STAMFORD – The city seal, used to mark official documents, displays two keys.
Stamford’s first nickname, earned a century and a half ago, was The Lock City.
The lock reference and the keys in the seal denote a company that was established in Stamford in 1868 and went on to become the world’s leading manufacturer of that hardware.
After Linus Yale invented the five-pin tumbler lock, and Henry Towne devised a modern factory to do work once done by hand, they formed a company that thrived and dominated the city’s economy for decades.
“Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company put Stamford on the map nationally, and likely internationally. Every lock company on the planet tried to copy them,” said Ron Marcus, a researcher with the Stamford History Center. “There were people who never heard of Stamford but carried a Yale key in their pocket.”
At its peak, Yale & Towne operated a complex occupying 25 acres on the South End, near the harbor and railroad tracks. The largest building, the lockworks factory on Henry Street, was a six-story behemoth 800 feet long.
Completed in 1900, the factory was repurposed in 2010, when South End developer Building & Land Technology converted it into a 225-unit apartment building called The Lofts at Yale & Towne.
But now the historic factory is sinking. The last of The Lofts tenants moved out 17 months ago.
Lawsuit zips lips
The owner, Gaia Real Estate of New York, which purchased The Lofts from BLT in 2016, claims the historic structure cannot be saved. Gaia is suing BLT and its multiple affiliates and contractors, plus Antares, the original developer, alleging that they failed to test the capacity of the wood pilings that support the building and withheld information about their condition.
The lawsuit charges that BLT installed an impermeable liner to contain contaminated soil at the site, but the liner kept out rain, too, causing the groundwater level to drop and exposing the pilings to air, which rotted the wood.
Gaia also sued the city, alleging that the building department failed to inspect the foundation and maintain the substructure.
The city’s chief building official has said he issued an unsafe structure notice for The Lofts at Yale & Towne, meaning it must be either torn down or made safe. The building official also said Gaia is applying for a demolition permit.
Because of the massive lawsuit, no one is providing information about the onetime factory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, said Todd Levine, historian with the State Historic Preservation Office.
Preservationists with tools for saving such structures are stymied, Levine said.
“The building is so significant and such an important part of the history of Stamford that the loss would be devastating,” he said Friday. “But, for now, our hands are tied.”
‘It’s just heartbreaking’
Judy Norinsky, president of the Stamford Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program, said it’s unfathomable that the Yale & Towne factory could disappear.
“The loss would be catastrophic,” Norinsky said. “This is happening because the city has not supported the South End historic district. They just let it be destroyed.”
South End resident and activist Sue Halpern said her grandparents met while employed at Yale & Towne.
“I really hate seeing it collapse on itself,” Halpern said. “It’s just heartbreaking that there are not more efforts to save it.”
She and Norinsky said they gathered a total of 300 signatures last year, after The Lofts at Yale & Towne was vacated. The petitions, along with letters from Stamford residents, can launch an investigation by the State Historic Preservation Office to determine whether a structure can be saved.
“Community outcry is the trigger, and petitions were sent to our office, but everything has been on hold since then because of the lawsuit,” Levine said. “We can’t investigate when nobody is talking and we’re not getting any information.”
Proof before razing
Preservation Connecticut, a State Historic Preservation Office partner, wrote a letter to Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons in June 2022 saying demolition of the Yale & Towne building would be “unprecedented in its scope,” and “should not be accepted without evidence.”
“We are requesting that the city take a more active role in partnership with Preservation Connecticut and the community to perform a thorough investigation” before allowing demolition, wrote Brad Schide, a circuit rider with Preservation Connecticut. “For the city to be confident in its decision to allow demolition, we are proposing that the owner pay for a third-party objective engineering study.”
But David Woods, chair of the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission, has told CT Examiner that the study didn’t happen because “the city and the owner didn’t reach an agreement.”
Preservationists have not heard from the city, Norinsky said.
Asked about it Friday, Simmons’ office did not respond.
“Everything is quiet,” Norinsky said.
Her organization would be notified if Gaia requested a demolition permit from the building department, Norinsky said, but as of Friday she had not received a notice.
Condemn, or not?
There are questions about whether the chief building official intends to condemn the building, and if he did, whether that would end any effort by preservationists to investigate, Levine said.
“We just don’t know,” he said.
According to the process, if Levine’s group investigates and determines there is reason to save a structure, they turn the information over to the state attorney general.
If the attorney general, now William Tong of Stamford, accepts the case, he can impose a temporary injunction to stop demolition while his office examines alternatives, including a lawsuit.
That’s what happened with Stamford’s historic Blickensderfer building at 650 Atlantic St., a former typewriter factory listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2021 Tong’s office negotiated a deal among BLT, the State Historic Preservation Office and the state Environmental Protection Agency that only parts of the factory would be demolished, and that BLT would clean up toxins at the site then redevelop the old factory within two years. The state contributed $950,000 toward BLT’s costs for remediating the soil, groundwater and structure.
But, Levine said, “We can’t make a referral to the attorney general in the Yale & Towne case because we aren’t able to investigate.”
“We’re on pause,” he said.
Preservation not a priority
“The consequence of all of this may be the loss of this very important building,” Norinsky said. “A lot of the development in the South End could have been done and still left historic buildings in place, but with developers it’s about how much money they can make, without regard for historic character. It can’t just be about increasing the tax base. Preservation is part of planning. It shouldn’t be on the back end of everything all the time.’
“In Stamford it’s hard to get anybody to respond to anything about historic preservation,” she said. “It just doesn’t go anywhere.”
If people know more about history, maybe they will care more about preservation, said Marcus of the Stamford History Center.
“The workmanship of the Yale locks was second to none. It was very high quality for something that was mass-produced. We have many Yale locks here, and they are nothing like what you buy in the hardware store today,” Marcus said. “And Yale & Towne had a tremendous export business – there was probably not a country in the world that didn’t have a Yale lock.”
But that was not all the company manufactured, Marcus said.
“They made post office boxes, chain hoists for carrying great weights in foundries and quarries, prison locks and other specialty locks,” he said. “They made custom ornamental hardware. In the 1800s, Yale & Towne was commissioned to create the ornamental hardware for the Thomas Jefferson building at the Library of Congress in Washington, one of the most elaborate buildings in the country. It’s like a European palace.”
History has its dark side, and the Yale & Towne building is testament to that, he said.
“It was a nice place to work if you were in the office, and OK if you were on the assembly line, but the bronze foundry was unpleasant and dangerous,” Marcus said. “They worked with molten metal and vaporized bronze. There were overhead cranes carrying heavy things, and machines that could injure you. Workers got emphysema. But it provided jobs for thousands of people.”
Losing the factory building “would be unimaginable for Stamford,” Marcus said.