After Sprague Electric / Before MASS MoCA
Photographs of an Idled New England Mill
When the Sprague Electric Company left its flagship plant it was an uncertain future that settled upon the idled complex of former mill buildings. Sited on a triangle of ground just upstream of the confluence of the North and South Branches of the Hoosac River in North Adams Massachusetts the complex mostly dates to the19thcentury. The cascading assemblage of brick and limestone buildings had been a textile mill, clothing manufactory, dye and printing plant, and from1940s-1986, the electronics components company Sprague Electric.
A brick New England mill the Arnold Print Works, one of many along the Hoosac. The river served to drive machinery, was used in processing, and also as a sewer. However the river, could extract a price. A succession of violent floods undermined and even collapsed sections of buildings. Afterward buildings were repaired and often reconfigured. The river’s influence, the geometry of the site, and uncoordinated growth resulted in a somewhat random collection of buildings. In the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers threw down the gauntlet and put the river in its place – at the bottom of a concrete flood control chute. The river has not flooded the plant since. An other significant 20th century addition was a series of elevated walkways between buildings and several steel bridges across the north branch of the river.
In the summer of 1974 I spent six nights a week on the graveyard shift as a machine operator in the basement of building five. We over saw foil-etching machines that ran round the clock. These machines were about thirty feet long and consisted of a series of baths interspersed by towers, which stood about three feet high. The electrically charged baths contained heated boric acid and water. The long rolls of zinc foil ran suspended between glass rods through the baths from a spool at one end to the other. A good-sized roll would run for hours – unless it didn’t. Sometimes the tension would go out of balance or the foil would snag and tear. This would cause in a short circuit, which could lead to rather spectacular eruptions of boiling solution, flying glass rods and sparking foil. Jared awake it was the operators job to hit the kill switch, splice the severed foil and reset the line.
And so it was with trepidation I returned to that very basement as I photographed the plant. At first I wasn’t sure if I’d remembered the location correctly. The scene was much changed. Now the windows had been opened allowing illumination. Seven AM had been quitting time so as the day broke we went home. The floor was completely scoured out, emptied. As Sprague declined the machines had migrated south to a right to work state and then from there off shore. But the concrete equipment footings remained in evidence.
The atmospheres had been steamy and smelled of acid and electricity. Machines clicked, buzzed gurgled and hissed. Now it was quiet. The etching department was a relatively small operation. At Sprague Electric there had been numerous production lines, and the myriad of other resources that turned raw materials into capacitors and brought them to market.
My Dad was a Spraguer, as they were known. He worked 25 years in research and development. I never did see his lab or any of the rest of the functioning plant. Access was restricted.
But in the late eighties with Sprague’s departure I was able to access the abandoned plant to photograph. Anything of value had been removed. Sprague had partitioned many of the wide-open floors into a warren of smaller spaces. It was mostly dark as windows were blocked and power had been disconnected. It was large but monotonous and not fodder for photographs. The interior subdividing was shoddily done and crumbling. The ubiquitous green walls shed their paint to reveal another layer of equally unappealing color. Roofs had leaked and floors buckled. Some buildings smelled pretty bad. This facility once employed over 4000 people. Being there completely alone heightened one’s senses. Which is good for observation and then photography. But all the senses were chiming in. There was the smell. Even in the heat of an August day there was a damp cave like chill in the static air. And there were the noises. Dripping water from near and far. If there were a breeze windows would rattle. There was polyethylene over some window and it would flap and pop. Pigeons were the only wildlife I experienced but there were plenty of them and all their attendant maladies. Inside the building the noises of adjacent North Adams, a siren or noisy bike, would just barely penetrate.
In the bowels of the shuttered plant there was a lot to take in but not so much lent itself to photograph. The interior focus was on the details; doors, hallways, paint and occasional marks inadvertently left by the former workers.
Outside there was light and fresh air. But the challenge to create harmonious photographs persisted. The 28 buildings had evolved in a random organic manor in an architectural style that might be characterized as chaotic. The clock tower by which thousands of workers calibrated their lives should have been a focal point. But it just didn’t line up cleanly – nothing did.
Sighting up the buildings on a gridded ground glass one realizes there are no good sides. There is no best view. Where the original core structures had a unifying design presence it had been buried in additions and alterations. Rugged as their material components might be including, southern yellow pine beams, posts of timber and steel, brick, and limestone, conventional aesthetic integrity had slipped away.
Scared, serially repurposed, ponderous and eternally gritty the plant does exert an appeal as a survivor. This and its abundant and unpredictable spaces were the allure underlying its 1999 reincarnation as MASS MoCA.