The Big Switch
Turning an old telephone building into a design center
For years, Peter Kahane passed a neglected red-brick building on the way to his office a few storefronts down on New Milford’s Church Street. Weeds and brush shrouded the graffiti-marred structure. But instead of an eyesore, Kahane saw a blank canvas—and an opportunity. New Milford, where stretches of farmland bump up against strip malls and subdivisions and homes near the historic town green date back centuries, might seem like an unlikely place for modern and contemporary design. But the vernacular limestone and brick building, built in 1917 as a switching station for Southern New England Telephone Company, seemed like the perfect environment to Kahane. The town, which took ownership of it in 1963, had used the building as a community center and home of the Parks & Recreation Department up until the 1990s when asbestos and lead issues shuttered it. Over the years, the structure deteriorated, becoming a shabby cousin to the town’s restored historic Town Hall located across the street.
It’s future seemed bleak, especially after an attempt by a local artists group to raise $1.5 million to renovate it failed. Then, in 2012, Kahane and his wife, Stephanie, co-owners of Ameico, an importer of modern and contemporary European design products, purchased it from the town for $120,000 and spent just under a million to remediate and renovate the 6,000-square-foot, two-story structure. Last year, they relocated their offices, and in June they opened 29 Church, a retail stop featuring design products from Ameico’s collections, which represent some of the foremost designers from the Bauhaus period of the 1920s up to the present.
From the beginning, the Kahanes, who split their time between Bridgewater and Switzerland, sought to retain the building’s architectural integrity. Much of the original structure was preserved, including the wood and cement flooring, casement windows, and ruddy brick exterior. Even the six-inch round holes that had been cut into the wooden flooring to house switchboard wires were capped with illuminated clear resin-sanded discs to protect historic details. The building’s adaptive reuse earned the Kahanes the New Milford Trust for Historic Preservation 2014 award.
But beyond restoring a significant town structure, “we also wanted it to become a destination place that will draw more people to New Milford,” says Jennette Purdy, general manager of Ameico, “I’ve heard realtors who show homes in Litchfield County tend to direct clients to drive through Woodbury because it is prettier than driving up Route 7.” The town green, reputedly the longest in the state, is just a stone’s throw from the building, she notes. “But newcomers often completely bypass New Milford and that’s something we want to change.”
So far, it seems to be working. Shortly after a story about Ameico appear in the New York Times, Ameico’s retail store witnessed an influx of visitors, including Manhattan day trippers, she says. “A number of them said it was the first time they had been to New Milford and they didn’t know there was anything like this up here.”
On the first floor, where operators once sat at switchboards, employees now tap at computers filling wholesale orders. Above the retail shop, a showroom features meticulously displayed items like a Man Ray beechwood chess set; Josef Albers book shelf, writing desk and nesting tables; Miguel Mila lighting fixtures; and Enzo Mari posters. Tabletop accessories include Wilhelm Wagenfeld salt and pepper sets, Enzo Mari letter openers and Carl Mertens flatware.
And, if you aren’t familiar with those names, on the second floor, a conference room and library features Kahane’s private collection of industrial design books along with framed vintage posters. The space was designed as a gathering place to educate the public on design. “We have always felt that one of our missions needed to be to explain what is good and original design. This building gives us the opportunity to do exactly that, in a beautiful environment,” wrote Kahane in an email.
A surprisingly large community of architects and designers are tucked away in Litchfield County, says Purdy.
“A local architect just told me that the assistant of Arne Jacobsen, one of the most famous architects of modern design, lives in Washington. So its not far fetched to have a design center in a small town like New Milford.”
Standing on the new rooftop porch which overlooks the town, she added: “Our hope is to make this building a place where both professionals and the public can learn more about good, original design and about the history of New Milford itself.