by John Rook
Ilona Somogyi considers herself a natural preservationist.
A costume designer by trade, Somogyi is constantly handling older wardrobe items and marveling at the craftsmanship that went into their completion.
“You’ll look at the old costumes, the quality of the materials, the skills of the designer, and just be amazed,” said Somogyi. “You’ll look at this old wool (item) and think, ‘We don’t have wool like this any longer.’”
Over the years, Somogyi has brought that mindset to her other passion — Ball & Socket Arts. Taking the aging brick buildings that made up the old Ball & Socket factory on West Main Street and turning them into a modern hub of activity featuring retail shops, art galleries, even restaurants, has been about ensuring that the quality “old bones” of a historic structure don’t go to waste.
“This (factory) was built well… and then there are the aesthetics. The buildings look cool,” she said. “There is just no reason not to reuse (the facility).”
The project to bring Ball & Socket Arts to life by transforming the abandoned factory has been a labor of love more than a decade in the making. Somogyi and her co-founders, none of whom had any experience with major development projects, took as their inspiration MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, an arts-centric facility situated on 16 acres in buildings formerly used for a print works, and later an electric component maker. The success of the project, as well as similar sustainability efforts, helped provide a template as to how the development could proceed.
“It’s pretty common now for arts groups to reuse old buildings,” said Somogyi, “and old mills are frequently reused for condominiums. Ball & Socket, it wasn’t really conducive for that, but it was for the kind of (art complex) we were imagining.”
Somogyi described the first time she and her team walked into the old buildings as akin to having an “Alice in Wonderland” experience. While both the interior and exterior were somewhat in disrepair, having not been in use for years — the factory closed in 1994 after 144 years in operation — she could immediately see the potential.
“When we walked through (the facility), (I) said, ‘God, this will be great for art (galleries), classes… this will be really great for restaurants,” she recalled.
But taking the dream and making it a reality has been challenging, and Somogyi pointed to one big hurdle that had to be overcome.
“Code,” she said. “Bringing everything up to code is a big deal. When the factory was built, codes did not exist.”
“Some of the requirements are navigable because there are things innate to its historic nature,” continued Somogyi, pointing to the fact that the facility, deemed a historic site, has certain attributes that cannot be changed. “But addressing things like accessibility, that’s been a challenge.”
However, the mindset of Ball & Socket Arts continues to be that “the building will let you know what you can do,” said Somogyi, and that creative solutions are there if they are sought. For instance, Somogyi insists that her biggest fight has been to preserve the old windows of the factory, which she was told initially would be far too expensive an endeavour.
“I said, ‘Are you sure?'” she recalled, with a laugh. “I was pretty sure it would not be more expensive to restore these windows than to have them custom-made, times 60.”
In the end, Somogyi was proven correct. Doggedly researching companies that specialize in restoration as well as individual craftspeople, Somogyi was able to get the windows restored to close to their original look, all for less than what it would have cost to have new windows made and installed.
“The only thing that made it happen, that saved the windows, was that I was stubborn,” joked Somogyi. “All the people who said, ‘You can’t save those windows,’ now say, ‘Wow, those windows look great.'”
Such solutions are common, Somogyi believes, when restoring old structures. It’s often believed that such endeavors can be more expensive than razzing the buildings and constructing something new. However, Somogyi insists that the process and the expense need not be more burdensome.
“There are challenges with materials (when restoring old buildings) … and there are issues with things like asbestos, lead paint … but you’re going to face those challenges whether you demolish it or reuse it,” she said. “For our building, we don’t have many structural issues. It was built so well, it’s not going anywhere. It is sitting on a high water table and it is still incredibly stable.”
To make sure the facility is ready for modern-day tenants, many of the internals at the site have been upgraded, such as wiring, plumbing, HVAC systems, a sprinkler system, and more. Besides that, the focus has been on “re-energizing the space” so as to make sure this old facility has new life in Cheshire.
“There is so much history there,” said Somogyi. “You still meet people who say, ‘I worked there,’ or, ‘My grandmother or grandfather worked there.'”
“This is really a way for us to honor the people who came before,” she continued.
Ball & Socket’s effort has helped the community gain a reputation for a commitment to sustainability. The Coalition for a Sustainable Cheshire, which is a part of the state-wide Sustainable CT program, has cited Ball & Socket Arts as an example of the town’s dedication to the cause.
Somogyi believes that projects like hers and others in Cheshire are gaining steam as people become more aware of the need to preserve what is already in place.
“Right now, we are living in a time when people are more tuned in to repurposing old things,” she said. “I think people recognize that what was made before oftentimes was just made better and not pre-programmed so that, after a short period of time, they have to be replaced.”
The success of projects like Ball & Socket breeds more interest in other communities to reuse such old facilities, Somogyi believes. However, in the future, she’d like to see more established developers, rather than independent art groups, take on such projects, and hopes that lending companies are more open to providing the funding necessary to tackle them.
“Many (lending companies) are reluctant to offer loans for projects at these brownfields,” she said, “and that’s probably the biggest barrier right now.”
Yet, the future looks bright for Ball & Socket. It’s expected that the facility’s first tenant, Sweet Claude’s Ice Cream, will be moving in sometime soon, and recent increases in funding will allow for the founders to ramp up their construction efforts to allow for the rest of the facility to be tenant-ready. the near future.
“I’ve lived in Cheshire for a long time,” said Somogyi. “I’m raising my son here. I clearly think highly of the place, but there are things happening here and around the world that we need to address… we have to look at trends in health, in climate, in extreme waste. There are things everyone can do to work against the trends.”