TORRINGTON — The inside of the former Howard’s Shoe Store on Main Street in Torrington is somewhat like those abandoned places people love to visit to get a glimpse of past glories.
Although the store ceased operations almost three decades ago, a cash register sits open with a purchase price listed on top, heavy office desks remain in place, a clock stands mute testament to a time both gone by and standing still, and file cabinets are full of names of former customers. There were even 100 shoes left behind by the former owners.
Acclaimed artist John Noelke, owner of Noelke Gallery on Migeon Ave., Torrington, just around the corner from the former Howard’s, is working to restore the building to house his gallery, which features stunning works he has created, as well as a space for other artists, classes, and area bands to showcase what he considers groundbreaking original music. Indeed, Noelke Gallery has become quite well known for such band performances, as well as music provided by DJs and open mike comedy nights. It’s a happening place.
Noelke is a man on a mission, so to speak. He believes deeply in downtown Torrington, has been a part of its sometimes sputtering revival, and wants to make what commonly became known as the Howard’s building (it’s actually The Meara Building) into a hub and catalyst for what will he believes can be a bustling art and music scene. The west Texas native, 60, purchased the three-story (there’s a basement floor that could be called a fourth floor) several months ago and is happily doing much of the restoration work himself, along with a little help from his friends. Resident Rana Justice is Noelke’s business partner in the purchase. Martin Ritchie sold the building to the pair.
Noelke, who moved to Litchfield County after graduating from the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston in 1997, opened his gallery in the summer of 2014, but the Howard’s building intrigued him. “In west Texas, the story is everything,” he said. “The sense of place for the Howard’s building is really iconic, not just to the town but also because it captures an era of American retail history.”
Noelke, who plans to move his Water Street gallery to the Howard’s building, is a believer that the greater Torrington area has strong intellectual and artistic components and that the “New York crowd” has been drawn to Torrington for its art and music scenes. He called Torrington kind of a “Reader’s Digest condensed version of New York and Boston,” as it relates to their art and music scenes. He has lived in both metropolises and should know whereof he speaks.
Howard’s Shoe Store was once a vital downtown business, bringing in customers from Torrington and surrounding towns to purchase quality footwear and other items. A testament to its importance to downtown commercial synergy is the hundreds, probably several thousand names that are tucked away in those file cabinets. The store has a long run under the Strogatz Family until mall sprawl and shoppers’ exodus from downtown spelled its demise. Howard’s closed its doors in 1993 and its demise had a negative ripple effect on other businesses in downtown, especially the block on which the building is located.
When Noelke began to clean out the interior of the building he made the discovery of numerous items left behind by the former owners. He plans to incorporate some of the Howard’s Shoe Store artifacts into the repurposed building in hopes that it will link the new space to the past and draw back some of the people who once walked through the building’s doors looking for just the right size shoe. Noelke hopes to have at least part of the building open within a few weeks, although he admits fully filling the building will be a work in progress.
Said the artist and entrepreneur, “The intention wasn’t initially to incorporate the past usage the building, but once I discovered what was in here and how really important the store was to the people of Torrington I decided we had to do that with certain pieces. The business owners sponsored sports teams that people who are still around played on. We want to preserve that aspect of the business and believe people will be drawn to come here because of that.”
The new owner plans on staging plays by local playwright Bill C. Davis in the building and looks to draw actors and actresses from throughout the area to perform. “There is so much talent we can draw upon,” he said while standing in a second floor room that overlooks the central business district where several state highways converges. “Yale is just down the road from us.”
The Howard’s building (Noelke plans on keeping the name “Howard’s” above the entryway) has 11,000 square-feet of space and numerous rooms that will hopefully soon be filled with galleries, performance areas and perhaps classrooms.
“We want the building to be open-ended to some degree and develop in a spontaneous manner. This building was a moment in time that we want to preserve and build upon. What we have here in Torrington may be small but it is growing and is excellent and intense.”
And now there is a new home for all that artistic excellence and intensity that will appeal to a broad range of the population just like a quality, well-fitting shoe.
Noelke is looking for serious artists who want to be part of the city’s downtown movement. To reach John Noelke, call 860-560-3688, or email email@example.com.