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Forget the 'burbs! Find your dream home in one of Boston's repurposed buildings

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 19, 2012 06:11 PM

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baker chocolate factory.jpgBy Katie Lannan

Boston is full of history -- which is another way of saying that Boston is full of really old buildings that enterprising architects and developers have turned into creative hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers.

Boston’s also full of people; as of the 2010 census, the greater Boston area is home to over 4.6 million of them. To shelter those millions without letting hordes of sterile skyscrapers erode the city’s quaint character (no offense, Manhattan), those same enterprising architects and developers have converted some of Boston’s more unusual historic landmarks into condos and apartments. While most of these dwellings are a bit out of the normal 20-something Bostonian's price range, everyone needs a goal -- and mine just became owning a multi-level condo in an erstwhile piano-and-rifle factory.

Baker Chocolate Factory Apartments (1200 Adams St., Dorchester). These apartments might be your closest shot at realizing your childhood Willy Wonka fantasies. Sure, there’s no brigade of Oompa Loompas to cater to your every whim and likely no means to transform spoiled children into giant blueberries, but this Dorchester apartment complex does have a rich, chocolatey history. The three buildings that today house studios and one- and two-bedroom residences were originally the country’s first chocolate mill, in operation from 1765 to 1969, when Baker’s Chocolate relocated their headquarters to Delaware. Today, the apartments reflect their mill legacy with exposed brick and riverfront views but work in modern features like air conditioning and stainless steel appliances.

Sanctuary Lofts (60 Tufts St., Somerville). If you’re out to live somewhere truly unique, why settle for a building that’s only been repurposed once? Built in 1869, this structure originally served as Somerville’s First Universalist Church. In 1916, it reopened as the Cross Street Orpheum theater, a favorite moviehouse of neighborhood children, who would allegedly haggle with the manager for lower ticket prices. The theater changed owners several times until the 1950s, when Bennett Plumbing and Heating Supply took over the premises for its company headquarters. In its most recent incarnation, the former church -- now with a modern, extraterrestrial-looking addition -- has been broken down into 17 loft-style condos, with custom windows and 30-foot-high ceilings.

Adams Arboretum Condominiums (1020 Centre St., Jamaica Plain). This eight-building complex in Jamaica Plain actually did start out as a private residence, until its last owner, sugar merchant Seth Adams, provided in his will that his property become an asylum for people with nervous disorders. Overlooking the Arnold Arboretum, the hospital offered an open, homey atmosphere intended to preserve the dignity and individuality of its patients, the majority of whom were unmarried women. The first patient was admitted on April 11, 1880, and the hospital was abandoned in 1976. The following year, plans to bulldoze the buildings to make way for a new Arboretum entrance and parking lot led to the 8.7-acre site being named a Boston landmark. The individually owned condos are valued by the city at between (yikes!) $231,000 and $367,000 per unit.

Piano Craft Guild (791 Tremont St., South End). When it opened in 1854, Jonas Chickering Pianoforte was the second-largest building in the world, after the U.S. Capitol. Once a cutting-edge, steam-powered plant where up to 60 pianos were constructed each week, the former factory was converted into artist housing in the 1970s. The building keeps that creative spirit alive today, with an in-house theatre and gallery. Upstairs from the art spaces are airy luxury apartments, ranging from one to three bedrooms, with some units boasting balconies or duplex floor plans. If you like the space but prefer your history more action-packed than artistic, don’t worry -- during the Civil War, Spencer’s Repeating Rifle Company operated out of the factory, building the firearms that some credited with shortening the war.

shelton hall.jpgShelton Hall (91 Bay State Rd., Kenmore Square). OK, so repurposed housing is pricey. If you're going to throw down a couple hundred grand to live somewhere cool, why not get a college degree in the process? Boston University has converted three former hotels into dormitories: The old Howard Johnson that overlooks Fenway Park; Myles Standish Hall, where Babe Ruth used to stay; and Shelton Hall, which retains the most hotel-like features. The word "Sheraton" is still visible above the entrance, hinting at the building's former identity, and the ninth floor study lounge was once an indoor pool. Plus, the ghost of playwright Eugene O'Neill is said to haunt the fourth floor, so this building is pretty much the ideal place to start your dream career as an author of supernatural fiction. Stephen King can probably afford whatever repurposed housing he wants, right?

Which of Boston's repurposed buildings do you most admire?

Photo of Baker Chocolate Factory by Danielle Walquist Lynch (top) and of Shelton Hall by NVinacco (bottom) (Flickr)

About Katie -- Currently a Brookline resident and BU senior, I grew up in New Hampshire, meaning I get confused when charged sales tax and can discuss at length the differences between multiple varieties of apples. At any given moment, I likely have my iPhone in my hand and at least one newspaper in my purse. I'm a political junkie, as well as an iced coffee addict. My interests include journalism, canvas sneakers, and pretending I'm in Ireland.

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