Centerbrook offices perch above a sharp bend in the Falls River, a productive habitat where cascading waters have beckoned people, and other species, for millennia. Here, constant movement and commerce have reigned. The indigenous Hammonasset and Niantic tribes harvested herring below the falls, and in 1689, English colonists built a dam for their ironworks.
The Centerbrook site has been generating power to this day. At times corn was ground, timber cut, ivory fashioned. Later, the river's current drove belts and giant cast iron pulleys to run the machines churning out auger bits, harder than nails. Connecticut Valley Manufacturing Co. had a good run here from 1874 until 1969, when an advance party of New Haven architects happened along, searching for a place to do business.
The countryside seemed so inviting after the trials of city living, high rents, break-ins, parking tickets, etc. The river and the mill pond behind the dam appeared so tranquil. So the architects bought the place lock, stock, and barrel and commenced their decades-long, Herculean labors of clearing, cleaning, and renovating. Some of the original pulleys, shafts, belts, and machinery remain. Flooding was the furthest thing from the minds of the designing new owners.
There were two grand opportunities to tear the aging complex down and erect something new and modern. The day they bought it was one, but there was no money left to finance the project, so 'sweat equity' was required to remove 100 years of grease, oil, dirt, and obsolete infrastructure. Two was after The Flood, which nearly sent the whole shooting match down river. Five buildings were destroyed. Only the main building survived the deluge, and barely. It had been raining off and on for days, but on June 6, 1982, fourteen inches of rain fell – one third of the average rainfall for an entire year poured down in one day.
The week before the river's rampage, Centerbrook had installed a hydro-electric generation system. The equipment survived, and the old stone sluiceway saved the main office building. If ever there was a time to engage the wrecking ball, this was it. Tearing things down is as American as apple pie. But Centerbrook went the other way, against the current. They rebuilt. Some new buildings were sited and designed almost exactly like the dearly departed. They raised the most vulnerable of the resurrected structures several feet off the ground so that the next flood-of-the-century hopefully will pass harmlessly underneath.
Decades later, the buildings, old and new, still serve the cause of commerce. The Falls River continues to provide 10 percent of the electrical power while solar and geothermal systems generate another 30 percent of its energy. Herons and schoolchildren fish alongside the dam, the occasional otter as well. In summer, turtles sun themselves on the rocks below the falls.
Inside the main two-story factory building, the belts, pulleys, and machines are gone, replaced by dozens of architects perched over computers at open, egalitarian work stations, designing new structures for a new century. The captains of industry who once owned this place – the Wrights, Pratts, and Bushnells – wouldn't know what to make of such quiet commerce. But from the outside, they would be reassured. It could well be 1893.