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Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
By the late 1980s, the sprawling campus of the former Arnold Print Works and, later, Sprague Electric Company, sat unused. Over a dozen empty brick industrial buildings, mostly dating from the late nineteenth century, crumbled as the surrounding city of North Adams sought to redefine itself in the postindustrial age. Simultaneously, the directors of the nearby Williams College Museum of Art sought a home for its collection of large-scale contemporary art that could not physically (or, often, conceptually) fit within existing museum spaces. Throughout the 1990s, museum professionals, civic leaders from North Adams and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, architects, preservationists, and the residents of North Adams reclaimed the deteriorating collection of vacant factory spaces, warehouses, and administrative buildings and transformed them into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (known as MASS MoCA), a world-class art museum, performance space, and community cultural center. MASS MoCA’s innovative reuse of an industrial space demonstrates how historic buildings can function within regional economic, social, and cultural revitalization efforts.
From its origins as a colonial agricultural settlement, North Adams, in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, developed into an industrial center beginning in the late eighteenth century. Light industry first formed along the banks of the Hoosic River, which separates into north and south branches in the town. In 1860, the Arnold brothers, sons of a local farmer, purchased a small existing cotton mill on a peninsula where the Hoosic’s branches met. Their company, Harvey Arnold and Company and, later, the Arnold Print Works, began production of printed cloth in 1862 and experienced rapid growth due to the Union Army’s demand for uniforms during the Civil War. An 1871 fire destroyed the company’s mills, but rebuilding began immediately due to the print works’ surging profits. In 1872, Building 4 was the first new structure erected after the fire, with Building 10 rising later the same year. By 1890, the Arnold Print Works had constructed most of the buildings that now comprise MASS MoCA and the firm continued to grow. From a company of 100 employees in 1870, the Arnold Print Works expanded to over 3,200 workers in 1905. It had not only become a leading printed textile manufacturer, but also an essential element in North Adams’s community and economy.
The Arnold Print Work’s large complex consists of approximately 35 brick buildings. A smaller set of ancillary buildings lie south of the central complex. The campus, which began to extend out from the peninsula, accommodated the full range of printed cloth production, including spaces for dyeing, drying, bleaching, and finishing. Additionally, Arnold Print Works mixed its own dyes. Local carpenters, masons, and brickworkers erected the buildings according to the company’s shifting needs. Overall, the brick structures are examples of late-nineteenth-century vernacular industrial architecture common throughout New England and of which Buildings 4 and 10 are both particularly representative.
Building 4, which lies along the Hoosic’s north branch, consists of a four-story mill structure with a low-pitched roof and corbelled brick cornices. Large windows line the load-bearing walls, in keeping with nineteenth-century New England mill design. Ample fenestration increased natural light and ventilation in the workspaces, which, before the advent of electrical illumination and ventilation systems, was crucial to the manufacturing process, and for the workers’ safety and well-being. Ornamental details such as the brick corbelling signified both the mill’s status within the community as well as the owner’s positive vision of their industrial operation.
Building 4 served as the main structure and contained administrative, steaming, and finishing facilities. The adjacent Building 10, which sits perpendicular to 4 and is of similar design, housed the printing facilities where workers applied colored patterns to the cotton cloth. To what was originally an exterior staircase on Building 10, the Arnold Print Works added another story topped with a clock tower spire in 1892. The entire complex not only pivots physically around this prominent feature, but for decades the clock’s bells regulated the worker’s lives as it chimed on the quarter hour during the work day. The clocktower was also visible from the nearby workers’ housing complex located immediately across the Hoosic River from the mill.
The effects of the Great Depression and competition from Southern textile mills finally caught up with the Arnold Print Works in 1942, when the company ceased operations. The mill buildings, though, quickly gained new life as the home of the Sprague Electric Company. This company had operated in North Adams since the 1920s and primarily produced capacitors for storing electrical energy. Later, Sprague Electric nurtured close ties with the military. The company designed and manufactured the trigger for the atomic bombs, built gun sights, and developed components of the Gemini space missions’ launch system. Sprague made few exterior alterations to the former Arnold Print Works’ buildings, but carried out massive interior changes to accommodate light industry and electronic parts manufacturing. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the company shifted to consumer electronics, making capacitors for televisions and radios. Building 4 continued to house manufacturing operations, while Sprague used Building 10 for administrative offices and an employee cafeteria.
Like the Arnold Print Works, Sprague became a central facet of life in North Adams. By the mid-1960s, over 4,000 of North Adams’s 18,000 residents worked for Sprague. The company supported a community radio station, orchestra, vocational school, library, daycare center, health clinic, cooperative grocery store, sports teams, and even a shooting range. Beginning in the 1970s, though, the rising cost of energy in the United States coupled with lower prices for electronic components manufactured in Asia led to a steady decline in Sprague’s profits. The Company closed its North Adams plant in 1985, leaving thousands unemployed.
