Pioneering Boston Mill Conversion Project Turns 30

Before the Living Building Challenge, before LEED, before even the phrase “green building” became widely known, there were the Baker Chocolate Factory Apartments. In one of the earliest examples of adaptive reuse that swept the vacant mills of New England in the 1980s and ’90s, the conversion of the former Walter Baker & Co. chocolate mill on the southern edge of Boston into apartments in 1983 led to more than 150 other historic building renovations by the firm The Architectural Team (TAT).

This year, the ambitious Baker Chocolate Factory Apartment complex project will celebrate its 30th anniversary as a pioneer in the adaptive reuse movement. Today, what was once a crumbling eyesore subject to vandalism is now a revitalized community of artists, families and seniors that has attracted new shops, cafes and other retail businesses to Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.

Boston's Baker Chocolate Factory Apartments celebrates its 30th anniversary of adaptive reuse. Image by Marcbela via Wikipedia Commons.

Boston’s Baker Chocolate Factory Apartments celebrates its 30th anniversary of adaptive reuse. Image by Marcbela via Wikipedia Commons.

“These projects are the epitome of true sustainability, saving energy and conserving resources while simultaneously preserving a community’s historic fabric,” said Michael Binette, a partner at TAT. “We employ, as part of each building’s rehabilitation program, state-of-the-art green design techniques and technologies to create a healthy space and to help ensure high-level performance and contribution to the community well into the future.”

The elegant eight-building complex, located in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester on the Neponset River, was built in the late 19th century and thrived as a premier chocolatier for several decades. The 14-acre property was left vacant in 1965, however, when the Baker company moved its operations to Delaware.

In a bid to save the decaying brick structures from the wrecking ball, preserve the region’s heritage and provide attractive, affordable urban housing for mixed-income tenants, TAT began working with Keen Development on the long process of converting three of the mill buildings into 143 apartments. The site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was honored in 1988 by President Reagan with the bestowing of the National Historic Preservation Award to the TAT architects.

With a little Willy Wonka magic, TAT performed more conversion work over the next three decades to preserve all eight factory buildings with the help of Beacon Development and WinnDevelopment. Other housing units on the old factory site include the conversion of the former Administration building into 13 affordable artist lofts; The Lofts at Lower Mills, offering 58 mixed-income units; and the Carriage House, a small, two-unit building.

The final phase of the Baker complex renovation includes 17 Watermill Lofts, located in the factory's former boiler room. Image via PRWeb.

The final phase of the Baker complex renovation includes 17 spacious Watermill Lofts, located in the factory’s former boiler room. Image via PRWeb.

In 2011, TAT finally completed its final stage of the long-running project with The Watermill Lofts at Lower Mills, which used to be factory’s old boiler room. The renovated structure, which won the 2011 Preservation Achievement Award from the Boston Preservation Alliance, includes 17 luxury, multilevel loft-style apartments with 20-foot-high ceilings and arched windows overlooking the Neponset River.

Some of TAT’s more recent adaptive reuse developments include The Apartments at Boott Mills in Lowell, Mass.; Loft Five50 in Lawrence, Mass.;  and the LEED Silver-certified Bourne Mill in Tiverton, R.I. Currently, the firm is working on numerous historic adaptive-reuse developments, including Cliftex Mills in New Bedford, Mass.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.