Architecture & History

In his 1986 book A Concrete Atlantis, the late architectural writer Reyner Banhamdescribed the United Shoe Machinery Corporation (USM) structure in Beverly, Massachusetts as a concrete-framed factory in its canonical form “a work of crushing self-assurance. Its absence from the general literature on the history of modern architecture is a reproach to scholarship,” he added.Banham also described Beverly as “that ultimate masterpiece of [engineer Ernest L.] Ransome’s declining years.” Ransome, known worldwide for his then revolutionary technology, himself authored a book, Reinforced Concrete Buildings, with co-author Alexis Saurbrey in 1912, published in New York City by McGraw-Hill.Cummings Center, the former USM site, is today a massive complex of Ransome’s renovated commercial buildings and landscape features on a 74-acre site near Beverly’s downtown business district. Construction of the original plant began in 1904 and continued in phases over a span of 96 years, through the present renovation. It is one of the most outstanding pieces of Massachusetts commercial real estate. The property, enjoying huge community support if not unabashed fervor, is now remarkably clean and visible. It has significant historic integrity as well, in terms of location, design, setting, workmanship, and accessibility, including a public museum area.

In A Concrete Atlantis, Banham described USM’s former manufacturing headquarters as three immensely long production blocks standing on a solidly walled basemento pierced by Ransome’s segmental arched windows. “Restrained string courses,” he wrote “separate the fenestration of the main work floors from the basemento and from the frieze and drastically simplified coved cornice above.”Banham went on to write that the complex, “battered and beaten up after eighty years of heavy industrial use… wears a rather attractively Pompeian air of elegant and antique decay.” Indeed, an October 1972 FORTUNE Magazine feature concurred with Banham’s impression, calling the property “massive and antique.”By sharp contrast, however, FORTUNE had described the very same property back in September 1933, citing its pivotal role as the primary reason why Beverly, Massachusetts was “dizzy with prosperity” during the Great Depression’s darkest days.
Click to enlargeBronze builder’s plates (“Ransome Concrete Co., 11 Broadway, NY”) are mounted on the southwest and southeast corners of 100 Cummings Center, and on the north end of the former foundry, on what is now a partially exposed section of wall of the center stairway of 900 Cummings Center. The plates on 100 Cummings Center indicate that construction of this phase began on March 4, 1902 and ended on October 3, 1905.The typical exterior facade of the main building, now 100 Cummings Center, is four stories tall. The facade’s structural elements are organized following classical tri-partite organization (a primarily horizontal base, a vertically organized shaft section, and a horizontal capital). “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,” Banham added.Approximately 8′ wide bronze aluminum framed windows, installed during 1997, fill all the facade areas between the sub-columns. The windows replace earlier steel replacement windows. A few of the original wood framed windows remain. Front elevation windows installed in 1997 feature one horizontal and two vertical mullions to match the previous, very deteriorated major window components.Recessed concrete spandrel panels, which replaced glazing below the present windowsill level about 1920, feature raised perimeter molding. Above the fourth floor windows are a projecting bullnose molding and a coved cornice with no vertical divisions. This cornice extends above the roof and creates a parapet at roof level.In 1997 two steel-framed four-story additions were completed on the south elevation within two formerly open courts between the three primary wings of the main plant. In terms of scale, the total combined length of the four main elevations of this building is 3,340 lineal feet, of which the combined length of the newly added exterior elevations of the two additions totals only two percent.
Click to enlargeThese two infills were sheathed in horizontally curved glass curtainwall with a contrasting clear anodized mullion system. The horizontal window mullions are aligned with major horizontal features of the existing building. The connection of the additions is recessed from the main facade of the existing building. Both window system color and wall connection configurations were chosen to complement the existing structure.The first documented commercial development on this site occurred in 1643 with the construction of Friend’s Mill. This tidal grist mill survived till the very end of the 19th Century, and qualifies Cummings Center as the oldest continuously used commercial property site in America. Interior Description
The predominant interior of 100 Cummings Center today has been transformed into a finished office environment. Prior office construction was earlier demolished, apparently in the late 1980s. Most interior surfaces, (floors, walls and ceiling) were bare concrete or window systems. The plant was organized in three 60′ wide wings, the two easterly wings ultimately 1,320′ long, the total width 350′. Each wing was typically composed of 20′ by 20′ bays, each numbered from 1 to 66 from the south. Originally, each wing had windows on both the east and west sides. The huge courtyards between the wings, however, were later filled-in after World War II, and former courtyard windows mostly infilled with concrete blocks.Within what is now 125E Cummings Center, 12 fully exposed Doric columns with square capitals are readily visible. These are in what was formerly the main north entrance of the main plant before Phase II was constructed in 1911, and are now the best interior example of the “bush hammering” treatment, an ancient process for dressing stone, using hammers with serrated faces to stress the surfaces. Also very visible are two large, completely original wood windows uncovered during the restoration of that area.
