No lace had been spun at The United States Lace Curtain Mills for decades when the factory landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. The mill, which first produced curtains in 1903, had become a boarded up warehouse and a visual blight on a midtown Kingston intersection.
“When we have that kind of blight, when we have boarded-up buildings, it sends a message to the children that live in that neighborhood that there is something wrong with their neighborhood,” said Kevin O’Connor, CEO of RUPCO, a Kingston-based provider of affordable housing, which purchased the building in 2013. “We can’t let that kind of blight stand in our communities.”
RUPCO employs funding from the Dyson Foundation, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD, the New York State Homes and Community Renewal and United Way of Ulster County. The Lace Mill investment was $18.7 million and fully one-third of the costs were paid for by private sector purchase of the Federal and New York State Historic Tax Credits.
Today, the former factory provides aesthetically-appealing, affordable housing for artists and a public resource for celebrating the arts. Now known as The Lace Mill, the factory has been converted into a 55-unit residence with multiple art galleries and community spaces that invite residents — and the public —to connect socially and artistically.
“It was structurally sound, a handsome historic building, with very low use,” said O’Connor. “We thought that we could certainly re-purpose it in a better way and for housing.”
The Lace Curtain Mills Factory in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Stephen Blauweiss
The renovation, completed in 2015, has earned several awards, including most recently a Preservation Action Award on March 15 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Lace Mill was one of only six projects chosen nationwide to highlight the success of the Historic Tax Credit as a way to drive economic development.
Transforming the factory was a major undertaking. It required a month just to measure the 80,000 square-foot industrial space. A significant milestone was passed when the boarded-up windows were replaced with energy efficient models.
“When we put in the new windows you could almost literally hear people go ahhh,” said O’Connor. “It was that kind of, ‘wow, look at this building now,’ moment. The building was transformed from blight to shining example.”
The project’s mission was not just to improve the corner aesthetically, but to infuse midtown Kingston with creative energy — providing both affordable living space for artists and public spaces that welcomed the community. O’Connor was inspired by an urban planning concept called creative placemaking, which aims to create neighborhoods that attract visitors.
Artists were expressly recruited as residents.
“People had to come in and demonstrate through a portfolio or other methodology that they were actively engaged in their art form,” said O’Connor. “It did not have to be their day job, but they had to show active engagement and a willingness to participate in an artist’s community.”
O’Connor and Scott Dutton, the Kingston-based architect in charge of the project, invited artists and stakeholders to a succession of meetings to share ideas for how such an experiment might work. Dutton said he listened to what the artists wanted and galleries were a priority.
Photo by Chris Kendall
“They described a variety of spaces, smaller galleries as well as larger galleries,” said Dutton, who was chosen for this project based on his expertise in rehabbing industrial spaces. “Our response to that was to create eight galleries and scatter them throughout the building and link them. Out of the 80,000 square feet, over 10 percent of the building was preserved for public gallery spaces, which is rare as most developments try to maximize the return on investment and keep a smaller percentage of public spaces.”
The galleries are put to good use as Lace Mill now hosts as many as three events a month, from musical performances to art exhibits where residents display work that ranges from fiber art to custom guitars to sculpture and paintings.
Resident Felix Olivieri is an artist, whose latest work marries technology and art. The galleries provide exhibit space for his projects which might include video game consoles built into everyday furniture and art created with the help of 3D printers.
“I love the fact that there are so many galleries in the building, so more then one show can happen,” said Olivieri. “It helps with what I like to call the crossover effect. People can come to one show and stumble over to the next show they didn’t know about because of a different circle of friends.”
Photo by Chris Kendall
Singer/songwriter Sean Cortright produced his first EP, “Bandit Song” in 2011 with a National Endowment for the Arts grant and, now that he lives in the Lace Mill, is working on his first full-length album. He enjoys connecting with fellow musicians and artists and recently hosted a show featuring Lace Mill musicians.
“The Lace Mill is changing Kingston by providing artists and musicians who are on low income to have access to collaboration with other like minds, and spaces they would not otherwise be able to afford,” said Kortright.
Writer Holly Christiana is a lifelong Ulster County resident who was ready to move away in search of more affordable rent. Living at the Lace Mill allows her to engage in creative activities such as writing and leading poetry workshops.
“When you get some firm ground under you, the safety of a home that is as permanent as you need it to be—suddenly realizing your potential becomes a whole lot easier; there is a happy end in sight,” said Christiana. “People, not just me, have found that when they move in, suddenly their lives change in big ways, good ways, that they didn’t even foresee.”
Rents are subsidized but not indefinitely.
“If an artist’s income rises, their rent might go up,” said O’Connor. “But Rupco is committed to keeping the units as affordable as possible for the next 50 years.”
Photo by Chris Kendall
Rupco and Dutton are working on two more projects to reenergize midtown Kingston. One is Energy Square, a 57-unit mixed use building on Cedar Street, and the other is The Metro, a 70,000 square-foot former factory/office building that will provide space for light local manufacturing and Stockade Works, a film production company founded by actress Mary Stuart Masterson. Stockade Works will feature post production studios, as well as a film production skills training center, coordinated with SUNY Ulster.
Dutton says the existence of the Lace Mill is changing the way people think about midtown Kingston, inspiring confidence in making local investments, whether that involves buying a home or opening a business.
“I knew it would have an impact but I hear almost every week from someone telling me they are making a decision about how much more stable the neighborhood is because of that building,” said Dutton.