As hard times sweep across America like an early frost, much of New England still works and dwells in the remnants of what life was like before the last major economic ice age.
The post-war good times that the nation enjoyed after the Great Depression eventually left many of the remaining mills and multi-story brick industrial buildings in desuetude. Drive through any Northeastern city, and if there are huge granite banks, magnificent Victorian mansions, and a beautiful (though often too small) public library, there's most certainly a hulking mill building, or the ruins of one, not far away. Seeing what a community has done with those buildings (How heinous is the library addition? What happened to the old post office?) is often a good measure of how these places have fared now that the engine that made them thrive has seized and needs warming in the winter.
In the past 50 years, as the world ramped up development of disposable products, the scale of the hulking wrecks wasn't big and cheap enough to fit the dreams of the new manufacturers. With unused farm pasture around, why not build new to maximize profit? With cheap electricity, who needs windows? Driving was easier than walking, so why build multistory structures?
Many mills have found new life with new uses, of course, but many remain vacant, and few are living up to the economic potential realized in their glory days. Certainly many a bureaucrat and business person reflects regularly on how much quick cash they could make without the huge mill sitting on prime downtown real estate. But a sense of what once was permeates even the remotest of New England's downtowns: if the town had a mill, architecturally much of what was left behind is glorious. Instinctively, perhaps, we keep our mills around because if that economic engine is ever going to turn over again, the likeliest place we'll next hear its rumbling will be from behind those brick walls with a hundred windows. What, we wonder, could possibly bring us back to a time when prosperity meant more than barely maintaining a tax base and not having to sell off public assets?
If a group of digital media specialists has its way, a film training and production facility enhanced by gallery and museum space will bring one Valley mill town into the 21st century as a hub of creativity and sustainable prosperity.
No other town in the Pioneer Valley reflects the symbiotic relationship between town and mill so starkly as Turners Falls.
The old Strathmore mill stands on a long, narrow island wedged between rapids on the Connecticut River to the west and a wide canal of rushing water to the east. The rambling Strathmore mill with two smokestacks, numerous towers, and an old coal silo is mostly hidden from the town behind a low hill. A metal bridge spans the canal and heads into the miniature metropolis that stretches out below. Turners Falls used to have a trolley running down its wide Avenue A, which was lined with banks and theaters, and the street grids beyond accommodated those who worked the mill. The mansions of the managers and owners were further up on the plateau overlooking downtown; the neighborhood has now turned into an affable suburbia much larger than the downtown matrix.
Though downtown Turners Falls hums along happily enough, it's quiet. Not every storefront is bustling and the buildings and wide streets seem as if they could handle more traffic. It's easy to play 'what if' with Turners' empty mill. If it ever came alive again with industry, you can imagine the ripple effect of its prosperity crossing the canal, leaping the hill and flooding the streets of the town again. Like lights turning on after a blackout, at the flip of a switch the town would be ready to stretch its legs again. Its suit is pressed. It's ready and waiting for its next golden age.
Its Brooklyn-like boulevards and mannered side streets can be deceiving. Turners Falls is not officially even its own town, but a part of the Town of Montague, and the effort to keep the urban enclave looking spiffy is deliberate and costly.
The Grand Trunk Hotel once stood four stories tall over the Connecticut between First and Second streets, welcoming visitors as they crossed the Avenue A bridge. In the 1960s, instead of spending what was needed to update the wiring, the hotel was demolished. Its loss spurred historic preservationists to protect what they could, and in 1982 much of downtown and its architecture were listed on the National Historic Register as the Turners Falls Historic District. The Shea Theater was restored in 1990, and the Colle Opera House in 2003. As described in an application to put the mill on a list of endangered architecture, all across Turners Falls, supported by the Town of Montague, derelict buildings have been turned into "high-quality long-term affordable housing and prime commercial space."
