A Space Once Used For Scientific Testing Within The Historic G. Fox Department Store Converted To The Future of Innovation & Workforce Development
The story of MakerspaceCT and the appropriate repurposing of vintage building stock
The G. Fox & Co. Building is significant for its architecture and downtown Hartford history. This retail establishment, founded in 1847 by Gershon Fox, grew to become the city’s largest department store in the twentieth century. New York architect, Cass Gilbert built the new facility on a grand scale after a devastating fire. The eleven-story, steel frame and masonry structure on Main Street was completed in 1918. Ornate architectural features of this Neo-Classical Revival style building include monumental Corinthian order marble columns and pilasters.
Beatrice Fox, Moses’s wife, became president of G. Fox & Co. upon Moses’s death in 1938. She went to tremendous lengths to modernize the store. While many department stores succumbed to the financial pressures of the Great Depression, G. Fox spent money upgrading its facilities, adding such amenities as air conditioning and elevators that stopped on every floor. Beatrice focused on providing customers with the opportunity to turn shopping into a day-long social experience. The store included a post office, beauty salon, restaurants, and a tea room. In addition, G. Fox offered the assistance of personal shoppers and even provided interpreters for those more comfortable speaking other languages.
The company’s continued growth and success caught the eye of numerous competitors looking to expand through acquisitions. In 1965, the May Department Stores Company (the third-largest department store company in the United States) purchased G. Fox & Company. The May Company closed the G. Fox store on Main Street in Hartford in 1993 and incorporated G. Fox’s branch stores into May’s larger Filene’s chain.
The lower levels of the building once included the Hartford Loop, a revolutionary new heating distribution center that piped steam throughout the city of Hartford. The next level up, known as the Talcott Level, due to it’s adjacency to Talcott Street, running along the north side of the building. This level housed the GFox quality control labs. It is here that they tested their distributor’s products, confirming that these items met the high level of quality expected by the customers at this innovative department store. The store was a center of excellence and continued to exceed the customer’s expectations.
The “Talcott Level” is where the next level of innovation and development is taking place NOW!
In the Fall of 2017, Devra Sisitsky, founder and Executive Director of MakerspaceCT, took a tour of the Talcott Level. It was an empty, subterranean space, wrought with the regular issues many 90-year-old buildings have. The space had lain idle for almost 20 years prior. In heavy rains, it had a leaking, below grade, wall and at times the roofing drainage system leading into this basement area would overflow under heavy pressure into the space. Over 1000 holes penetrated the ceiling as passages and chases were made through the space for upper level renovations. An air handler and associated ductwork was sitting in the middle of the space with its arteries also running up, through the ceiling to other retail tenants of the building. A handful of marginally adequate 120-volt outlets powered a few work lights was barely enough to spy either end of the 20,000 sqft. space. The damp – darkness seemed to go on forever. Devra and her team supported her vision to look beyond the darkness and see what CAN HAPPEN, not what can’t. The decision was made to move ahead with a light-industrial lease agreement and begin the 14-month build-out journey.
Specialty fumes is an important part of any maker space as they can be harmful or annoying to it’s members. It was important for the development team fully concentrate on fume evacuation; easy to imagine, difficult to execute – especially when the buildout is located in the lower level of one Hartford’s historical Main Street landmarks.
A new variable speed 15K CFM exhaust handler was hidden in a special room at the rear of the facility where it would not disrupt the building’s exterior ornamentation. Routing twin, round, 24” duct tubes made it less intrusive in common areas of the building than large 48” x 48” boxed arteries. The exhaust system controls a series of 11 variable air valves throughout all the shops. Negative pressure is always maintained in the shops that lend themselves to higher fume content, for example, in plastics, welding and woodworking shops. The blacksmithing area is especially important as you’re trying to keep the facility cool and exhaust heated metal fumes for a gas-fired forge.
A variable speed 21K CFM air-handler had to be located within the space, rather than 11 stories up on the roof or hanging on the exterior. It feeds 19 variable air valves maintaining a highly efficient and comfortable environment.
All exhaust and air-handling can be monitored and controlled via a phone or tablet app. when off-site. Any adjustments to air temp / flow and exhaust can be adjusted on the fly if needed. It’s been 10 months since opening in April 2019 and the facility staff has dialed in just when fume control and air comfort is needed using a calendared scheduling of air management allowing a pretty much hands-off process. A glycol-based, heat recovery system, captures lost heat from the exhaust system in the winter and sends it back to the heating system. These efficient systems are cutting edge for shop environments and qualifies the build-out for energy credits.
A new, 800 amp Electrical system and “in-space” transformer were tied in and feeds 9 individual panels ranging from 3 phase 480 and 408 to single phase 208 and 240 respectfully. Each panel is accessed from the outside of each shop so machines can be shut off in an emergency. Each machine is on its own breaker, isolating each for repair or service without affecting other pieces of equipment. A specific area of emergency electric handling is in the gas forging area. Twin shut off valves control an electric gas solenoid valve in the event of a gas emergency. And can be “keyed-off” to prevent unauthorized use.
The facility is located within 500’ of a fiber hub in Hartford and feeds MakerspaceCT’s 5 separate 48 switch network routers maintaining a closed network of 240 ports for WIFI, workstations and a closed-circuit security system. VPN enables staff to log in and seamlessly maintain network resources. It’s this Top-Tier fiber connection that will allow the enterprise to scale up for modern, high-ban-width, multimedia applications.
The above systems had to be started and laid in before 6” steel studded walls and sheetrock could be started. The layout of the facility included input from manufacturing professionals that work with machinery and materials on a daily basis. Machinery placement in the larger wood, metal and machine shops is critical to the flow of working with materials. Electrical was brought to the panels first, but dedicated conduit had to wait until machinery was placed. And obviously sheetrock could not go up until final electrical runs were tied into the panels. All of this resulting in a mix of trades working for months around “already placed” equipment. Fire blocking is important in any building of this size and the many holes in the ceiling, around ductwork and electrical conduit had to all be filled and fire blocked before painting.
One of the first machines placed was a powered metal shear and bender. It was decided, as a cost-savings measure to put these machines to work by cutting and bending all of the base cove molding our of .030” galvanized steel sheet. It was a cost-savings measure at first, but protects the sheetrock well and creates a visual balance against the steel ductwork throughout the ceiling.
Bright, balanced and inviting colors were chosen throughout the facility. Each shop has a unique color for its back wall and portable hand tools are tagged in these colors, so they find their way back at the end of a project. The concrete – coffered ceiling was painted in a soothing light blue to remind members and visitors alike, that this is a place for innovation and “blue-sky” ideas…a place where it’s ok to have your head in the clouds.
Graphics and facility signage carry the feel of the fun and colorful MakerspaceCT brand.
So what goes on in this unique, community workshop space?
Well, it’s a place where people join to work on projects and build prototypes using a vast array of hardware and machines that they could not otherwise afford nor fit in their apartments or homes. The members pay monthly or annual memberships to gain access and then take safety classes to work with more advanced equipment. Classes in all the disciplines are offered to members and non-members. These class sessions are useful for those looking to build a useful skillset, enabling them to enter an innovative manufacturing workforce. Or they just come to bring ideas to life.
It only makes sense to use what was once a testing lab for new products to now become a facility of new and innovative ideas.