Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed 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.
The Boott Mills complex stretches along the Merrimack River like a fortress, a 179-year-old set of connected brick buildings that once housed roaring hydroelectric textile factories in the heart of Lowell, Mass. It's a remarkably intact representation of the mills that launched Lowell and other towns like it to prominence during the Industrial Revolution, and then left them in economic decline in the second half of the 20th century. But Lowell's factories—most recently, the iconic Boott Mills near downtown—are making a comeback.
After a grim period, Lowell—the setting of the Oscar-nominated film The Fighter—is on an upswing. The entire city, about 30 miles northwest of Boston, is loaded with adaptive-reuse projects throughout its many former mill buildings. Boott Mills, the most intact of Lowell's mill complexes and notable for its central location, just finished its final stage of redevelopment in December after about three decades of off-and-on projects. The restored set of connected factory buildings now boasts a combined 232 apartments, 39 condo units, commercial space, and a museum run by the National Park Service.
The story of the complex tracks closely with Lowell's own, starting with some bold, opportunistic industrialists in the early 1800s. Lowell was the country's first large, completely planned industrial city, hugging a strategic chunk of the river and a series of canals that powered its mills. From 1822 to 1848, the city's population ballooned from 2,500 to 33,000, becoming a model city for the country's shift from agrarian to industrial society.
Boott Cotton Mills opened in 1835, and in its heyday swarmed with activity. Thousands of mechanical looms filled its long corridors, and the complex was packed with workers churning out millions of yards of textiles a year. Many of the employees, thanks to another innovation by the founders, were women. Some were children. Factory bosses recruited from the farms of New England to persuade young women to move to town and live in boarding houses near the factories. In fact, women working the mills fought some of the country's early labor and equal rights battles as they organized against 12- to 14-hour days and poor conditions.
The textile industry rolled along, and Boott operated for 120 years. When the industry tanked after World War II, so went Lowell's factories, sending the city into a rough period of unemployment and crime.
The city set the stage for renewal when, in an effort led by Massachusetts Rep. and then Sen. Paul Tsongas, much of Lowell's historic property was designated a National Historic Park. The NPS set up a museum in Boott Mills, which was notable for being relatively intact despite decades of wear.
Once the park was established, the city started widespread renovation. Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent of Lowell National Historic Park, said that with the completion of Boott Mills, 91 percent of more than 5 million square feet of mill space in the park boundaries has been renovated.
The entire Boott complex itself is 810,000 square feet, and had been renovated piecemeal since the 1980s, in part by the park service and an initial developer whose condo project stalled due to the recession. WinnDevelopment, which developed an earlier phase of apartments that opened in 2002, and Rees-Larkin Development teamed up to finish the latest stage, which opened in December 2013. Both apartment projects were designed by The Architectural Team, a firm based just north of Boston.
With an NPS museum in the backyard, a significant portion of the projects funded by Federal and state historic tax credits, and a highly involved Lowell Historic Board, the renovation had to be spot-on. Today, apartment interiors are almost entirely modern within a historic shell, since the factories were essentially open corridors filled with equipment. There are original features, like exterior walls of exposed original brick, wood beams and ceilings, partially exposed columns, and wood plank floors. Large stairwells in the towers were also preserved, including their original iron treads.
But the exteriors and the layout of the buildings are most notable. Snug between the river and a canal, the buildings form one main interior courtyard, complete with restored landscaping. High brick walls are lined with massive grids of windows—about 3,000 of them by, an NPS count—all outfitted with replica panes. The clock tower that once dictated the schedules of laborers still overlooks the courtyard, although the cupola had to be removed, renovated, and hoisted back up. And while the Merrimack provides dramatic views on the north side, Boott still makes use of the river the old-fashioned way, with hydroelectric turbines that feed power into the Lowell grid.
Apartments in the complex are one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, and range from 624 to 2,065 square feet. Rents run between $1,450 and $2,550 a month, and there are 48 units reserved for low-to-moderate income residents. As of writing, the new section of apartments has 26 vacancies.