The application was submitted in 2007 by Montague's town administrator, Frank Abbondanzio, in collaboration with Scott Heyl, an historic preservation expert, to place the Strathmore mill complex on the Massachusetts list of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Resources. A spot on the list can help attract the attention and funding of both private entrepreneurs and state and federal politicians. The application argued that Turners Falls' dedication and due diligence toward historic preservation issues made the mill an ideal candidate for a new industry to adopt it.
In 1994, the mill officially stopped operation, and from early on the town was an active advocate of reuse, placing it on priority lists and applying for extensive and expensive reuse and feasibility studies. Along with securing a clean bill of health from these studies, the town put together an information packet and list of reuse ideas for the mill that they'd support. In 2001, the application to be added to the endangered list says, Montague was "successful and innovative in using public resources to leverage private investment" by taking "Community Development Block Grant [and] Ready Resource funding to make grants to private owners of downtown commercial buildings for fa?ade and accessibility improvements." The program garnered more than $285,000 in private investment to improve historic buildings.
On May 26, 2007, all the efforts to keep Turners Falls' historic architectural legacy intact and save the mill nearly ended in disaster when Jonathan Tanzer, a disgruntled former employee of the then-owner of the Strathmore mill, broke into the mill to steal copper wiring. Unable to find what he was looking for, he expressed his frustration by setting a roll of paper on fire. At the time, the building he was in and many of the others on the island were filled, floor to ceiling, with rolls upon rolls of old paper. The resulting inferno demolished the building where the fire was set and badly damaged adjacent ones before firefighters from as far as Brattleboro and Amherst contained the blaze.
Though Heyl had tried to get the mill on the endangered list before, the fire renewed his and the town's efforts, and this time they succeeded. As he said to me, "The Strathmore Mill is the most significant industrial building remaining from the original industrial development in Turners Falls. It's the last major site in the town that reflects why Turners Falls is there in the first place." Shortly after getting the mill placed on the list, their efforts paid off.
A common reuse for historic buildings, particularly mills, is to turn them into some kind of housing, possibly with space available for shops, offices or light industry. While this approach can generate some tax revenue and a few jobs for the community in which the historic building is located, it typically does little to relight the furnace of industry that once had each floor of a mill building full of workers laboring in shifts day and night. Luckily for Turners Falls, rather than simply becoming a landlord, the Swift River Group that purchased the mill earlier this year has epic, wide-screen, Technicolor ambitions for the buildings by the canal.
John Anctil, the founder of the Swift River Group, has been making his living as the owner and operator of Fastlights, Inc., a company that rents out lighting and other movie equipment to filmmakers working in New England. Anctil has the expansive, creative air of a movie director rather than a business man. He reminds me a bit of Captain Kirk, and like the fictional space explorer, he's clearly happiest thinking big thoughts far outside the box. His ambition is to turn the one-time paper mill into a campus that combines at least four interconnected enterprises.
Basing his business model on the major film studios of the 1950s, he plans a self-contained production facility for digital media. The stages, recording studios and post-production suites of Swift River Studios would be available as turn-key solutions to outside filmmakers, but they'd also be used for hands-on training for students attending the Swift River Institute.
Part of the inspiration for a film production facility was practical: the equipment he rents to film crews is often in storage, awaiting jobs, not making him any money. A facility where films were always being worked on would keep his equipment in use much more often.
But the kernel for the idea came even before the beginning of Fastlights, Inc. "I've got a general contractor's license," he explained. "I used to buy property, primarily in Lowell. So when the savings and loans crisis occurred in the mid-eighties, there was tons of property on the market. Lots of boarded-up buildings. Properties on crack streets. Scary places. I'd pick up four or five buildings on one block and be able to turn the whole street. Mostly multi-families. Nice trim packages. Nice clapboards. You know, well done. And that really played out well financially for me as property values in Lowell grew 17 percent a year for 15 years. So after a $100,000 investment, it's a $400,000 building later."
In addition to his experience rehabbing old buildings, as Fastlights, Inc. grew and Anctil began supplying equipment to major film studios and makers of cable documentaries, he also began renting to universities, "BU, Amherst, Fitchburg and NYU, places like that. And these kids come up and they're doing their thesis short films that cost between $10,000 and $15,000. They get some real gear: lighting, grip, HMIs, that sort of thing. And then they realize they don't have a clue how to use it." Swift River, he hopes, will provide that training to aspiring filmmakers.
