As Somerville’s economy shifts away from manufacturing, former meatpacking and brick-making plants are becoming artist spaces and luxury lofts.
“Exposed brick and beams.”
If you’re a peruser of real estate listings or an obsessive viewer of home design shows, these phrases are likely familiar to you. They’re regularly used by real estate agents to signify a particular brand of charm—one that indulges contemporary design trends while strategically embracing aspects of a property’s history. These buildings, with their exposed pipes and concrete floors, are usually characterized as “industrial.”
But while this language may seem like a way to sell real estate, repurposing industrial spaces isn’t just a trend. In Somerville, factories and industrial properties have for decades been adapted to house businesses, artists and residents—and to suit the evolving needs of a changing city.
Somerville was home to a variety of industries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Railways offered a cost-effective way to transport goods throughout the Greater Boston area, and as Somerville’s population grew—reaching its peak during World War II—factories and storage facilities sprung up along the train tracks and beyond. Meatpacking and brick-making were major industries in earlier years, but even as companies came and went, Somerville’s economy remained rooted in manufacturing.
In the second half of the twentieth century, a combination of forces—highways, competition from overseas markets, the shift from a production economy to a services economy—led to a gradual departure of manufacturing and industry from urban centers like Somerville. In 1958, the Ford Motor Plant in Assembly Square closed down, and by the mid-’70s, many other major manufacturers throughout the city had followed suit. Over the past 60 years, Somerville’s industrial land use has declined by more than 50 percent, according to a city report.
Meanwhile, individual factory buildings were changing hands and adapting to new commercial uses. What was once the American Tube Works complex on Somerville Avenue became the Ames Safety Envelope Company in the 1930s. When Ames shuttered in 2010, those buildings were again repurposed. They now host Greentown Labs, Brooklyn Boulders and Artisan’s Asylum, among other innovative ventures.
In Boynton Yards, a similar turnover occurred. “561 Windsor used to be a meatpacking plant, then a paper bag factory, then a bakery, then industrial lofts, which is as it remains,” says Taza Chocolate founder Alex Whitmore of the building where his company currently operates.
But businesses haven’t been the only drivers of industrial transformation; artists and residents have created new uses for factories as well.
In 1974, Rogers Foam Factory at 20 Vernon St. posted a sign reading “Space for Rent.” Rogers had purchased the former Derby Desks property a year prior and intended to lease the top two floors to another business. Instead, a small group of artists, led by the late Maud Morgan, saw the sign and arranged to meet with the building’s new owners. The meeting went well, and some of the artists signed five-year leases; thus, Vernon Street Studios was born. Rogers provided hot water pipes to heat the space and installed electrical outlets while the artists got to work sanding floors, scrubbing windows and installing drywall to divide the enormous rooms into practical studio spaces.
“The rent was incredibly low,” artist and tenant Jackson Gregory remembers. “But it was a mess. The windows were broken and there were pigeons inside. The whole place was full of dirt.”
“As I recall, someone came in and shot [the pigeons] so we could get started on the renovation,” said Karen Moss, another of Vernon Street’s original artist tenants.
Industrial buildings were then and continue to be appealing to artists for a variety of reasons—the relatively low cost, the sizeable spaces, the opportunity to foster a sense of community. Vernon Street Studios “enabled me as a young artist to do very large canvases and have visibility through open studio events and visits from curators,” says Moss. “All of these people, and many others, built a community of shared ideas and information which was invaluable for me.”
At the time, this practice was already common elsewhere in the country. “Artists are always seeking out places they can afford,” Gregory says, remembering the affordable artist lofts he saw in New York City in the ‘60s.
But the Vernon Street group helped pave the way for artists to adapt industrial buildings here in Somerville. In the mid-’80s, a different group of Somerville artists collectively purchased what had been a cannery and storage facility in the Inner Belt district. The resulting live-work condominium complex Brickbottom—“named after the section in Somerville for the clay deposits used for brick-making,” according to its website—became a model for artists who could no longer afford to stay in the communities they had helped to reinvigorate.
“Instead of letting ourselves be moved out by our attraction as neighbors, we took advantage of the real estate boom artists create,” Brickbottom Artists Group member Chris Enos told the New York Times in 1987.
