FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- Decades before fire consumed the Bernat Mill in Uxbridge, Ira Gordon bought the abandoned Francis Cabot Mill on Moody Street in Waltham with a purpose.
Decades before fire consumed the Bernat Mill in Uxbridge, Ira Gordon bought the abandoned Francis Cabot Mill on Moody Street in Waltham with a purpose.
By the end of the 1970s, he opened what still stands today: 250 apartments for the elderly, carved out of the country's first textile mill.
``He had vision,'' said his son Rick Gordon, who now owns the mill and Gordon's Fine Wine and Liquor in Waltham. ``Not a lot of people had that type of vision back then, what to do with those old buildings.''
That vision has spread: Once-empty mill complexes have been converted into business, office or residential space in towns such as Framingham, Maynard and Hudson.
But owners and experts say it takes a big investment and constant upkeep to prevent disasters like the Uxbridge inferno.
That's not to say all mills are hazards, and the cause of the Bernat Mill fire is still under investigation. State and local officials across the board said they would rather see mills converted along the lines of the Uxbridge one, which housed dozens of businesses, than sit empty.
``Many of the mill fires that we have had over the years have been in abandoned structures,'' state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said last week. ``It is in that state, quite frankly -- the abandoned state -- that mills create the greatest concern to us as firefighters.''
The vacant warehouse fire that killed six firefighters in Worcester in 1999 put renewed focus on the danger of empty buildings, Coan said.
Mill buildings ``were and can be a vibrant part of the fabric of a community, both from a cultural and economic standpoint,'' he said.
Still, former industrial buildings can present unique fire safety challenges, Coan said.
Former textile mills often have heavy timber floors that were soaked in oil, where fire can spread quickly, he said.
The massive buildings often have been expanded in segments over the years, leaving spaces in walls or ceilings where hidden fire can travel.
New walls added as a mill is renovated also create smaller spaces, and any sprinkler systems must be designed to reach those areas, Holliston Fire Chief Michael Cassidy said in an e-mail.
It's clear the Uxbridge mill was equipped with sprinklers, which presents more questions about how it spread, Coan said.
Nationwide, mill redevelopment often focuses on ``adaptive reuse,'' said Robert Solomon, assistant vice president for building and life safety codes at the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy. That means a balance of incentives for owners to rehab old buildings and requirements that will bring the structures up to date with modern codes, he said.
Several area mill owners said it took years to rehab their buildings to make them safe. They said they have gone to great lengths to work closely with local officials to be sure they are up to code.
It took about two years to renovate the Francis Cabot Mill, Gordon said, from replacing utilities and windows to cleaning bricks and redoing floor.
``You never know when a catastrophe's going to happen, but you do everything in your power to keep everything up to standards,'' Gordon said.
In Hudson, a turn-of-the-century mill on Broad Street has become the Hudson Mill Business Center -- a mix of small businesses, high-tech companies and light manufacturing, said Bill Manley, president of manager Calare Properties.
``We do everything to commercial code,'' he said.
``Everything that goes into the mill is modern materials.''
That includes fire-rated sheetrock walls and doors, new wiring and fire retardant carpet, he said. Calare replaced about 500 windows at $1,000 apiece and put in a new elevator at a cost of around $500,000, he said.
Calare also handles all work on the building itself, rather than letting tenants try their hand at carpentry or electrical work, to be sure everything is handled safely, Manley said.
Not just any use is allowed in the building. One business was even asked to leave after it began bringing flammable substances on site, Manley said.
``We've put a significant investment in the property, but we think it's an irreplaceable, significant long-term investment,'' Manley said.
Among the area's largest renovated mills is Clock Tower Place complex in Maynard, which has 1.1 million square feet of space in 13 buildings.
The buildings also date to the turn of the century, said Joe Mullin, a spokesman for the development. The mill was abandoned when its current owners took over in 1988 and required a complete overhaul to meet fire
codes, he said.
Like other mills, the timber floors were once soaked with oil, but previous owner Digital Equipment Corp. stripped the original floors and revarnished them, making them no fire threat, Mullin said. Buildings also have fire doors that allow sections to be sealed off to help stop a fire from
spreading, he said.
Still, the Bernat Mill fire has Clock Tower Place double checking its safety measures, despite routine inspections and fire drills with tenants.
``We simply want to make sure with our own fire protection system and alarm system that they're working,'' Mullin said. ``We think we're OK, but you never know.''
It may take that level of investment to redevelop the long vacant Draper Mill complex in Hopedale. But after years of worry about fires, that's what selectmen Chairman Alan Ryan is hoping for.
The town has worked hard to seal off the building to keep out vandals, he said.
``The good news I think for the Hopedale mill is that it's so well gutted at this point inside that everything would be brand new,'' Ryan said.
``If the Draper complex were to be redeveloped, I would be less worried about fire than if it were to remain undeveloped.''
Ultimately, the Uxbridge fire is a reminder of what a prominent place mills still have in the region, Ryan said.
``It impacts you on so many levels. ... There's the impact on taxes and everything else,'' he said. ``The kind of thing that was going on in the Uxbridge mill was exactly the kind of thing that would be perfect in this mill.''
David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or email@example.com.