January 7, 2015

Industrial Strength: The Adaptive Reuse of Ames Shovel Works

  • By: Meghan Drueding

The historic Steam Hammer Shop, which was damaged by fire in the early 1900s.
The historic Steam Hammer Shop, which was damaged by fire in the early 1900s.

There’s nothing like the proposed demolition of a beloved property to motivate a community. For the town of Easton, Massachusetts, that property was the Ames Shovel Works, a granite-walled relic of New England’s Industrial Age. The site forms the heart of a National Register-listed historic district, and when it was threatened a few years ago, Easton’s residents weren’t going to let it go without a fight.

Ames Shovel Works’ history began around 1774, when Captain John Ames of West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, started making iron-bladed shovels. His son, Oliver, continued the business a few miles away in Easton. In 1852 the company commenced work on a new factory building called the Long Shop, one of the first assembly-line facilities in the country. By 1870, Ames Shovel Works was making more than a million shovels per year. Its products were used in the construction of the Statue of Liberty, the Panama Canal, and Mount Rushmore.

Workers outside the Long Shop.
Workers outside the Long Shop

Several more structures, including a Metal Hammer Shop and a New Blade Shop, were built during the shovel works’ 75 years on the site. The company, which still exists as the Ames True Temper Company in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, left Easton for good in 1953.

When a developer planned to drastically renovate the property in 2007, the town rallied to save the Shovel Works. Local leaders and community groups searched for a more sympathetic owner, while the National Trust listed it among America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2009. A Boston developer, Beacon Communities, drew support from Easton’s residents, and in 2010 they voted to form a public-private partnership to help fund the project. The agreement included a commitment to preserving the buildings’ integrity in order to obtain federal and state tax credits for historic rehabilitation.

The former New Plate Polishing Shop, on the edge of the property.

Beacon and architecture firm Prellwitz Chilinski Associates (PCA) worked closely with the National Park Service to convert the Shovel Works into a residential complex while respecting its existing architecture. They stripped off many of the loading docks and non-historic structures that had been added over the years, revealing clean lines and classic forms. “Over the course of the 20th century, a lot of these magnificent buildings were compromised,” says Jason Cohen, an associate with PCA.

The team also stabilized structures where needed and inserted 113 residential units (34 of which qualify as affordable housing, at various levels) into the Shovel Works’ 10 buildings. They carefully added appropriately scaled dormers and skylights. The Steam Hammer Shop, much of which burned down in the early 1900s, was rebuilt to its former specifications.

Inside a residence at Ames Shovel Works.
Inside a residence at Ames Shovel Works

Energy and resource efficiency was another consideration for the project team. Many of Ames Shovel Works’ buildings are slated to attain the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold level, while others are expected to reach LEED Silver. Energy Star-rated appliances and lighting, low-VOC finishes, and low-water-use fixtures helped them get there, as did high-efficiency insulation and sealing.

Additionally, rocks and boulders from the site that turned up during the rehab process have been reused as landscape elements, reducing the need for water-consuming plants.

“LEED certification has some weight in the marketplace,” says Josh Cohen, development director at Beacon. “I think it adds a nice layer of oversight.”

The buildings’ stone walls and detailing have been meticulously preserved.

PCA and Beacon see the project as a catalyst for economic development in the town of Easton.

“It really was about capturing an opportunity for the town to make sure their heritage buildings stay in place,” says David Chilinski, PCA’s president. As part of the complex agreement between town and developer, the local government built a wastewater treatment plant on the site, which could allow for potential business growth in the community.

The rehab also physically re-connects Ames Shovel Works to Easton by restoring long-lost sightlines to the surrounding streets, which contain three buildings by the great Boston architect H.H. Richardson.

“The town is incredibly well maintained,” says Pam Goodman, president of Beacon Communities. Now, the revived factory buildings once again serve as a dynamic counterpart, providing housing options while helping to knit the neighborhood back together.

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

mdrueding@savingplaces.org @mdrueding

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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