Forest City Cleaners and Launderers of Middletown

Unfortunately, I did not take any exteriors of this former laundromat. I blame the heat that day. 



As we pulled up to our next target, a defunct laundry business, the sting of our recent failure still lingered. Just minutes before, we had attempted to gain entry into another historical property, the former Mohawk Manufacturing Company factory on Hamlin Street, only to be thwarted by a lone police vehicle sandwiched in the corner like a sentinel. This time, from our vantage point at the front of the building, it was immediately clear that we faced a similar challenge albeit not of the law enforcement kind. The structure was meticulously boarded up, with no ground-level entrances accessible.


Refusing to give up so easily, J and I decided to circle around to the back, harboring a faint hope that perhaps someone had already created a discrete entry point out of the public's sight. Our optimism quickly dissipated as we discovered that the rear of the property was as secure as the front. We stood there, disheartened and despondent under the relentless midday sun.


Despite our mounting frustration, a sliver of curiosity propelled us forward. Peering through a narrow gap in one of the boarded windows, we glimpsed something inside the dim, cavernous space. There, silhouetted against the gloom, was the outline of an old industrial machine. It stood as a silent testament to the building's past, a relic of its days as a bustling laundry business. Our curiosity was piqued, but our hopes of entry were dashed by the unyielding barriers.


In just ten minutes, Middletown, Connecticut had handed us two resounding defeats. We trudged back to the car, the heat bearing down on us, our spirits low but our resolve not yet broken. There were other towns and other opportunities. We decided to drive 45 minutes to our next destination, where we hoped easier pickings awaited us. As we set off, the promise of discovery kept us going, the thrill of the hunt still very much alive.


The city of Middletown recently demolished the former Forest City Cleaners and Launderers, also known as Forest City Dry Cleaners, a building that has stood since 1921. For nearly six decades, this facility served the community before shutting its doors in 2008 due to skyrocketing fuel oil prices. Situated adjacent to the buzzing Wesleyan University central power plant and bordered on the other side by residential housing, the site had languished in disuse due to significant solvent contamination, a legacy of the dry cleaning business.


The laundromat began its journey on Main Street before finding its more permanent home on William Street. In the early days, long before the advent of modern delivery vehicles, the laundromat offered a unique service: delivering dry-cleaned garments to clients on horseback. This picturesque image harks back to a time when life moved at a gentler pace, and such personalized service was a hallmark of the business.


The cleaning process itself was a marvel of its time. The primary solvent used was raw white gasoline, a choice that, while effective, came with significant risks. White gasoline was the leading dry-cleaning solvent in the early 1900s across the United States due to its cleaning prowess. However, its highly flammable nature posed serious dangers. The volatility of gasoline made dry cleaning businesses a perilous venture, with insurance companies often refusing to issue policies due to the high risk of fires, explosions, and other hazardous incidents.


Despite these dangers, laundromats thrived, consuming an average of 12,000 gallons of gasoline per year from 1915 onwards. This staggering amount underscores the scale of operations and the dependency on this hazardous solvent before safer, higher flash point alternatives were introduced between 1930 and 1950.


The transition to modern solvents marked a significant turning point for the industry. These new chemicals not only enhanced safety but also improved the efficiency and effectiveness of the cleaning process. This evolution was crucial in ensuring the survival and growth of dry cleaning businesses, allowing them to continue serving their communities without the looming threat of catastrophic accidents.


After its closure, the property sat vacant, an enduring reminder of industrial practices long since outdated. John Ehlers bought the business in 1916 from the original owners on Main Street, established in 1899, and built the laundromat in 1921 on Williams Street. The city acquired the site from the estate of Anita Stubbings, the last owner since 1954 who had persisted in using perchloroethylene, a solvent widely known for its environmental hazards, even as greener alternatives became available. This choice left the site heavily contaminated, rendering redevelopment a complex challenge.


Thanks to a $100,000 environmental remediation grant from the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), the contaminated soil has been thoroughly cleaned. This crucial step allowed the city to clear the remnants of the old laundry business down to its foundation. The space will soon be repurposed into a municipal parking lot, once contaminate testing, clean up, and capping are performed, marking a new chapter for this long-dormant property.


The history of the site is rich, reflecting nearly a century of commercial activity. From 1923 to 2007, it was home to Forest City Laundry/Forest City Cleaners/Forest City. Additionally, between 1932 and 1940, Schmidt Laundry operated from this location. These businesses, once integral to the community, now pass into memory as the site transitions to meet the contemporary needs of Middletown's residents and visitors.


Another address is 250 Williams Street, Middletown, Connecticut



Sources:



1. Day, C. (2022, February 9). (Why Middletown officials say old laundry site ‘needs to come down). The Middletown Press.

2. Day, C. (2024, March 29). (More parking coming to Middletown with demolition of old dry cleaning business). The Middletown Press.

3. Landers, S. (2024, April 22). City of Middletown Demolishes Abandoned Dry Cleaner on William Street. The Wesylan Argus.

4.  Brewster, S. (2008, December 14). Business closes its doors on a saddened neighborhood. The Middletown Press

5. Poulin, D. (2008, December 16). Hard Pressed: Century Old Cleaners to Close. NBC Connecticut.



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