BOOTT MILL, LOWELL, MA 1988

The story of the revival of Boot Mill involves the determination of a senator and a city, an amazing amount of drawing, and the passage of time. Senator Paul Tsongas was Lowell’s champion, determined to turn its fortunes around after the textile industry left in the 1950s. With the grit and determination of a prizefighter, the city had planned a revitalization using the mills as a catalyst. All they needed were some partners.

Tsongas pushed through the legislation that created the Lowell National Historical Park in the late 1970s. He also convinced An Wang of Wang Laboratories to lease the space in the mill in order to land bank it until funding could be secured. Ed Adelman, a current client as Executive Director of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority, was hired as a young architect to work on the master plan for the park. After completion of the plan, he left the park service in 1979, only to return in 1988 when Congress funded the establishment of the textile museum in Mill #6 at the Boott Mill.

Peter Aucella can still remember getting a phone call from the late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas in the mid-1980s. “I can remember Tsongas telling me this guy Ed Barry wants to buy the Boott Mills,” recalled Aucella, who was then head of the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “Tsongas said he was looking at Lawrence but that he (Tsongas) had talked him into Lowell instead.” – The Lowell Sun, February 2, 2014

Ed Barry was the same Ed Barry from The Congress Group, Huygens and DiMella’s client for Riverview, One Memorial Drive, and Building 149, which we have explored in recent weeks.  The Congress Group was on a roll with successful development projects and would appoint Richard Graf as their project manager. Amir Mann would lead the project for Huygens and DiMella, recasting the team that had just completed Building 149 in the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Amir Mann and Paul Tsongas at the ground breaking. Photo: James Higgins

HISTORY AND BACKGROUND

As one of the nation’s first and most successful “spindle towns,” Lowell boasted eleven mills during the height of its textile production in the early 1800s. In its prime, the mills produced a variety of cottons that were shipped throughout the country and exported as far away as China. The mills continued to produce textiles through the 1950s, after which they closed and were leased as warehouse and light manufacturing space. Seven of the original eleven mills remained, of which the Boott Mill was the most architecturally significant as determined by the Department of the Interior and thus chosen for the location of a museum.

Boott Mill was named for its founder Kirk Boott, and is one of the few examples of America’s large-scale industrial planning projects that survived from the 1830s through the mid-twentieth century. Between 1835 and 1865, the complex’s nine mid-rise masonry buildings were constructed in several stages between the Merrimack River and the Eastern Canal. This portion of Lowell is now a designated Historic District and part of the Lowell National Historic Park.

The Boott Mill complex occupies a 6.7-acre site in Lowell’s historic district along the Merrimack River and is bordered by water on three sides. The nine buildings form a rectangle with two inner courtyards that parallel the river. The site is bisected by the Eastern Canal which provides water power to generators located underneath the building. Trolley service runs from Lowell’s downtown district connecting the city’s historic sites, providing convenient public transportation and visitor accessibility.

Boott Mill was a focal point in Lowell’s revitalization plan to unite its historic past with its present, a key element of the “Lowell Plan” which projected a $1.25 billion investment of both public and private funds. Of particular concern was the integration of Lowell’s history with the present day community while addressing specific preservation issues of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission and the National Park Service. In keeping with the design intent of the original mill complex, the new Boott Mill was intended to reestablish access to the Merrimack River and recreate the open landscaped courtyards that were used to allow daylight to enter the buildings. In addition, the re-design provided attractive pedestrian walkways leading from downtown Lowell through the mill yard to the Merrimack River (See above and below).

Site Plan.

The renovation of this complex transformed nine industrial buildings into 600,000 square feet of office, retail, and research and development space. It also created Border House Park with an outdoor amphitheater completed by landscape architects Brown and Rowe with architect Bill Rawn. At one time the complex was considered for a new science museum in addition to the National Park Service’s textile museum. The fantastic sketches below illustrate the potential of the space, but the funding sources never materialized and this section of the mill was turned into office space instead.

Science Museum sections.

This drawing hung in the office in the late 1980s and was a favorite for giving both a sense of the space and the animation of the exhibits.

