NAUGATUCK — Four years into the new millennium, about the only person interested in the few scattered buildings still standing on the vast former Uniroyal Inc. complex was Steven Spielberg.
And he was only interested in them because he was filming a movie about the possible destruction of the planet.
“War of the Worlds,” Spielberg’s 2005 film based on the H.G. Wells novel and starring Tom Cruise, Tim Robbins and Dakota Fanning, was not one of the famed director’s most memorable efforts.
The film did, however, cause quite a stir in central and western Connecticut, mostly because Spielberg and his film crews spent several days shooting scenes in different parts of the region in the fall and early winter of 2004.
The final theatrical release contained a brief, five- or six-second scene depicting a beleaguered Cruise being chased through an industrial area by a fleet of alien warships. That scene was filmed in December 2004 at the former Uniroyal complex, between a pair of dilapidated factory buildings on Spencer and Elm streets.
At the time of Spielberg’s visit the two buildings had been largely vacated for years and had fallen into disrepair, particularly when viewed from the outside. Together, they formed a fitting backdrop for a movie in which the earth is invaded and overrun by a technologically superior civilization.
Today, nine years and about $10 million later, the two buildings have been refurbished and converted into a shiny and sophisticated new research and development center by Chemtura Corp., the modern incarnation of Uniroyal and a number of other pillars of the American chemical industry.
The 50,000-square-foot building at 12 Spencer St. and the 30,000-square-foot facility at 400 Elm St. now make up Chemtura’s Nudenberg-Wheeler Technical Center, a facility that employs about 65 research scientists and technicians who provide technical services and support to Chemtura customers around the world; technical support to the company’s manufacturing plants; and some product R&D.
The facility is named after Walter Nudenberg and Edward Wheeler, two chemists who pioneered many of the processes still used today in rubber and polymer processing and manufacturing.
“Without them, this would be a very different industry and Chemtura would be a very different company,” said Stephen Kohlhase, Chemtura’s manager of facilities and real estate in North America.
Chemtura, the fourth-largest publicly traded specialty chemicals company in the nation and one of the largest producers of plastic additives in the world, completed a restructuring process and emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after nearly 20 months in late 2010.
It has about 4,500 employees across the globe, including 450 in Connecticut. Most of its Connecticut employees work in the company’s complex off Benson Road in Middlebury, its former corporate headquarters and now its regional center for North American operations.
The current incarnation of the company was formed in the summer of 2005, when Crompton Corp. merged with Great Lakes Chemical Corp. to form Chemtura. Nine years earlier, in 1996, Crompton — the successor to Crompton & Knowles Corp. — merged with Uniroyal Chemical Corp. Uniroyal was the successor to the U.S. Rubber Co., a Naugatuck-based company that was the nation’s largest rubber chemicals producer in the 1920s and ’30s, a period of time during which it supplied rubber tires to 75 percent of the U.S. automotive industry.
As recently as the mid-1960s, U.S. Rubber/Uniroyal had 62,000 employees manufacturing and marketing 33,000 products that were produced in 89 plants across the globe, many of which were in Naugatuck. The company produced everything from tires and upholstery for automobiles, to cushions, carpet yarns, footwear, golf balls, fishing boats, bathing caps and specialty chemicals.
At its peak, the company’s Naugatuck manufacturing complex had dozens of separate buildings, the vast majority of which no longer exist, and about 10,000 employees. Two of the U.S. Rubber/Uniroyal buildings that survived are the two buildings that now form the Nudenberg-Wheeler center.
The two-story building at 400 Elm St. is the older of the two, having been built in the late 1930s by the Army as part of Uncle Sam’s effort to develop a viable synthetic rubber, Kohlhase said. Synthetic rubber was seen as the solution for keeping tires on military vehicles, tanks and aircraft when Japanese forces threatened to cut off the flow of natural rubber from the tropics.
At the end of World War II, the Army sold the plant to U.S. Rubber, which used it to house the R&D team that supported the company’s rubber chemicals business.
The neighboring two-story building at 12 Spencer St. was built in the late 1950s by the Naugatuck Chemical division of U.S. Rubber as a technical sales service center, where rubber and plastic chemicals and products were tested, according to Kohlhase.
The buildings remained in use over the next 50 years, but their importance within the company diminished as time passed. By the dawn of the new century, activity had been greatly reduced in both buildings, and both were beginning to show their age.
By 2007, the Spencer Street facility had been “vacated and mothballed,” while the Elm Street location had seen its workforce reduced to four, Kohlhase said.
Things began to look brighter for the two aging Naugatuck facilities in 2009. By then, space had become a premium at Chemtura’s crowded Middlebury complex and the company decided to ease the congestion by investing in the two Naugatuck buildings.
The company set aside about $10 million to completely gut and then refurbish and re-equip the two buildings, Kohlhase said. The project started in June 2010, and employees began moving into the newly renovated Spencer Street building in April 2011, he said.
Employees began reoccupying the Elm Street facility in May 2011.
Though Chemtura paid for the renovations, it will be aided by an $8 million reinvestment tax credit it received under the Connecticut Urban and Industrial Site Reinvestment Program, said Tom Ciuba, a company spokesman. The award is recoverable over a seven-year period, which begins at the end of this year, he said.
“It’s one of those situations that was good for just about everybody,” Kohlhase said, noting that Chemtura employees get to work in a new, state-of-the-art research center; the company improved its facilities in both Naugatuck and Middlebury; the borough not only retains a historical link to its industrial past but adds a new R&D facility to its grand list; and the state can say it helped create about 60 new jobs. “Everybody wins.”