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Baltimore Factory Goes From Textile Mill to Teacher Housing

Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

In urban areas, young teachers often struggle to find affordable, quality places to live. A development company addressed this problem when it reconfigured a historic Baltimore mill into apartments geared toward educators. And the end product is a success on multiple levels. Built in 1866, the Italianate-style Union Mill—originally known as Druid Mill—was constructed of stone and included a four-story bell tower. A large addition followed six years later. It was one in a series of mills along Jones Falls in what is now the Hampden-Woodberry area of Baltimore. The mills were the world's biggest producers of cotton duck, a waterproof textile used for sails, ropes, and nets.

? Over time, Union Mill hosted other types of manufacturing until the last occupant moved out in 2007. By then, the structure had suffered decades of neglect. Water was pouring in, the original windows were busted out or blocked in, and the distinctive stone walls were scarred by multiple patchwork repairs. Pigeons, on the other hand, found the dank space agreeable. Despite its battered appearance, the largest stone mill in Maryland was structurally sound.

? In 2010, Seawall Development Co. closed on the property for $2.3M. Seawall, founded by father and son Donald and Thibault Manekin, had just completed Miller's Court, a former can factory in Baltimore that was converted into both reduced-rent teacher housing and offices for nonprofits. They had the same benevolent vision for Union Mill.

? Marks, Thomas Architects, who also teamed with Seawall on Miller's Court, redesigned the property with teachers in mind. An on-site copy center ensures they don't have to go far to prepare for their lessons, and the gym is open around the clock. Common area lounges, gathering areas in the terraced central courtyard, and social events encourage interaction among residents, many who are involved with Teach for America.

? The original section of the mill and the boiler house were divided into 56 units. The boiler house, topped by a brick smokestack, also houses a 75-seat restaurant. Union Mill includes 25,000 square feet of office space set aside for nonprofits, which also receive discounted rents.

? The approximately $20M rehabilitation received nearly $3M in historic tax credits from the Maryland Historical Trust. The credit required the buildings to retain as much historic fabric as possible. As a result, the original woodwork, fluted cast iron columns, and 2-foot thick stone walls all were restored. The interior walls were plastered in keeping with the site's use of traditional materials. Furthermore, the project was the first to meet Baltimore's Green Building Standards. The efficient heating and cooling system minimizes energy usage, and the double-pane, energy-efficient windows not only stabilize interior temperatures but are in harmony with the buildings' design.

? Union Mill officially opened last year. The one- and two-bedroom apartments range in size from about 600 to 900 square feet. After the discount for Baltimore County educators, one bedroom units range from about $800 to $900 a month, and two bedroom apartments rent from about $1,500 to $1,600 a month. There is a long wait list.

? The Union Mill project is historic rehabilitation at its best. Just five years ago, it was an empty eyesore. But beneath the pigeon excrement was a malleable space primed for adaptive reuse. Now, thanks to a socially conscious developer, it's an energy efficient and visually striking base for people intent on making a positive impact in their community. Few buildings, new or old, can beat all that.

· The Union Mill [official site]
· New tricks: Refurbished Hampden mill is now home to teachers [Baltimore Sun]
· Preservation Maryland's Phoenix Award – Union Mill [Allen Shariff]
· The Union Mill: Courting Baltimore Teachers With Low Cost & High Style [Baltimore Fishbowl]