Click to enlarge Several cross connector areas feature five-story construction, linked to the four-story cross connector by intermediate stairs from the corridor or adjacent stair tower. A 20,000 square foot 600-seat employee cafeteria was constructed in another fifth-floor space, fully above the main roof level. Three stairways and two new elevators now serve it.Huxtable…Most significant concrete landmark in America
On October 2, 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “The 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 here first.” Before 1997 Huxtable wrote about the USM complex in Progressive Architecture in 1977, and addressed it even in 1957 in a New York Times feature story.Although concrete reinforced with steel rods is extremely common today, the process was only in its infancy in 1903. The reinforcing metal used in the earliest phase of The Shoe was not steel, but rather square iron rods from ¼ to 1½ inches thick, carefully twisted to give them greater holding power. The resulting then unproved product was referred to in early writings as “armored concrete.” The resulting day-lit factory building was America’s most successful.Also in terms of engineering significance, the United Shoe complex is notable because of its exclusive use of precast concrete sections in the 1911 addition. This was the largest use of precast concrete pieces anywhere, and epitomized Ernest L. Ransome’s enormous contribution to building construction. As far back as 1911, POPULAR MECHANICS highlighted the significance of United’s use of newly invented precast concrete construction.”The Shoe” was separately significant for its effects on then developing modern architectural design. Only simplified neo-classical design elements embellish the exterior columns and floor skeleton of the USM Beverly plant, but other areas constitute a clear link between the historical revival designs of the late Victorian period (which clothed the then newly emerging cast iron, steel and concrete structural systems with traditional, primarily neo-classical revival, ornamental exterior facades), and the Modernist style which emerged in the 1920s, where simple structural expression was the architecture. The main USM plant was one of several buildings that inspired (primarily European) architects to see the structural expression of the building type as the design system for the building. 
Click to enlargeModernist architects developing their treatise in the 1920s and 1930s often used the “building as machine” analogy to describe (their view of) the proper approach to building design. Fine art painting and photography of the era was strongly influenced by the aesthetic, evidenced in machines such as ocean liners. USM’s later disregard for the overall appearance of its structures, evidenced by the plethora of ducts, pipes, boards, plastic covers, sheds, transformers, silos, tanks, loading areas, and other appurtenances attached to the building, is an ironic counterpoint to the modernist’s assertions that functionally derived form is a result beautiful.During the 1997-99 restoration, virtually all attachments and numerous concrete block and sheet metal additions to all of the contributing structures were removed. All buildings are now mostly very much more in keeping with their early appearance than they were in 1996. The notable exceptions are the graceful, but unsound 225′ tall chimney, which was removed in 1997, and the several prominent aluminum and glass curtainwall structures added in 1997.Although they do not meaningfully alter the project’s overall size, these curtainwall infills have a dramatic effect in alerting visitors and passersby that the complex is once again alive and functioning, and that it is once again an economic force affecting the entire area. The complex in 1999 is remarkable for the abundant visibility and intact original plan, materials, finishes, and architectural features, as a major architectural entity.”Of undeniable interest for their technical innovation, these buildings are also remarkable for their impressive and pleasant proportions, direct expression of structure, and comparative freedom from conventional decorative details that were to “enhance” even the best of the later industrial architecture, including the famous Kahn factories,” Huxtable also wrote. “As engineering and design, Ernest Ransome’s work deserves a prominent place in the story of American architectural advance,” she added.The Shoe epitomized the industrial might of America…
The United Shoe Machinery Corporation site is significant as it embodies distinctive characteristics of a type, period and method of construction and quintessentially represents the work of a master pioneer in reinforced concrete construction. Several of these buildings were major achievements of the “master” himself, Ernest Leslie Ransome, described by architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable as “the father of reinforced concrete.” Writing about Cummings Center and The Shoe in The Wall Street Journal in 1997, Huxtable noted, “At a time when the press was filled with stories of the collapse of experimental concrete buildings – even professionals were skeptical of Ransome’s advances – The Shoe was a daring design.”Huxtable went on to note that Ransome’s 1903 curtainwall construction “revolutionized building in our time.” Ransome was also one of the earliest proponents of the Daylight Factory concept. He used this to its fullest in the enormous first phase of United Shoe, between 1902 and 1906, and then again in Phase II, mostly built in 1911. Until the 1930’s this was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world.
