Buildings Magazine
April 2000

GRAND PRIZE WINNER:
Cummings Center,
Beverly, MA

Now called Cummings Center, the former headquarters of United Shoe Machinery Corporation is one of the largest conversions from factory to modern office and research space, anywhere. More than 2 million square feet of modern office and laboratory space is now a beehive of activity overlooking the beautiful on-campus lakes.
Industrial Revolutions

By Regina Raiford

 
Just a little bit of history repeating …” The stirring refrain from Propellerheads/Shirley Bassey’s song, “History Repeating,” is fitting to the monumental modernization of the United Shoe Machinery Corp. (USM) headquarters into the Cummings Center.

Construction of the Beverly, MA headquarters began in 1902, and the massive complex, housing a business that created shoe manufacturing equipment, was then considered a state-of-the-art facility. Heralded in its day for its elegant lines and employee-friendly design, this bulwark of the local economy lay empty for years. However, professionals at Cummings Properties LLC saw potential in the site, sure that it could revitalize the area and return something precious that was nearly lost. “There was a great feeling of camaraderie from everybody to save this project. It was a very strong team effort,” explains Chairman William Cummings of Cummings Properties, Woburn, MA.

Following the guideline that a happy worker is a productive worker, the USM revolutionized American industry in the early 1900s by offering new-fangled benefits, such as adequate lighting, central heating, and healthcare. In line with the company’s beliefs, the team designed “The Shoe” — as it is affectionately called — where employee health and comfort were paramount. Originally, open courtyards surrounding the structures allowed cool air to circulate throughout the buildings during the summer months. In the winter, steam-heated air was pumped through hollow columns into the workrooms. More than 2,000 5-foot by 10-foot windows flooded this factory’s pre-electricity interiors with natural light.

 

During the United Shoe Machinery Corp.’s occupancy, over 9,000 patents were developed at the headquarters, including the drive mechanism for the lunar module, the hot glue gun, and the soda can pop-top. In some areas, walls are 32 inches of solid concrete.

The main structure, situated on a 74-acre campus, consists of three 60-foot-wide wings that are a quarter of a mile long, totaling 1.6 million square feet after the renovation. An adjacent building, that once served as a foundry, has also been converted into office space. Although the facility is only four stories tall, it contains 34 acres of interior space. “If you stood this building up on end, it would be taller than the Empire State Building,” says Gerald McSweeney, general manager, Cummings Properties, Beverly, MA. Until 1937, The Shoe was the largest building of its type in the world.

Beyond its sheer magnitude, the plant was internationally known because it was the first successful application of reinforced concrete, pre-dating architect Albert Kahn’s Detroit automobile factories. Built by construction innovator Ernest Ransome, the plant was created by a revolutionary method of embedding twisted square iron rods into the concrete. This incredibly sturdy design permitted large glass window panes to make up 85 percent of the wall area.

Defined by its overall understated design, the building’s exterior walls were painstakingly hammered by hand for a decorative texture effect. The plant’s utilitarian beauty also inspired modernist pioneer/architect Walter Gropius. “We decided the structure was very, very sound. The building has a simple, rhythmic design, especially in its exterior columns,” says Bruce Oveson, project architect, Cummings Properties, Woburn, MA. The Ransome technique lead to the modern-day skyscraper, changing the face of the American landscape.

 

After its massive transformation, “The Shoe” has gone from turn-of-the-century to turn-of-the-millennium.

In 1975, USM was broken up due to antitrust litigation, and The Shoe fell on hard times. In fact, the entire economy of the North Shore region of Massachusetts suffered right along with the decline of the facility. Concerned residents, especially Beverly, MA Mayor William Scanlon, searched far and wide for a new owner to renovate the area. Fortunately, Cummings Properties took up the challenge.

Recreating The Shoe as a high-tech office and research park, the developer worked to successfully blend the best from the past with all the future has to offer. The extensive modernization began in 1996 with less than 10-percent tenant occupancy on-site. To signal to the community that a new chapter was beginning for the facility, two sleek, curved glass façades were added between the three original wings.

“We decided that anything new we added [wasn’t] going to mimic the historical building. We would just let the two be: one to be what the building was, and the other what the building was to be,” says Oveson. This glass curtain front created a modern, streamlined entrance, a bold move that attracted the attention of potential tenants and started the ball rolling.


Cummings Properties grouped service firms, such as copying and food services, medical offices, and a bustling beauty salon, in this new area. The original exterior concrete window arches were incorporated as bank tellers’ windows in this addition. With ample space and high flexibility in the building’s interior, this groundscraper proved to be ideal for small start-up companies with growth potential. Suites range in size from 200 square feet to 200,000 square feet, suitable for incubator space to large-scale operations. Cummings’ in-house architecture department works with tenants to create custom spaces. Installing air hockey tables is a very popular amenity for youthful end-users.

