Recycling America's industrial past
Old mills, factories and warehouses are being turned into prime residential spaces.
By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - As the American economy has shifted away from manufacturing, some of the biggest, and largely untapped, sources of potential housing are in old textile mills, warehouses, machine shops, and other industrial plants.

Where once legions of workers toiled over spinning and weaving machinery for long hours and low pay, now live artists and doctors, financiers and attorneys.

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These old bones of buildings offer the kind of physical spaces that have come into vogue during the past half century high ceilings, wide windows, open living areas, and the industrial aesthetic of exposed brick and visible ductwork, pipes and electrical service.

Says developer Sam Switzenbaum, who is transforming an old military warehouse in Philadelphia into a loft project called South Bridge, "These buildings offer very eclectic spaces. A big portion of the population likes things a little off beat, with a different sort of charm."

Brian O'Neill, who is developing a former Kaiser Aluminum plant in Rhode Island says," People just want to live in cool buildings and these old "brownfields" industrial sites offer some of the only prime locations left in many places."

(Photos: See 6 mill-conversions on the market now.)

New York roots

Turning industrial plants into living lofts first really took off in Manhattan's (now-called) Soho district in the 1950s, more out of necessity than preference. At the time, many of the city's artists were doing large works of sculpture and painting and needed lots of space. At the same time, manufacturers had begun their long exodus from the post-industrial city.

The 19th-century cast iron buildings preceded skyscrapers. Their parts were manufactured in plants and assembled on building sites. The strength of cast iron made them suitable for fairly tall structures with lots of windows, which made the interiors easier to light for their workers.

By the 1950s, Soho had an abundance of raw, vacant loft spaces with terrific light, high ceilings and big freight elevators; in short, these buildings had all the elements artists needed and they were relatively cheap.

Not cheap enough for many a starving artist, however, not if they had to rent a separate apartment to live in. And Soho was zoned exclusively for industrial use. The artists couldn't legally occupy their lofts, but they moved in anyway. And because they could be kicked out any time, they often didn't spend much to spruce up their places. Instead, they embraced many of the aspects of the industrial past.

Art colony

The artists transformed Soho. It filled with galleries, shops, bars, and restaurants. By the late 1960s everyone, even stockbrokers, wanted to live the there; it became synonymous with hip, artistic and, because of the illegal status, a bit of banditry.

The trend rippled through America. Nearly all of the nation's old cities joined New York in witnessing its industries exiting old manufacturing districts. Left behind: solid, well-built facilities.

Today Soho is more than a neighborhood; it's a lifestyle, one that, increasingly, developers recreate all over the country. Even places that have no legacy of industrial lofts to draw on, build them new; now one can find brand new pseudo-industrial loft residencies in places like Austin, Texas and Gainesville, Florida.

But the real thing can be found in many cities. New England, thanks to its importance as a center for cotton textile manufacturing, is especially blessed with fall line river towns with multitudes of mills that have been, are being or are ripe to be converted to residential use.

Switzenbaum says of his project's designer, the world renowned architect Robert Venturi, that "His thesis is that buildings should only be designed if they can be redone for another use after their initial use is over."

The original builders of these old plants could take heart that their creations fit in so well with a modern imperitive.

(Photos: See 6 mill-conversions on the market now.)

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