About: History

 

About the Wassaic Project

The Wassaic Project programs music, art, dance and film at a level of excellence seldom available as such an intimate experience. The buildings that the project occupies, a converted grain elevator turned exhibition space, and an auction barn turned studio and workshop, are unique and historic.

In addition to producing excellent cultural programming, the Wassaic Project has become a constant economic stimulus in the Wassaic and Dutchess County region. The artists and staff increase the downtown population by 10%, and exhibitions and events bring a steady stream of visitors to the hamlet while the Wassaic Project sustains a deep commitment to the history of our buildings and townspeople, and the beauty of our location.

In the six years the Wassaic Project has been operating, we have grown our annual summer festival attendance from 500 to 4,000; developed the exhibitions program which includes 3 or more exhibitions per year in over 8,000 square feet of gallery space; launched the guest curator program which has worked with 21 curators in 4 years; developed the education program and started collaborating with local school systems for the 2012-2013 school year; and seamlessly integrated the Wassaic Project into the community and architecture of Wassaic, NY. The Wassaic Project has created collaborative programming with MASS MoCA, Recession Arts, the Invisible Dog, Galapagos Art Space, New Amsterdam Records, The Aldrich Museum, Allegra Laviola Gallery, Columbia University, the New School, and CUNY Hostos.

The Wassaic Project operates in conjunction with advisory committees for its art, music, dance, film, and writing programs, working with luminaries in each field including Alanna Heiss (MoMA PS1), Lucien Zayan (Invisible Dog), Liliana Greenfield-Sanders (Sundance), and Earl Mosely (Earl Mosely Institute of the Arts).

The Wassaic Project Co-Directors are Eve Biddle, Bowie Zunino, and Jeff Barnett-Winsby.
 

the history of the wassaic project and the hamlet of wassaic

The history of the Wassaic Project, like the hamlet of Wassaic itself, reflects the vitality and dynamism of the shifting American landscape. The hamlet of Wassaic was born in the age of industry. Noah Gridley and Son Ironworks, a company that produced pig iron in the nineteenth century, served as a catalyst to the growth of the community. Supported by the Gridley family, Gail Borden continued industrial development in Wassaic, building his factory to produce Eagle Brand condensed milk. In the twentieth century the industry transformed yet again, led by the Maxon Mills Company, to feed production. However, as the twenty-first century approached, the success of industry in Wassaic declined. The exchange of goods largely depended on the Harlem Valley Railroad line, which in 1852 reached the hamlet and thrived as a long-distance commuter and freight line until the 1970s when freight service ended and track removal began. The construction of the new Route 22, which shifted the flow of traffic from the town’s center to the outskirts, also proved detrimental to Wassaic’s economy.

In the twenty-first century the hamlet of Wassaic found itself with three prominent buildings, the Maxon Mills, the Luther Barn, and the Wassaic House hotel, once active, left virtually unused. In 2005 the Maxon Mills, abandoned and in a state of decay, was urged to be demolished. The fate of the mill was reversed when a local organization lobbied to place the building on the New York State Register of Historic Places that same year.

Although a designated landmark, the Maxon Mills remained unusable until Anthony Zunino and his business partner Richard Berry, who both had a hand in developing the South Street Seaport Historic District, purchased and renovated the building. The historical integrity of the Maxon Mills was maintained through the renovation, which was guided by antique photographs of the building. The presence of the building’s former functions is part of what makes the Wassaic Project a unique exhibition space. Artwork is displayed alongside enormous hoppers, bucket elevators, and other machinery on walls permanently transformed by the passage of grain. The gallery spaces themselves are dictated by the shape of the seven-story building and the entire space serves as a welcome creative challenge for artists and guest curators.

The effort to preserve the Maxon Mills did not start with a master plan. It was saved because of its iconographic significance to the American landscape and its potential to revitalize the community of Wassaic. It was not until 2008 that a future was carved out for the former feed elevator when Eve Biddle, Bowie Zunino, and Elan Bogarin proposed utilizing the building to host a contemporary summer arts festival.

In an increased effort to serve as an anchor for Wassaic, the Wassaic Project has expanded programming beyond the summer festival to include a summer exhibition and a community-oriented K-12 and adult education programs.

 

The Wassaic Project’s Buildings

The Maxon Mills

The Maxon Mills, owned by the Maxon Mills Company, was built in 1954 and remained in active use as a feed elevator until the 1980s. The Maxon Mills Company operated by collecting assorted grains from farmers and distributing credit for the amount collected. Farmers had different varieties of grains to offer depending on where their land was located. The mill’s function was to mix the grains to create a complete feed for livestock, especially cattle. The farmers who supplied the grain could then use the credit to purchase the complex mix of grain produced by the mill. In its heyday the Maxon Mills Company distributed grain to six counties, reaching as far as Vermont, using the railroad as its method of transport.

The Maxon Mills is not only significant historically but also architecturally. It is one of the last remaining wood-crib elevators in the country and railroad model-making enthusiasts use Maxon Mills as a prototype for the design of feed elevators. Currently, the Maxon Mills functions as the Wassaic Project’s exhibition space.

The Wassaic House Hotel

The Wassaic House Hotel, built in the 1850s by Noah Gridley of Noah Gridley and Son Ironworks, was a direct product of the railroad and functioned as a leisure location where upper class railroad passengers could rest, dine, and socialize. The hotel abuts the Maxon Mills and now serves as an exhibition, artist studio, and office space.

The Luther Barn

The Luther Barn was built in 1875 by Noah Gridley and Son Ironworks. After World War II the Luther family purchased the barn and transformed it into a thriving center of commerce and communication between New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The Luther Barn was a dynamic market; it was a space to sell, buy, and barter for an array of goods and, more famously, an auction ring for a variety of livestock. The Luther Barn played an important role as one of the few establishments that brought together farmers from all three states. The last auction was held in December of 2002. In 2009, the Wassaic Project reclaimed the Luther Barn; the former animal stalls have been adapted for artist studio spaces, and the former auction ring is used as a film screening room and a performance venue.
 

The Harlem Valley Line

The Wassaic train station was originally constructed adjacent to the Maxon Mills. The station was shifted to its current location in 2000. The railroad, which reached Wassaic in 1852 thrived as a commuter and freight line and extended as far as Chatham, NY and made connections as far as Albany, NY and North Adams, MA. The railroad replaced river transport and served as an important lifeline for commerce. Nevertheless, as automobile culture emerged so did accessible highways, turnpikes, and interstates. By the 1960s railroad service was cut back, severely affecting businesses. In 1972 the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began the existing commuter service.

Tree grows out of the roof of the Maxon Mills building

Tree grows out of the roof of the Maxon Mills building

Wassaic House

Wassaic House

Mill rehab // Photo by Fred Shake

Mill rehab // Photo by Fred Shake

Maxon Mills INC Sign // Photo by Matthew Slaats

Maxon Mills INC Sign // Photo by Matthew Slaats

Outside the Luther Barn... a long time ago!

Outside the Luther Barn... a long time ago!

Luther Barn // Photo by Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Luther Barn // Photo by Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Kilns // Photo by Nicole Lenzen

Kilns // Photo by Nicole Lenzen

Hammy Sign // Photo by Nicole Lenzen

Hammy Sign // Photo by Nicole Lenzen

Tree grows out of the roof of the Maxon Mills buildingWassaic HouseMill rehab // Photo by Fred ShakeMaxon Mills INC Sign // Photo by Matthew SlaatsOutside the Luther Barn... a long time ago!Luther Barn // Photo by Jeff Barnett-WinsbyKilns // Photo by Nicole LenzenHammy Sign // Photo by Nicole Lenzen