History, hope tangled up in fate of Bates Mill No. 5

LEWISTON — As mill buildings go, Bates Mill No. 5 stands alone.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

A power plant at Bates Mill No. 5.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

A compressor in the power plant at Bates Mill No. 5.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Power switches in the Bates Mill No. 5 power plant.

Looms removed from Bates Mill
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

2002 Sun Journal file photo of one of the six looms that were removed from the Bates Mill Enterprise Complex.

Looms removed from Bates Mill
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

2002 Sun Journal file photo of one of the six looms that were removed from the Bates Mill Enterprise Complex.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

A view of the conveyor system in Bates Mill No. 5.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Bates Mill property manager Allan Turgeon stands at one of three power generators in the Bates Mill No. 5 power plant.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

The iconic saw-tooth construction, as seen from the interior of Bates Mill No. 5.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Textile equipment at rest in Bates Mill No. 5.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Textile equipment at rest in Bates Mill No. 5.

It certainly looks unlike others. In place of the rectangular block construction favored in most 19th- and early 20th-century mill buildings, Bates Mill No. 5 is an odd trapezoid with a sawtooth roof.

Instead of the brick and timber construction standard to other big buildings built around the turn of the last century, the walls and floors in the old Bates Mill weave shed are made of more modern steel girders and concrete.

And it's big: two wide-open floors, each large enough to hold the playing surface of the University of Maine's Morse Athletic field.

 "When it's gone, it's gone and a big piece of Lewiston history goes with it," said Jonathan LaBonte, an Androscoggin County commissioner and Executive Director of the Androscoggin Land Trust.

"It's really the only building we have left that's distinctive and unique to Lewiston," LaBonte said. "The other was the Cowan Mill, and that burned down. If we let this go, all we're left with is the kind of mill buildings you find all over New England. If we can't hold onto this, we just become Anyplace, USA."

For now, the 97-year-old building at Lewiston's center has been spared from demolition, thanks in part to a last-ditch effort by LaBonte and other mill supporters — but also by the building's tangled history and hopes for what it could become.

 It's that history that drove Gabrielle Russell to defend the building.

"It's not just local history, but national history, as well," said Russell, who has a master's degree in architecture and is working to become an accredited architect. "It was one of the first industrial buildings to use so many things we think of as green building concepts today: open ventilation, natural light. This was a pioneering building."

The building was designed by architect Albert Kahn, a renowned American industrial designer and one of the first to use reinforced concrete in his buildings.  Stronger materials allowed him to make Bates Mill No. 5 bigger and more open. It had two floors, each covering 145,000 square feet, and its own hydroelectrical generation facility in the basement. Construction began in 1912 and wrapped up early in 1914.

Kahn later went on to use similar materials and themes in buildings for the Ford Motor Co., General Motors and for the U.S. Army and Navy bases during World War I. He also designed the Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan.

Mill No. 5 was the largest of the Bates Mill complex of buildings, designed to hold 500 Jacquard looms on the top floor alone.

The building's distinctive saw-tooth roof design was designed to make the building more efficient and humane by allowing in as much natural light as possible.

"This wasn't designed to be a typical, dark and gloomy mill floor," Russell said. "It was light; it was open, and it felt better to work in."

Fred Lebel of Maine Heritage Weavers and president of Bates of Maine in the early 1990s, said it probably started out like that. But as the company's fortunes waxed and waned, the building's condition deteriorated.  In its heyday, the building provided jobs for 1,200 people who made 60,000 bedspreads per week.

"When I left, there were less than 100 people working in that building," Lebel said. "They were making maybe a couple thousand bedspreads per week."

The building's most distinctive feature, the roof, became one of its biggest problems. Owners cut back on maintenance,  and that led to broken windows and window frames and damaged concrete. Instead of new glass, broken windows were covered with plywood, and that made the building as dark as any other mill.

The city took over ownership in 1992 when Bates of Maine failed to pay its property taxes. To save jobs, councilors at the time opted to keep the buildings open and to act as landlords. The company finally closed in 2001, and the city began looking for alternative uses.

LaBonte's involvement with Bates Mill No. 5 dates to March 2007, when he was asked to join a 15-member task force to review the building and the myriad studies that had been done on it. Engineers have studied the structure and economists have looked at potential uses — from parking to a convention center to a retail complex.

The group found that no matter what the city did — whether the building was torn down, reused or mothballed — it would cost Lewiston between $250,000 and $350,000 per year.

"What the task force initially said is, 'We need a plan,'" LaBonte said. "It's the one thing we've never had for the downtown. We need a plan for downtown development that puts this building in context."

City councilors decided to give the building one last shot, and advertised nationally for developers.

"Nobody ever stepped forward," former Ward 7 City Councilor Bob Reed said. "We put out requests for proposals; we marketed it, and nobody was interested."

Councilors voted in April 2009 to order the demolition. They began taking bids.

"Everything we got back from the developers said that the building was more valuable, more developable as open, green space," Reed said. "If we could return that property to a flat, open lot, that was our best chance to sell and develop that property."

That's were it stood, LaBonte said. Most people had given up. The destruction was set to begin in March. Crews were scheduled to begin arriving and setting up their equipment on Monday, March 8.

 But LaBonte said he sensed a change.

 "The closer we got to the date, the more real it seemed to everyone," he said. "I think that brought a lot of people out that had been discouraged before. And I think some people on the City Council said some things that showed they were more open to leaving it in place."

The building's finances were key to the shift in attitudes. Keeping the mill standing was expensive, costing as much as $785,000 per year. But there were revenues from paid parking on the land surrounding the building and steam heat generated for other buildings on the complex.

