LAWRENCE -- The Duck Mill was a place where the Merrimack Valley flexed its manufacturing muscle from 1896 to the 1950s, giving jobs to thousands of men and women over the decades.

The mill once produced a heavy, woven canvas – called duck – needed to make sails, sneakers, tents and backpacks.

The Duck Mill closed along with most of the others along the Merrimack River in the last half of the last century as manufacturing nationwide moved south or overseas.

This week, after 121 years as a mill, a furniture showroom and a boarded-up eyesore at a prominent gateway to downtown Lawrence, the Duck Mill begins its latest incarnation. By Friday, the first of the 73 low-income families who will live there are scheduled to move in following a $29 million renovation that Lawrence Community Works began 16 months ago.

“For so long, this corner has been a visible symbol of decay, sitting here with tattered rags flapping in the windows and the parking lot overgrown with weeds and collapsing into a sinkhole,” Jessica Andors, the agency's executive director, said on a tour of the building last week as carpenters, electricians, HVAC technicians and other contractors swirled around her in a ground-floor maze that will house 10,000 square-feet of retail space. “Now there's a beautiful building that's going to anchor this corner with homes and activity and business. To me, it's a symbol of how the city is coming back to life.”

Recent years had been hard on the old mill.

After production ceased, the building was sold to Joseph and Vincent Ippolito, who operated a furniture showroom on two of its five floors until 1993, when they moved the business to Meredith, New Hampshire, and sold the building to developer Chet Sidell.

Sidell kept the building mostly empty for another 15 years, then sold it to Lawrence Community Works in 2008. Plans by the nonprofit to redevelop it into apartments derailed almost immediately when the housing market crashed.

Time took a toll during the quarter century the former mill stood empty at the corner of Union and Island streets. The plastic sheets tacked over its broken windows became tattered, exposing the building to the weather and inviting trouble. Looters, vandals, the homeless, graffiti artists, drug users, prostitutes and families of raccoons moved in.

Floors collapsed, wallboard crumbled and mold spread. Outside, a sinkhole opened in the parking lot. Weeds dug into the asphalt. Mortar crumbled from the brick facade, which had been one of the city's most elegant until it was covered in white paint a few decades ago, hiding its brick and granite luster and its architectural flairs.

Other symbols of Lawrence's still-tentative new life surround the Duck Mill on all sides.

Just across Union Street to the east, Lawrence Community Works in 2007 purchased three buildings where Grieco Brothers made Southwick suits for retailers that included Brooks Brothers. Lawrence Community Works converted the 250,000-square-foot complex into a mix of affordable housing, commercial space and artists studios.

Immediately to the west, Stephen Chapman, a Watertown developer who recently bought the Washington Mills lofts, has begun demolition and reconstruction at a seven-story former paper mill and an adjoining two-story building totaling 400,000 square feet. The project will include 198 apartments and is scheduled to open in 14 months.

Across the North Canal, 80 percent of Everett Mills' 525,000 square feet of commercial and office space is occupied. 

To the south across the Merrimack River over the Duck Bridge – named for the mill – developer Sal Lupoli is expanding his Riverwalk apartment complex into an undeveloped part of the former Wood Mill.

Next door to that, the New Balance athletic shoe company recently reaffirmed its commitment to keep a manufacturing plant and a retail outlet in the former Ayer Mill, even as it feuded with the Obama administration over an international trade treaty that would hurt the company. The company is expanding into an adjoining building. 

“For the most part, we'd rather not see housing go into industrial space, but I think this is the best use for that specific building and this specific time,” Mayor Daniel Rivera said about the remade Duck Mill. “Lawrence Community Works is such a great organization, that this is going to be a home run. Plus they're dealing with the affordable-housing need we have. It's definitely a long time coming.”

In all, more than 1 million square feet of housing and commercial space has opened in the city's mill buildings over the last decade or so. Almost always, the huge cost of the renovations – which includes bringing the buildings into compliance with modern environmental, preservation and building regulations – would make the work impossible without federal state and local grants and tax credits.

At the Duck Mill, the credits and grants provided $25 million of the $28.6 million cost of the reconstruction, from programs that subsidize affordable housing, community development, historic preservation and environmental cleanups. Small amounts of asbestos were found in the ruins of parts of the mill that were demolished and buried decades ago.

Each of the grants comes with conditions, including one that will cap rents so that all 73 apartments are affordable to households earning between 30 percent and 60 percent of the average median income in Lawrence, Methuen and the Andovers. The formula will set monthly rents between $850 and $1,200, amounts that can be further subsidized by vouchers from the federal Section 8 program, allowing households with annual incomes of as little as about $18,000 to move in.

The historic preservation grants imposed other restrictions, including one that required LCW to use a chemical peel rather than sandblasting to remove the white paint covering the red brick exterior.

Fifteen months ago, inside the door that is now the building's main entrance, visitors were greeted with dank musky air, the stench of mold and a pitch-black darkness that required navigating the space by flashlight. Besides the raccoon nests, the perils inside included pits that opened when parts of the floor collapsed into the raceways that channeled river water under the building to power the fabric company's turbines.

Last week, the door opened to a bright and airy wood-paneled lobby flooded with natural light. The lobby has hickory flooring, exposed brick walls and original ceiling beams. Down the hall is a gym, a bike-storage area and a community room with a full kitchen, a soaring ceiling and two stories of windows. Murals of city scenes painted by artists in the Elevated Thought program will be installed in the room soon. 

Upstairs, the floors last year were wide open spaces the size of football fields, interrupted only by two rows of wooden columns sturdy enough to support the heavy weight and constant motion of the mill's machinery.  Each of the floors is now subdivided into a few dozen apartments. Each has a few of the columns, ceilings as high 12-feet, exposed beams, original hardwood flooring and oversized windows that provide panoramic views of the city and its landmarks, including the Ayer Mill clock tower, the Duck Bridge and the Merrimack River. Every window is a replica of the originals, which added $500,000 to the cost of the renovation, said John Harden, the project manager. 

The building has seven one-bedroom apartments, 37 two-bedroom apartments and 29 three-bedroom apartments. Tenants were chosen by lottery, as required by the federal housing grant the project received.

By last week, the waiting list for an apartment was 520 families long. 

"It's wonderful to be able to see the name 'Duck' back (over the building's entrance), after the plastic coating put up in the 1960s was removed," said Jonas Stundzia, chairman of the Lawrence Historic Commission. "It's wonderful to be able to see the historic architectural details of the building, which is in the National Historic District. When you come over the Duck Bridge, you get the sense there's antiquity there."

Follow staff reporter Keith Eddings on Twitter @keith_eddings

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