Click to enlarge Ransome was born in Ipswich, England in 1844 to an inventor father who built the first rotary kiln for firing cement. After serving an apprenticeship in the family concrete factory, Ernest emigrated to America in 1869 to exploit his father’s patent for “concrete stone” in this country. In 1870 he worked as superintendent of San Francisco’s Pacific Stone Company, and then established a factory for the manufacture of concrete blocks. He began developing structures, and one of his two small 1880s concrete bridges in Golden State Park in San Francisco bears a commemorative plaque as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.In 1884 Ransome received a US patent (#694,580) which became the cornerstone of the Ransome System for reinforcing concrete. He developed a special machine to twist square iron bars up to 2″ in diameter. Ransome found that by using twisted square bars he could create much greater tensile strength in the surrounding concrete than others could with smooth round rods. By 1900 Ransome achieved the full concrete frame, which permitted almost continuous external fenestration, leading to the Beverly commission in 1902 to build an entire factory for United Shoe. Interestingly, there still exists in Beverly an unusual set of early plans for a brick USM complex, which were drawn and ready for use before Ransome was commissioned to redesign it using his system.America’s most significant precast concrete structure
As USM continued to prosper, Ransome returned in 1910 to construct the first major addition in Beverly, and to develop the most notable early example of precast concrete elements for commercial buildings. Precast columns, girders, stairways, and wall panels were all formed and poured on the ground, and then lifted into position, before being unified and tied together with poured in place concrete floors.Earlier, smaller examples of Ransome’s engineering include the then largest winery in the world (California’s “Greystone”), and the Borax warehouse in New Jersey. The USM plant owes its greater significance to its sheer size, and its record of the evolution of concrete construction technology. And today, with more than 2 million square feet of modern Massachusetts office, research and laboratory space, Cummings Center is also one of the largest commercial restorations in America.Oldest commercial real estate site in USA
When Beverly, Massachusetts was part of Salem, Massachusetts, the Salem Town Council authorized construction of a tidal grist mill. The new dam would utilize the twice daily flow from an inlet of Bass River, where Upper and Lower Shoe Ponds are today.
Click to enlargeThe actual dam was just north of what is now the corner of Elliott and McKay Streets. For more than 200 years, both horse drawn wagons and coastal schooners brought dried corn to the flourishing Friends Mill from as far away as Long Island, New York, while colonial Beverly emerged around the mill.After the mill burned to the ground in spectacular fire in 1893, its wharf continued to be used for shipping and other commercial purposes until the area was acquired for United Shoe Machinery Company in 1902 by the future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Attorney Louis Dembitz Brandeis. United Shoe then immediately built what, for several decades, was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. Dating back to 1648, this radically new style of manufacturing plant, which is now Cummings Center, was constructed on the oldest continuously used commercial real estate in the United States.Attorney Brandeis not only served as an organizer and as a director of United Shoe in its earliest days, but at about the same time, he also founded Massachusetts’ Savings Bank Life Insurance Company in 1908. The fact that more than 70 percent of employees at “The Shoe” held SBLI polices at one point, suggests more than a casual relationship between the highly paternalistic United Shoe management and SBLI, presumably through Brandeis.In time, the brilliant Brandeis turned away from United Shoe, however, and later he was prominent in the decades-long court battle against the Company and its highly monopolistic practices. Indeed, during Brandeis’ 1917 Supreme Court confirmation hearings he was roundly criticized by some for having represented both sides in various USMC anti-trust hearings.Some lawyers representing both the Government and USMC reportedly spend their entire professional careers working on nothing but a succession of United Shoe anti-trust cases. In one form or another, the cases persisted from 1908 until the Company was finally broken up in 1978.During almost all of that period, however, United Shoe was always considered among the bluest of blue chip American manufacturing firms. United Shoe Machinery Company was America’s first truly multi-national company. To many, it was the Microsoft of its day, and in many ways, just as successful.

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Cummings Properties LLC, 200 West Cummings Park, Woburn, MA 781-935-8000  
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