Dorchester / Milton Lower Mills Industrial District
[Note: this reproduction of the information in the Boston Landmarks Area Form may have typographical errors, and for technical matters, the reader may want to consult a copy of the original, which is available at the Boston Landmarks Commission or the Dorchester Historical Society] Description
The Dorchester/Milton Lower Mills Industrial District is primarily an area of late nineteenth and early twentieth century brick industrial buildings set within a rugged natural environment and sited along the banks of the Neponset River and the curved axes of Adams Street. The Neponset River is the dividing-line between the City of Boston and the Town of Milton, and buildings in the district occupy sites within both jurisdictions. Although most of the district’s buildings are associated with the Walter Baker Chocolate Company, there are six structures around its periphery including a brick industrial complex, a wood frame commercial structure, and a group of frame houses that are not associated with Baker Chocolate except through physical proximity.
The district is bounded roughly by the MBTA Red Line right-of-way to the south, Medway Street on the east, Adams Street and Miller’s Lane on the north, and the former Stoughton School and the railroad bridge across the Neponset to the west. Distinctive natural topographic features within this district include the S-curve of the Neponset River which winds through the approximate center of the area, the hilly contours of land adjacent to the river, puddingstone rock outcroppings along the river, and near the industrial building sites, wooded river embankments, and the rapids of the river which are formed by puddingstone boulders. Notable man-made topographical features built along the Neponset include the seventeenth century curvilinear roads of Adams and Washington Streets, the rapids dam east of the Adams Street bridge, the mill dam on the west side, and numerous stone and concrete retaining walls which reflect shifts in ground elevation.
Included in the district are seventeen structures, several with annexes and additions. Fourteen of these structures or groupings of buildings are associated with the. Walter Baker Chocolate Company hereinafter referred to as the Baker Buildings. Only one of the total of seventeen buildings in the district is nonindustrial in type or use. With a single exception, the district’s industrial structures are brick. The nonindustrial building is wood frame. The major Baker Buildings range in date from 1872 to ca. 1935, but some secondary buildings appear to be earlier. The major Baker Buildings are described (with three exceptions) in chronological order.
Built in 1872 after the designs of Nathanial J. Bradlee and Walter T. Winslow, the Pierce Mill at 1220 Adams Street (1) is a three-story plus mansard Second Empire Style brick building with four-story projecting central and end pavilions capped by peaked roofs and cast-iron cresting. The building’s present coat of light grey paint obscures some of the facade detailing which includes decorative window lintels, moulded stringcourses, and bracketed cornice. Segmentally arched window openings characterize the third and fourth floors, and tall dormer windows extend the height of the building’s mansard roof. Attached to the rear is a five-story brick building which was completed in 1868 and was originally known as the “Steam Mill.” (1a)
On the south bank of the river near the dam is the 1882 Webb Mill at 1 Eliot Street, corner of Adams (2). Designed by Bradlee, Winslow and Wetherell in the Romanesque Revival Style, the four and five-story, flat roofed Webb Mill is characterized by its broad entrance arches, its rough-faced brownstone bevel on its southeast corner, and the moulded extrados over round-headed top story windows and entry arches. A small single –story office is attached to the north side, and behind the building is part of an earlier brick mill which probably dates from the mid-nineteenth century.
The Adams Street Mill, built in 1888-89 and designed by Winslow and Wetherell in the Romanesque Revival Style literally rounds the corner of Adams Street at Pierce Square (3). This six-story flat roofed mill building is defined by its curved form which is emphasized by the slight batter of its profile and by its round-headed vertical binding arches of the first two floors and on the third, fourth, and fifth floors of the central section. This arcading is restated in the paired arched windows on the top floor of the central bays and by the arched brick corbelling at the cornice. Segmentally arched windows on the third, fourth, and fifth floors of the end bays reflect the fenestration of the upper floors of the neighboring Pierce mill. A brick connector, with a two-story arched entranceway leading to an open interior loading area, joins the third and fourth floor levels of the Adams Street Mill to the Pierce Mill and creates a continuous brick street facade along the east side of Pierce Square to the Neponset River. Like its neighbor the Adams Street Mill has also been painted.
Built twenty years apart, the Baker complex’s two largest mills, the 1891 Baker Mill at 1245 Adams Street (4) and the adjacent 1911 Forbes Mill at 1235 Adams (5) were designed by Winslow and Wetherell and share the same scale, materials, style, and facade treatment. These six-story, flat-roofed companion buildings are located on either side of Baker’s Court and are joined by a recessed copper-sheathed connector. Both buildings have been painted.
Characterizing the design of the massive Baker and Forbes Mills are such Romanesque Revival features of vertical binding arches linking the upper four stories of the building and the use of arcaded corbelling at the cornice. The presence of classically derived brick quoins stylistically relates these buildings to the Ware and Preston Mills opposite on the east side of the bridge.
