Driving down Grove Street today it is hard to miss the massive brick structure known as Northworks, a mixed use office complex which is home to drafting firms, restaurants, financial planners, accountants and numerous other small businesses. Upon closer examination one reads the stone lettering above the door at the 100 Grove Street entrance clearly spelling out Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company. Even to onlookers who know nothing of this company's rich history and importance in the development of the city of Worcester, the physical proportions and size of the building give off the aura of something that was once a great industrial operation. This assumption would most definitely be correct.
The November 1902 issue of Worcester Magazine related that "the largest single industry in Worcester is that of wire-making" (169). Founded in 1831, Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company was the reason for this. During its peak at the turn of the century Washburn and Moen, which later became part of American Steel and Wire, operated three major facilities in Worcester. Its headquarters was the Northworks Plant on Grove Street. The Central Works was the smallest of the three plants and was located downtown at the current location of the Centrum. The Southworks, another large complex, was located in Quinsigamond Village in "the crowing glory of Holy Cross College" (175). The factories made wire of all shapes, sizes and styles. In the 1850s the company had perfected the production of piano wire, thus making it the industry leader in its production (175). Later in the 19th century Washburn and Moen produced wire for hoop skirts, a fashion trend sweeping the country. Their production expanded again when in the 1870s they purchased the patent rights to barbed wire from its inventor Joseph Glidden (Barbed Wire History Online). No matter what type of wire a customer needed, Washburn and Moen would find a way to produce it.
Ichabod Washburn, one of the founders of the Worcester Mechanics Association and principle donor of Mechanics Hall, Memorial Hospital and Worcester Polytechnic Institutive, was one of the city's first manufacturers when he opened up a ramrod shop in Worcester in 1819. His son-in-law, Philip Moen, was a highly successful businessmen who commanded respect from everyone that worked with him. The corporation itself started from humble beginnings. Ichabod Wasburn is considered to be the first individual to draw wire in Worcester, in a sense allowing him to procure significant investments from creditors within the city, including the notable Stephen Salisbury II (Nutt 60). By 1831 Washburn had begun the production of wire within a factory on School Street in a partnership with Benjamin Goddard. A few years later Goddard left the partnership and Washburn oversaw the construction of a building designed solely for the production of wire (Worcester Magazine 175). For a number of years Washburn's Wire Firm was operated jointly with his brother, but by 1851 Philip Moen, Ichabod Washburn's son in law, was taken on as a partner. It was this partnership that truly allowed the business to flourish.
By 1863 the firm began to operate their own cotton mill in order to produce enough yarn to cover the daily production of wire (Nutt 61). In 1889 over 3,000 workers were employed within the company's three plants and it was officially the largest employer in Worcester. When Washburn and Moen became part of the American Steel and Wire Company in 1899 it was the final piece in creating the largest Wire conglomeration in the United States. At the time, it was the largest company the nation had ever seen (Nutt 30). In this period of great prosperity for the firm, over 200,000 workers were employed in the Worcester facilities, most of them at Northworks. The Worcester plants remained strong until increased competition from southern manufacturers drove US Steel, American Steel and Wire's successor, to restrict operations. By 1972 company reports declared the Worcester plants to be "marginal" and, ultimately, they were closed by 1978 (Smith Online).
As his wire manufacturing company was being established, Ichabod Washburn was also establishing himself as an effective and well respected businessman within the Worcester community. He was the deacon of his church and contributed greatly to cultural institutions (Nutt 62). He truly loved the city and the city loved him back. His partner and son-in-law Philip Moen was held in equally high esteem, viewed by those who worked with him as "kind, courteous and frank," and proved a worthy successor to Washburn when he passed away (Nutt 30). Moen was also involved in the community at large, working as a trustee of two banks, the Memorial Hospital and the Home for Aged Men. The respect commanded by these two men within the community prompted Worcester to be willing to work with Washburn and Moen Manufacturing in order to assure its continued success. After all, it seemed that what was good for Washburn and Moen was good for Worcester.
What made the Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company such a powerhouse within Worcester? While there were many factors involved, one of the most important was innovation. In addition to the steady flow of capital guaranteed from buyers of their wire, civic cooperation made constant experimentation with new techniques and manufacturing methods possible. They were the first company to have continuous tempering of wire, devised the most effective method of producing telegraph wire, and were one of the few only companies in the nation to produce corset wire (Worcester Magazine 177). Washburn and Moen truly demonstrated the importance of research and development in having a successful business. Even in its later years, it was such innovation that kept American Steel and Wire one step ahead, carrying on the rich legacy established by Washburn and Moen.
