Honoring the Echoes

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When a developer set about converting a historic factory complex into luxury apartments, they insisted on embracing its industrial past in the most creative ways – and selected Eric Rains Landscape Architecture to make playful, practical use of rescued elements in the outdoor environment the firm would design.

Eric Rains and his design team have wrapped up work on the Corsair Apartments, an upscale amalgam of history, thoroughly modern amenities and clever design. This urban parcel in the East Rock section of new Haven had been many things before its current reinvention: the Elm City Dye Works and Steam Laundry, factories that turned out cigars, carriage locks and rifles, and most famously during its WWII incarnation the manufacturer of big aluminum propellers for Corsair fighter planes. For its developer, these industrial echoes from the past had to be woven throughout the project. 

Materials and decorative elements were harvested from the site and beyond and add interest at every turn. A flatiron from the 1800s laundry is a handle to a large sliding barn door, itself made from arching, weathered boards gleaned from the old factoring buildings. A gymnasium floor from an Idaho high school has been reinstalled with intentional randomness in the exercise room like bright red, white and blue confetti. Metal-mullioned glass walls that once brightened factory floors now separate office spaces. Arching slices of steel that were roof trusses hiver above a large rooftop terrace. 

Contemporary works of art by New Haven artists have been commissioned to enliven the exterior, entrances, and common areas at Corsair. Much of the work pays homage to the industrial past of New Haven and the manufacturers and service companies in this redolent site’s history. 

Tasked with designing all of the landscapes at Corsair, Rains’ particular focus was the half-acre central courtyard, once a factory floor that rang for more than 135 years with the sounds of men, women, and machinery.

There is a refinement and cordiality about Eric Rains himself, a thoughtfulness in his choice of words and a ready smile that speak of his upbringing in the deep South. That same genteel essence flows through his design studio and is translated into his work. 

The courtyard is playful, relaxed, adaptable, diverse, and inviting all at once. A bocce court lies next to a ring of rocking chairs surrounded by wispy Stewartia trees. A hammock ranch rests beside an outdoor theater, with its green lawn ideal for blankets and folding chairs. There is a perfectly round, Kelly green gathering spot with Adirondack chairs tucked under trees and behind rolling mounds. A communal firepit blossoms out of an irregularly shaped native boulder. A wide, articulated glass door resembling a garage door on a grander scale raises to open the complex’s main function room to the outdoor spaces. The pool area has abundant mingling space and three cabanas for relaxing, already weathering to blend with the grey apartments that rise behind them. All in under an acre. 

Blending was important to the entire design. Rains speaks of the site “settling in” and his intention that it look like the buildings rose around the courtyard. Short native grasses will begin sprouting through the undulating hillocks he designed on the periphery. Native ferns will fill in to provide green in the summer and brilliant fall color. When leaves drop from the maple and oak trees, they’ll be purposely left everywhere but the walkways to further the effect. 

Moreover, as Corsair’s buildings ooze history purposely, the landscape Rains and his firm design, partners with the same spirit. Friezes pulled from the old factory decoratively anchor the base of the outdoor movie screen. Stone stepping slabs of differing pale greys, some with ghostly traces of scuffed paint from their previous lives, are set into the soil to define entries. An abstract wooden boat floats above the secluded gathering area, suspended from wooden masts by guy wires, speaking of New Haven’s historic connection to its harbor. 

The team that converted Corsair from neglected and run down into relevant and energizing has a remarkable chemistry. The creative business that he is in, Rains affirms, is a great deal about this kind of chemistry. There is a collaborative spirit not only among his own team of licensed practitioners, designers, and support personnel, but with clients and suppliers at Corsair. One is reminded that this same cooperative spirit must be an echo of the drive that was here as they turned out fighter propellers as quickly as they could. 

Rains’ firm is a repeat partner with Corsair owner Post Road Residential of Fairfield and Beinfield Architecture of South Norwalk. The trio is collaborating on other mixed-use properties in the state. Their projects all seem to have what Rains calls a nice linear flow. – without undue circling back to revisit decisions – “and the end result, to say nothing of the process, is so much better,” he says. 

In the execution of their creations, Rains and his firm have partnered with O&G’s Earth Products Showcase repeatedly as an extension of their team. Because of the breadth of material O&G presents and the technical knowledge of products and processes that O&G staff can provide, Rains and company are comfortable relying on them for their upscale projects. They also know that the materials they specify will arrive on their sites whenever they are needed. 

“Our working relationship with O&G has been exemplary. Responses to our questions and needs have not only been timely but thorough. With this level of service, we’re able to respond to our clients’ needs in the same manner”.

It’s another echo of the drive and skill practiced here by Corsair workers and thousands before them. It is what the owner calls a “spirit of can-do ingenuity that lives on in every detail”.