Former Gear Plant Becomes Showcase For Arts

07/24/12 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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The town of Springfield has a new showcase for the arts, in a sprawling brick factory that's stood empty for decades.

After years of environmental cleanup and a $15 million renovation, the old Fellows Gear Shaper plant is about to start a new life. The medical complex that will anchor the project won't be ready until the fall.

But the building's art space opened this weekend, with a 13-artist show titled "Emergence."

The Fellows Gear Shaper building is a monument to Springfield's glory days as a machine tool hub. Its crumbling hulk and deteriorating metal footbridge have long served as symbols of the town's decline.

But now the complex has a new bridge, and a new name: 100 River Street. Soon a large part of the plant will house Springfield's medical offices and a 24-hour clinic. There will be a pharmacy, a bank branch, perhaps a restaurant or two.

For now, there's art, in a massive "Great Hall" that will also be an entrance to the medical complex.

"And I love the fact that they kept the feeling that this was a machine tool shop," says Nina Jameson, the building's art curator. "That's actually what the artists love about it that its this wonderful industrial space: huge, huge with the girders painted white on the top. And look at the lights!"

Jameson is standing in the center of the Great Hall, near an interactive sculpture  by Saxton's River artist Oliver Schemm.  

"Its made with cedar, cast aluminum, iron, glass, and  a mirror that says ‘Embrace' on one side. And on the other side it says ‘the unknown," she said.

Jamison pushes on a big metal lever that sets the mirror spinning so the words come together as an exhortation.

On an opposite wall is a 15 foot mural, "The Birth of Water," a landscape of pointed mountains and waterfalls by Brattleboro artist Scott Borofsky.

At one end of the hall, an abstract sculpture of gold-hued cut paper is set against a blue wall. Artist Carolyn Ens Hack of Thetford calls it "Sowing Hope," and says it's meant to encourage contemplation.

Hack is thrilled that an art space will be connected to the health center.

"Anybody you ask who's studied these things says that artwork gives people a sense of wellbeing, a sense of belonging, a sense of curiosity. So you're coming in to a big building like this and all of a sudden they have a connection to it," Hack said.

Nina Jameson , the curator, says the inspiration for the art  gallery came from the project's developers, Richard Genderson and John Meakin. The two Washington, D.C., businessmen saw beauty and possibility in the building and in Springfield.

Jameson says the space will also feature photographs and information on the building's history, from its start in 1896 through the present.

Former Gear Shaper employees will serve as docents, at least through August.

Eighty-nine year old Don Whitney is happy to fill that role. He started work at Fellows in 1937 through a training program at Springfield High.

"In 1941 I went to work in the engineering department and stayed there until 1987," Whitney said.

Whitney says the plant played a role in the rise of the auto industry, supplying the machines to make gears for motor vehicles. During World War II, more than 3,000 people worked here round the clock turning out machines and parts used to build tanks for the military.

"We were somewhere in the top ten of the German Army's list of places to bomb because these machines that were made in Springfield were essential to the war effort," he explains.

Whitney says he isn't an art expert. But he can talk about the plant and its heyday and decline. He can picture the newly named Great Hall as a noisy maze of workers and machines, separated by narrow alleys.

"When that went down the tube it left Springfield high and dry. Of course they brought in some industry, but not a lot."

Now, Whitney says, it's time for the next phase.

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