THE HISTORY OF THE WASSAIC ARTIST RESIDENCY AND THE HAMLET OF WASSAIC
The history of the Wassaic Artist Residency, like the hamlet of Wassaic itself, reflects the vitality and dynamism of the shifting American landscape. The hamlet of Wassaic was born in the age of industry. Noah Gridley and Son Ironworks, a company that produced pig iron in the nineteenth century, served as a catalyst to the growth of the community. Supported by the Gridley family, Gail Borden continued industrial development in Wassaic, building his factory to produce Eagle Brand condensed milk. In the twentieth century the industry transformed yet again, led by the Maxon Mills Company, to feed production. However, as the twenty-first century approached, the success of industry in Wassaic declined. The exchange of goods largely depended on the Harlem Valley Railroad line, which in 1852 reached the hamlet and thrived as a long-distance commuter and freight line until the 1970s when freight service ended and track removal began. The construction of the new Route 22, which shifted the flow of traffic from the town’s center to the outskirts, also proved detrimental to Wassaic’s economy.
In the twenty-first century the hamlet of Wassaic found itself with three prominent buildings, the Maxon Mills, the Luther Barn, and the Wassaic House hotel, once active, left virtually unused. In 2005 the Maxon Mills, abandoned and in a state of decay, was urged to be demolished. The fate of the mill was reversed when a local organization lobbied to place the building on the New York State Register of Historic Places that same year.
Although a designated landmark, the Maxon Mills remained unusable until Anthony Zunino and his business partner Richard Berry, who both had a hand in developing the South Street Seaport Historic District, purchased and renovated the building. The historical integrity of the Maxon Mills was maintained through the renovation, which was guided by antique photographs of the building. The presence of the building’s former functions is part of what makes the Wassaic Artist Residency a unique exhibition space. Artwork is displayed alongside enormous hoppers, bucket elevators, and other machinery on walls permanently transformed by the passage of grain. The gallery spaces themselves are dictated by the shape of the seven-story building and the entire space serves as a welcome creative challenge for artists and guest curators.
The effort to preserve the Maxon Mills did not start with a master plan. It was saved because of its iconographic significance to the American landscape and its potential to revitalize the community of Wassaic. It was not until 2008 that a future was carved out for the former feed elevator when Eve Biddle, Bowie Zunino, and Elan Bogarin proposed utilizing the building to host a contemporary summer arts festival.
In an increased effort to serve as an anchor for Wassaic, the Wassaic Artist Residency has expanded programming beyond the summer festival to include a year round residency program, summer exhibition and a community-oriented K-12 and adult education programs.
THE WASSAIC PROJECT’S BUILDINGS
THE MAXON MILLS
The Maxon Mills, owned by the Maxon Mills Company, was built in 1954 and remained in active use as a feed elevator until the 1980s. The Maxon Mills Company operated by collecting assorted grains from farmers and distributing credit for the amount collected. Farmers had different varieties of grains to offer depending on where their land was located. The mill’s function was to mix the grains to create a complete feed for livestock, especially cattle. The farmers who supplied the grain could then use the credit to purchase the complex mix of grain produced by the mill. In its heyday the Maxon Mills Company distributed grain to six counties, reaching as far as Vermont, using the railroad as its method of transport.
The Maxon Mills is not only significant historically but also architecturally. It is one of the last remaining wood-crib elevators in the country and railroad model-making enthusiasts use Maxon Mills as a prototype for the design of feed elevators. Currently, the Maxon Mills functions as the Wassaic Artist Residency’s summer exhibition space.
THE WASSAIC HOUSE HOTEL
The Wassaic House Hotel, built in the 1850s by Noah Gridley of Noah Gridley and Son Ironworks, was a direct product of the railroad and functioned as a leisure location where upper class railroad passengers could rest, dine, and socialize. The hotel abuts the Maxon Mills and now serves as an exhibition, artist studio, and office space.
THE LUTHER BARN
The Luther Barn was built in 1875 by Noah Gridley and Son Ironworks. After World War II the Luther family purchased the barn and transformed it into a thriving center of commerce and communication between New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The Luther Barn was a dynamic market; it was a space to sell, buy, and barter for an array of goods and, more famously, an auction ring for a variety of livestock. The Luther Barn played an important role as one of the few establishments that brought together farmers from all three states. The last auction was held in December of 2002. In 2009, the Wassaic Artist Residency reclaimed the Luther Barn; the former animal stalls have been adapted for artist studio spaces, and the former auction ring is used as a film screening room and a performance venue.
THE HARLEM VALLEY LINE
The Wassaic train station was originally constructed adjacent to the Maxon Mills. The station was shifted to its current location in 2000. The railroad, which reached Wassaic in 1852 thrived as a commuter and freight line and extended as far as Chatham, NY and made connections as far as Albany, NY and North Adams, MA. The railroad replaced river transport and served as an important lifeline for commerce. Nevertheless, as automobile culture emerged so did accessible highways, turnpikes, and interstates. By the 1960s railroad service was cut back, severely affecting businesses. In 1972 the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began the existing commuter service.