New life for Midtown Kingston building

The old shirt factory

The members and staff of Kingston’s planning board stand silent in the middle of the cavernous third-floor room where a century ago many tables of working women toiled making shirts and other clothing: the needle trades. Scott Dutton, whose Fuller Holdings LLC closed on the former shirt factory on Pine Grove Avenue in midtown Kingston in May, is in the center of the space, pointing out architectural details and explaining that he had at first planned apartments there.

It’s the afternoon of November 2, and the planning board is making a site visit. The members have already given approval to the first phase of the building’s resuscitation, and they want to see more.

Bright natural light streams through the long rows of six-over-six wood windows within arched openings on both sides of the 111-year-old former factory space, highlighting fragments of dust floating in the air and reflecting off narrow and worn century-old maple planks. The exposed walls are brick. Wooden beams, supported by two rows of posts and reinforced in some places, span the ceiling. The space is like a working man’s cathedral.

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A reflective Dutton tells the planning board that he had a change of heart once the room, unused for many decades, was restored to its stripped-down originals materials and cleaned up. “I said, I can’t cut this up,” he recalls saying to himself. “I couldn’t bear to.”

He doesn’t want to. So he’ll be looking for a single tenant who will use the entire vast room. Maybe like a dancing school, he says. Or something else.

Third-floor Fuller factory space prior to the beginning of renovations. (photo by Chris Kimball)

Like any owner not unaware of business conditions, Dutton is keeping his options for the third floor open. He’s working from the ground up. The first phase involves cleaning out the low ground floor, putting in a main entrance (“Some time next year this is going to be the front door,” he tells the planning board at a crude doorway on the north side of the building) next to the large parking lot shared with River Radiology, the former building owner and now Dutton’s tenant still occupying about a third of the total space.

Inside that newly created entrance, Dutton plans a commodious lobby and common space, bathrooms, a modern elevator (the original freight elevator, which miraculously still functions, will remain), and a 6000-square-foot temporary location for the Center for Creative Education. A series of graceful interior brick archways were discovered behind the walls during Dutton’s excavations.

Less etched in stone are plans for 17 projected 300-to-400-square-foot workspaces on the second floor, intended for professional and creative tenants. When that floor is ready to be rented, Dutton hopes he will have gained a better sense of the marketplace for the third floor. Even cathedrals need to be occasionally repurposed.

There’s also space on the 2.2-acre site for a courtyard and landscaping. Dutton is installing solar panels and the latest energy-saving devices beloved of architectural practitioners.

He seems to regard architectural discovery as a welcoming occupational hazard requiring improvisation on his part. Uncertainty and a certain degree of adversity don’t seem to faze him. “I like to play with buildings,” he concedes.

The Fuller Shirt project has proven a source of constant discovery not only to Dutton, who graduated from The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1993 and now has had an architectural practice in Kingston for over 20 years, but also to others as well: the craftspeople, independent contractors, consultants and tradespersons with whom he has been collaborating. Every job site has its own energy, Dutton earnestly explains. This one carries with it “a genuine happiness.”

Perhaps to some degree he’s projecting his own enthusiasm. Perhaps not.

Dutton’s his own client on this job. He’s not working for a developer. He doesn’t have investors. The money he puts into it is his. So will be the results.

Repurposed buildings have a particular fascination for this architect, who has brought a number of them in the region back to unexpected life. In that respect, some projects are more rewarding than others. This one seems to have been particularly rewarding. “We had no idea of what we had,” he says.

The search for tenants is exhibiting the same kind of serendipity as the rediscovery of the space. The Center for Creative Education will move to RUPCO’s Energy Square if and when that project gets off the ground. With Kingston attracting wider interest among startup businesses and New York City transplants, Dutton is sure he’ll find the right mix of tenants. Constant expressions of interest in the space seem to have boosted his confidence.

Scott Dutton’s playground at 45 Pine Grove Avenue consists of 67,000 square feet of building space. Along with the Lace Mill (80,000 square feet) and the Metro (also 67,000 square feet) on which he has also worked, the L-shaped Fuller Shirt Company structure plus additions is one of the few remaining large-factory-size buildings available for historic designation in Kingston. National and state landmark status would make it eligible for tax credits.

The 2.2-acre site was home to the Hudson River Lumberyard from 1847 until the shirt factory was built in 1906. Isaiah Fuller had about 200 workers when he moved his factory from Prince Street to the new building on Pine Grove Avenue in 2006.

Steady factory work in the booming textile industry provided good pay and relatively benign working conditions for many Kingstonians. According to a 1916 Kingston Freeman article, the average female clothing worker in Kingston made $15 to $20 a week, while the men were earning only $12. Hard economic times during the Great Depression led to a union organizing drive in 1934. Children’s clothing maker Skyline Manufacturing shared half the factory with Fuller. Employing about 400 to 500 people, Fuller thrived for a few years in the post-World War II environment. In 1956 the business was sold to the Stetson Company, which was attempting to diversify from its hat business; Stetson left in 1961. Harried by increasing Southern competition, the Fuller factory closed after various organizational changes around 1965.

Most accounts have emphasized the quality of the in-person social intercourse at Fuller and the pride of the labor force in the quality of their work. Those are precisely the elusive qualities the loss of which sociologist Robert Putnam lamented in his noted 2000 book “Bowling Alone.” Times change, of course, but the thought that the future Fuller tenants might seek to utilize the same space to collaborate with each other in a sympathetic environment is hard to resist.

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