Meridian Industrial


6/1/2024 | KEITH O'CONNOR


Thinking big was essential when forming a vision for the future of the Eastern Connecticut Center for History, Art, and Performance, Inc.

Created in 2016 as a 501c3 nonprofit, the Eastern Connecticut Center for History, Art, and Performance, EC-CHAP — located in The Mill Works in Willington — operates the Gardiner Hall Jr. History Museum, Dye & Bleach House Community Gallery, and offers a variety of programming in The Packing House, an historic venue for performance and events.

“Our intent in forming EC-CHAP was to provide a greater awareness of culture in our area and to develop relationships with the creative community. Some call Eastern Connecticut the quiet corner of the state, while others believe we are not so quiet and have a number of things going on that just need to be found,” said Tom Buccino, executive director of EC-CHAP.

“When putting together our vision and mission with our Board of Directors, we set some lofty goals including in the long term to be to be one of Southern New England’s premier cultural destinations. Some folks may see that as too lofty of a goal, especially for an organization run by all volunteers in a very rural part of Connecticut with a population of 6,000. We felt, however, that we needed to keep the bar high and shoot for the moon with a mindset that the goal is not impossible,” he added.

Finding a home for their endeavor was easy. The Mill Works facility originally housed the Gardiner Hall Jr. Company, the first spooled thread production facility in the United States. During its operation from 1860 to its closing in 1954, the Hall Company produced fine cotton threads that drew national and international acclaim from 1860 to its closing in 1954. Buccino’s parents in 1962 purchased a portion of the factory that had been parceled into what later came to be called The Mill Works, where his father operated a tool and dye company. When his parent’s health began to fail, Buccino stepped in to oversee the complex which was vacant at the time and offered space for what soon would become EC-CHAP.

The Gardiner Hall Jr. Museum, formed in 2014 when The Mill Works was recognized as an historic landmark and listed on the Connecticut Register of Historic Places, was the first component of what two years later would be merged into EC-CHAP. It focused on the impact and contributions of the Hall Thread Company, the Hall family, and succeeding enterprises located at The Mill Works had on the local region.

The Gardiner Hall Jr. Museum, now located in a larger space within the building, is curated by Ryan Elgin, who also serves as assistant director of EC-CHAP.

“We just re-opened last December after receiving a Museum Makeover grant funded by CT Humanities. The monies allowed us to upgrade the space with new carpeting, display cases, text panels, and UV protection,” Elgin said about the museum which explores Willington history, the impact and contributions of its residents including its large Czech population, the Hall Thread Company, and the Hall family, who were great benefactors of the town, as part of its Threads in Time permanent exhibit.

In addition to early pieces of thread spools and boxes from the company, visitors can see various artifacts from the Hall family including furniture and paintings from their home, wedding attire from the wealthy mill owners, along with photos and possessions of the mill employees. There are also tools and examples of products produced from other industries on display, including from the tool and dye company started by Buccino’s father. Upcoming exhibits are planned on the ice trade when ice was harvested from a large pond behind the factory, and on the early innovations of firearms in Connecticut.

Free and open to the public, the museum’s hours are Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.

Besides the history museum, the rich past of The Mill Works is reflected in the names given to its gallery and performance spaces.

The Dye & Bleach House Community Gallery derives its name from its historical roots. Its physical space in the Gardiner Hall Jr. Company was where millions of yards of cotton thread were processed and colored before being spooled for domestic and international distribution.

“We are a community gallery, not a commercial gallery, offering a platform to local and regional visual artists of all talents and levels of experience — from established artists to those just beginning their artistic journey — to display their original works for public viewing at no cost to the artists. While we don’t manage sales of their work in the gallery, if someone is interested in purchasing a piece we put them in touch with the artist,” Buccino said.

“Coverings” — The Textiles of Sally Rogers & Paintings of Al Mathes is currently on exhibit in the gallery through June 22.

“In addition to her talents as a quilter, Sally is a professional singer and songwriter who plays the guitar and dulcimer. She also has the distinction of being recognized as a Connecticut State Troubadour promoting music and song. We got to know her a number of years ago and she has since had several shows at The Packing House, as well as a previous exhibit of her beautiful quilts in our gallery. Sally introduced us to Al whose interest in landscaping is reflected in his many abstract paintings,” Buccino said.

Gallery hours are Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and by appointment. Admission is free.

Upcoming exhibits include the sculptural works of Kathleen Zimmerman, slated to open on July 6, followed on Sept. 14 by the abstract paintings of Julie Becham.

Artists interested in opportunities to display their work at the Dye & Bleach House Community Gallery can email or call 518-791-9474.

The final component in the EC-CHAP name, “performance,” focuses on acoustic music, film, dance, literature and theater in what is called The Packing House. The attractive space – outfitted with a hardwood floor and wood planked gable ceiling and hand-hewed chestnut beams overhead – is considered to be the oldest original standing production facility from the Hall Thread Company in 1870, where packing and shipping took place.

According to documents preserved as part of the company’s history, Hall in 1906 began providing free movies in the space to entertain and thank his employees for their hard work. Audiences today benefit from cabaret seating and an exclusive “BYOB & F” (Bring Your Own Beverage and Food) model.

Hall’s penchant for entertaining his employees continues today at EC-CHAP with a much-expanded lineup that includes a film series, acoustic artist series, jazz series, and a poetry series offered during a season which runs from September to May.

While The Packing House has ended its season that goes from September to May, plans have already begun for the 2024-2025 season that will include a return performance by Greg Abate, an international jazz artist who was the first to perform with his Jazz Quartet in The Packing House when it opened in 2016. The schedule will also include a performance by EC-CHAP board member Nicole Zuraitis, who won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album “How Love Begins.” Updates on the new lineup will be posted on website.

In addition to ticketed performances, EC-CHAP sponsors a free “Talent Showcase” on the second Wednesday of the month from 7-10 p.m.

“Similar to our art gallery, the intent is to provide a platform for local talent to share their unique abilities and is not limited to musicians. Unlike open-mic nights which are similar in concept to what we are offering, the Talent Showcase goes beyond traditional performances by musicians and comedians to include hula hoop artists, poets, jugglers, film makers, visual artists and others. We give them extended time to perform before a live audience and receive feedback while networking with those attending,” Elgin said.

“I don’t think there could ever be too many spaces for artists to show their talents — more are needed,” he shared.

When programs are not scheduled, The Packing House is available for rent as a flexible 3,500-square-foot event space perfect for creative projects, meetings, recitals, workshops, wedding receptions, memorial services and community events. To learn more or to book space, call 518-791-9474.

The coronavirus pandemic took a toll on performance and exhibit spaces, and sites like EC-CHAP are needed more than ever today, Buccino noted. “Quite a number of venues were not able to sustain themselves as COVID-19 spread throughout the country, resulting in far fewer performance sites for artists than four years ago,” he said.

Revenue to keep the arts center alive is generated from memberships, sponsorships, grants, ticket sales, program and rental fees, and tax-deductible donations from individuals, families and organizations.

With preservation funding from the CT Department of Economic and Community Development, State Office of Historic Preservation, future plans include the rehabilitation and development of a free-standing Artist in Residence Studio and onsite Artisan Café.


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