The Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company of Hartford

 





It was a calm, cold winter day, with the sun beaming from above. The remnants of a past snowstorm were piled along the sidewalk, and the conditions were favorable for exploration. J and I ventured into a former foundry on Homestead Avenue, once a bustling manufacturer of steel castings of all sizes.



Casting dies room.



As we stepped inside the nearest entrance, we were greeted by an extraordinary sight: an old room filled with original casting dies, remnants of the standardized molds that once produced steel castings. The room was a tangible link to the foundry's industrious past, and it felt like stepping back in time.


Moving deeper into the facility, we entered a large open space dominated by an unidentified mechanical arm machine. Although it had been picked apart by metal vandals over the years, its presence still hinted at the advanced machinery that once operated here.


Continuing our exploration, we encountered a large air compressor still standing proudly on its foundation block. Melted snow dripped down in the green-tinged room where it stood, creating an eerie but captivating scene. This air compressor was the highlight of our visit—an impressive piece of equipment that had somehow remained intact amidst the decay.


Our exploration took a somber turn when we reached the upper office spaces. In one room, we found a makeshift bed of clothes and a hanging bedsheet draped across the window. It was clear that someone had made this space their shelter during the harsh Connecticut winter we were now emerging from. This poignant discovery was a stark reminder of the building’s current state and the realities of urban decay.











History




The Philbrick-Booth Foundry Company site spans 2.45 acres at 367 and 393 Homestead Avenue. Framed by commercial and industrial neighbors to the north and south, railroad tracks and woodlands to the west, and Homestead Avenue to the east, the site’s coordinates pinpoint it at 41° 46' 52" north latitude and 72° 42' 08" west longitude. This industrial-zoned parcel of land holds a rich history intertwined with the growth of Hartford itself.


The story of the Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company, originally the Philbrick-Booth Company, begins in 1916. Founded in Hartford, this iron casting enterprise was the brainchild of Major Halsey B. Philbrick, his son Halsey R. Philbrick, both Hartford natives, and Thomas T. Booth of Worcester, Massachusetts. The senior Philbrick, a Civil War veteran and a prominent building contractor, also served as Hartford’s first selectman from 1903 to 1918. His son, Halsey R. Philbrick, brought to the venture his expertise as an electrical engineer. The third founder, Thomas T. Booth, a seasoned foundryman, was likely enticed into the partnership by family ties—Halsey R. Philbrick had married Booth’s only daughter in 1909.


With a modest capital of $15,000, the trio swiftly set their plans in motion. By the summer of 1916, construction of their new plant on Homestead Avenue was underway, and by September, the foundry was operational. It opened its doors with a workforce of 60 employees who were immediately immersed in the bustling activity. At that time, the demand for iron castings in Hartford was so intense that local foundries struggled to keep pace. Consequently, many manufacturers had to source their needs from cities like Willimantic, Meriden, Waterbury, and Bristol in Connecticut, as well as Springfield, Massachusetts, and Saratoga Springs, New York.










The Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company quickly became an integral part of Hartford's industrial landscape, contributing not only to the local economy but also to the broader industrial fabric of the region. The foundry's inception during a period of high demand underscored its significance and the foresight of its founders in recognizing the burgeoning opportunities within Hartford and beyond.



The completion of the Philbrick-Booth Company’s new plant in 1916 marked a significant advancement in industrial design and technology. The facility was distinguished by its state-of-the-art infrastructure, heavily incorporating electrical power—a cutting-edge feature at the time. This modernity was evident in its electric-powered blast furnaces, Whiting traveling cranes with a hefty 15,000-pound capacity, electric chisels, and comprehensive electric lighting. Additionally, the plant employed compressed air-driven sandblasting machinery, enhancing its efficiency and productivity.


Central to the plant’s operations was its Taxson design cupola, boasting a melting capacity of ten tons per hour. Both finished and raw materials were seamlessly moved throughout the facility using cranes and an electric railway system, underscoring the plant’s commitment to leveraging the latest technological advancements.


The success and growth of the Philbrick-Booth Company were rapid and sustained. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the business expanded its facilities multiple times to keep pace with increasing demand. In 1927, a pivotal moment in the company’s history occurred with its merger with the Hartford Foundry Company of Wethersfield, Connecticut. This merger birthed the Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company, integrating Edgar B. Spencer, who had established the Hartford Foundry in 1926, into the partnership.










As the mid-twentieth century unfolded, the company adapted to the evolving industrial landscape by specializing in the production of castings for airplane engines and submarine parts. This strategic focus kept the company profitable and relevant, particularly during World War II when it played a crucial role in manufacturing grenade casings. The company’s innovative spirit extended into the Space Race, contributing a cast cover used in a fuel cell module.


