Robert Kerr was born in Scotland, raised in Willimantic, fought for the North in the Civil War, and earned a bunch of money in New York City.
By 1898 he was acquiring large tracts of undeveloped land in a part of Stamford that had become known as Springdale.
Like Stamford developers of today, Kerr had ambitions. After the railroad arrived – with a branch that ran through Springdale – he decided to create a village.
Kerr saw Springdale as an alternative for Stamford residents who lived on the South End and worked in its fuming factories. He built houses in Springdale and initiated public works projects that produced electricity, water, a fire company, and a school. He encouraged retail.
Things went well. So in 1906 Kerr donated land by the railroad tracks for a business that would employ Springdale residents where they lived.
In came the American Typesetting Co. of New York, which built a factory for linotype machines with a school for training workers in the trade of setting type. The plan was for it to be huge – only the government printing office in Washington, D.C., would be bigger.
The first structure was built of cast stone, in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, with an ornate roof line. It didn’t look like a factory.
“It was no ordinary industrial building,” Judy Norinsky, president of Historic Neighborhood Preservation, told the members of the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission at their June meeting. “It was designed within the Neo-Classical architectural spirit as part of Stamford’s ‘City Beautiful’ era,” which spanned from 1893 until about 1914, the start of World War I.
“It was a foundational building in the development of Springdale,” said Norinsky, whose Stamford nonprofit works to preserve historic buildings.
According to Preservation Connecticut, which provides strategies for saving historic structures and sites statewide, the old American Typesetting at 34 Fahey St. is “one of Stamford’s most unusual industrial buildings in its origin, architecture, and diversity of use over time.”
The diversity of use happened because plans for the big printing plant died when a severe economic depression hit in 1907. But the sturdy, stately building, 16,200 square feet across two stories and a basement, fulfilled its purpose of providing jobs in Springdale.
After American Typesetting was gone, the Robert Kerr Press Co., book publishers, operated there. That was followed by the Interstate Rubber Co., the British-American Manufacturing Co., golf club manufacturer Butchart-Nicholls, the Schavoir Rubber Co., and the building’s longest occupant, Hatch & Bailey, a lumber yard that was there for 80 years.
But the structure’s enduring service may be at an end.
According to city property records, it was purchased for $1.8 million in 2020 by 34 Fahey Realty, a limited liability company with an address of 30 Magee Ave., site of a Toyota dealership.
Norinsky and Renee Tribert of Preservation Connecticut told the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission that the owners intend to knock the building down.
Toyota needs space to park cars, and perhaps store car parts, Norinsky and Tribert said.
The preservationist organizations received notice of the owner’s intent to demolish, as required with such buildings, and on May 23 requested the prescribed 170-day delay, Tribert and Norinsky said. They and other preservationists walked the building with a Toyota representative last week.
They sought the delay “to provide time to discuss it with the owners and explore alternatives for preserving it,” Norinsky said. “The building was included in Preservation Connecticut’s (2017) survey of historic factory buildings that contribute to an understanding of the state’s industrial heritage.”
The organizations want to learn whether Toyota would consider preserving the building, and to offer help if that’s so, Tribert said.
“One of the things we’re looking at as a potential tool is to see if the building is eligible for a state register listing, because that could provide an incentive for reuse through tax credits,” Tribert said. “It was a very cordial meeting. The [owner’s representative] had not been aware of the history. It’s a wonderful building.”
The design incorporates several types of cast stone blocks, from rustic to smooth, “a less expensive material and a more lightweight solution to building with stone. The material was used from about 1900 through the 1930s,” Tribert said.
It creates “the sense of varied stonework,” Tribert said after the meeting.
“It’s designed to have a presence,” she said. “There’s a lot of pride in the building.”
It still has its original Otis elevator, the first installed in Stamford, she said.
She and Norinsky said they attended the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission meeting to let the members know about their effort to preserve the old typesetting factory. They have consulted the State Historic Preservation Office, they said.
“SHPO is assessing the building for potential listing on the State Register of Historic Places, which could open up the use of historic tax credits for rehab of the building,” Tribert said after the meeting. “Given the owner’s intended use of the site for parking and storage of parts, it may not be an effective incentive. That said, because of the iron framing, the building could likely support parking on the … basement level and first floor without a complete rehab, preserving and protecting it at the same time.”
Yet another purpose, possibly, for the 116-year-old building, she said.
Preservation Connecticut offers technical assistance for owners seeking preservation, Tribert said.
“We can provide a structural engineer to determine whether the building can withstand the uses Toyota wants,” she said.
She and Norinsky expect to hear back from SHPO before the end of the month on whether the building qualifies for the state registry.
“It depends on the integrity of the building,” Tribert said.
The Toyota representative was “intrigued by the idea of saving and reusing the building, and “appreciated the community aspect of it, but he has to take it back to the owner,” Norinsky said.
He said he’s already been approached by an organization interested in renting the building, she said.
“He had an inquiry from the police department for (a) SWAT team training” facility, Norinsky said.
The old factory is virtually forgotten. You can’t see it from Hope Street any more because so much has been built in front of it. It’s roughly behind the Springdale Fire Company.
It’s not even visible from Fahey Street, where it’s fronted by multiple industrial structures and fences.
“If no one does anything in the next 170 days, the old building gets demolished?” asked Barry Hersh, the commission vice chair.
“Yes,” Tribert replied.
David Woods, the chair, left the item on the open agenda, saying members will help however they can.
“Hopefully,” Tribert said, “we’ll make some headway.”