“The empty building has sat for so long,” said Karen Jones, a resident of the Dixwell neighborhood, as she motioned to the abandoned factory across the street from her home. “I’d like to see it occupied.”
Soon, Jones will get her wish.
The building has a new owner, and the plan is to replace the abandoned factory at 169 Henry St. with PostMasters: a 40,000 square-foot “multidisciplinary art incubator” with artists’ studios, a gallery, retail spaces and a cafe area. The $5.8 million project is largely funded by anonymous private donors. The co-founders of PostMasters include two Yale School of Art alumni — Titus Kaphar ART ’06 and Jonathan Brand ART ’07.
“[Kaphar] had the idea of working to build an art community in New Haven that would encourage artists to stay in New Haven and make New Haven their home rather than move into Los Angeles or Brooklyn,” said Peter Crumlish DIV ’09, executive director of Dwight Hall, which is currently working with the project’s founders to finance the project.
“But for that to really work for everyone, they need to really build a sort of ecosystem for the arts,” Crumlish added.
The goals of the project are to “both attract and train professional artists and further establish New Haven’s growing creative community,” according to the group’s website. The project plans to sponsor four one-year fellowships for artists, each of whom will receive a stipend, professional training and a studio, among other benefits.
PostMasters Executive Director Carrie Mackin declined to comment, citing the uncertainty of some aspects of the ongoing project.
The plan also details how community members can get involved with the studio. One program will allow selected high school students to get paid while working alongside more established artists, according to Crumlish. James Hillhouse High School — with an enrollment of around 1,000 students — sits just a few hundred feet from the future studio.
The group is working alongside Dwight Hall at Yale and Deborah Berke Partners — a New York City–based architecture firm founded by Yale School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke — to convert the old Macalaster Bicknell factory, which manufactured laboratory supplies.
“When he told me about his idea, we discussed how to proceed and what kind of business model he should use,” Crumlish said. “I offered to act as the fiscal agent so that he could begin the project and receive revenue through donations and things like that and decide at a more natural pace what his corporate structure should be.”
This is not the first major project Dwight Hall has helped launch. The group was also involved in helping roll out the Columbus House — a nonprofit homeless shelter at 586 Ella T. Grasso Blvd. — as well as the Connecticut Bail Fund more recently, which posts bail for its jailed clients, allowing them to return home to their families and jobs.
Maitland Jones ’92, a former student of Burke’s and a partner at her architecture firm, said the design of the building is similar to work he has done in the past.
“It interests us … to toy with neutrality a little bit — to let the inherent properties of existing buildings shine through, but also to create spaces that don’t intrude on their productive and artistic energies,” Jones said. “It’s not like we design things to simply get out of their way, it’s more like we design things in which they can do their best work.”
He compared the PostMaster’s project to the firm’s gut-renovation of the Yale School of Art, completed in 2000. Kaphar is a fan of that space, Maitland Jones said.
Dwight Hall’s Crumlish has high hopes for the project. Construction is set to begin in late November and to conclude in late spring 2018.
“I think it’ll add a vibrancy to a section of the neighborhood that was pretty much underutilized,” Crumlish said. “It was kind of blighted, and now it’ll be much more.”
Karen Jones, who has lived across the street from the building for just under 30 years, shares in the excitement.
“I have a seven-year-old now,” she said. “I’m hoping there’s something he can go across the street and be a part of.”