By Will Morgan
One of the pleasures of riding a train is seeing the gritty backyards of cities and towns. Instead of the boredom of an interstate highway or the dreary sameness of suburban shopping malls, we get snapshots of the patina of rust belt America. These glimpses of the seamier side of life have a certain melancholic romance, like an Edward Hopper painting or a Walker Evans photograph. This is a world of black and white, where not much seems to have changed since my childhood, when I regularly rode the Pennsylvania Railroad into New York.
One of my favorite slices of this urban underbelly is a factory in Attleboro, Massachusetts. It literally sits on the border, in the nether world where Attleboro touches the faded Rhode Island mill towns of Pawtucket, Cumberland, and Central Falls. This is one of the handsomest mill buildings in an area that was the birthplace of the American industrial revolution.
I have been meaning to find this mill for years. Surrounded as it is by train tracks, I-95, scrap metal yards, empty lots, and dead-end streets, it is not easy to reach. When I finally got to the 121-year old Howard & Bullough American Machine factory, it was halfway demolished. Naively, I had assumed that this glorious example of Blackstone Valley commercial accomplishment would someday to be preserved and renovated as apartments, a school, or lofts for artists and entrepreneurs.
Alas, this is a place where there are far too many mills and not enough money and imagination to rescue them. This story of industrial might brought low by circumstance is an all too familiar one across New England. But that does not make the building’s destruction any less sad or any less of a loss.
The “American” designation is an intriguing part of the mill’s history. A manufacturer of textile machinery, H&B’s home base was amidst the dark satanic mills of Lancashire, England. Rather than just export their heavy stock, H&B wanted to assemble it in this country. More than a century earlier, Samuel Slater surreptitiously brought loom designs from England and established Pawtucket’s textile manufacturing dominance, so there is an ironic twist to H&B’s decision to locate here. Furthermore, although situated in the “Jewelry City” of Attleboro, H&B always maintained a Pawtucket address.
Howard & Bullough hired an architect from the great mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire. Presumably Henry A. Herrick had built mills in the “Manchester of America,” but he did something more for Attleboro than simply wrapping floor space in brick.
The administrative section of Herrick’s magnificent pile is a three-story palace-like block, with decorative drip moldings, heavy Italianate lintels, and Romanesque columns flanking the main entrance. The business end of the building is a quarter-mile-long four-story block with the largest windows then possible. Decoration is limited to gentle arches over the windows, so the grand façade’s monumental presence depends upon the machine-like repetition of the fenestration.
Despite some efforts to move the Rhode Island state line to include H&B, the Attleboro factory thrived as the Massachusetts town’s largest employer until the Depression. The 1,100 workers diminished to half that by the start of World War II. Eventually, the 500,000-square-foot factory was then parceled out to various engineering and chemical firms, as well as the nefarious small enterprises that move into an aging hulk like this. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration declared the building was “falling apart,” and fire and safety violations sealed its doom.
Other mills in Lawrence, Lowell, and Fall River are equally majestic, but the loss of Attleboro’s own cathedral to the golden age of New England industrial prowess is a real tragedy.
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