A hidden secret in subdued Westville

Sculptor Gar Waterman loves seeds. Much of his work depicts organic forms that seem to sprout perpetually. It is with this energy, which he calls “the energy of germination” that Waterman and his wife, Thea Buxbaum, transformed a forgotten and decaying area of Westville into a burgeoning arts community.

Six years ago, Buxbaum had been working in New York and Waterman had been working at a studio in Rhode Island; they sought not only to relocate together, but were committed to laying down roots and cultivating a community. New Haven won out over cities like Providence, Northampton, New London, and others for reasons many middle-income culture-mongers love New Haven: the combination of a thriving arts community, access to cultural centers like New York and Boston, good restaurants, and cheap, quality real estate.

Yet what Waterman and Buxbaum chose as their own “cheap, quality real estate” was lacking a roof in places, saturated by mildew, and infested with feral cats who were using the space as a giant litter box. In New Haven, Westville is associated with the leafy, upper-middle class neighborhoods that house the likes of U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and the elite Hopkins School.

On the other side of Whalley Avenue, on one side of an angular cul-de-sac in a mixed-use area of residences and industrial structures, Buxbaum and Waterman found what was, in its last incarnation, a photocopy machine retail company, and originally a heavy equipment depot. Today, its cinderblock construction, huge sliding doors on all sides of the back section and 8,200-square-foot expanse belie its industrial past. Their neighbor on the Whalley side of their property is a transformer yard; the other side of their house faces where West River and Silver Brook intersect. The opposite side of the street is residential, and when they arrived in the neighborhood seven years ago, many of the houses were decrepit, never having recovered from a devastating flood that occurred there in 1982 that filled most first floors with 8 to 10 feet of water. They saw potential.

The city had a vested interest in their project. The building had been off the tax roll for years, neighbors had been complaining to the city to get the dangerous eyesore torn down, but the estimate for its demolition was $30,000. Buxbaum, who is the exclusive manager of the financial side of the couple’s projects, presented the city with a plan for its rehabilitation and greater development of the area of Westville. After her deft navigation of a city bureaucracy with no bureau that could handle their project (“They didn’t know what to do with us”), the city of New Haven sold 425 West Rock Ave. to Thea Buxbaum and Gar Waterman for $1.

The couple paid incalculably more in hard manual labor as they converted the space from a rancid dump to home, studio, gallery and three loft apartments. They destroyed and rebuilt every aspect of the interior themselves except code-compliant heating, electrical and plumbing systems. Today guests enter a spacious, high-ceilinged gallery and living room, elegantly paved in polished concrete. Waterman’s smooth organic artwork hangs on all the walls. Scattered around the room are free-standing architectural habitats for giant insects welded together from scrap metal. The back part of the complex is Waterman’s cavernous studio, through which one enters onto a sculpture garden of fruit trees and flowering bushes.

Once they’d created livable space, they went to work on the other properties in their building and their neighborhood. They converted their second floor into apartments, now inhabited by a photographer, a writer and Yale architecture students. They purchased the house across the street from them, renovated and sold it. The house kitty-corner to them was purchased and renovated by their artist friends, and next door to that another artist couple, Heather and Lenny, recently moved in from Boston. The latter couple planned to stay only temporarily, but were attracted by this small artists’ enclave and the vibrant cultural community in New Haven as a whole.

Buxbaum and Waterman have a dog named Radiator that comes rushing to the door to greet guests. One would automatically associate the name with a heating apparatus, but it quickly becomes obvious that the word is Buxbaum and Waterman’s trademark verb: to radiate, to convey warmth or well-being in successive, expansive motion. With the support of her workplace, Neighborhood Housing Services, Buxbaum has been able to purchase more properties on West Rock Avenue, on the other side of Whalley. Together with two Yale architects, they are working to turn these properties into a complex of mixed-income residences and retail spaces. Meanwhile, Waterman is enjoying the most commercial success of his long career; he has won commissions for several public art projects and his work now beautifies parks, schools and libraries throughout the greater New Haven area.

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