Another part of the “Lowell Plan” involved the construction of two new garages on adjacent sites to serve Boott Mill visitors and tenants. The 1,000 car John Street Garage was designed by the firm in the industrial style to complement the mill. The proposed west garage for 500 cars has yet to be built.

The John Street Garage was designed to relate to its Lowell Mill context. Photo: Rob Shearer.

DRAWINGS FOR DESIGN SOLUTIONS

The design challenge was to transform these buildings, originally designed for the production and storage of textile goods, into upscale office space while preserving the character of the original structures. Specific design issues were addressed in order to integrate the architecturally significant elements of the buildings with current space planning trends. These included revitalizing interiors and courtyards, redefining entry to the mill buildings, the re-establishing the relationship of the mill yard to the waterfront, and restoration of the bridges.

I mentioned in the introduction the large quantity of drawings produced for the project. There are countless drawings in the files illustrating numerous studies to arrive at solutions to the myriad of challenges in this complex renovation and adaptive reuse project. In these types of projects, not only do you have to solve the design issues, but you also have to convince the local Historic District Commission, the State Historic Preservation Officer and the National Park Service that you are appropriately respecting the building and its history. In the paragraphs that follow, we will look at some of these design challenges and the drawings we produced to accomplish these goals.

REVITALIZING INTERIORS

One of the most complicated issues involved in the reconstruction of large-scale historic buildings is finding a way to get natural daylight into an interior space. This was the same issue the firm tackled at the Navy Yard. Re-establishing the original open courtyards in the center of the complex allowed the penetration of daylight into the Boott Mill buildings. A new atrium was created in Mill #4/5 in order to maintain access to natural light and to create additional office space for tenants. Another atrium was created in the renovation of the original powerhouse. A skylight brings in daylight and encloses a “great hall” for corporate gatherings. The powerhouse equipment was preserved in its original state, adding a dramatic feature to this new meeting space.

Left: Early evocative sketch of the entrance to Mill #8. Right: Interior atrium rendering at Mill #4/5.

REDEFINING ENTRY TO THE MILL BUILDINGS

As originally designed, two stair towers were used as main entrances to the mill. During the development of the complex, connectors were built to attach multiple buildings for easy access to other portions of the mill yard. The renovation restored six towers flanking the original entrances, thereby strengthening the historic function of these connectors. Elevators now carry tenants through the building as the stair towers once did in the early 1800s. New entries were created to accommodate corporate office tenants.

Drawing of a new entrance that did not find favor with the National Park Service.
Note the three forebay gate winches that did eventually end up in this location.

Left: 1988 rendering of entrance proposal. Right: 2015 final design, showing the three forebay gate winches. Photo: Rob Shearer.

The six stair towers are restored with their original materials, four are wood (left side) and two are brick (distant and just out of view on the right).The tower at Mill #3 (second from the left) was demolished and rebuilt during the renovation using a steel frame and wood siding to match the original structure. Photo: Rob Shearer.

Looking up into one of the restored stair towers. Photo: Rob Shearer.

New entries with industrial details were created to accommodate corporate office tenants. Photo: Rob Shearer.

RELATIONSHIP OF THE MILLYARD TO THE WATERFRONT

Access to the waterfront was a major contextual design issue. The city’s plan for revitalization of Lowell’s historic district connects the Boott Mill complex to the Merrimack River and Lowell Center. The mill yard opened with four freestanding buildings constructed on the banks of the Merrimack River, which were purposely spaced apart to allow cooler air off the river to circulate through the buildings. During the development of the mill, views and passage to the river were blocked by the construction of Mill #5 which was the central pavilion. At one time a plaque in the roof pediment read “Boott Cotton Mills” and served as the major orientation element of the original complex. This plaque was re-installed above a two-story double archway cut through the building, creating a new riverfront promenade and reconnecting the pedestrian passage to the Merrimack River.

Left: Evolution of the mill complex plan. Right: New pedestrian passage through Mill #5.