Additionally, he saw a need to provide more than technology to experienced filmmakers. "I work with a lot of small features from the half a million to $3 million range, typically," he explains. "What I often see is, they hire my lighting grip package, but they'd hire the wrong producers. They'd get halfway through the show and then go bust. They'd run out of money and go, 'Oh, shit.' And that's good for no one. So we were thinking of a turnkey independent film production facility that would have all your components in place, ready to go."
Along with the film production and training component, the campus will be open to the public, too. Given its historic surroundings and commanding position on the canal, Anctil envisions museums and gallery spaces both celebrating the site's Native American legacy and exploring the history of energy production.
Social change and environmental awareness are key elements in their strategy, he says; as well as producing media that reflect these concerns, his plans for the site stress the group's commitment to the environment. The campus will be car-free and will employ many green energy solutions, its principals hoping to teach by example. Anctil has also been in discussion with the owner of Turners Falls Hydro-Electric, which still operates on the campus, to offer demonstrations, and he hopes to attract innovators in new technologies to showcase their work on the campus.
Finally, the public the group welcomes to the site won't just be there to learn about energy options and look around the production studios. There are plans for at least one restaurant and a rooftop cafe, and the soundstages and screening rooms will also be used for public performances.
"We're going to save all the windows!" architect Tristram Metcalfe replied when I asked him what was new.
In addition to the mill, Anctil bought St. Anne's Church and rectory on Sixth Street, a short walk from the mill, and turned them into the group's base of operations. When I'd visited the project over the summer, Metcalfe and the group had been racing to meet a September deadline to apply for federal and state historic preservation tax credits. While they were confident about their plans, they weren't entirely certain they were going to ace the application.
Things during my second visit were a lot less tense. Metcalfe sat at his desk in the front window of the rectory, delighted. "We've been going through the mill buildings, documenting all the windows, identifying what makes them unique and what needs to be preserved, and we're determined to keep them all," he said.
Over 400 huge, multipaned windows look out from floor upon floor of the massive industrial spaces; some of them look out on river rapids, others on the canal and urban center beyond. Many also keep watch over a pair of immense courtyards that Metcalfe and his client envision for the Strathmore complex.
Metcalfe looks like an architect from central casting. With a grey sweep of Errol Flynn hair, affable eyebrows and a ready smile, he's got a flair for conveying his joy for old buildings. But his ideas about reuse and preservation are modern, fun, and while practical, hardly conservative. Like Anctil, he's able to look at a space and see many uses for it. The loss of the building to arson was a real setback to the group's plans, for instance, but Metcalfe turned it into an opportunity. Once the wreckage is cleared, the space he'd originally seen as a small enclosure will have opened into an industrial amphitheater. Metcalfe wants to span the gap left between the two remaining buildings with a metal bridge (sympathetic in style to the historic one that crosses the canal), and from this they'll suspend a screen. Add seating below and it will become an outdoor theater.
The mill complex has been dissected and its innards are spread out in highly detailed plans, diagrams and computer renderings pinned to the architect's office walls and piled layers deep on his desks. This anatomy of the 10 buildings was drawn from measurements taken by teams of engineers tromping through the buildings. Their calculations are then translated by draughtsmen at computers and desks spread out around the rest of the rectory's stately downstairs.
During my second visit in September, the submission deadlines had come and gone without the applications being sent. Metcalfe explained what had happened.
"We were getting ready to apply for the tax credits when I was told by one of the government agencies that there was no way we'd get approved for anything without an historic preservationist on our team," he said.
It was the eleventh hour, and the likelihood of finding someone who had both the experience with New England mills, let alone this one, and the time and interest to help them seemed unlikely. With despair setting in, he left his office and headed out to his car. Crossing the street, he bumped into his old friend, Scott Heyl. Heyl had once lived in the Valley, but the last Metcalfe knew, he'd been working as a preservation historian in New York City and had had an office in the armory in Central Park. More recently he'd been working for Albany on statewide preservation issues.