Today, Vernon Street Studios is home to more than 93 artists, according to Rogers Foam representative Ellie Jones, and both Vernon Street and Brickbottom are in good company. Elsewhere in the city, a coffin factory has become Miller Street Studios, and Mixit Studios operates out of an old soap factory. The original New England Baking Company building now houses Joy Street Studios.
“I’m not a leader in repurposing spaces,” Gregory laughs. “I was just an artist looking for a studio.”
In the future, artists like Gregory might have help finding studios as the city pursues a new housing opportunity that will support affordable live-work units for artists.
Behind Twin City Plaza, a short-ish walk from the Lechmere Green Line T stop, an industrial building nestled on the Somerville-Cambridge border is finding new life as a residential property. Built in 1916, Millbrook Lofts was a cold storage facility until as recently as 2013, insulating 10 million pounds of frozen seafood within concrete walls, thick cork insulation and about a foot of ice. Boston developer Berkeley Investments purchased Millbrook and moved forward with the redevelopment—after a months-long defrosting process—in 2014.
Two years later, Millbrook is now open for business, and tenants are moving in. The building at 9 Medford St. includes 100 apartment units and features an art gallery, a shared kitchen and lounge area and a roof deck with a rather impressive view.
The fixtures and design throughout the building are clean and contemporary, but Millbrook is also leaning into its history; a photograph of the cold storage facility is included in the development brochure and on social media, and floor plans are titled to keep with the theme—Polar, Arctic, Siberian, Frost. Stainless steel doors open into airy lofts where wide concrete columns sit in the middle of living areas.
Millbrook is the latest residential development on a former factory site. The concrete feel of the apartments differs from the warmer, bricks-and-beams-style units over at Davis Square Lofts, though the buildings share a similar origin story: Davis Square Lofts are located on a site formerly occupied by M.W. Carr & Co., a manufacturer of jewelry and other products. But factory buildings aren’t always adapted; former box factory Maxwell Packaging was demolished to make way for the housing complex Maxwell’s Green, though the buildings were still designed to “reflect the site’s industrial past,” according to Boston.com.
Berkeley Properties development director Eric Ekman, who oversaw development of Millbrook Lofts, notes that he made decisions during the development process based on design and aesthetics, but says it was a priority to keep as much of the exposed original features as possible. He suggests that prospective tenants are attracted to such unique features, which he describes as “the character offered by the adaptive reuse nature of the property,” in addition to conventional attributes like amenities and location.
Real estate agent Paul Santucci of Somerville Lofts agrees. In his experience, prospective residential loft tenants are often artists interested in community and the specific accommodations of a space. But today, there’s another group of people vying for lofts. These tenants could be empty nesters moving from the suburbs or “luxury tenants” drawn by Greater Boston’s booming biotech and pharmaceutical industries. They all have one thing in common: None of them want to live in “cookie-cutter” apartments.
“People want unique spaces,” Santucci says, “people who might not be artists but who are attracted to the creative flavor.”
This desire for proximity to art is reflected at Millbrook. Their brand motto is “Creative Living,” and works by Brickbottom artists are displayed throughout the building. Zoning laws support this connection: 5 percent of Millbrook’s total square footage has to be used for arts-related purposes. At Millbrook, that manifests in a gallery space and five artist live-work units. Based on the size and location of the building, zoning laws required 15 total affordable apartment units, and the Somerville Arts Council “requested that the artists units be five of the 15 required affordable units,” according to a city staff report. As a result, Millbrook offers five affordable live-work spaces for city-certified artists who qualify based on median income requirements, leaving 10 affordable units for non-artist residents.
According to the city’s website, this is a “first-of-its-kind” offering. Boston has a similar program in which affordable artist live-work units count towards minimum required affordable housing through the city’s ArtistSpace program, and applicants are held to the same median income requirements as other affordable housing. Neither Cambridge nor Brookline currently offers such a program for artists.
Somerville’s efforts to accommodate and support its artistic community are not going unnoticed. “Wary of the way artists have fled Boston ahead of the latest wave of gentrification,” wrote Nestor Ramos in the Boston Globe Magazine in May of this year, “Somerville is attempting to save its vibrant arts community while it still can.”
Jackson Gregory remembers feeling like an interloper when he moved to Somerville in the early 1970s. But today, Somerville’s artists are integral to the city’s identity.
Somerville’s industrial buildings will continue to adapt to the changing needs of businesses, artists and residents. Whether those uses will evolve as the city changes or remain—at least partially—arts-focused remains to be seen.