The use of water for power generation can be traced through the evolution of the 19th century structures at Boott Mill. The four original mill buildings were sited parallel to the Merrimack River to take advantage of the 17-foot drop between the Eastern Canal and the river (See historical plan above). As the complex was expanded and developed, the canals were consistently used as a source for power and continue to be a profitable resource for the mills by generating electricity which is sold to a local electric company. The renovation restored this important element of the mill and revived the original design, which included access to the water. The underground water tunnels, or raceways through which the water travelled, are exposed and featured in the new design.

Beautiful drawing showing how the raceways were incorporated into the design.

Left: Passage showing exposed raceway. Right: Riverfront promenade.

RESTORATION OF THE PEDESTRIAN BRIDGES

Part of Ed Adelman’s role with the National Park Service was to coordinate the exterior treatment of the buildings for the museum as well as the rest of the complex. He indicated that the Park Service tended to take a conservative view, favoring historic restoration over invention. He recalled there was a constant “back and forth” over the design of new pieces. “I remember the pedestrian bridges specifically. The Park Service wanted them restored as they were, and your firm proposed them glassy and open. The intervention was elegant, modern and beautifully fit into the industrial character. Remember it is not what you do, but how you do it.” Ed continued, “Amir Mann was an eloquent debater, even using the Park Service’s own arguments to get his way. When the Park Service came to the conclusion that the later additions of the mill showed the evolution of the complex, Amir was quick to point out that the current renovation was just another evolution and should be of its own time. By virtue of what is out there you can see he was quite successful.”

Regarding the adaptive re-use of historical structures, Amir gave the following quote as part of the “Remaking Boston” exhibition in 1989: “I feel that the innovation in preservation has the same level and degree of creativity as new architecture, but we don’t start with a blank sheet of paper. There are more constraints. Thus, the innovation is more modest. Its limitations come from the existing structure, the existing urban fabric, and also from the complex approval process.”

Left: Original bridges. Right: Bridge design study. Note the clarity of the details—even the bolts are shown.

The renovation of the existing covered pedestrian bridges and walkways further emphasized the relationship of the mill yard to the river. Originally clad with either metal or wood, the coverings were removed, opening the bridges to daylight and exposing the steel and wood trusses. The transparent bridges allow a view through the entire length of the mill yard reinforcing the gateway to the water.

Left: Original Rendering. Right: 2015.

Many of the wonderful renderings like the one above were done by the “Romantic Romanian” Lou Bancesco. Lou was a prolific drawer and his style can be recognized by the elegant women and saturated water colors. He was a key member of the Boott Mill team and a fun personality to have in the office.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

We began work on Boott Mill in 1987 and continued this work into the early 1990s as the phase plan shows below. Phases I and IA were completed and the working drawings for Phase II were finished when the Tax Act of 1986 and the savings and loan crisis combined to bring real estate development to a halt.

In 2002, the Winn Companies developed 154 apartments in the Phase III section of the mill, bringing a residential use to the complex for the first time. Paul Tsongas and the City of Lowell were not the only ones with determination to see this project through to completion. Ed Barry worked diligently on and off to complete various portions of the project, including the initial work on the Phase II residential buildings with partner Caleb Clapp. However, Ed’s timing would again prove unlucky as the 2008 recession sank his hopes of completing the project. With just 42 units complete, he lost the project.

“He was totally dedicated to getting it done,” Aucella said. “It’s just that he was trying to sell them in 2008 (at the onset of the Great Recession), and it was bad timing.” – Lowell Sun, February 2, 2014. Read more here.

In 2012, the Winn Companies with Rees-Larkin took over the west buildings and developed 78 residential units and 40,000 square feet of commercial space, putting the last part of the mill back into use. They will complete the project this winter making the original vision a reality 27 years later. You can check out the apartments here.

The take-away from this story is that large projects take time. The “Lowell Plan” is still in force and is focused on improving downtown Lowell. Ninety five percent of the 5.2 million square feet of space that was vacant when the National Park Service arrived in 1978 has been redeveloped according to the current Director of Planning and Development, Adam Baacke. With its 810,000 square feet, housing 232 apartment units, 39 condo units, approximately 300,000 square feet of commercial space and a national museum, the “shine is back on Boott.”