article by Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louise
Huxtable about Cummings Properties appeared in The Wall Street Journal
on Thursday, October 2, 1997. Cummings Properties, LLC developed
the 2 million square foot Cummings Center office and research park
in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Refitting 'The Shoe'"
by Ada Louise Huxtable
Mass.-They call it The Shoe. It is the United Shoe Machinery
plant, a pioneering, reinforced concrete structure built in 1903-1906
that was the largest building of its type in the world until 1937.
With additions, its 34 acres of floor space in three 60-foot-wide
wings eventually reached a quarter of a mile in length.
Shoe dominated life and labor in this historic community and its
neighboring towns for more than half a century, practicing a benign
economic paternalism behind maximum security fences. Its cathedral-size
spaces were devoted to the manufacture of the equipment used to
make the shoes that were the sustaining industry of this part of
New England until antitrust laws forced the breakup of the company
in the 1970s. After the plant closed, it became a notorious white
elephant, of interest only to architectural historians who ranked
it at the top of this country's significant industrial landmarks;
to everyone else it was a monumental blot on the landscape, deserted
except for a few artisans and token small businesses. In 1995, one
of its cavernous interiors was used to film "The Crucible."
have been in love with The Shoe since the 1950s, when I discovered
the building and its significance while doing research on the history
of reinforced concrete construction. I learned that The Shoe was
the work of an engineer, Ernest L. Ransome, who devised and patented
a way of embedding twisted square iron (later steel) rods in concrete
to create a monolithic building material of remarkable toughness
and revolutionary possibilities, as so much of the subsequent architecture
of the 20th century has proved.
a time when the press was filled with stories of the collaspe of
experimental concrete buildings-even professionals were skeptical
of Ransome's advances-The Shoe was a daring design. It featured
cast-in-place reinforced concrete so strong that a minimal frame
could be filled with windows of unprecedented size-here glass is
85% of the wall area- for the kind of curtain-wall construction
that revolutionized building in our time. Its earliest use was for
the "daylight" factories so highly praised for the humane
and hygienic effects of their light and air. By 1911, Ransome had
patented and incorporated precast elements as "the Ransome
system of unit construction."
Shoe was, and is, the single most important and generally unrecognized,
concrete landmark in this country, predating the Detroit auto factories
by the engineer Albert Kahn that have been widely credited with
the structural and engineering innovations that actually appeared
Shoe is a building of outstanding utilitarian beauty. Its stunning
glass-walled simplicity, the pleasing proportions based on its structural
system, foreshadow the later modular designs of Mies van der Rohe
and one of the basic aesthetic principles of modernism-the direct
relationship of structure to style. I have watched it anxiously
on my trips to New England, always expecting its demolition by the
dubious forces of progress for another lookalike mall or condominium
complex. Each time I find it, I am filled with relief. The Ransome
system is still intact. And so is the building, thanks to an imaginative
and determined entrepreneur, William Cummings of Cummings Properties
of Woburn, Mass., which bought the abandoned plant for $500,000
(considerably less than $1 a square foot) in 1996.
Shoe is now the Cummings
Center, saved, restored and transformed, shrewdly and sympathetically,
into nearly 1.4 million square feet of handsome commercial space
for business and industry. The new Shoe- it will always be the Shoe
to locals- has been upgraded from blue to white-collar and recast
as a "business park" on 80 landscaped acres that will
include a health club and community facilities. Currently, more
than 50% of the space is rented to a variety of enterprises, from
high-tech industries and research-and-development firms (including
bio-research laboratories that make artificial skin for surgical
use) to a wide range of consumer services. There is even a well-designed
small church. Banks, lawyers, accountants, graphics and design businesses
co-exist with small creative companies. In the once desolate interior,
the universal bagel shop now stands.
the risk-reward factor of this conversion was enormous, it was no
undertaking for the fainthearted. Mr. Cummings has an appetite for
challenges. A successful operator of renovated old properties, he
has demonstrated a kind of vision and investment savvy conspicuously
absent among the owners of similar structures, where serious problems
of age, size and condition stand in the way of profitable reuse.
This is no leveraged deal where the banks take the gamble, making
the project fail- safe for the developer; it would have taken a
very unusual bank to provide funds for such an unconventional commitment.
All the money, $30 million when the job is done- is Cummings
Properties' own, invested as capital improvement. The project
also took something else not found in most real estate circles-
a genuine understanding and appreciation of the building's architectural
and structural features, in no way diminished by an astute evaluation
of the commercial potential.
risk-reward calculation naturally affected the restoration; the
outlay had to be measured against estimates of success and the income
that could be generated; in this case, a more than normally speculative
equation. As refuse and massive chunks of concrete were removed,
The Shoe looked like an archeological dig.
and breaks had flooded the building, requiring a new roof and extensive
wall repairs. Turn-of-the-century utilities were replaced with new
gas and water lines, heating, ventilating, electrical, and telecommunication
systems. The structure was brought up to today's fire and building
codes, with sprinklers, alarms and exits for four miles of corridors.
There was a serious problem of residual industrial pollution to
be dealt with. Every one of the huge windows was broken; Cummings
has manufactured 2,000 new ones in a shop of its own installed in
one of the building's covered courts. Because the original windows
were so oversized, a cost compromise was made: Except for the most
conspicuous facades, the new windows have opaque top spandrels of
pebble aggregate instead of glass. By making these panels darker
than the surrounding walls, the visual effect of a full-size window
is kept. More than a mile of badly spalled exterior walls that had
not been maintained for decades has been refaced with a concrete
stain close to the original natural concrete color.
of these were aesthetic was well as practical decisions, in which
Mr. Cummings, a hands-on detail man, and a senior vice president
Michael H. Pascavage, participated with the project architect, Bruce
Oveson. To advertise The Shoe's upscale transformation, two new,
curved glass facades have been inserted between the original wings
on the main front to create a "corporate style" entrance;
the contemporary glass and metal curtain wall to the old building.
A custom design of more finesse would have been prohibitively expensive;
this solution achieves its purpose. Corporate style also seems to
favor creeping green carpet, fake plants, and glitzy elevators over
the clean architectural interiors that have made the conversion
so strikingly handsome. It is best when simply left alone.
the process, Beverly's mayor, William Scanlon, marshaled essential
political and economic support.. In addition to the city's offer
to defer full taxes on the property, an "abandoned building"
tax deduction was available from Massachusetts for renovation of
old buildings not more than 10% occupied. The project would not
have gone ahead without the Massachusetts legislation that aids
the cleanup and reuse of contaminated sites; under this "Brownfields
Iniatives" law, old pollutants can be removed with the guarantee
of no future lawsuits. Cummings
Properties signed this agreement with Massachusetts before taking
title to the land.
the end, there were small losses and enormous gains. For The Shoe
it has been a miraculous rebirth. For those who prize an architecture
still invisible to many and treated as expendable by most, this
is more than a success story; it is a dream come true.