For much of its history, this city in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts was a mill town. Manufacturing began in the city before the Revolutionary War, largely because the confluence of the Hoosic River’s two branches provided water power for small-scale industry. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, businesses included wholesale shoe manufacturers; a brickyard; a saw mill; cabinet-makers; hat manufacturers; machine shops for the construction of mill machines; marble works; wagon and sleigh-makers; and an ironworks, which provided the pig iron for armor plates on the Civil War ship, the Monitor. In 1870 North Adams was “one of the busiest little towns, humming and smoking with various industry,” wrote Harper’s magazine. North Adams was also the headquarters for building the Hoosac Tunnel. The rail connections made North Adams a center of New England commerce, with terminals for six important railway lines. By 1900, it was the biggest city in the Berkshires with 24,200 inhabitants.
The 240,000 square foot Greylock Mill was purchased by investors from New York City in 2015 and is currently undergoing a multi-million-dollar renovation into hotel, retail and food space.
Over time, as the economy shifted and mills moved to states with less regulation and lower labor costs, the mills of North Adams closed one by one. Then, in 1986, Sprague Electric Co., which employed almost a quarter of North Adams’ residents, shut its doors for the last time. The decline of North Adams accelerated.
In 1999, a new project came to North Adams: Mass MoCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts — that would reside in the gigantic former Sprague Electric building. Mass MoCA was supposed to be the engine that would drive the local economy and presage a more glorious future for the, by now, smallest city in Massachusetts. The museum’s main advantage over most other places was its ability to showcase art too large to be displayed anywhere else.
View of vast mill complex that now houses the internationally renowned Mass MoCA.
The city’s renewal did not come overnight, much to the dismay of residents who had been excited by the hype surrounding Mass MoCA. Instead, the changes came gradually, over the next decade and a half. Slowly but surely, Mass MoCA grew, more of the city’s numerous mills that were now empty shells were bought, renovated and opened into art galleries, studios and live/work spaces — and more artists began to be attracted to the growing arts scene and natural beauty of North Adams.
Today, The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the world’s liveliest centers for making and enjoying today’s most evocative art. With the opening of its 2017 $60 million expansion, it also takes its place as the largest contemporary art museum in America. With vast galleries and a stunning collection of indoor and outdoor performing arts venues, MASS MoCA is able to embrace all forms of art: music, sculpture, dance, film, painting, photography, theater, and new, boundary-crossing works of art that defy easy classification.
The Eclipse Mill has been transformed into bookstores, artists’ galleries and artists’ lofts & studios.
North Adams is a small city, but it has five qualities that lend it a competitive edge on much larger places:
- Higher education: The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) was recognized in 2016 by the United States Department of Education as one of “26 Four-Year Public and Private College with Low Costs and High Salaries” for graduates.
- World-class art museum, Mass MoCA
- Municipal airport, which is currently under expansion
- High-quality medical services
- Beauty of the natural environment
According to Mayor Richard Alcombright:
There is no better time than now to engage with our wonderful city. We are in the midst of some significant changes that include an increased focus on economic development in all sectors, green initiatives, and a focus on our downtown,which already supports some of the finest restaurants and small businesses in North Berkshire. We are a city that is committed to being “business friendly” and welcoming to the ideas of all.
Many of North Adams’ historic properties have been purchased and have been or are in the process of undergoing renovation. However, many opportunities still exist to get in on the ground floor of North Adams’ renaissance.
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