Despite the technological advancements and strategic shifts that had kept the Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company thriving for decades, it eventually faced the inevitabilities of industrial change. The company maintained a workforce of around 50 employees into the 1990s but ultimately ceased operations around the year 2000. The historic plant, a testament to early 20th-century industrial ingenuity, was demolished in 2018, marking the end of an era for a site that had once been at the forefront of technological and industrial progress.


In April 2008, an urgent situation unfolded at the Philbrick-Booth Foundry site. The Hartford Fire Department and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (CT DEP) responded to a release of transformer oil, which they suspected contained harmful polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). As they investigated, they discovered additional abandoned containers, which raised further concerns about hazardous materials on the property.











The CT DEP quickly took action, containing and removing the leaking transformers and the contaminated soil for off-site disposal. Recognizing the potential for more extensive contamination, they requested the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a thorough environmental evaluation of the site.


After the City of Hartford foreclosed on the property in September 2008, the EPA launched an official preliminary assessment and site investigation. This included collecting samples from various sources: drums, soil, floor sweepings, and structural materials, which could contain asbestos. The findings were alarming. They detected a powdery material with low levels of radiation (300 uR/hr); semi-volatile and volatile organic compounds (SVOCs and VOCs); PCBs in floor sweepings; heavy metals in liquids stored in 55-gallon drums; and friable asbestos inside the building. Outside, the surface soils also contained heavy metals and PCBs.


In October 2008, the Connecticut Radiation Control Program conducted further sampling and pinpointed the source of the radiation in the powdery material: radium-226. This isotope, with a half-life of 1600 years, is the longest-lived form of radium and is an intermediate product in the decay chain of uranium-238. Naturally occurring in uranium-containing minerals, radium-226's presence added another layer of complexity to the site's contamination.


Over its operational years, the site was known by several names, including Philbrick-Booth Foundry, Philbrick-Booth Co., and Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Co. Inc. This legacy of industrial activity left behind a challenging environmental puzzle, underscoring the critical need for rigorous site management and remediation efforts to protect public health and safety.






Architecture



The former Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company foundry is an intricate patchwork of approximately ten primary interconnected structures situated on the south side of Homestead Avenue, directly across from its intersection with Kent Street. At the heart of this sprawling industrial complex lies the oldest section, dating back to 1916. Originally, this central building measured about 105 feet by 95 feet, but over the decades, numerous additions have obscured its initial footprint, expanding the overall complex to roughly 244 feet by 175 feet.


This one-and-a-half-story building, constructed of red brick, features two prominent clerestory monitors running along its ridgeline, which were once essential for ventilation and natural light. In the mid-twentieth century, a two-story stuccoed façade was added, largely obscuring the original architectural profile. Painted white, this façade includes small rectangular windows and displays the name “PHILBRICK-BOOTH and SPENCER, INC./STEEL CASTINGS” in metal lettering.










A one-story red brick ell extends northward from the original block, connecting it to additional sections built during the 1930s, 1950s, and 1960s. The rest of the plant is a visually eclectic assortment of one- and two-story buildings constructed from a mix of brick, frame, steel, and concrete. Steel-frame conveyors stretch between buildings, facilitating the movement of materials, and a variety of ventilators and exhaust chimneys punctuate the rooftops, highlighting the plant’s industrial nature.


The foundry’s architectural evolution reflects its operational growth and the changing needs of its business over the decades. Each addition and modification tells a story of adaptation and expansion, mirroring the broader industrial developments of the twentieth century.










Current




In 2018, Crop One Holdings, a hydroponic farming company based in California, entered into discussions with the City of Hartford to purchase a total of 3.5 acres on Homestead Avenue, including the former Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Company foundry site. The company planned to transform this historic industrial site into a cutting-edge hydroponic farm, proposing a substantial $16 million investment to breathe new life into the area.


Unfortunately, these ambitious plans never came to fruition. Negotiations faltered, and the envisioned hydroponic farm remained just that—a vision. Today, the property stands neglected, encased behind a chain-link fence as nature slowly reclaims it. Weeds and grass grow wild across the former foundry site foundation, a stark reminder of both its industrious past and the unrealized potential of its future.


The once bustling complex, with its intricate network of buildings and industrial activity, now lies dormant as a vacant lot. The missed opportunity with Crop One Holdings adds to the site's narrative, reflecting the challenges and uncertainties that often accompany efforts to repurpose historical industrial sites. Despite its current state of nonuse, the property holds a unique place in Hartford's industrial history and serves as a symbol of both the past's legacy and the potential for future revitalization.











Sources:





1. Philbrick-Booth and Spencer Co.,  Connecticut Mills

2. Staff Writer, "EPA To Remove Contamination At Philbrick-Booth Foundry Facility In Hartford, Connecticut, March 27, 2009, NS Energy

3. Staff Writer, "Hydroponics Company Eyes North Hartford Land For Multimillion-Dollar Development," May 26, 2018, Hartford Courant


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