The Ware and Preston Mills (6) and (7) build respectively in 1902 and 1903 after Winslow and Bigelow designs were constructed on either side of the Neponset just south of the industrial buildings. These three-story flat roofed mills are rather straightforward in form and design and are characterized by plain rectangular fenestration and restrained classical and Georgian Revival detailing of brick quoins, keystoned brick window lintels, and on the Ware Mill, a heavy modillion and dentil cornice.
Joined to each other and to the Ware Mill by connectors and overpasses are a pair of long, narrow, two-story brick storehouses (8) and (9). Built ca. 1885 and ca. 1895 respectively in the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles, these storehouses are located on sites near the former Old Colony Railroad (now the MBTA) right-of-way. Adjacent and parallel to the Ware Mill, and set farther back from Adams Street is a two and three-story wood frame gable roof building (10) that appears to date from the mid-nineteenth century and may have been part of the earlier Ware Mill complex on that site.
The Power House (11) for the Baker complex, sited along the Neponset behind the Baker Mill is attributed to Winslow and Bigelow and was built in 1906 in a style that combines some Romanesque detailing with Neo-Classical proportion and scale. The main section of the Power House is four-stories tall with floors arranged in the classical format of one-story basement, two-story mid-section, and one-story attic. The two middle floors are joined by 1arge round-headed windows which are repeated on a smaller scale in the two-story rear section. Attached to this rear section is a 200 foot brick smokestack.
The Georgian Revival Administration Building of 1918-19 (12), which was designed by George F. Shepard, serves through its prominent siting and angled set-back at 1231 Adams Street, as another major visual focus of the Baker plant. The cube-shaped building with balustraded flat roof is three-stories high and displays a projecting two-story pavilion with a monumental portico and Georgian derived door and window trim executed in stone. The building is now used by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare.
Located to the rear of the Forbes Mill is a three-story brick industrial building (13) with Art Deco brick and concrete detailing predominantly dating from 1928. Immediately adjacent and formerly used for the storage of cocoa beans, is a large concrete grain elevator (14) with nine pairs of silos attached to a long central core. Its construction date is unknown. Because of its unusual sculptural form and-the spelling-out of Baker Chocolate in boldly painted letters across its south silos, this monumental structure has become a 1andmark of the Lower Mills area.
Buildings in the district not associated with the Baker Company but relating to the district’s overall theme include the 1888 industrial structure which originally housed the Mason Regulator Company (15). Located at the corner of Adams and Medway Street, this Queen Anne Style two-story brick building with false gable ends is distinguished by a three-story conical, roofed corner tower added to the building in the early 1890’s. A three-story brick and concrete addition of 1929 is attached to the east side of the building. Also connected and-adjacent to these industrial structures are single-story modern brick office buildings with contemporary Georgian ornament.
Farther along Medway Street is a frame residence, a Shingle Style house at 15-17 which was in the 1890s the home of William B. Mason of the Mason Regulator Company (16). Adjacent to Miller’s Lane, the district’s northern boundary, is a non-descript two-story frame commercial building with modern shop fronts at 1175-1181 Adams. (A)
The Dorchester/Milton Lower Mills Industrial District possesses integrity of setting, design, location, materials and associations and has significance in at least three distinct areas. It is an intact 19th and early 20th century industrial complex associated with an internationally known product and primarily with a single family, which represents the final stage of three centuries of continuous industrial development. It is the work of an noted Boston architectural firm, and it is a man-made complex symbiotically related to a distinctive natural environment.
The importance of the Lower Mills area as a major industrial site was initially determined by its topography. Near the area which developed into Lower Mills, the Neponset River provided the only rapids in the Dorchester/Milton area and was immediately recognized by the Puritan settlers as an excellent source of water power for mill operation. The Neponset was deep enough to be navigable to a point near the rapids and yet sufficiently narrow to e1iminate the need for excessive damming. Prior to the industrialization of the river, the area around the rapids was a favorite place of habitation and fishing of the Neponset Indians, the native inhabitants of the Dorchester, Milton, Dedham and Quincy area.
Mill development along the Neponset began soon after the initial settlement of Dorchester. Although the town of Milton was set off from Dorchester in 1662, with the town line running down the middle of the Neponset, this demarcation remained an abstraction to the generations of mill owners who built along sites on either or both sides of the river.
