A Transformed Gilding Factory Gives Hartford Locals a Chance to Shine
On a clear, brisk March morning, Jessie Hardy put on his work clothes and walked into Hartford, Connecticut’s Swift Factory, an 82,000-square-foot brick building with a V-shaped footprint. Hardy, dressed in a heavy jacket and an orange winter hat, lives a few blocks away. Decades ago, the Swift Factory was the North Hartford neighborhood’s industrial anchor. It employed hundreds of workers pounding out shiny ornamental gold leaf bound for the domes of important buildings around the country—including Connecticut’s ornate, Victorian-era capitol in downtown Hartford, 2.3 miles away.
Low-rise and redbrick, the Swift Factory is nestled inside a
triangular intersection. Its expanding form conveys strength and creativity.
Once, workers and their families filled the homes—three-story clapboard houses
called “triple-deckers” and boxy, six-unit apartment buildings known as
“perfect sixes”—that line the blocks around Swift. The factory shut its doors
in 2005 and became, Hardy says, “decrepit.”
After a renovated Swift Factory reopened in 2020, Hardy eagerly leased space for his business as a home inspector. But that was not what brought him inside on that day in March of 2022. He came for a class led by the Connecticut Small Business Development Center. Like the people and groups behind the rehabilitation had hoped, Hardy saw additional entrepreneurial opportunity at Swift Factory. He came to learn how he might open a school to teach piano to neighborhood children. Since the age of 8, he has been the organist at the Church of the Most High God, one block away. It has been his lifelong dream to give other working-class kids the gift of making music.
“When I came to Swift Factory, my mind went to the possibilities,” Hardy says. “I thought, ‘What can I do here?’”
Community Solutions, the nonprofit organization that led
Swift Factory’s rehabilitation, had to ask itself the same question. The
group’s mission is to end homelessness. After breaking off from another
nonprofit in 2011 that focused exclusively on affordable and supportive
housing, Community Solutions sought to address homelessness via community
development projects. When Community Solutions president and CEO Rosanne
Haggerty learned in 2010 that Swift was about to be demolished, she met with
neighborhood residents to gather ideas about how to save and reuse the site.
“I grasped that it would be a terrible loss for the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s like a museum of New England industrial architecture.”
Community members pressed her to consider creative options. Helen Nixon came to North Hartford on a Greyhound bus from Virginia in 1958 and has for decades participated in a neighborhood revitalization group. She explains that services are currently even more important to locals than housing. What is needed most at the moment, she says, are jobs, youth engagement, and continuing education.
“You’ve got to start from the ground up,” adds Nixon, who still lives in North Hartford. “You’re always going to be homeless if you don’t have money to purchase a home, and you can’t have money without education.”
Talks with Nixon and other community leaders pushed Haggerty to reimagine Swift Factory as a place that could, she says, “get upstream of homelessness.” A place that would provide work, education, opportunity. A place that would fight homelessness not by taking people directly off the streets, but by helping them never land there in the first place.
Over a period of seven years, $36.8 million in federal, state, and local funding came together. That included assistance from the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) in the form of a $10 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation and a multimillion-dollar investment into the project’s federal historic tax credits.
Community Solutions worked with Bruner/Cott Architects to plan state-of-the-art kitchen facilities, handsome and affordable office spaces, and a school and a family mental health center in two detached wooden houses on the 2.6-acre campus.
Those plans are now a reality, and the next steps for the Swift Factory, shaped in part by its history, are already underway.
In 1864, a twentysomething named Matthew Swift immigrated to America with an in-demand skill. In his native England, he had learned the trade of goldbeating: cutting gold bars into ribbons, beating them down with special hammers, stacking the ribbons, and hammering them down again into gold leaf as thin as three-millionths of an inch. Around this time, gold-leafing, or gilding, became the rage in America and helped inspire future Hartford resident Mark Twain (and his collaborator, Charles Dudley Warner) to write the 1873 novel The Gilded Age.
