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Coats and Clark (Conant Thread Mill Complex, later J. and P Coats Ltd.)

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Conant Thread Mill Complex, later J. and P Coats Ltd.
1868 and later (most buildings erected in two campaigns, 1870–1881 and 1917–1921). 366 Pine St.

Implacably austere and domineering, with scant ornamentation, these buildings derive their impressiveness from the cumulative impact of segmental-arched windows in plain walls and unadorned towers, mostly mansarded. In 1868 Hezekiah Conant began what ultimately became the largest thread company in the world in a small wooden mill (Mill 1), which no longer exists. The following year he made an alliance with J. and P. Coats of Paisley, Scotland, under the terms of which he would manufacture their six-cord thread in the United States. Eventually Conant Thread (known as J. and P. Coats Ltd. after 1913) occupied a factory complex which extended over 55 acres. During World War II it employed over 4,000 workers. Thereafter, in 1951, southern textile interests bought the company and (in a familiar story) gradually phased out the complex. By 1964 the Pawtucket operation had closed. But, exceptionally, this huge mill complex survives, pretty much intact, although now with multiple tenants. As nowhere else in the state—except possibly the Valley Queen Mill in West Warwick ( WW9)—this gives some idea of the onetime scale of its largest textile operations and, by extension, the immensity of the destruction which has obliterated a number of plants of comparable size as well as hundreds of smaller operations.

The earliest mills were set as three major blocks at right angles to Pine Street; the later ones, behind the first group, broadside to them and angled in a looser arrangement, but also parallel to one another. As a result, although planned purely for function, the corridorlike spaces between the buildings possess a dynamic directional quality, which the diagonal shift in building placement toward the rear of the site intensifies.

The sequence of buildings begins with the three big blocks at right angles to Pine Street from south (closest to Conant Street) to north. Three-storied Mill 2 (1870) has one of the longest extant monitors in Rhode Island in a fine state of preservation. The main block of the building stretches between a chunky tower at either end, which are more fused with the main building mass than given individual identity. Bloated, flattish mansards, topped by their original finials, set them off. (The brick blocks now attached to the towers are later additions; so is the gabled building toward Pine Street.) In Mill 3 (1872), the monitor disappears. The tower (minus mansard) is now centered and projects from the building mass in the canonical formula for nineteenth-century factory stair towers. With this mill the company began to insert in the brick field at the top tower a brownstone plaque announcing the year that construction began.

Mill 4 (1875) is the building that first catches the eye and establishes the image of the place. The scale is upped to four stories, with half windows at the basement. Like that for the 1872 plant, the two towers set on either end of the building project as nearly independent entities from the front elevation. But being doubled and taller and retaining their tall mansards, like high hats with sharp brims, they are vastly more monumental. In the plainness of the tower the simple sunburst pattern of the arched transoms over the loading doors stands out as decorative relief. The original sash is immaculately preserved (as it is generally throughout the complex).

After a pause, major construction shifted to the rear of the site, with the even larger Mill 5 of 1881. At a time when brick mill construction was tending toward pier and spandrel, its walls continue the planarity and punched windows of the earlier plants, as though the owners considered a unified image for the complex as a whole (and doubtless the convenience and economy of duplicating what was already drawn) as more important than keeping up with the latest developments in factory design. Even in Mills 6 and 7 (1919), on parallel angles to either side of Mill 5, the wall formula remained the same. Now the towers are low, their flat roofs reaching only up to the eaves, and topped by a minimal sort of crenellation. (One of the two towers at either end of Mill 5, which lost its tall mansard, now has the same capping as the 1919 towers.) Smaller buildings scattered about complete this magnificently maintained monument to one of Rhode Island's textile behemoths.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Coats and Clark (Conant Thread Mill Complex, later J. and P Coats Ltd.)", [Pawtucket, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PA9.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 140-141.

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