 "If the building is bleeding money, that's one thing," LaBonte said. "But if it's not losing money, and there is a higher and better use we can find, it makes sense to wait."

Preserving the building will continue to cost the city, but not as much as first thought, Lewiston Finance Director Heather Hunter said. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, the city spent $772,000 to maintain the building. In 2008-09, it spent $630,000.

Those costs were offset by revenues, $785,000 in 2007-08 and $769,000 in 2008-09. Some of the revenues came from parking fees and the steam generation plant, but most came from the city's General Fund — $176,000 in 2007-08 and $255,000 in 2008-09.

Hunter said the city is taking a second look at other maintenance costs, now that the building has been spared. Maintenance and repairs stopped last year after councilors decided to demolish the building. Repairs included damage to the roof from the fire that destroyed the Cowan Mill in July 2009.

 "It didn't make any sense at the time to do any more maintenance if the building was coming down, but now we're rethinking that," Hunter said. "That saved us money last year. It could be part of the reason costs there were down in 2009. But now we've just started looking at what needs to be done going forward."

Backers proposing a casino on the Mill No. 5 site say they prefer having the building. Stavros Mendros, spokesman for Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC, said he imagines his proposed casino filling the buildings wide floors.

"That was originally what got me started, seeing a casino in that building," Mendros said. "We're happy to work with the land if that's what we have, but the building makes it sweeter."

Whether a casino is in Lewiston's future remains to be seen. City voters go to the polls in June to vote on whether to give Mendros' group a sales option. If they do, state voters will decide in November 2011 whether Lewiston can have a casino.

As for the the former weaving shed, Building No. 5, the future is wide open. The city has received federal grants to create a master plan for the area. Up until last week, everyone thought they'd be planning for a downtown without Bates Mill No. 5.

"So, we have to go back," City Administrator Ed Barrett said Tuesday night after the council's vote. "This changes everything, and we need to determine what it means."


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 's picture

Having worked in and around

Having worked in and around Bates No. 5 during the 1960's, I am not sure why the fascination by current historical preservationists with the Weave Shed.  It was loud, hot, smelly and dangerous work.

I can recall an elderly gentleman whose job it was to clean off the grates over the intake to the power generator every day with a long-handle rake.  He was a nice man, short in stature and very friendly.  One day, he slipped and was pinned against the grates by the water pressure and his body was peeled off the grates when the canal was lowered as part of the recovery process.

There was no ear protection.  I can only imagine what the decibel level was in that weave room.  Most communication was by hand signals.

We got to wash up at 2:55 PM in slate sinks with cold water.

It was a job.  I made $1.25 an hour.  Thank God I got to leave for school when September came around.

No. 5 was bad, but the Dye House and the Card Room were something else again.

No romance, no fond memories.  Hard working people stuck in a horrific existence that shouldn't be glamorized.  You can tell us easily on the street.  We are all hard of hearing.

 's picture

It's a dump

Private investors don't want to be involved.  Sounds like Mr. LaBonte wants taxpayers to fund his folly.   No thanks.

Tear it down and bring something modern into Lewiston.

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These useless eyesores exist

These useless eyesores exist in practically every town in New England and elsewhere. They do nothing but provide a waste of taxpayer money and resources. Who really cares about saving antique machinery when we have a gazillion pictures for anyone to see who wants to. When are the elected buffoons going to look out for the interests of the taxpayer? Will things never change? 

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From the looks of these comments I think the solution to what needs to be done with this building/land is obvious, build a learning center to enable Lewistonians how to spell the simplest words correctly. 

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Bates Mill #5

My opinion is that it is an eye sore. No one is going to restore it, it makes the city looks crappy. Lets put something nice there. Not a casino either but that mill really needs to go.

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Mr. Reed, if you look at Albert Kahn's resume of work he designed 69 buildings. If you also look at his work quite a few were for the auto industry and a large majority of them are in Detroit. Just because Bates Mill# 5 isn't mention as much, which why would it be when you look at some of the other buildings he designed, doesn't mean that it isn't of historical importance. Specially to a city like Lewiston, where if it wasn't for the Bates Mill (i.e. Benjamin Bates) there wouldn't be a Lewiston, at least not of it's current and previous population and importance.


turn it into the largest

turn it into the largest health spa in New England, Imagine the open space for a ALL SEASON race track and even a indoor pool and other health equipment charging a nominal fee for membership including a discount for lewiston only residents build a parking garage cause you will need it also it would bring jobs and LEWISTON  will be lauded for its achivment to bring a health conscious to its residents the cost of this would possibly be the cost of mothballing this for a few years and Will bring WELCOMED atmosphere to Lewiston, This building is unique for this application I am not an arcitect but I do know what whould be the best option for this building, you can envision it open sunlight on a running track people enjoying the outside atmosphere indoors while in the middle of winter children and teens having a place to enjoy themselves instead of painting and vandalizing the city. Lets Bring a community center that WILL PAY FOR ITSELF and bring the standard of living in  Lewiston to a higher level instead of degrading it to another Dearborn Mich. Lets start something that will bring people here to settle not dastitute so that city and state employees can get more money but people who want to build homes here people who will be an asset instead of a drain on Lewiston's economy. There are better and more honorable things than a Casino for One of Lewiston's Oldest and pestigious building. Contact your council member and if your an arcitect draw up this plan show there is a use and a reason to develope this building aside from casino's.   

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sell it

Nastalga doesn't provide a job,..sure it's nice to think about our history but  we need to modernize the area and the city is not a landlord ....sell it,, If keeping the building  meant putting a casino in it to create jobs , go ahead.. offer tax breaks to develope the building into a call center or factory type bussiness... sell it

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So why haven't you?

So why haven't you?


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