Father-son team converts building into artistic haven
By AARON NICODEMUS, Standard-Times staff writer | February 7 2005
Norman and Adam Buck are not your average developers. The father and son team are looking at the former Rope Works Building at 123 Sawyer St., New Bedford with an artist’s eye, intent on converting the largely vacant building into a working artists community.
They purchased the building in November 2004, and are diligently renovating the neglected mill. They plan to create 13 artist loft-style condominiums, each with an artist workspace.
Each person involved in the project has a strong background in art. Adam F. Buck is an art school graduate, a former dot-com employee and photographer. His girlfriend and partner, Anne Wolfe, is also an art school graduate, as well as a sculptor and welder. Norman R. Buck, who is retired, describes himself as an “artistic dabbler.” He is married to Irene Buck, executive director of Artworks! in downtown New Bedford.
They looked at dozens of mills in and around New Bedford until settling on this one, in which they saw great potential for the creation of art. For one, natural lighting is abundant. The building’s sawtooth roof, with 210 north-facing windows, was originally built to let in the maximum amount of light. Ninety years ago, abundant natural light was the best way to dye cloth evenly. The building itself was built 6.5 degrees off the square of the building’s foundation, to accommodate the light.
The building’s high ceilings, loading dock and other industrial features are perfect for use by artists as well. “A lot of the needs of artists have already been built into industrial buildings,” Ms. Wolfe added.
The ultimate concept for the building, which also served as a liquor warehouse and rope manufacturing facility, is to create a working artist community that will have control of the building even if the neighborhood changes. “Usually what happens in a situation like this is that artists move into a blighted neighborhood, it goes upscale, and eventually the artists are kicked out,” Adam says. “We’re designing a building for artists, by artists, to raise a community of artists who won’t be moved out of the neighborhood. We’ll create some type of permanent caveat so that it will always remain a place for artists to live and work.”
The former owner of the building, John E. Ruggles, still uses a small amount of space in the building for his rope winding business.
The immediate neighborhood as it currently exists could be described as blighted: diagonally across Sawyer Street is the former Fairhaven Mill, whose burnt-out shell stands as a testament to urban neglect. Right next door are a series of construction trailers housing the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency working with the EPA to clean up pollution in New Bedford Harbor. On the other two sides of their new property is vacant industrial land: the site of the former Pierce Mill, which will eventually become a park, and vacant land across the street owned by clothing manufacturer Forecaster of Boston.
Adam Buck and Ms. Wolfe have lived and worked in warehouses and mills before, and plan to move into the building when the condos are ready. Norman Buck will have office and artist space.
The building is over 90 years old, but it’s exact date of construction places it between 1911 and 1917. It was originally designed as an addition to the larger Soule mill complex, and is the only remaining structure. New Bedford was one of the first cities to integrate all stages of textile production within these large mill complexes, which were often several stories high and many city blocks long. This 25,000 square foot single story building was designed as a weave and dye shed, and north-facing skylights along the full length of each of the six sawteeth brought in ample even-toned natural light, which was important to the process of dying and color-matching. As New Bedford was one of the last cities in America to switch from whale oil to electric lights, the skylights were an important part of the design. The sawteeth run in a slight diagonal to the square of the building to face true north, providing an interesting architectural feature.
At one point the building was used as a liquor storehouse. Local laws required that all windows and skylights be bricked or boarded up when used for this purpose. Most recently, the building has been home to John Ruggles’s rope business which has been in operation in various locations since it was founded in the late 1800s. The business was originally created to provide cotton rope and braids to the New England textile industry, and later evolved to provide fine ropes for marine, industrial and recreational markets. Mr. Ruggles started manufacturing rope at the 123 Sawyer St. location in 1974, and will continue operating his business in a portion of the building.
The building is on 1.78 acres with a large open yard and two off-street parking spaces per unit. The property is further surrounded by the new Riverside City Park extending to the Acushnet river. The Ropeworks is easily accessible, located just one block away from access to highway 195, less than one and half miles from the proposed MBTA commuter train to Boston, and 2 miles from downtown New Bedford.
Marshall Fonseca May 13 2013 I worked at this ropeworks in the late 1970s. I worked for Mr. Ruggles. I was a machine operator there for 7 years. I am 67 yeas old now and retired. The name olf the place was New Bedford Textile when I worked there. We made rope for The Fire Dept, The Navy. The Army, Moutain Climbing Rope. In those days the machinery was very loud so we had to wear ear plug. I am glad you share my experince .
The information about each building grows as visitors let us know about their experiences. Did you or a member of your family work here? Did you grow up near it as a child? Let us know. All entries will be moderated and may be posted in an edited form. We will use your name unless you tell us otherwise. We will not make your email public.