BUILT TO LAST: REUSING INDUSTRIAL AGE BUILDINGS IN A POSTINDUSTRIAL CITY: WILLIMANTIC, CONNECTICUT 

Written by Jamie H. Eves

INTRODUCTION: INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS AND THE POSTINDUSTRIAL TRANSITION

—The thing they were needed for is going away, or already gone. They are still here.

Rick Bragg, The Most They Ever Had

 

   This is the story of how Willimantic, a mill city in eastern Connecticut, has restored old, industrial-era (1822-1985) buildings and other spaces for new uses in today’s postindustrial age. Industrial age mills, stores, bridges, and other structures were intended to display the wealth and power of the men and companies that built them, and consequently were “built to last.” Many of them have outlasted their original purposes. In Willimantic, former mill buildings have been converted into residences, offices, preschools, and other service-oriented businesses. Thread Mill Square, a pre-automobile-era stone arch bridge and public square, has been transformed into the Garden on the Bridge, a pedestrian walkway and garden. A company store is now a history museum and research center. Former grocery, dry goods, and tea stores, along with tailors’ and milliners’ shops, are now art galleries, barber shops, pubs, and restaurants. Two theaters have been converted into magnet schools. A former supermarket is now a food co-op. An armory is now an apartment building. A department store has been transformed into the headquarters of a nonprofit education organization. An elementary school built for mill children is now a senior center. An ornate Victorian post office has been converted into a brew pub. A former hospital is now a shelter. Mill worker row houses have become rental housing for service workers, and ornate Victorian mansions and cottages are now homes for university professors, doctors, and information-technology businesspeople. What do these changes tell us about the past, present, and future of Willimantic and other old New England mill communities?   

   In 1985, Willimantic, with its characteristic nineteenth-century New England gray granite mills and red brick factories, plain clapboard mill worker row houses, decorative Victorian mansions and cottages, turn-of-the-century Main Street, and diverse array of ethnic churches, reached a historic tipping point. The giant American Thread Company, the city’s signature industry and one of the largest thread mills in the United States, closed its doors and moved operations to North Carolina. Life in Willimantic changed forever.

   For sixteen decades – from the 1820s to the 1980s – industry reigned in Willimantic. The industrial revolution created Willimantic, transforming what in 1822 had been a barely populated, steep-sided, rocky gorge and scrub oak forest in the northwest corner of the old colonial town of Windham into what in 1877 was a bustling factory city of 8,200 people surrounding a clutch of chuffing textile mills. The Willimantic Linen Company (cotton thread), Smithville Manufacturing Company (cotton thread), Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company (cotton thread and cloth), Holland Manufacturing Company (silk thread), O. S. Chaffee and Son Company (silk thread), Morrison Machine Company (silk thread machinery), and other textile-related industries collectively had given Willimantic its nickname, “Thread City.”(1)

   While the years 1822-77 saw the creation of industrial Willimantic, the period 1877-1919 was the city’s industrial heyday.  The Gilded Age (1877-96) and Progressive Era (1896-1919) were times of prosperity, progress, and optimism in Willimantic, at least for the affluent middle and upper classes. Residents reveled in the city’s rapid growth and prolific achievements. Between 50 and 100 freight trains arrived daily, loaded with cotton, silk, and coal. Passenger trains connected Willimantic to the bright lights of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and beyond. Thriving three-story brick-and-stone storefronts lined Main Street. Beehive mill worker tenements crowded Iverton, Carey Hill, White Row, Yellow Row, Stone Row, and other working class neighborhoods near the mills, while more refined neighborhoods of middle-class Victorian homes swept up the sides of Prospect Hill and Hosmer Mountain. Many of the newer houses sported the distinctive gingerbread trims, colorful paint jobs, intricate window designs, and fancy architecture characteristic of the Gilded Age. During the boom years of World War I (1912-18), wages surged, thanks to an unprecedented worldwide demand for uniforms, tents, and other war goods that drove up the price of thread, stimulated production, and encouraged the Willimantic mills to add more hands. (2)

