The PostMasters team, an organization dedicated to creating an artist community in New Haven, has secured over $5.8 million in funding and broken ground on the renovation of 169 Henry St. in the Dixwell neighborhood.

Construction began a month ago at the old Macalaster Bicknell factory, an industrial site that has recently housed a shipping center for counterfeit “Beats” and “LG Tone+” headphones. When designing the renovation, architects at Deborah Berke Partners, an architecture firm founded by School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke, were careful to leave certain structures intact, rather than gutting the building.

“Our take on renovation is to not recreate or restore old structures, but rather to pare away at buildings until their best spatial properties are revealed,” wrote Maitland Jones ARCH ’92, a partner at the firm, in an email to the News. “We then add something legibly new to what remains.”

PostMasters’ founders Titus Kaphar ART ’06 and Jonathan Brand ART ’07 began toying with the idea of building an art center in New Haven in 2015. After pursuing careers in New York, both artists returned to the Elm City and found it difficult to draw art dealers and critics out of NYC for studio visits. They started looking for buildings in which to foster an artist community, and established a program called PostMasters to offer yearlong fellowships to recent MFA graduates.

Three years later, they have expanded their plans to include a café and a black box theater in addition to their originally planned studio spaces and gallery. As they have opened up their fellowship programming to all people over 21 — not solely those with masters degrees — they plan on launching a new name and website in the coming weeks.

“It started as just an idea between friends,” Brand said. “Now, it’s going to be huge.”

The project’s goal is to draw artists who are priced out of New York — as well as some from the Elm City — to create a thriving community of creative minds. Kaphar has also spoken with administrators and art teachers at James Hillhouse High School, just a block away from the PostMasters building, to give teenagers experience working as assistants in art studios.

Among the various organizations working with PostMasters is Dwight Hall, which acted as the project’s first sponsor, processing donations, while the founders pursued funding and developed a better grasp of what legal and financial structure fit their project best.

“It seemed like a really great fit for us, as a different way of getting about community engagement,” said Peter Crumlish DIV ’09, executive director of Dwight Hall.

PostMasters has since become a limited liability company and gained sponsorship support from United Way. The project has received public funding from the Department of Economic and Community Development and the New Haven DECD, in addition to donations from private individuals and foundations.

Brand declined to comment on the budget for construction project, as the organization is still fundraising and has not yet finalized the budget.

In the new space, the PostMasters team plans on putting a black box theater in the basement, where there is currently a large sunken pit, once used to house an ice cream factory’s cooling equipment. At the front of the building originally stood an unfriendly office space, according to Brand. But as construction workers ripped the old structures out, the organization realized the space would be perfect for a café, providing healthy food to the neighborhood at an affordable price.

The construction team has targeted fall 2018 for completion, although Jones believes some components of the center will be finished this summer.

The project draws inspiration from the history of the Dixwell neighborhood. Between 1930 and 1950, the neighborhood was known as a jazz center, with music clubs lining the length of Dixwell Avenue. In the former jazz scene’s absence, Brand explained, PostMasters’ founders looked to create a new arts hub, “at a really high level like the jazz,” but focused on the visual arts instead.

The project’s affiliates remain enthusiastic about their work.

“This project has the potential of really building a vibrant local artist scene, which would be enormously beneficial to the cultural and financial value of the city,” Crumlish said. “New Haven is a place that has an incredible amount of resources that are not exclusively in the University. They’re actually all throughout the wider community.”

Brianna Wu |