In a serendipitous coincidence, Thomas Krens, the director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), located just west of North Adams, began searching in 1986 for an appropriate location to exhibit works that were too large to fit into traditional museum spaces. The mayor of North Adams at the time, John Barrett III, presented Krens and the WCMA’s directors with Sprague’s 780,000 square feet of unused interior space. Under Krens’ leadership, the WCMA took advantage of this rare opportunity to create not only a contemporary art museum of unprecedented scale, but also to establish a vibrant cultural and artistic center in the old mill buildings.
Over the next decade, Krens, the WCMA’s directors, citizens and officials from North Adams, and professional architects and preservationists collaborated in reimagining the space at what would become MASS MoCA. Funding from the municipality, the Commonwealth, and private donors underwrote the project, which a local ballot proved was popular among North Adams’s residents. Construction began in 1995 and during the process, MASS MoCA worked with area trade schools to create an on-site training program that educated local residents in carpentry and window repair.
Simeon Bruner of Bruner/Cott and Associates designed Phase I of the project, finished in 1999, which revolved around the renovation and adaptation of Buildings 4 and 10, the two structures that were in the worst condition. This Cambridge, Massachusetts–based firm pioneered architectural approaches to adaptive reuse. In this project, Bruner explains that he sought to create “a single new piece that is both old and new at the same time.” Thus, he did not treat the historic mill buildings (which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985) in a curatorial manner, but instead respected the past material without painstakingly preserving it. For example, Bruner removed entire floors in Building 4 in order to create a single enormous open gallery, yet he left in place the doorways of the upper levels to give visitors a sense of former uses of the space. As in the days of textile manufacturing, the large windows still allow natural light into the galleries, but Bruner built a new wall over the original brick surface. This new, superimposed layer contains critical HVAC infrastructure that preserves both the art and the historic building.
Building 10 became the visitors’ introduction to the complex’s interior spaces. Two adjacent buildings were demolished to recreate an earlier interior courtyard that had been rendered unnecessary by electric lighting and ventilation systems. Thus, visitors approach the museum through a courtyard that immerses them in the nineteenth-century brick mill architecture. They then enter Building 10 through a dark vestibule that leads to the light-filled admissions and orientation area. This intentional emphasis on light and dark spaces defines visitors’ progression through the museum and recalls the workers’ experience of the nineteenth-century mill buildings, which had darker passageways that opened into light-filled factory spaces.
Overall, the adaptive reuse of the former Arnold Print Works was dramatic: it involved selective demolition as well as a radical overhaul of the interior spaces. Despite these interventions, Buildings 4 and 10 have not lost their industrial character; they are still unmistakably mill buildings. Indeed, MASS MoCA’s juxtaposition of historic structures filled with avant-garde art remains one of its most exciting features. Furthermore, MASS MoCA’s creation precipitated a broader renewal of the mill campus. Just southeast of Buildings 4 and 10, a large parking lot replaced work yards while restaurants, artist studios, and retail shops moved into buildings adjacent to 4 and 10.
The museum’s vital and intriguing relationship with its history emerges in the clock tower, which still stands as an iconic visual focal point for MASS MoCA and provides a material link to the space’s former industrial life. The artist Christina Kubisch’s piece, The Clocktower Project, reimagines the regimented toll of the tower’s bells for the twenty-first century and exemplifies how MASS MoCA has created a new space that has recourse to its history. Inspired by the silencing of the clock tower following the demise of Sprague Electric Company, Kubisch recorded a series of different bell sounds. She then installed a set of solar sensors connected to a computer program that plays different sequences of chimes depending on the weather conditions. Thus, a sunny and an overcast day will produce different chimes from the revived clock tower. As with the renovation as a whole, Kubisch’s installation honors the past, incorporates cutting-edge technology, and looks towards the future of the site and its role in the community. Indeed, that role continues to grow along with the museum. Mass MoCA recently completed the renovation of another of the site’s manufacturing spaces, Building 6, which added 105,000 square feet of gallery space to this unparalleled museum.
Friedberg, Elizabeth. “Form B – Building: Arnold Print Works, North Adams, MA (NAM.B).” Boston: Massachusetts Historical Commission, July 1985.
Thompson, Jennifer Trainer, Nicholas Whitman, and Joseph Thompson. MASS MoCA: From Mill to Museum. North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA Publications; New York: Te Neues Publishing, 2000.
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