Worcester's Immigrant Workforce
When immigrant groups came to Worcester they inevitably came to the wire factories to look for work. As the largest industry in Worcester, it offered thousands of immigrants employment in one of the company's three plants. Living in three-deckers around the city, specifically Irish, French and Swedish immigrant groups found work during one of the 8-hour shifts (Smith Online). In later years many Armenian and Turkish immigrants also would find work alongside the Europeans, making the factory a "veritable Babel" (Worcester Magazine 178). Working in a Wire Mill was not a skilled occupation, thus no formal education was necessary. This made it an ideal job for immigrants to the city. Washburn and Moen was particularly important for Swedish immigrant groups. Moen had studied in Sweden in his younger years and, observing the work ethic of the Swedish people, he actively recruited a number of Swedish workers to come to Worcester to staff his factories (Anderson Interview). This was particularly true in the Quinsigamond Village Southworks plant. Amos Webber, a janitor and messenger in the factory, even points out that women were employed by Washburn and Moen in their fine wire operations (Salvatore 299). Nearly every group within Worcester could find employment within these factories. This did not mean, however, an absence of friction over jobs and working conditions. Accidents were frequent and all the plants required a full service emergency ward and "competent surgeon" (Worcester Magazine 180). Undoubtedly the working conditions left much to be desired as well. Strikes were commonplace as they were at most large corporations at the time. Newspaper accounts suggest that labor was dealt with respectfully by the administration.
The main structure's extensive façade runs for over 500 feet along Grove street, a wave of red brick which sits just a few feet back from the street. The main façade can be broken down into three main sections: a long rectangular area on the left, a tripartite rectangular section right of center, and a smaller rectangle to the far right. The leftmost section is a seemingly endless expanse of brick and large three-pane rectangular windows. The windows are spaced apart by solid brick areas, forming a pattern that repeats itself almost identically for three stories. Below each window is a concrete ledge, highlighting where the base of the glass meets the brick that surrounds it. Above the third-story bank of windows are decorative brick arches which mirror both the tops of the windows and the brick spaces between them. A step higher above this arch work is a decorative brick dentil frieze and cornice, which terminates at the flat roof of the structure.
To the right of this long expanse and slightly forward is the four-story central entrance area of the building, broken down into three vertical rectangles. The central rectangle is the thinnest and tallest, featuring inlaid concrete strips with the words "Washburn & Moen Manuf'g Co." and "Established 1831." Set in to the brick just under the roofline, are decorative cast-iron rectangles, the only complex detail work that the façade features. This section also features the same three-pane windows and decorative brickwork as the left side of the structure, and is flanked by two stouter rectangles with similar window and brick detail arrangement. The final section of the façade was a later addition, and features a slightly different brick color, while keeping a similar window arrangement and brick detailing. One noticeable difference about this section is that the first three floors of windows are recessed in vertical strips, set back from the surrounding brick, while the fourth floor remains flush.
The Northworks complex is comprised of several other buildings as well, and is described in Worcester's Best as follows:
The style of these other buildings is similar to that of the main building, with little ornament, extensive amounts of red brick, and the same simple two or three pane vertical windows. This industrial architecture is repeated in many locations throughout the city.The Whittall Carpet Mills in South Worcester, 1880-1910, for example, embody the same powerful massing and rich brick textures. Repetition is a strong design component, as is the underlying structure of angular geometry. The buildings exhibit very few organic elements, and are primarily comprised of right angles. The majority of the work on the structure was done between 1863 and 1870, and features elements of the Italianate style. The overhanging eaves, decorative brackets, and slightly arched tall windows of the central entrance area are all typical of this architectural style. There also existed originally above the entrance a slightly rounded cupola which was commonplace on Italianate structures. The rightmost section of the façade, which was later renovated, once feature a mansard roof typical of the Second Empire style, which became popular slightly after Italianate.
While the majority of the Washburn and Moen buildings have been destroyed the remaining structures have found new life. With tenants like physicians, small scale industry, restaurants and a number of other private offices, the Northworks continues to be a vital and important place within the city of Worcester. Recently restoration work and modernization keep the building market competitive. Floors have been refurbished, beams reinforced and windows replaced in order to bring new tenants into the complex.
Within the doors of the central block, an elegant wooden staircase leads up to the second floor. Dark wooden banisters are supported by ornate iron braces and lead up on one side to a carved wooden newel post. Highly glossed wooden floors are present throughout most of the building, with the exception being concrete in the basement areas. The wear and age of the boards only serves to make them more appealing, and gives the interior a slightly rustic feel. Thick wooden columns and beams are present throughout the building supporting the levels above, and exposed pipes can be seen running along the wooden ceilings. The interior has been sectioned off by white walls with wooden wainscoting, resulting in a maze-like interior that winds and turns along the length of the structure. An original elevator is still present, featuring a metal Greek key design along the top of the interior and manual sliding doors. There is also an original vault in one of the interior brick walls that is now used for storage.
Despite the modern renovations to the interior, the building still maintains its character and many original elements and details. A testament to progress at its inception, Northworks has evolved and continues to function as an important site in Worcester today while not abandoning its origins. The building stands as a monument to a process that gave many of the city's citizens and their descendants their first chance in the new country.
Anderson, John B.