I’ve developed a concern about smokestacks, those lofty brick towers once integral to thousands of factories dotting New England’s landscape, some of which are still used today. It’s not a fear they will fall on me and it’s in addition to any concern for potential toxics or particulates they emit. No. I’m worried they are disappearing. Last year the iconic Naugatuck Chemical stack, its company name emblazoned vertically on the gigantic cylinder, was demolished. For generations it had been a beacon along the Naugatuck River and Connecticut Route 8, one of the earliest architectural landmarks remembered from my childhood. I felt its absence when I passed the spot yesterday, like some phantom limb.
The decline of these monuments is logical given the disappearance of the massive redbrick factories of a century ago, but even when these old temples of mass production are reborn as apartments or shops, the associated stack is often unneeded and becomes a maintenance headache and liability. The result is demolition.
A remnant of the days when the solution to pollution was dilution, these gigantic, functional objects remind us of a grand industrial heritage when this region dominated in making everything from buttons to firearms. They also provide an environmental lesson in how far we’ve come in cleaning our air since the days when emitting coal black smoke was common.
Okay, such a worry probably seems over-the-top, way over, given other historic preservation and smart growth concerns, but I guess architecture doesn’t have to be beautiful to be meaningful. Sure, we can’t and probably shouldn’t save them all, but how about a sampling to honor the past and teach the future? It’s great that the old Scovill stack is preserved at Waterbury’s Brass Mill Center shopping mall as an art object and curiosity. Some, like the stack at the old Bristol Brass plant has found a second life as a microwave tower. Still, many are crumbling and will soon be gone without a trace.