot from BRAMS was threatened with destruction when the Board of Education razed much of the church for BRAMS in the late 1990s. But after protests by preservationists a reuse committee was formed, bringing together the New Haven Historic Preservation Trust (NHPT), the Board of Education, and the local community. And this architect, David H. Barkin (hugged by an admiring son Aaron), eventually did the fine work. “Look around,” he said with quiet pride. “Restoring a building is not that unusual, but it’s rare that it genuinely helps to restore a community.”

p(clear). IMG_0709.JPG“We were at each other’s throats back then,”¬ù said Fifth Ward Alderman Jorge Perez (pictured to the left in the photo), who was Board of Aldermen President at that time and co-chaired the reuse committee. “But we saw what we had in common more than we disagreed about, and we met the school system’s need and the community’s. This place has tremendous memories for the community, and it is alive now in the best intergenerational way. I think we should bring the kids together here,”¬ù he said,”¬ù to teach the old folks hip hop, and the old folks will teach the kids salsa.”¬ù

p(clear). IMG_0710.JPGLong-time south Hill resident Kris Sainsbury was on that committee too. She was as thrilled as any of the several hundred who thronged the hall Sunday, enjoying the work of performers young, and, well, not so young, such as Carmen Padilla, on the far right in the photo below, and her friends in the chorus of Sacred Heart Church.

p(clear). IMG_0714.JPG “It’s hard to find words about this place,”¬ù said Sainsbury. “There were tears in our eyes when we walked through here.”¬ù She was particularly happy about the vestibule space, at the entrance to the hall from the avenue. On the wall behind her is a Building Fund Souvenir poster of St. Peter’s Church dated 1902 “” 1921. They were raising money back then, too. “This is going to function as a kind of museum for us in the community,”¬ù Sainsbury added, “and also as a place for the BRAMS kids to display their work as well.”¬ù 

p(clear). What About A “Bigelow High”?

p(clear). IMG_0711.JPGCould the same magic be put to use at the abandoned Bigelow factory in Fair Haven, turning it into a reclaimed public school space one day? Your reporter (full disclosure: he loves the Bigelow building in Fair Haven and lives not far from it) put that question to many of the principals who were involved in the community magic and hard work that resulted in the BRAMS Hall success story.

p(clear). Might Bigelow be to a New Haven history-themed high school what Parish Hall is to BRAMS?  Board of Education Communications Director Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo (next to Perez in the photo above and smiling broadly because it was her birthday!) informed us that the New Haven Academy, a newly established school in transitional space in Hamden, is history-themed, but she could not be sure of the permanent space planned for it. Might Bigelow be a possibility?

p(clear). Susan Weisselberg (next to Sullivan-DeCarlo, with BRAMS principal Peggy Moore on her left) said she thought the New Haven Academy was slated to take over the building on Orange Street when it is vacated by the students of the new arts high school; of this she wasn’t certain.

p(clear). However, she found the idea of Bigelow reuse as a school intriguing, though not without serious obstacles to be overcome. “The River Street Municipal Development,”¬ù she said, “is zoned for industrial/commercial use. And if we begin to think about a school, the cleanup costs there will be enormous because the (state) DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) requires a school to meet a residential standard. Not so business. And that will significantly increase the environmental cleanup costs. The state, which is watching these costs, will not be happy. But I’ll talk to Karyn (Gilvarg, director of City Plan) and with Helen Rosenberg (of the Economic Development Commission, responsible for the leasing/reuse of Bigelow) to see what they think, and get back to you.”¬ù

p(clear). IMG_0713.JPGSuperintendent of Schools Dr. Reginald Mayo, who filled in for the mayor as the emcee of the dedication, lauded all participants. He called particular attention to New Haven’s school rebuilding achievements: 25 rebuilt completely, ten in the design stage, and seven in pre-design.

p(clear). “That means,”¬ù said schools spokeswoman Sullivan-DeCarlo, “that, because the process takes so much time, all the schools in the system probably already have a home site slated for them, making Bigelow unlikely. But talk to the principal at the New Haven Academy,”¬ù she urged your reporter. “See what their model is. Who knows?”¬ù

p(clear). IMG_0719.JPGWell, if reuse as a school is problematic, maybe the folks at the New Haven Preservation Trust had other ideas. Since they were principal participants in the preservation of Parish Hall, they were easy to find at this celebration. Past president of the NHPT, Catherine Bennett (pictured in background of the Mayo photo) and Bob Grzywacz, a current vice president of the organization, standing beside BRAMS student photos, both agreed a school might be iffy. “But,”¬ù said Grzywacz, “make no mistake about it. In three, four, or five years, we are working hard with the city for Bigelow to look like it does today, only better.

p(clear). “There are other ways to make history manifest in the area,”¬ù he said. “The city has zoned it as commercial/residential, some mixed use because it needs the income in part, but there are, for example, plaques that could be put up the way Yale does on its buildings. Or the way plaques are used to mark history on the sidewalks of Ninth Square.”¬ù

p(clear). But what about something larger than a plaque? Like The New Haven History Experience? Something that calls suitable and deserving attention to how alive with history this city is, and can be more so?

p(clear). “Well,”¬ù Grzywacz confessed, “Now you got me going. It is desirable to have some place to talk about, and there’s plenty of room down to the water behind the Bigelow complex for a business to be installed, leaving the building itself to be used in some creative way. We already have lost right on River Street the last remnant of the tracks that were there, America’s first electric railroad, which was pioneered in New Haven. And nearby was a Bigelow-related business, a pipe bending company, which enabled the Bigelow boilers to be even more efficient.” Bigelow boilers powered locomotives and all kinds of industrial machinery that contributed to the country’s growth in the late 19th century.

p(clear). “Back then in New Haven,”¬ù Grzywacz added, “we were like Japan in its post-World War Two miracle. With few natural resources, but great ingenuity, New Haven made leaps in value-added invention to all kinds of processes, and it would be great,” he indicated, “to make this more manifest.”¬ù

p(clear). Most people don’t know “” Gryzwacz did not “” that there is even more to be made manifest at the Bigelow Boiler Complex. For it is the actual site of the administration building of the Civil War-era Camp Terry. In that very building, or on the foundations, officers met and, then, at nearby Criscuolo Park (now named), marched and drilled the state’s regiments, including the famous 29th and 30th Colored Regiments. Your reporter visualizes students from Bigelow High also learning the art and science of archeology, excavating sections of the park for artifacts left by those soldiers of long ago.

p(clear). A fantasy? Perhaps. New Haven’s history is storied, but without serious municipal history tours or a kind of “New Haven Experience,”¬ù is it not the case that the story is not sufficiently well told either to our young people or our citizens, let alone our visitors?

p(clear). IMG_0720.JPGA future visit is in the works to see what they think about all this at the New Haven Academy. These BRAMS students, Perry Flowers, Terra Stanley, and Diana Marino (up front), were distributing charming souvenir bells (the belfry bell, along with everything else in the parish hall,  was restored) to delighted departing guests. Who can tell what souvenirs might be distributed on a similar festive day some years in the future, at the Bigelow History High School. Stay tuned.

p(clear). In the meantime, the NHPT officer working on the Bigelow project is John Herzan and he would be happy to receive input at this e-mail address. And the Board of Education would also be happy to hear what you think on the matter via its website.

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