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

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

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.

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 “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.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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