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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

November 9, 2001

Weissman Center Panel Discussion Not Run of the Mill

Factory building, ink on denim, by Nancy Howard Smith

In 1870, a group of seventy Chinese laborers undertook an epic journey, travelling by the newly completed transcontinental railroad to take the place of striking workers in a North Adams, Massachusetts, shoe factory. But the social journey they took after their arrival was even more remarkable. Over the course of ten years, living in a room in the back of the factory originally meant for a steam engine, these workers fashioned not only shoes, but new identities for themselves in a shifting social order. Their story was told by Anthony Lee, associate professor of art, as part of a panel discussion, "The Many Lives of Factory Buildings" October 25. The discussion was the second in a yearlong series—Building Meaning: Architecture and Public Space in the Third Millennium—sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership.

Also speaking of the past and future lives of factory buildings were Simeon Bruner, who helped design the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, and John Mullin, a professor of urban planning at the University of Massachusetts and an authority on New England mill towns. Karen Koehler, Five College visiting scholar and professor of architecture, moderated the discussion.

For the Chinese workers, "the self-consciousness of inhabiting a factory building and having that factory building overwhelm their social sense of self played out in photography, something that interests me," Lee told the audience of about 200 people. He displayed a slide of a photo taken soon after their arrival, in which the workers, lined up in front of the factory, stare back at the camera "in a deer-in-the-headlights sort of way." In a later photo, also taken outside the factory, the same workers are "much more self-conscious. What they were going to do was not simply allow themselves to be specimens for the factory, or part and parcel of the machinery. They were going to lay claim to it."

A series of portraits taken over the years shows how the workers "could try to be middle class, working class, even dandies," Lee said. At first, they pose without props, in the clothing they had brought from China. Later, they pose with their most prized possessions, as markers of social standing. Still later, they begin experimenting with all sorts of elaborate costumes and backdrops, "as if trying on different kinds of social identity," Lee says. A final photo shows a worker dressed in the substantial outfit of a prosperous industrialist.

If a mill worker could fashion his own place in the social order of the nineteenth century, so too can the role of the mill itself be reshaped in the twentieth century. Bruner, a principal of Bruner/Cott & Associates, a Cambridge architectural firm, took the audience on a photographic tour of MASS MoCA, the former North Adams mill reborn as a museum in 1999.

MASS MoCA is not always what it seems to be, Bruner explained. "If I have one concern about MASS MoCA, it's that we may have romanticized the building too much. Because, ironically, all of the beautiful places you're going to see were spaces we created. The building as we found it was a rabbit warren of small, really rather nasty spaces. So what you see is really a reworking of an old building into what people see as an original, but it's not."

A case in point, Bruner said, is the rest rooms. When Time Out New York reviewed the building, it congratulated the architects on leaving the rest rooms in the basement. Yet the rest rooms had never been in the basement when the mill was in operation, Bruner said.
If MASS MoCA is rich in nineteenth-century industrial character, that's by design. Flaking lead paint was covered with sealant; wooden flooring was removed and reinstalled after major structural work was done; rotted floors were simply torn out to create two- and three-story gallery spaces. The largest gallery, two stories tall and 300 feet long, did not exist as a single space before the reconstruction.

The architects had "the luxury of having no money," Bruner said. For that reason, plans changed as the work went along. A one-story building that was to have been preserved was too badly deteriorated and had to be razed, while its neighbor, a two-story structure, was saved from demolition. In the end, the reconstruction was accomplished for $70 a square foot—equal to the architect's fee for the new Getty Museum, Bruner said.

Citing references as old as the Bible and as recent as Bruce Springsteen, Mullin, who is now writing a book titled The Once and Future New England Mill Town, argued that the mill has long been regarded with fear and revulsion. "We, as a New England culture, will put our economic capital into mill towns and factories," Mullin said, noting that in Holyoke, first-floor, Grade A mill space is completely occupied. "But we will never put our social capital in. In fact, there is a separation in New England, in that we take these places and we look at them and we may even say they're magnificent, they're strong, they're powerful—but will we live there, given the choice? No, we won't."

Mullin described himself as the descendant of "a family of mill rats," beginning with a great-grandmother who arrived from Ireland and went to work in the mills of Maynard, Massachusetts. He, too, worked in the Maynard mills, when they were home to Digital Equipment Corp., and, today, his brother Joe is a part owner of one of the mills.

"That represents not only the New England dream, but it also shows, I think, real progress in the cultural sense," Mullin said.

The Weissman Center series continues with the third panel discussion, "Contested Ground: Meaningful Landscapes and Cultural Conflict in the Past," Wednesday, November 14.

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