Brick mill buildings, like white church steeples and red barns, are indelible features of the New England landscape. Unlike those pastoral landmarks, however, the mills revolutionized the region's economy and culture in ways still felt in the Berkshires today.
They drew from Canada and Europe thousands of immigrants whose descendants still live here. They created investment capital that built cities like Pittsfield and North Adams and they launched experiments in worker housing that are still evident in places like the Housatonic village of Great Barrington and the Blackinton section of North Adams.
Significantly, because of their utilitarian design, the mills were adaptable to changes in technology and market trends, a key to their survival and reuse in the 21st century.
The New England factory mill as we know it was born in Pawtucket, R.I., when a young immigrant named Samuel Slater, who had designed and constructed textile machinery in England, arrived in this country. New England's cool damp climate, like England's, was ideal for spinning and weaving cotton threads, which are strengthened by humidity, says architectural historian Kenneth Breisch in "Mills and Factories of New England." Recognizing a potential, Slater formed a partnership in 1790 to open a mechanized cotton-spinning operation in a remodeled mill on the Blackstone River.
He went on in 1793, to build the nation's first factory (now a National Historic Site in Pawtucket) specifically to house cotton spinning machinery. By 1850, there were 1,400 such mills in New England. By 1900, the region was producing half of the wool and four-fifths of the cotton textile made in the United States, Breisch says.
Originally wood, then stone and finally brick, mill buildings, unlike houses, stores and schools, were largely immune to changing architectural styles. They were designed to be strictly utilitarian, not unlike the "big box" commercial buildings put up today to maximize savings and profits.
Mills built before the development of electricity in the late 1800s tended to be tall and thin with big windows on both sides to cast light on interior workspaces, says Williamstown architect Andrus Burr, who has made a study of industrial archaeology.
Those built in the early 1800s and dependent on water power, like the Monument Mills in Housatonic, tended to hang close to rivers, he said, while those founded later in the 19th century, when steam and electricity powered production, were free to sprawl inland, like General Electric in Pittsfield, with separate buildings housing different functions.
The kinds of products mills produced also played a role in shaping their appearance. Making paper out of pulp, for example, Burr said, involves moving raw material through a sequence of soaking vats, drying screens and rollers, a process that requires long, uninterrupted spaces.
Roofs went from early pitched styles with cramped attics to later flat and French Mansard (a modified pitch like that on the Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic) that opened up more workspace. There was even a saw tooth configuration with windows to let in light. Burr mentioned the Delftree Corporation plant on Union Street in North Adams, formerly part of Arnold Print Works, as one example.
As factories expanded and drew cheap immigrant and farm labor, mill owners created rental housing and company stores to keep workers nearby, in their service and in their debt. Remnants of that pattern of community with owner mansions overlooking the mill and worker housing can be found all over New England, but most clearly in the Berkshires in Housatonic and in the Black inton section of North Adams, now a National Historic District. Mill owner Sanford Blackinton broke with tradition, however, by moving to downtown North Adams, where the house he built is now the city library.
The most prominent and ornamental architectural feature of most mills was the stair tower, often topped by a clock or bells to announce changing shifts. In the Berkshires, the twin towers at the Rising Paper Company mill in Housatonic are particularly majestic. Those at the former Arnold Print Works (now Mass MoCA) in North Adams; at the Pontoosuc Mill (now a business incubator) in Pittsfield; and at Berkshire Mill No. 1 (now residential apartments) in Adams, are also notably handsome with cupolas of Norman and other European styles expressing the owner's taste.
Though decorative, these towers were built for practical reasons as enclosed fire exits and as shafts for moving supplies and equipment between floors.
When the heavy industry that created and sustained these brick and mortar workplaces through multiple wartime booms and economic depressions finally abandoned the Berkshires in the second half of the 20th century for warmer, cheaper business climates elsewhere, scores of emptied mills seemed doomed. Yet, in the last two decades, many have found new industrial, commercial, residential and even cultural uses among creative investors drawn to open floor plans, high ceilings, brick walls, big windows and thick plank floors held up by massive beams.
Mass MoCA is the most notable example, functioning as an economic engine to revive North Adams from the slump it experienced with the closing of Sprague Electric Co. The artists lofts at the Eclipse Mill and affordable housing at the Clark Biscuit Company are other North Adams examples. In Pittsfield, the A.H. Rice Silk Mill was resurrected as affordable housing last year.
As 2014 begins, Cable Mills, which started in Williamstown in 1875 as a maker of twine, then became a bleaching operation, a weaving mill, and finally a wire and cable manufacturer before closing in the 1990s, is on track after years of financing hurdles to become market rate and affordable loft apartments.
The outlook for 19th century mill buildings in the 21st century seems wide open to opportunity.