Swift plied his trade in Hartford, working for a prominent gilding company owned by John M. Ney. In 1871, Swift bought property north of Hartford and built a two-story white clapboard farmhouse. According to family lore, he so loved his wife, Caroline, that he named the single, rutted dirt road “Love Lane.” In 1887, with a $350 loan for secondhand tools, Swift and his sons started their own gold-leafing operation in a back room of the house. The entrepreneurial haven known as M. Swift & Sons was born.
Over the next six decades the factory successively expanded as houses and apartment buildings filled the farmlands around it. In 1895, just south of the farmhouse (later called Building 1) the Swifts constructed Building 2, a one-story wooden structure with a pitched roof. A few years later, the family raised the wooden section of Building 2 and built a first-floor base of red bricks. Around the same time, they constructed Building 3, a long, narrow, redbrick building, also with a pitched roof, that connected to Building 2 and extended the factory southward.
In the late 1920s, the Swift Factory took an architectural
leap. The T-shaped, flat-roofed Building 4 stretched the factory to its
southernmost point and also started its expansion back northward. Building
4—which attaches to and angles slightly away from Building 3—is taller and
wider than the others, which allowed for more assembly-line workers. Thick wooden
beams and pine planks make up its ceiling and flat roof, and massive steel
columns support the structure. Its huge windows let in maximum sunlight.
Building 4 also contains a giant gold vault.
In the 1920s, Matthew Swift’s four daughters—Rosa, Lucy, Ida, and Edith—moved to Seattle and started a distribution center there. Their brother Matthew ran the Hartford factory largely on his own, after another brother, Ernie, died in 1915.
After the Great Depression ended, the Swifts expanded the factory again. The first floor of Building 5 was completed in 1940, and the second floor was built after World War II. The same width (55 feet) as Building 4, Building 5 stretched the eastern arm of the Swift Factory farther north.
Building 6, the last expansion, dates to 1948. Slightly taller than neighboring Building 5, it features a steel truss roof. It brought the longest section of the factory back northward, across from the old farmhouse.
The Swift Factory employed 300 workers in its heyday and stayed open until 2005. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin says that when the factory closed, it joined ranks with other abandoned buildings in the city and throughout the deindustrialized Northeast. It became a blight, he says, but also an opportunity. His administration recently secured $5.5 million in city funding for a library branch in the building. “We see our old industrial buildings as really important opportunities to preserve our history through reinvention,” Bronin adds.
The next phase of Swift Factory’s reinvention will include three new tenants: the $8 million, 15,000-square-foot Hartford Public Library branch, a Head Start program, and a Chase Bank branch focused on teaching financial literacy. The second floor of the new library will be NextGen Learning Center, which will offer adult education, computer classes, and social services. It is expected to open in 2023, says Bridget Quinn, the library’s president and CEO.
“Swift Factory has got such history, and that’s huge to our organization,” she says. “It’s an inspiring space; it’s not run of the mill. It’s unique; it has its own charm.”
Patrick McKenna, an architect by trade and a senior project manager for Community Solutions, was more than charmed when he realized that the factory’s construction represents “50 years of industrial building technology.” He exudes excitement about the project as he strides through the factory. McKenna’s upbringing as a Catholic in Northern Ireland gave him a feeling of solidarity with marginalized communities. After studying in Belfast and in Glasgow, Scotland, he threw himself into socially conscious architecture. Upon arrival in Connecticut, his wife’s home state, he started a chapter of the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity and eventually found his way to Community Solutions. Swift Factory, he says, aligns with his values.
“I like those kinds of buildings because they’re robust, solid, honest, working-class,” he says.
The first full round of rehabilitation, begun in the spring of 2018, included roof and masonry repairs, core and shell work, window replacement, and toxin removal. Rain and snow had rotted the building’s thick wooden support beams and expanses of pine planking. The replaced wood now makes a bright contrast, in a calico pattern, to the buffed originals.
As cleanly as gold shines, its mining and processing is filthy, involving cyanide, arsenic, and mercury. Crews extracted polluted storage drums and holding tanks, and safely scraped lead paint off the factory’s interior walls. The work left behind “a patina of distressed brick,” McKenna says, that is both affordable and stylish.
