It’s not often that the stars align just perfectly on a project, but for Erika Rush, Urban’s Director of Planning, working on the Complete Streets Master Plan for the City of New Britain, CT, was such an experience.
Standing near the former Landers, Frary & Clark factory in New Britain, Rush holds Universal #E9410 circa 1920. By pushing the ivory buttons on the base, the heart-shaped baskets, which hold the bread, pivot 180 degrees to toast each side.
To understand “why toasters?”, you first have to know that Rush has a couple of distinct passions – one is pretty obvious given her title, urban planning. The other, not so much. She is a collector of early 20th century electric toasters. Her first encounter with vintage toasters was in 1985 about the time she was first beginning her planning career. She recalls, “I was living in Brooklyn, earning well below the poverty level as a city planner. I was visiting an antique store that had just opened in my neighborhood. There on a long table behind the owner were three shiny, chrome things with very intricate detailing. I didn’t know what they were, but they were so unique, they stopped me in my tracks.” Rush found out they were vintage toasters, but at $45 each, much too expensive. The next spring she was walking through a Manhattan flea market and saw a table full of similar toasters for sale. At much more affordable prices, she bought several and the rest is history. “What kept me going was the variety – and I never saw the same one twice.”
“The design, the engineering, the manufacturing – they are such an interesting window into that time.”
In 2011, Rush and Urban’s Planning Group led a team to develop a Complete Streets Master Plan for New Britain’s downtown. The City wanted to create a more pedestrian-friendly, attractive, and livable environment, and recognized the opportunity that the 2015 opening of the $572 million CTfastrak Project – 9.4 miles of dedicated busway corridor connecting New Britain and Hartford – presented.
The Complete Streets Master Plan for Downtown New Britain has become an award-winning project that the City embraces. New Britain has already begun implementing initial phases with great results. “This has been an urban planner’s dream project,” Rush said.
Something else has been unique about this project for Rush. Remember the toasters? As the project began, the team explored many themes for the project’s wayfinding signage. In a City so rich with history, there were many possibilities. But one had special meaning. Of all her toasters, Rush’s favorites are the Universal line, made in the early 20th century by Landers, Frary & Clark, a New Britain manufacturer. While Landers, Frary & Clark created everything from can openers to ice skates, in Rush’s opinion, their toasters were the crown jewels. “They’re so sculptural to me. And they’re beautiful examples of American industrial design in so many aspects – from what they are made of, to how they look, to how they operate.”
How many do you have?
“Let’s just say somewhere north of 350 and leave it at that.”
The irony of working in New Britain did not escape her. But it was startling to find that the Landers, Frary & Clark manufacturing facilities were located within the Plan’s study area near downtown. “Throughout the project, I just kept thinking to myself that there must be a reason for all this. It was all to ironic for happenstance.”
These days, Rush’s team is engaged in an on-call engineering contract with New Britain, where they will be helping the City implement various tasks from the Master Plan.