The first known industrial activity on the Neponset in this area was Israel Stoughton’s grist mill which was built in 1634 on the northern (Dorchester) side of the river upon leave of the General Court and the town of Dorchester. Stoughton’s mill is one of the earliest documented grist mils in the English colonies and probably was preceded in New England only by the Roxbury Mill of 1633. Although physically isolated, Stoughton’s Mill was linked to the developing settlement in northern Dorchester by a roadway now known as Adams Street. By 1654, the mill was accessible to Roxbury by a road now called Washington Street. Because the first Baker building was constructed directly over this site, there is little chance of finding remnants of the mill.
In 1674, the-first documented gun powder mill in the colonies was built on the Milton side of the river. A fulling (wool sizing) mill was set up on an adjacent site in 1688. During the first half of the eighteenth century, mill activity increased in the district, and a small settlement then called Neponset Village began to develop. By mid-century, the industrial sites along the river at Neponset Village included a grist mill, a fulling mill, a powder mill, a paper mill, a snuff mill, and a saw mill, none of which remain.
Chocolate manufacturing began on the Neponset River in 1765, when an annex to tne existing saw mill on the Milton side was outfitted by Dr. James Baker for the grinding of cocoa beans. A Harvard graduate who had pursued careers, in the ministry and medicine, Baker became an entrepreneur when he began financing a chocolate-making operation on the Neponset in association with James Hannon, an Irish Protestant immigrant, who had learned the chocolate business in England. The chocolate produced by Hannon in the hired work space of the saw mill, is one of the earliest examples of water powered chocolate production in the colonies.
A second chocolate manufactory was initiated two years later by Edward Preston, James Baker’s brother-in-law, who installed chocolate equipment in his fulling mill on the Dorchester side. By 1771, James Baker is recorded as making chocolate on his own in the local paper mill. Three years later, Baker had acquired full ownership of Hannon’s business and made the first Baker brand chocolate in Preston’s recently rebuilt and refurbished mill. The Baker business flourished during the early years of the nineteenth century under the management of Baker’s son, Edmund, who built the family’s first mill in 1806 on the site of the 1633 Stoughton grist mill. This frame structure was replaced in 1813 by a granite, 40 foot square woolen, cotton cloth, and chocolate manufactory which, in turn, was replaced after a severe fire in 1848 by a larger granite building three-stories plus attic in height with a high gabled roof. Manufacturing in this building, called the Stone Mill, was predominantly concerned with the production of chocolate and cocoa. The Stone Mill remained a production unit of the plant until 1891 when it was replaced by the present Baker Mill (4).
When Edmund retired in 1824, his son Walter inherited a business which was already well established. Local competition was provided by the Preston family who continued to make cloth and chocolate in their Dorchester mill. By 1835, the Preston and Baker mills were each producing about 750 pounds of chocolate a day. In 1840, Dr. Jonathan Ware built a new mill on the site of the earlier paper mill and two years later, Josiah Webb and Josiah Twombly began making chocolate in the Ware Mill (6) thereby establishing a third chocolate manufactory along the Neponset near Lower Mills.
Walter Baker came to reflect the esteemed nineteenth century figure of the successful businessman and prominent public person and served several terms as a representative to the Massachusetts General Court. His ownership of the Baker Company coincided with several important industrial innovations which included the turbine engine, the railroad, and the telegraph, with the result that it was under the name of Walter Baker Chocolate that the company’s product first became widely known. The person most responsible for the prosperity and growth of Baker chocolate, however, was Henry L. Pierce. Pierce began his long career in the chocolate business working as a clerk for Walter Baker, his mother’s half-brother. After Baker’s death in 1852, and the death shortly thereafter of Baker s successor, Sidney Williams, the business was leased to Pierce for a period of ten years. This lease included the use of the Stone Mill, a cooling room and storehouse, as well as the right to use water power from the mill dam. Also specified in the leasing arrangements were provisions for the use of the Baker name on all products. This lease was extended at the end of each ten year period until the death in 1891 of Mrs. Walter Baker automatically terminated its provisions. By that time, Pierce had acquired most of the adjacent mill sites along the river in Dorchester and Milton.
A major development program for the Baker company was initiated in 1868 by Pierce when he built a new mill on land recently sold by the Preston family. This mill (1a), which was incorporated as a rear wing of the Pierce Mill (1), was the first of the Baker buildings to be equipped with a steam engine and was known as the “Steam Mill.” Until that time, the Baker company had been completely dependent upon power derived from water wheels. Much of the existing industrial plant of Baker’s chocolate was built under Pierce’s direction of the business. The major mill buildings dating from his tenure include the 1868 Steam Mill (1a), the 1872 Pierce Mill (1), the 1882 Webb Mills (2), the 1888-89 Adams Street Mill (3) and the 1891 Baker Mill (4). All of these buildings were designed by Nathan J. Bradlee’s prolific architectural firm and its successors, which is discussed later.