The average tenant space is approximately 5,000 to 6,000 square feet, though nothing is typical at Cummings Center. Originally, the developer believed the building would be mostly industrial. A shoe manufacturing equipment company, a descendent of USM, was also drawn to the building’s flexibility. As improvements began, however, some of the top software and research companies in the country were attracted to the facilities. Adds McSweeney, “Our tenants are refugees from Cambridge and MIT; they are the wellspring of the technological companies in eastern Massachusetts.” Currently, 340 diverse companies with more than 3,000 employees reside at Cummings Center.

By working with the inherent characteristics of the facility, Project Architect Oveson has created hip, industrial-looking office space. Exposed girders, rough square columns, high ceilings, and pitched roofs attribute to the unique environment. “We have all these different corporations that are now introduced to all these other businesses. That’s the other part of what Cummings Properties does,” says Oveson. “Their business does better and we do better.” The abundance of windows, an innovative feature in the early 1900s, continues to serve tenants well, providing natural daylight and charming views of two adjacent ponds and the New England landscape.

Cummings Properties strives to create a sense of community among its large body of tenants. Companies are encouraged to use each other’s services. Internet start-up companies especially thrive on this type of partnering, networking, and sharing services. In addition to referrals, Cummings Properties’ website promotes its tenants free-of-charge. In-house directories, hand-outs, and revolving hallway posters advertise services at Cummings Center as well.

Wayfinding through four miles of corridor space presents a particular challenge. Traditional signage directs end-users through the 66 bays, and incorporates a grid system for longitude and latitude. Cummings Properties also commissioned local art students to do four colorful murals at main junctures. These vibrant visuals decorate and differentiate the hallways. An aquarium-inspired painting with three-dimensional marine life is a particular favorite among tenants. At the same time, the owner is adding architectural elements in heavy-traffic areas to further beautify the facility.

Now boasting a 90-percent tenant occupancy rate, Cummings Center offers several, on-campus benefits: computer training rooms, restaurants, conference rooms, and health club facilities. A former junk-filled lot, holding tons of obsolete manufacturing equipment, has been transformed into an elaborate playground for the daycare center. An utilitarian freestanding 1950s building now houses a high-end health club. Recently, a parking garage was constructed, adding to already ample outdoor parking, yet providing shelter from the infamous Massachusetts winters.

To accomplish this massive project took substantial community support. Along with deferring city property taxes and designating the center a Massachusetts Economic Opportunity Area, Mayor Scanlon and other government officials rallied tremendous support for the modernization. For example, the brownfields initiative was crucial to the developer’s clean-up process of residual industrial pollution on surrounding land. The development company struggled to overcome years of neglect.

Roof leaks had led to extensive damage; copper wiring and an ungrounded electrical system needed to be replaced; and a lack of updated building plans made for some renovation surprises. The local fire department coordinated with the developer on the huge undertaking of bringing the structure up to modern building codes. Turn-of-the-century utilities were transformed into turn-of-the-millennium HVAC and telecommunications systems.

Even more supportive than the government has been the town of Beverly itself. “Anyone you bump into in Beverly will say my dad worked there for 40 years, my neighbor worked there, everybody worked here for successive generations,” says McSweeney. At the center’s first open house, the development company was expecting roughly 200 visitors. Ten times that number showed up at the front doors of their beloved old Shoe.

Older residents frequently still visit the building, reliving the past and returning treasures from USM’s glory days, which had been stored in their attics and basements. In response to this overwhelming affection, Cummings Properties has set aside office and storage space for the local historical society and USM retirees. Dioramas of the tools and original steam-driven equipment and large restored photographs from the early 1900s greet tenants and visitors.

What marks this modernization is the true appreciation of the beauty of the primary structure. “I wanted the public to have access to this space to view an important piece of American history,” says Cummings. A former exterior wall with its 1906 wood window frames (the wall had been enclosed several decades ago and, therefore, was well preserved) serves as an archway to a community college satellite office. Today, a bank of high-speed computers sits behind a grand vestige of American architecture.

Because of the success of the Cummings Center, Beverly is well on its way of becoming the dot.com capitol of Massachusetts (popularly referred to as the dot.commonwealth). Once a white elephant, The Shoe is now nearly filled. The courtyard space is being converted to office space, and a new neighboring facility is being planned.

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable once wrote about the United Shoe Machinery plant: “This, too, is one of those structures that always elicited a pleased ‘there it is’ long before I knew what it was.” Too often antiquated commercial buildings are destroyed in favor of new construction. What makes the modernization remarkable — beyond its epic scope — is the true appreciation of the facility and its importance to the surrounding community. Cummings Center’s success represents a return of something precious.