The Goffe Street Armory is one of those places where it is very easy to see the past, present, and future simultaneously.
The past is a place of military exercises, and perhaps more important, huge community events, like dances and games. The present is a bit grim — a crumbling and foreboding structure requiring innovation and cash to turn it into something good. And, perhaps a small glimpse of the future will happen this October, and it might look a lot like the past.
Artspace is presenting the 16th edition of the annual City-Wide Open Studios festival from Oct. 4 through the Oct. 27. In addition to providing art aficionados the opportunity to see artists in the natural habitats of their own studios, each year the coordinators select another spot to serve as a pop-up exhibition— this “Alternative Space” featuring the work of artists of all kinds, in some cases responding to a unique environment. Last year, artists were showcased in the recently vacated New Haven Register printing plant on Sargent Drive, with over 3,500 people attending. This year, the theme of the event is “Reveille,” “calling to mind a joyful rising up,” according to Artspace press materials. Inspiring the theme, the long abandoned Goffe Street Armory is the site of the Alternative Space, open on Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“We are temporary stewards and we are very glad and grateful to be working with the city on this event to create a celebratory atmosphere for the weekend,” said CWOS coordinator Caleb Hendrickson. “I think a lot of people have memories of the building from when it used to be a more open public space.”
Early on an August morning, Hendrickson unlocked a heavy padlock outside the armory, on Hudson Street, and pulled hard at a chain-link fence. It took a couple of pulls, but the rusty fence slid open. He then opened a motorized garage door and walked into a darkened hangar. The floor is warping and the place needs a thorough cleaning, but the bones are there.
“The plan to make it safe for the public is to tarp off areas where it just isn’t safe to go,” Hendrickson said. “We’ll be cleaning it up and airing it out. There is a bit of mold and mildew.”
One can easily envision the armory filled with large military vehicles, or as a place for soldiers to drill. It is equally easy to see what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. A place of parties and dances — people dressed up nicely in suits and party dresses, dancing under moody lighting, spending time with their loved ones and friends.
The building is massive — more than 150,000 square feet — and is a warren of offices, storage spaces, and meeting rooms. Many of the walls are emblazoned with military unit insignia, as befitting its initial intended usage. The south side of the building has been closed off for the event because of damage from the recent storms.
The Goffe Street Armory was commissioned in 1927 for military use. As time went on, into the 1950s and 1960s, it evolved into a kind of community center, hosting dances and auto shows.
The building reclaimed its martial bearing, returning to its National Guard roots in the 1980s as home for two units until its closure in 2009. It had also served as the home of the Governor’s Foot Guard and Band. In July 2012 the city applied for $2.8 million in state funding for upgrades — design and engineering work, roof repairs, and new heating and air conditioning systems, among other things — in order to make the building usable as a community center, which has long been a dream of people in the Beaver Hills neighborhood.
As with many of these kinds of things, a group of artists will take the first crack at making the space a home. Hendrickson envisions artists all over the building, settled in rooms that will create interesting juxtapositions with their art. He said there will be a performance space in the main drill hall for musicians and dancers. He hopes some of the city’s vaunted food trucks will line up outside.
“I think the whole space is going to be quickly transformed,” Hendrickson said. “We had a lot of support from the city, funders, volunteers, and the artists themselves. That’s what counts most. This can be a demonstration of what this building can be.”
The primary objective of the Alternative Space exhibition is always art, Hendrickson said, but City Wide Open Studios is a chance to do what has been done for time immemorial — have artists walk into a space, and with little more than vision and the willingness to do the work, transform it into something magical, something not quite what it was before.
“We want to bring people from the neighborhood and make it a celebratory event,” Hendrickson said. “It isn’t just gallery experience, but a festival experience with world-class quality professional art.”
Article by Steve Scarpa