Items from closed Waterbury department store end up starring on television show
WATERBURY (AP) — Pieces of the once-grand Howland-Hughes Department Store are finding their way into some of today's most popular television productions, including one that just picked up two Golden Globes.
In two decades since the closure of Howland-Hughes Department Store, Hank Paine has been caretaker of the massive building on Bank Street and a collection of antiques hearkening back to its grand heyday.
Paine, president of the Howland-Hughes Co., always knew he had a treasure trove. He could see it in the reaction of visitors getting their first glimpses of the antique glass cases, cash registers and displays, the fully decked beauty salon and the basement lunch counter.
"Over the years so many people came in and said: 'Oh wow!' or "Oh my God!' or 'Is this for real?'" Paine said. "But how you turn that into sales, I didn't have a clue."
That changed this spring, when Mary Fellows, a theatrical set decorator, showed up in front of Howland-Hughes on Bank Street. She was looking for 1950s-era display cases for the award-winning Amazon production "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
The mammoth five-story building has long been mostly mothballed. Paine had run a specialty store selling made-in-Connecticut items, but few other tenants have come to the building. Fellows found a note with Paine's number taped to the door of The Connecticut Store.
"A gentleman with a sweet voice picked up and said: 'I think I have what you're looking for," Fellows recalled.
Paine, a soft-spoken and friendly businessman, has long struggled to maintain and find a use for a building that was the center of his life, and that of his father and grandfather. He's always enjoyed leading visitors through the building, sharing its history. A couple of weeks after the phone conversation, Fellows returned for a tour.
An intact 1950s-era glass case is an extremely rare find, Fellows said. There were several available at Howland-Hughes.
And much more.
Fellows would end up carting off sign holders, office furniture, lighting, cash registers and truckloads of other artifacts. Howland-Hughes became a "huge resource" for "Mrs. Maisel," Fellows said. She's tapped that resource for other shows on Amazon, including "Happy" and "Red Oaks." She says its one of the top five finds in her 25-year career.
"It was like this revelation of this unbelievable department store that still had so much of its history," Fellows said. "I was just blown away."
"Mrs. Maisel" is set in late 1950s New York. The main character takes to the comedy stage after separating from her husband. To make ends meet, she works at a department store cosmetics counter.
Ellen Christiansen, key set decorator for "Mrs. Maisel," visited Howland-Hughes with production designer Bill Groom. They were tempted to Waterbury by photographs of the former store's interior.
"We were excited to be able to source not only the period-appropriate department store fixtures, but also several truckloads of furnishings that were used throughout the show in a variety of sets," Christiansen said. "Finding so many wonderful set pieces in one place was very unusual. We are happy to repurpose what Hank Paine preserved."
Two New York theatrical prop companies visited to buy in bulk this fall. One took out a 24-foot-long display counter from the third floor in three sections.
"So the Howland-Hughes company lives again in the form of film," Paine said.
Paine estimates about 17 box trucks of artifacts have been taken from the old store. Some are sold. Some are leased, like the roughly 4-foot-tall, brass-framed, directory of departments. Paine declined to say how much money the artifacts have yielded.
Fellows lives in Newtown, where she grew up. She used to travel to Howland-Hughes as a child, visiting its "wonderful" Girl Scout section. She recalled the store when she had to hunt down display cases.
Howland-Hughes ran for more than a century on Bank Street. Paine and a series of mayoral administrations have tried to breathe new life into the building. Mayor Neil M. O'Leary's administration says it is close to engineering a sale.
A pair of deep-pocketed investors from New York have signed a purchase-and-sales agreement. Announced in July, the sale was originally expected to close in September. Joseph Gramando, one of the buyers, said in September he and his partner (and brother-in-law) Lou Forster needed more time to review the building's condition and potential environmental liabilities.
Attempts to reach Gramando were unsuccessful. Paine said he doesn't know when the closing will happen, that he's left this in the hands of the mayor's office and Gramando.
Joseph McGrath, O'Leary's economic development director, couldn't say when a closing might occur. All indications are the deal will close, McGrath said. He said "it's in the hands" of the buyers' lawyers at this point.
"We are waiting for them to come back and give us what we hope is good news," McGrath said. "I have to be optimistic anyway, that's my job. But I feel good about it."
Paine said he won't sell every artifact. The basement diner is staying, as are the "fancy dress" display cases. The buyers want to keep a historic flavor, he said.
Paine said a series of would-be buyers have toured the building over the years, but nobody with the funds to see their vision through to completion. He hopes to successfully seal this deal, completing what he describes as his obligation to a building long associated with his family.
"My job is to find a safe landing for it," Paine said. "Thanks to the mayor and Joe Gramando, that may very well be possible."
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