Remember when: 100 Thanksgiving, Windsor Namco block | Weekend magazine
One hundred years ago this month, the Johnson family, formerly of Springfield, celebrated Thanksgiving in their new, comfortable and bright rooms overlooking Mill Brook in Windsor. They had moved to the not quite finished Namco Apartments by early 1921 and in so doing made their name in history – or at least in the April 29 edition of the Vermont Journal – as very first tenants of the time. -the tallest residential building in New England.
The Namco Block (now Union Square), the stately red brick apartment building at the corner of Union and Main streets in Windsor, was built in 1920 by LA LaFrance Co. of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Originally designed as family accommodation for employees of the National Acme Co. (Namco), this is an architectural surprise, seemingly out of place in a small Vermont village. With its rows of bow windows “undulating … along … (its) extremely long facade,” as a report from the National Register of Historic Places describes, it is as impressive a sight today as it is. it surely was a century ago.
At that time, the construction project was not only a visual innovation, but also a concept thought out ahead of its time. At a time when housing only single men was the norm, it was “a very interesting housing experience,” as a local historian put it in 1923.
And it was also a necessary experience. By 1920 Windsor’s population had skyrocketed, and it was all thanks to the town’s tooling industry.
Machinists from the Robbins and Lawrence Machine Co. of Windsor were making Enfield rifles for the government in the 1840s, and a decade later their successor companies were making sewing machines. In the late 1880s, the Windsor Machine Co. was established.
In 1909, the Windsor Machine Co. was the city’s largest employer. After the invention in 1902 of the Gridley single-spindle automatic lathe and a four-spindle lathe in 1907 – machines that make screws, bolts and other metal objects – the business has grown steadily. In 1914, the company was ready to fill an order from Gridley Automatics for the production of shells for use in World War I.
In 1915 the National Acme Manufacturing Co. of Cleveland, Ohio purchased the Windsor Machine Co. Maintaining factories in Cleveland and Windsor, it was reconsolidated as the National Acme Co. Windsor became a city of company with a hospital, club, cinema center and sports teams, all bearing the Namco name.
As the demand for spindle lathe machines increased throughout the war, new employees flocked to Windsor. The number rose from 400 to 1,200 between 1914 and 1915. By the end of 1918, it had grown to 5,000, a number that included returning soldiers that Namco had promised to rehire.
And housing was tight, especially during Vermont winters, when car and streetcar travel was hampered and factory workers had to live nearby. So when it got to the point that shiftworkers were sharing beds in dorms in old commercial buildings, it was clear Namco was in desperate need of expanding their corporate accommodations.
Although additional boarding houses were built, the situation became critical in October 1918 when the Windsor Club Inn, a boarding house and social center for employees on the shore of Mill Brook, was damaged by fire. In 1920, the charred building was razed to the ground and the site was prepared for Mr. LaFrance’s new residential building.
When it was completed in 1922, the Namco block consisted of 72 apartments, eight in each of nine identical four-storey terraced buildings. With families now able to live together, Namco has attracted workers beyond the city of Windsor, a factor that has contributed to the company’s success.
The year 1922 also marked the peak of post-war coal price hikes. With endless heat and hot water supplied to the apartments by a 65-horsepower steam engine, electric lighting and cooking capabilities, and rents “so low they quite astonish a city dweller”, even the families who owned homes elsewhere were moving to the new apartments. Each fall, notices of couples and families moving to “the neighborhood” for the winter began appearing in the Vermont Journal. Some families have sold entirely.
Just like the Johnson family. And Mrs. Belle Ayers who, in November 1922, opened a kindergarten in one of the apartments. And the Partridge family, whose daughter, Miss Ada, hosted a surprise 21st birthday party in November for her future husband, Private Orel Hutchins. So many families were settling down just in time to join family and new neighbors around the Thanksgiving table.
Sadly, Namco fell victim to the Depression and had to close its doors in 1933. Over the next two decades, the company’s apartment building slowly lost tenants and eventually fell into disrepair. But saved from complete disrepair, it was renovated in 1989 and in 1991, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, it was transformed into the 58 more spacious and accessible apartments that are today Union Square.
This Thanksgiving, 100 years after the first celebrations within its walls, another generation of residents will do the same. Happy birthday, Namco block! May you continue for a long time to remember Windsor’s successful manufacturing past and witness to the family-oriented vision of Namco’s leaders and the architectural art of Mr. LA LaFrance. It is still a wonder to see, a true historical and architectural landmark in the “birthplace of Vermont”.
Joanna Tebbs Young is a freelance author, writer, historian and educational artist living in Rutland. She can be contacted at [email protected]