   The optimism of the Gilded Age was so great that most people thought the prosperity would last forever. But with the war over, the demand for textiles quickly dropped. Prices fell, and wages tumbled along with them. Workers at the American Thread Company (which had bought out the Willimantic Linen Company in 1898) went on strike in 1925, but the union lost and the number of jobs at the plant dropped from 2,500 to fewer than 1,700. In 1917 the Turner Silk Mill closed, followed by the Quidnick Manufacturing Company in 1926, the S. P. S. Silk Company in 1928, the Willimantic Machine Company in 1931, the Holland Silk Company in 1934, and the Windham Silk Company in 1937. World War II (1939-45) and the first decade of the Cold War (1947-57) delivered a temporary resurgence, but after 1960 Willimantic’s industrial economy sagged again and, one by one, most of the remaining mills closed. By 1985, when American Thread shut down, it was clear that the industrial era had come to an end. Like many old New England mill cities, Willimantic faced an uncertain future. (3)

   In his 1973 book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell describes what had happened. As the old American industrial economy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries declined, it gave way to a new, postindustrial economy. While the old economy had been characterized by the production of manufactured goods like thread, cloth, ribbons, machinery, electrical cables, condensers, capacitors, and trimmers, the new economy focused on providing services such as health care, information, art, computer software, investment, communications, restaurants, personal services, and companionship. According to Bell, the new services were many and varied. Some generated high incomes and others low. Four service sectors especially dominated: health, education, research, and government. (4)

   This new postindustrial economy gave rise to a postindustrial society. Blue-collar jobs declined. White-collar and pink-collar occupations increased. There was less demand for factory workers, carpenters, masons, and machinists, but more jobs for lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, social workers, information and technology providers, artists, waitresses, barbers, secretaries, and clerks. Mill cities declined; college and tourist communities grew. Practical knowledge seemed less relevant; theoretical information became more important. Status and leadership shifted from mill owners, tinkerers, and main street merchants to scientists, investment specialists, surgeons, computer engineers, and university administrators. People moved away from urban centers and into suburban neighborhoods. The exponential growth of information networks like the internet and international banking contributed to globalization. (5)

   Not surprisingly, all of these changes occurred in Willimantic, too. Although some factories remained, the city’s signature employers became Eastern Connecticut State University and Windham Memorial Hospital. Clothing stores struggle, but niche restaurants thrive. Nonprofit health and social service agencies, history museums, and art collaboratives occupy former storefronts. But history could still tip in different directions. It remains uncertain whether or not Willimantic’s future will be that of a declining mill city, or a growing college town.

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   When the American Thread Company left Willimantic in 1985, it left behind a sprawling complex of stone, brick, and concrete mill buildings. What would happen to them? What could be done to keep them from slowly deteriorating? Should they even be saved? The buildings had been “built to last”; indeed, they had lasted longer than the mills themselves, and with proper care, they could last another century or more. These and other buildings were both a problem to be solved and a potential resource for growth, if only they could be used properly. The history of the postindustrial transition in Willimantic – the struggle to reshape the city to fit the new social and economic realities – can be traced in recent decisions to restore and reshape some of the older, industrial-era buildings for new purposes. The following articles chronicle some of the changes that were made to industrial-age structures that had been “built to last.” They also also show that many of the changes associated with the postindustrial transition actually had their roots earlier, in the industrial era. Follow the links to see how this occurred.

Windham Town Hall: From Courthouse to Ballroom

The Invasion of the Chain Stores: From A & P Supermarket to Food Coop

Capitol Theater: From Stage to School

South Park Street Plant: From Factory to Services Building

Preserving the Past: From Company Store to Museum

Endnotes

Willimantic’s ornate Victorian post office, constructed at the corner of Main and High Streets in 1909, is now the Willimantic Brewing Company, an upscale restaurant, pub, and microbrewery. This photo is from a postcard c. 1915.

The Willimantic Linen Company built the Oaks School in 1890 as an elementary school for the Oaks neighborhood of mill worker company housing. The school was built at the corner of Crescent and Fairview Streets.

Students at the Oaks School, c. 1900.

The Oaks School today is the Windham Senior Center. The building has gone from serving the young to the old. An elevator has been attached. The bell tower was removed.

Artist’s rendition of the Willimantic Linen Company (later American Thread Company) mills in the late 1800s.

The American Thread Company’s Mill No. 2 has been partly restored and renovated. The stone work was cleaned, new windows were installed, a new roof was put on, and many of the interior spaces have been converted into a modern business center.