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In This State: Art gallery gets into gear in “Precision Valley”

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

An historic photo of the Fellows Gear Shaper Co., which factory one time employed some 3,000 workers.
An historic photo of the Fellows Gear Shaper Co., which factory one time employed some 3,000 workers.

Nina Jamison is guiding the guides.

With eagerness and patience, she‘s introducing her gray-haired charges to Springfield’s vast new art gallery, “Great Hall,” located in the once abandoned, and dilapidated, Fellows Gear Shaping Plant.

The five docents worked for the company some 50, 60 and 70 years ago. Now that the pigeons have been flushed out and the place has been burnished, the former employees will be answering questions about the building’s history and the exhibited art.

“Great Hall” is perfect for big displays and crowds. Its walls, lit beautifully from sunlight entering through clerestory windows, were recently barren, but now sport intricate tapestries and oil paintings. The room’s wide, polished concrete floor is garnished with large sculptures and stoneware, while the steel girders above support colorful spherical mobiles, the works of Patty Sgrecci, a Brandon artist.

This gallery with its steel pillars and 25-foot ceiling, was once a bustling manufacturing room. In its heyday, Fellows employed more than 3,000. That was when the area was popularly known as Precision Valley, when the two other big companies, Jones & Lamson and Bryant Grinder, were still operating, and about 20,000 people were working in the machine-tool industry and the city had the highest, or near-highest, per-capita income in the state.

When Springfield was humming during World War II, it was considered among the top 10 potential bombing sites in America, according to local lore, though how the Germans or Japanese could have attacked is unclear. The docents may have to bone up on the matter.

Nina Jamison, gallery coordinator, put together Great Hall’s first exhibit, featuring the works of 13 artists. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren
Nina Jamison, gallery coordinator, put together Great Hall’s first exhibit, featuring the works of 13 artists. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

The gallery’s new guides, who responded to Jamison’s appeal in two local newspapers, arrived right on time, at 10 a.m., and immediately began chatting about shared memories, most of them pleasant. But soon enough there were questions about the art, not esoteric queries, mind you, but practical stuff, things an art gallery docent ought to know, like, “What do we do if someone wants to buy a painting?” Easy answer. “Put them in touch with the artist,” says Jamison as she passes a tapestry titled “Fragmentation,” by Suzanne Pretty of Framingham, N.H. The weaving, juxtaposing a woodlands scene with an industrial highway image, is priced at $7,500.

One thing the docents won’t have to worry about is minding the cash box.

“What about touching the art?” Jamison is asked.

She leads the group to a weaving by Eve Pearce of Bennington. “You can very carefully check the back but avoid handling the front,” she says, as she gently lifts a corner of the tapestry from the wall for all to examine. “No oily hands, no food or drink in here, except water,” she says.

“We can play a lot of this by ear,” assures one docent, who receives nods of agreement from others.

“Great Hall,” half the length of a football field, is one room in a many-roomed 160,000-square-foot complex, now called 100 River St. The sprawling mixed-use structure on the Black River also will feature the Springfield Health Center, a primary-care clinic involving more than a dozen physicians and 80 staff; a pharmacy; and, the developers hope, a bank and a restaurant or café.

Dining opportunities will be key: “Help us find a restaurant!” Jamison says to a reporter, only half kidding.

Jamison, an artist herself, who co-founded the city’s Gallery at the Vault, a downtown art and craft center, was tapped as gallery coordinator in Great Hall after touring the old company (established in 1896) last fall with developers Rick Genderson and John Meekin, both of Washington, D.C.

“The passion they showed for the building, the integrity, their vision. … I bought into all of it,” says Jamison.

The pair put together a $13 million renovation with private investment money and a mix of government funding.

The health center will draw people, so will a bank, but the developers are putting much weight on the Great Hall and the historic aspect of the building itself to bring visitors – which everyone agrees would be good for the neighborhood and for all of Springfield, which looks a little worse for the wear these days.

When the machine tool industry pulled back, starting in the ‘70s, so did the city. There are now maybe a half dozen machine-tool companies, employing 200 total.

The Great Hall, Springfield’s vast new art gallery, which is half the length of a football field. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren
The Great Hall, Springfield’s vast new art gallery, which is half the length of a football field. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

“It’s an area that has gotten kicked from everybody, and here you have this beautiful old building on a beautiful river with an exceptional space,” Genderson said recently. “It needed some help, the area needed some help, and you had some good people who were willing to work on it, and we were willing to take a chance on it.”

Jamison lined up 13 artists for the initial exhibit titled “Emergence,” reflecting the old building’s reinvention, plus some themes in the artwork. Examples she gives: a breaching whale, titled “Leaping Humpback” ($6,000) by Rick Hearn of Chester; and flowers bursting forth, as in “Red Peony” ($3,500) by Robert J. O’Brien of Perkinsville.

Jamison says she expects to present a new exhibit every six months and to perhaps halve the number of involved artists. “Great Hall” will also be a good place for performance art and music. Jamison proudly reports that renowned poet and playwright David Budbill of Wolcott has promised to give a reading.

So far, so good. Some 275 people, including local dignitaries, and one of Vermont’s best-known artists, Sabra Field, attended the grand opening two weeks ago. They sipped wine and applauded the art and the beauty of the old factory room. “There were lots of (congratulatory) hugs,” Jamison says.

The volunteer docents, who will be on hand for at least the next month, won’t be giving hugs, but they’ll have stories to share.

 Don Whitney of North Springfield, an engineer, who started work at the plant during World War II. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren
Don Whitney of North Springfield, an engineer, who started work at the plant during World War II. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

Don Whitney of North Springfield started working at the plant in the early 1940s and recalls the factory garden, tilled by two farmhands, which provided fresh produce for the company cafeteria. The former engineer points out a window to a spot in the surrounding residential neighborhood where there was once a blacksmith shop run by a Russian named John.

Joyce Ordinetz of Springfield, who took a job at Fellows when she was 17 in 1945, and who worked as an executive assistant, has a laugh while viewing a photo of the president of the company a half-century ago.

While driving to work, she says, as a gesture of kindness, Edward Miller would pick up workers walking to or from the plant. He wasn’t the best driver, she says. “We put our lives at risk.”

While poring over the guest book that visitors will be asked to sign, and discussing in detail the gear shapers of the early 20th century, one docent offers a gentle reminder: “We have to be careful we don’t bore people.”

Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and editor.


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