- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

BRISTOL, Conn. (AP) - Wandering through the old J.H. Sessions & Sons factory on Riverside Avenue is more than a trip through time.

On the outside there’s ivy and brick. On the inside, the detritus of more than a century, from outdated medical equipment to the tiny hinges and latches once manufactured there for use in the making of trunks.

Though Sessions hasn’t operated in more than two decades, the building- despite oil-soaked beams and dusty rooms -still has some life in it, including everyone from artists to a small engine repair shop.

One of its caretakers, City Councilor Eric Carlson, has a toy train set up in a spacious room upstairs, not too far from a General Electric refrigerator from the Depression years that’s still keeping drinks cold.

“Like every other nut in here, I’ve fallen in love with this building,” Carlson said.

The place has its oddities, among them one of the few water-powered elevators left in the country, still operating without electricity 110 years after its installation in a shaft dug out by four mules turning a drill and a crew of workmen.

Using the pressure of the municipal water system, Carlson raises and lowers the elevator by yanking on a cable as the sound of water sloshing fills the air. It keeps trickling through the pipes for hours afterward.

Justin Malley, the city’s economic development director, said the building has real potential.

It’s stark industrial era look- bricks, beams and all manner of pipes and ducts -is a hot commodity these days. “You can’t buy that,” Malley said.

As a result, there has been a steady stream of potential developers who have looked at the place, envisioning upscale apartments inside, a brew pub, a restaurant, shops and more.

“It’s not like it has no value,” Malley said.

Louise DeMars, the director of the New England Carousel Museum down the street, said it “would make a terrific Quincy Market in Bristol, with condos on the top floor and a wonderful roof garden where you can see all of Bristol.”

Pollution studies have found, though, that cleaning up the contamination from decades of use in an era long before environmental regulation will make any project costly. And that’s just the beginning of what an overhaul would need.

Still, Malley said, “getting the project in front of the right people” might pay off for the city. He said it’s definitely one of his priorities.

“It’s a wonderful old building,” said Ray Frankowski, who co-owns R&B; Repair Services, which is housed in the back of the place. He said he sometimes thinks about all the people who have trudged up and down its stairs and through its hall over many years.

“You sort of become attached to it.” said his partner, Brian Beals.

Bill Selnau knows just how that can be.

He started working off the books for Sessions as a young teenager in the late 1970s and he’s pretty much never left the place.

He knows all of its nooks and crannies and he’d devoted his energy, in part, to preserving its history.

“Anything to do with this building, I kept it,” Selnau said.

He’s socked away ledgers from the 1800s, calendars from the 1900s, photographs and much more that help detail the story of the company.

John Humphrey Sessions started the company in 1854, a time when travelers typically used steamer trunks to haul their stuff around.

What set Sessions on the path to industrial success was its founder’s realization that reinforcing the corners of the trunks with steel would protect them when they were, inevitably, dropped or bumped in transit.

The business expanded over the years to include all sorts of case and trunk-related items, an astonishing array of hardware, some of which is hung on a makeshift display in one room that is chock-a-block full of stuff.

The Riverside Avenue property, which once stretched all the way to South Street, was in use for nearly a century before the factory closed in 1993, its name sold to a competitor.

For now, it appears the building will slog on, pulling in just enough rent to make it worth opening the doors.

Carlson said the normal fate of largely abandoned old factories isn’t too great a threat because the sprinkler system is still working fine.

It’s heated, too, thanks to a 200-horsepower furnace installed in 1965 that burns through a lot of oil but still does the job, he said.

But even the building’s most die-hard fans recognize that perhaps some of the gems inside, from old hardware from Sessions to the former sign of the Trudon Trucking outfit on Downs Street, probably belong at the Bristol Historical Society where others can see them.

And Carlson said he may need to have a word with the Grand Wailea Hotel in Hawaii that brags about having the only water-powered elevator in the world.

Connecticut alone has a half dozen of them still in operation, Carlson said. There are at least another handful in the United States, a few in Australia and a couple in England that are protected by historic preservation laws as examples of Victorian era engineering.

There are actually two elevators at the Sessions building, but one of them is closed off because nobody wanted to spend an extra $2,000 for a backflow preventer required by the city water department. One of them was enough, Carlson said.

Selnau knows the elevator intimately.

“The more it leaks,” he said, “the slower it goes.”

___

Information from: The Bristol Press, http://www.bristolpress.com

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