The pages of ASID ICON‘s Spring 2011 issue examine a New England restoration project, Pawtucket, R.I.’s, Riverfront Lofts. Morris Nathanson, ASID, and his namesake firm, Morris Nathanson Design (MND), led the design and development of the one-time jewelry factory into an artist community of 60 work/live-in loft apartments, where occupants reside and operate a studio space within a single dwelling. Nathanson’s work kick-started a new community model for the once-industrial town. Artists of all kinds—painters, sculptors, architects, interior designers and musicians, to name a few—became rapidly interested in Pawtucket’s new market for career development and personal Zen.
MND set out to explain the work/live-in philosophy to the Pawtucket City Council. “Many [council members] didn’t have a clue what a loft even was,” recalls Nathanson of the 2005 project’s rickety development and zoning process. In the beginning of Pawtucket’s revitalization boom, the town’s lawmakers had no exposure to the work/live-in model, and therefore no benchmark of its potential to be a successful community and economic booster. Nathanson offers a concise explanation: “Councilmen in Pawtucket simply didn’t travel.”
Although tax incentives for artists to live and work in specific areas (eight Rhode Island towns, including Pawtucket) went into effect in 1998, the need for the city’s Zoning Ordinance to allow work/live-in spaces in mills remained prominent into the next decade. Nathanson lobbied for the establishment of Pawtucket as a “Creative City,” speaking to government officials, garnering the support of the community at large in addition to the city’s key decision makers.
“Once the proper zoning was instated, the city actually hired a commissioner for this specific purpose,” reflects Nathanson. The commissioner’s promotional and legal support led to much name recognition for the city. Nathanson continues, “[The commissioner] even invited international artists to Pawtucket for special events” and the city began to view artists as small businesses.
Designed with the artist in mind, Riverfront Lofts features a gallery display space for residents, making its mark as part of Pawtucket’s up-and-coming arts district. The Pawtucket arts district is home to the GAMM Theater, the Pawtucket Armory Performing Arts Center and Blackstone Studios. Just over the Exchange Street Bridge—of which many lofts have views—is Slater Mill Museum (where Pawtucket’s mill economy took flight in 1793) and the acclaimed Stone Soup coffeehouse. The latter boasts both an art gallery and crafts shop for local artists. All serve as proof that Nathanson’s early design work converting mills was the cornerstone of future development in Pawtucket.
“We, as designers, are changing the direction of communities,” touts Nathanson, as he urges designers to continue reinforcing the complex environmental, economic and societal the spaces they create. Take a closer look at the remarkable transformation the 100,000-square-feet, two-building space underwent in the exclusive before and after shots featured here.
Photos © Chris Vaccaro