“Authentic is the most cost effective,” he says. “[And] it keeps the character of the building.”
Community Solutions had the factory’s perimeter fence torn down so locals can now walk freely through the property. Side lawns were turned into grassy rainwater catch basins, with the help of landscape designers from Richard Burck Associates. These bioswales complement a center courtyard designed by Pirie Associates and landscaped using plants (honeysuckle, witch hazel, daffodils) whose golden flowers honor Swift Factory’s history.
Opaque fiberglass windowpanes were replaced with clear double-glazed glass so passersby can see into the building. In the parking lot, local artists painted the walls with bright murals reading “Black is Freedom,” “Black is Beautiful,” and “Black Lives Matter.” More than 60 percent of the hours that went into the renovation were logged by people of color and/or women. All these steps communicate that Swift was built by and for the community, McKenna says. “It was important for us that people from the neighborhood worked on the project, so they had ownership of it.”
When interior construction began in December of 2019, among the first installments was an industrial food prep space with 10 individual kitchens containing gas stoves, bread ovens, refrigerators, and a shared dishwashing station. The kitchen areas were important, McKenna explains, because the food industry is a major employer of immigrants, formerly incarcerated people, and people with limited schooling.
Walter Lee Little III, the proprietor of Chef Walt’s, was one of Swift’s first tenants. A barrel-chested chef with a bushy beard and tattooed arms, Little was born and raised in North Hartford and remembers when the factory was a sagging, hollow husk. He worked in fine-dining restaurants around the region and developed his own culinary style, incorporating flavors from Italy, Jamaica, and the United States. He dreamed of opening his own grab-and-go establishment in Hartford. He speaks frankly about what held him back from his dream, and what Swift Factory provided.
“Bad credit, ex-felon, zero money—they let me in here with $200 and a handshake,” Little says as he preps for a busy week ahead in the Swift Factory kitchen he leases for $1,750 a month, including utilities and equipment. “They created opportunity I would have never seen.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Little thrived. He used curbside pickup and delivery services to reach hungry customers inside and outside his neighborhood. Now, around lunchtime most days, Swift Factory’s parking lot fills with delivery drivers. To meet demand for his salads, sandwiches, deep-fried items, burgers, and wraps, Little has hired two line cooks, three prep cooks, a dishwasher, and a manager. He has expanded into catering and plans to hire more staff.
“In a couple of years it’s going to be a multimillion-dollar venture,” he says. “Being a part of history in a place where I was born—it not only excites me, it humbles me.”
John J. Thomas, another North Hartford native, is Swift Factory’s assistant program manager for real estate. Born with the ability to find conversational commonality with anyone, he gave a tour in March to a gaggle of potential tenants and curious visitors. A jazz ensemble played in the background as part of “Sundays at Swift,” a recent series of artisan markets.
“This is a place to be, from startup to scale-up,” says Thomas, wearing a gray sweatshirt and a ballcap. “I love being here. These are my people. I love my neighborhood and I love this project.”
Surrounded by his custom jeans painted dazzling colors, artist Keith Bolling says he is one of many skeptical residents worried about gentrification. “There’s a fear of change in this neighborhood.”
But he is intrigued by Swift Factory’s plans to house the new library—a place where locals would always be welcome. He attended Sundays at Swift in the hopes that he and his neighbors might find new ways of “building community and networking with each other,” he says.
Behind Bolling’s fashionwear, in a lake of sun formed by one of the factory’s oversize south-facing windows, farmer and educator Lauren Little (no relation to Chef Walter Little) plunges a spade into a bucket of soil. Little sprinkles vegetable seeds and shows wide-eyed kids how they can grow their own salads.
“I want to talk to you guys a little about germination,” she says, pushing her fingertips into the soil.
Bolling approaches Little afterward to talk about growing indigo plants to make denim dye.
It’s just the kind of conversation Thomas says he had hoped for—creative exchanges among an array of tradespeople and artisans. Like the building’s new materials blending with the old, Swift Factory bridges Hartford’s industrial past with its diversified future.
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