Immediately following Henry L. Pierce’s death in 1896, after more than forty years of managing the Baker Company and a long career as a politician which embraced four terms in the state legislature, two terms as a U.S. Representative and two terms as Mayor of the City of Boston, the intersection of streets just north of the Baker complex was formally named Pierce Square in his honor.
In 1891, the Baker business and plant were transferred to a syndicate of local capitalists who continued Pierce’s program of expansion. The “company firm” was retained to design four major buildings which included the 1902 Ware Mill (6) (on the site of its 1840 pre-decessor), the 1903 Preston Mill (7), the 1906 Power House (11), and the 1911 Forbes Mill (5).
The Power House (11), with its three boilers and two large electric generators, brought about the electrification of the mill complex which replaced steam engines as a source of power and illumination. This made possible the functional integration of the mills, each of which was formerly dependent on its own power source. It enabled the company to install a refrigerator plant, thereby extending the chocolate making season.
Walter Baker and Company, Limited, became a division of the General Food Corporation in 1927, with operations continuing in the same physical plant until 1965, when the decision was made to move the company to Dover, Delaware. The Walter Baker Chocolate buildings are now held in multiple ownership, are substantially occupied, and are used for warehousing, small businesses, and light manufacturing.
The other major component of this district, the Mason Regulator company, produced machine parts, i.e., speed and pressure regulators, balanced valves, and steam traps. The company moved from Jamaica Plain to Lower Mills in 1898 establishing itself as a new industry in the Lower mills area.
In addition to the many historical associations of the Lower Mills Industrial District, the existing mill complex is of considerable significance for its high architectural quality and its distinctive natural setting on the Neponset River. The remarkable formal coherence of the Baker complex despite a range of architectural style is the result largely of the involvement of essentially a single firm in the design of many of the buildings, their consequent similarities in overall form and detailing, and the use of red brick as the basic building material.
The architectural firm employed by Baker Chocolate was begun by Nathanial J. Bradlee (1829-1888), a prominent Boston architect, who was noted primarily for his post-fire downtown commercial buildings and for his blocks of row houses in the South End and Back Bav districts. Walter T. Winslow (1843-1901) and George H. Wetherell (1854-1930) joined the Bradlee firm as young men and were taken on as partners by 1882. After Bradlee’s death, the firm continued as Winslow and Wetherell until Henry F. Bigelow (1856-1929) joined the practice in 1899. Between 1868 and 1911, nine of the major industrial buildings in the Lower Mills district were designed by Nathanial J. Bradlee, Bradlee, Winslow and Wetherell, and their succeeding firms.
During the time that it was designing industrial buildings for Baker Chocolate, the firm was also responsible for a number of important downtown Boston buildings including the Hotel Touraine, the Board of Trade Building, the Shawmut Bank Building, the Parker House Hotel and the Jordan Marsh Annex.
The stylistic evolution of the firm’s work for Baker Chocolate during its fifty years of association with that company, encompassed a range of architectural styles including the Mansard Pierce Mill, the Romanesque Revival Webb Mill and Adams Street Mill, the monumental Romanesque/Renaissance Revival Baker and Forbes Mills and the more vernacular Ware and Preston Mills which combine Georgian and Renaissance Revival features. This mix of styles demonstrates the physical development of the complex over an extended period of time and does not distract from the cohesive architectural form of the Baker Plant and its neighbor, the Mason Regu1ator Company.
The existing Baker complex is of additional significance through its development history of building and rebuilding industrial structures on sites occupied by seventeenth and eighteenth century mills whose location was originally determined by topography. The siting of the present Baker buildings reflects the irregularity of a site formed by puddingstone ledges and a winding steeply banked watercourse as well as the necessary location of the earlier mills in close proximity to the river. Today, the industrial buildings at Lower Mills remain clustered at uneven intervals along the riverbanks with varying directional orientations. Buildings that are of note sited along the Neponset face Adams Street and emphasize the curved path of that seventeenth century road and further strengthen the character and physical identity of the Lower Mills Industrial District.
Baker, Walter & Co., “A Calendar of Walter Baker and Co. and His Times, 1796-1940,”
Bruce Millar, ed., New York, 1940.
Baker, Walter & Co., Cocoa and Chocolate: A Short History of Their Production and Use. Dorchester, MA, 1910.
Baker, Walter & Co., Walter Baker Collection, Baker Library Manuscript Division, Harvard Business School, Cambridge, MA
Hamilton, Edward Pierce, “Chocolate Village,” Milton, MA, 1966.
Hamilton, Edward Pierce, History of Milton, Massachusetts, Milton, MA, 1957
Pollan, Rosalind, “Lower Mills,” Report prepared for Boston Landmarks Commission, 1979.
Zaitevsky, Cynthia, “Pierce Square,” Report of the Boston Landmarks Commission, 1970.