Modern Uses For Some Of New Bedford's Old Textile Mills

Sep 24, 2014

New Bedford’s textile mills once churned out fabric 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some of the old mills have been torn down, but others survive as artist spaces, outlets and apparel manufacturers. About a half dozen of the red brick structures have been restored and turned into high-end apartments. Manomet Place in New Bedford’s North End is one example. 

Roger and Pat Souza are lifelong New Bedford residents who recently moved to Manomet Place, once known as Manomet Mill. Most of the building has now been restored and re-developed into upscale apartments. Pat Souza is a short, outgoing woman with a jovial manner. She joked that she often hears the ghosts of her relatives who once worked in this very space.

“Members of my family, through the years, have worked in this same factory, right here. I think I see their ghosts sometime,” she said with a laugh. “Every now and then we hear these cracks, and I say, uh oh….that’s my aunt lookin’ down on me, saying, ‘Why are you sleeping in my room where I worked?’”

Pat Souza’s relative was one of thousands of workers who toiled in the mills during the early 1900’s, when New Bedford became one of the country’s leading textile producers. By the 1930’s, over-production and competition from the South forced many of the mills out of business.

New Bedford historian and publisher Joe Thomas said that at one time, you could buy a mill in New Bedford for a dollar.

“They were built in the 20th century, so they didn’t have a long life as textile mills. And during the Depression, even before the Depression, they began to fall like dominoes. But for the most part, they were new when the mills went bankrupt. They were only 20-year old factories,” Thomas said. 

Then came World War II, when bottlers, tire makers, electrical capacitor manufacturers, tool and dye-makers and ammunition factories all came into the city and took over much of the empty mill space. That trend has continued, although in some cases, developers feel the land has more value without a mill on it, so the mill building gets demolished. Thomas said that doesn’t always have to happen.

“I mean, there’s so much that can be done. And it just takes a lotta hard work. It takes, I think, political ingenuity,” he said.

I mean, there's so much that can be done. And it just takes a lotta hard work. It takes, I think, political ingenuity. - Joe Thomas

The Manomet Place project was partially funded with Federal and State Historic Preservation tax credits. These require the developer to retain as many of the original architectural touches as possible. In the case of Manomet Place, that means lots of exposed beams, brick walls, and the trademark huge windows, many of them 15 feet high. Each stair in the stairwell still has a black rubber “Manomet Mills” tread.

At the end of one of the hallways, a door opens into what eventually will be Phase Two of the Manomet Place project.

It’s a huge, dark, empty room, still in its original, unglamorous condition. The only illumination is the bright glare of a contractor’s light mounted on one of the columns. In a few years, this silent, gloomy space, with its peeling lead paint on the ceiling, will be brought up to code and transformed into high-end apartments like those just on the other side of the wall. Joe Thomas said he’d like to see this type of restoration happening in more of the mills.

“They’ll never build buildings like this again. And to watch so many of ‘em be knocked down, and be neglected and abandoned, is almost criminal in my mind,” he said. “Of course, I realize everything can’t be saved. But when you look at the construction, the quality of light, you have to ask yourself: What’s taken us so long to re-adapt this kind of space?”

Other cities such as Lowell have been aggressively re-adapting their huge volume of mill space.

“With current projects underway, and upon the completion, you’ll have about 94 percent of the 5.2 million square feet rehabilitated,” said Steve Stowell, Historic Board Administrator for the City of Lowell..

He was asked to rate the overall success of some of these rehabilitations on a scale of one to ten.

“From a preservation perspective, and a community image perspective, and a marketing perspective, I would have to say it’s a ten,” Stowell replied.

Stowell said it’s a win-win, but the effort takes cooperation among  city officials, the National Park Service and developers. It’s a level of re-use potential that New Bedford has yet to fully realize, even though Mayor Jon Mitchell supports the effort.

The mills present great opportunities for redevelopment - not for every purpose, but a wide enough array of purposes that really help us market what we have in the city. - New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell

“The mills present great opportunities for redevelopment…not for every purpose, but a wide enough array of purposes that really help us market what we have in the city,” Mitchell said.

One thing New Bedford has in abundance is artists. Some of the former mills are now used as inexpensive studio and gallery space for painters, ceramic artists, sculptors, woodcarvers and more. They exhibit their work once a year as part of a project called New Bedford Open Studios. According to Ann Louro, New Bedford’s Historic Preservation Planner, the effort has been a success.

“We invite the public in every October and the artists sell their wares. But it’s also just good marketing for them, for people to be aware of what is now taking place in these mills,” she said.

While some of New Bedford’s former mill buildings have been torn down, others continue to hum with activity of one sort or another. And a few, like Manomet Place, have been successfully rescued and rehabilitated. Many of the remaining mills look much as they did a century ago, continuing to exist in a strange kind of limbo, as if still waiting for the next shift to clock in.