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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Artists, businesses at home at The Shirt Factory

January 26, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent , Lake Placid News

GLENS FALLS - There's a big red brick box of a building on Lawrence Street in Glens Falls, covered in different windows and looking like a factory from a century ago.

That's because it is. The building used to be the McMullen Leavens Shirt Company, a successful shirt and dressmaking factory that employed hundreds of people. Its high-fashion clothing made it into magazines like Vogue in the 1930s and 1940s.

The factory was both an employer and a point of pride of the Glens Falls community. You can find a more complete history of the McMullen Leavens Shirt Company here. Starting in the late 1950s, the company went into gradual decline. By 1996, the factory had changed hands several times and was shut down.

Article Photos

The Shirt Factory in Glens Falls
(Photo provided)

But it didn't stay closed for long.

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New use for an old space

In 1999, current owner Eric Unkauf bought the building and started renting out space to local artisans and small businesses. Eighteen years later, there are more than 100 people working in the shirt factory, in 77 unique spaces - from art galleries to handmade food and clothing shops.

You can see and learn about some of the spaces in this video produced by Josh Clement Productions for the Adirondack North Country Association. They interviewed occupants about the work culture within The Shirt Factory and what makes it so unique.

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The Space

Occupants say the space is perfecly suited for being divided up into individual art and business spaces. It's enormous, full of natural light, and fun to wander through. Bev Saunders, owner of Saunders Gallery of Fine Art, says:

"The wonderful part about The Shirt Factory is the historical part of it, the brick and mortar, and the vastness as far as the space available to create art or to create a business."

While the space is beautiful, occupants say what they really love is that the building feels like a community of artists, makers, and small business owners. Ben Kemp owns a shop called Sensibili Teas and puts it this way:

"It's people that all want to be more free to express themselves, so there's an artist type vibe to the place. People are happy here. They're peaceful."

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The businesses

The Shirt Factory is the opposite of a big box store - no two stores or spaces are the same, and while you can't find everything, you can find a lot that isn't anywhere else. Just about all the products for sale are handmade and limited edition - from tea to soap to artwork. Christine France sells antiques and says she's blown away by the talent and variety around her.

"If you want something very unqiue created, done, or fixed you've got the furniture guys downstairs, you've got Adirondack furniture being built over there, there's somebody making vinegar sauces to make nonalcoholic cocktails. How? But it's all here!"

But not everything is for sale. There are also several service businesses based in the building - a violin restorer, furniture fixers, an herbalist, a yoga studio - and a lot of the space is rented by artists as studio space. Dave Francis owns The Shirt Factory Gallery, and says he loves the collaborative nature that arises from being so close to other visual artists.

"When I first had my studio here I would come into a composition or a color problem, and I knew that I could pop next door to a friend's studio and just say 'hey, what do you think?' So it was always that attitude of sharing and helping each other."

Jacquiline Touba of North Country Arts feels the same way.

"I think a lot of people like being here because you have that comaraderie. You collaborate together. You see each other, you say hello. You don't feel as if you're working in isolation."

The space is often host to open houses and will open the grassy courtyard to farmers markets and other events. If you want to visit The Shirt Factory, Thursdays through Saturdays are recommended.

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.ncpr.org/work.)

 
 

 

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