On a last-minute trip to the Berkshires, I couldn’t help but stop at the recently re-opened Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams. Being a huge nerd for industrial history and repurposed mills and factories, it was an absolute treat to walk through the large brick and steel buildings and wings lined with steel casement windows providing the perfect scenery for some amazing artworks. What is now known as Mass MoCA, – one of the premier art museums in New England – was once Arnold Print Works, a one time world leader in textile manufacturing with offices in New York City and Paris.
The Arnold Print Works were built on the Hoosac River near the center of North Adams. The company was the town’s largest industry during the city’s economic heyday from the Civil War until the early 20th century. The company was founded in 1861 by the John, Oliver, and Harvey Arnold, who began production of printed cloth at an existing cotton mill. At the dawn of the American Civil War, the newly formed company became flush with money due to government contracts for manufacturing Union Army uniforms. The company expanded after the war until a fire destroyed nearly all of the wooden buildings on the site. After the fire, a majority share of the company was purchased by Albert Charles Houghton, who became the first mayor of North Adams, and he oversaw the expansion and prosperity of the company, starting with new buildings of fire-proof construction.
By the early 20th century, many textile and cotton manufacturing shifted to the American South severely crippling the mill’s profits. In 1929, Sprague Electric Company moved to North Adams from Quincy, Massachusetts, and began buying the Arnold Print Works buildings. The print works moved much of its operation to nearby Adams and concentrated on a few particular products in its North Adams plant. The print works was finally sold in 1942 for just $1.9 million dollars, a far departure from its once prosperous past. The plant was shortly thereafter acquired by Sprague Electric Company.
While largely leaving the building exteriors as they were, Sprague made extensive modifications to the interiors to convert the former textile mill into an electronics plant. Sprague physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and skilled technicians were called upon by the U.S. government during World War II to design and manufacture crucial components of some of its most advanced high-tech weapons systems, including the atomic bomb.
[Outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, Sprague was a major research and development center, conducting studies on the nature of electricity and semi-conducting materials. After the war, Sprague’s products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers in a community of 18,000, existing almost as a city within a city. From the post-war years to the mid-1980s Sprague produced electrical components for the booming consumer electronics market, but competition from lower-priced components produced abroad led to declining sales and, in 1985, the company closed its operations on Marshall Street.] (Mass MoCA History)
The complex sat vacant briefly before the Williams College Museum of Art, led by its director, Thomas Krens—who would later become Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—advocated for a museum space for contemporary art that would not fit in traditional art galleries. The nearby Arnold Mills seemed like a perfect, yet daunting task to repurpose. Bruner/Cott Architects of Cambridge were hired to repurpose the mills and oversee the massive adaptive reuse project which today totals nearly 300,000 square feet of galleries and art venues.