Metcalfe explained his dilemma. Scott said that not only had he twice been part of the application process to have the mill put on the endangered list, but he had recently returned to the Valley and was now in private practice. He was enthusiastic about joining the team. As someone familiar with applying for historic preservation tax credits and knowing many of the players on the state and federal level, he assured Swift River that it was in their best interests to do more ground work and delay their application until January.
Since then, working together, Heyl and Metcalf had been going through the mill meticulously, documenting what they planned to preserve, starting with the windows.
As Metcalfe updated me, Sasha Statman-Weil joined us. He is in charge of strategy and development for the Swift River group, and effectively the enterprise's Spock to Anctil's Kirk.
Handling many of the daily logistical and marketing concerns, he helps keep the Swift River Group's bold new ideas grounded in reality. While Metcalfe contemplates sticking wind turbines in one of the smokestacks, and Anctil riffs on different ideas for reusing the coal silo, Statman-Weil has been on the phone with government agencies and overseeing the removal of tons of trash from the buildings. Thus far they've carted 86 tractor trailers and 25 dumpsters full of debris from the buildings left by the previous owners. Statman-Weil's also overseen stripping the buildings of much of the old machinery, and unearthing portions of the building's basement that have been boarded up and haven't seen light in more than 40 years. Still on the to-do list are cleaning up the debris left by the fire and draining over 4,000 gallons of oil from two giant tanks. For his part, he's relieved that Heyl has joined the team and offered guidance on how to apply for the all-important tax credits.
As Metcalfe says, "The big question is going to be how long it takes to get significant money into the development, and how long the town will wait …or not wait." Anctil's already invested a great deal of his own capital into the project, and the town's also made financial concessions, but success hinges on the Swift River plan's being approved so the group can take advantage of a number of government-sponsored economic incentives, such as Massachusetts' new incentives to attract film production businesses to the state, and the historic tax credits.
Rather than just being money a developer can save on the cost of development, there's a huge industry in buying and selling historic preservation tax credits, and they can translate into income for a project. In order to get the credits, though, Metcalfe and Heyl need to document precisely what they plan to save; what they propose to preserve is eligible, but new construction is not. Therefore the work done to preserve the exteriors of the buildings around the proposed new amphitheater might warrant tax credits, but adding the new screen and seating likely would not.
As Heyl explained, "The challenge here is that Tris, the design team and I are trying to respect the heritage of the site, but at the same time, if we're going to make it into a film institute and production facility, there's things we need to do to make it friendly to that use. That involves opening up floors, cutting through floors, access and egress—those are all issues where there needs to be a balance. The [government] preservation program isn't so rigid that they're looking for purist museum-type restoration. But if you're proposing specific structural changes, you need to justify that from the start."
The Swift River Group hopes to raise 40 percent of their seed money from being fully approved by the feds and the state for these credits.
The other challenge, of course, is that the Swift River Group is beginning this enormous undertaking during some of the most challenging of times. Anctil points out that the film industry actually grew during the Depression, and that in bad times, people crave movies and entertainment possibly more than in good times. Heyl furthers the argument for pushing ahead: "You can't stop the economic engine and be scared because of bad times. Historic preservation has proven itself over the past 25 years or more to be a catalyst for creative, resilient and sustainable thinking."
While elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley economic development has amounted to little more than building new vinyl-clad homes in open fields or attracting national retail chains to set up shop, Turners Falls has invested in its richest and most valuable local commodity, its own history. While the success of both the Swift River Group and America's new president are an open question in this coming financial frost, their reliance on ideals and values that have seemed out of date and historic for so long suddenly seems like a fresh breeze that might propel this boat, long mired in the doldrums, toward a brighter horizon.
Visit the former Strathmore Mill by visiting this 17-panorama virtual tour.
To keep up to date with developments at the mill, visit www.swiftrivergroup.com.