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Falls Road landmark celebrates its industrial heritage

Most Saturday mornings find me inspecting progress as an 1873 cotton duck textile factory makes its $45 million transformation into 84 apartments, offices and two restaurants. Known as Mill No. 1, at 3000 Falls Road, the complex seems to sit astride an invisible line between Hampden and Remington.

It's taken nearly two years for this exceptional Jones Falls Valley industrial landmark to take its bows. The first wave of tenants moved in earlier this year; Evergreen Health is the first large commercial tenant. Its work spaces are amazing.

The landscaping continues and there's a bit of ongoing work at an ancillary structure known as the Pickers Building. It will take a while longer for the two restaurants (their identities not disclosed, but already leased) to be fitted out. I predict that diners will be dazzled at the views of the meandering falls and its unexpectedly scenic hillsides. It's as close to pristine nature as you'll find so close to Penn Station and downtown Baltimore.

For decades this mill was a structure out of a locked-room mystery. Its beautiful and enormous Victorian windows bricked up as cotton fell from favor and chemical-based polyester required climate control. And for nearly 40 years, it was a storage warehouse for Life-Like hobby products. Occasionally a tractor trailer would exit the place.

It was one of those classic industrial workhouses where Depression-era laborers swept floors for 25 cents an hour. Those well-worn floors are now artfully refinished and gleam in loft apartments.

Developer-owner David Tufaro calls this project the most challenging and rewarding he has undertaken in about 35 years of work in Baltimore.

At $45 million, it is expensive. He credits a federal financial incentive, the New Market Tax Credits, as being the key piece to make this painstaking restoration-conversion work. He also managed to include three levels of interior parking, an engineering feat I initially thought pure folly. I was wrong.

"The New Market credits are an obscure and very complicated Department of the Treasury program that took a long time for people to figure out," Tufaro said.

The credits also helped Gay Street's American Brewery, downtown's Hippodrome and Everyman theaters, and Woodberry's Clipper Mill make their successful transitions.

Brian K. Tracey, a Bank of America employee, said that his firm and Nationwide Insurance lent $35 million for this mill, which he described as a "complex and ambitious project." He also said that it was a credit to the city that two Fortune 500 companies put their money on Falls Road.

There was other government help. Tufaro credited numerous city government agencies, as well as the Maryland Historical Trust. The Maryland Department of the Environment put a $100,000 grant toward Jones Falls cleaning, invasive plant removal and the replanting of indigenous plants and trees.

The mill's conversion conforms to the Baltimore aesthetic rule of avoiding pretension. Tufaro, on a recent visit to Italy, became enamored of cobblestone streets. So the entrance to the restaurant portion of Mill No. 1 has Baltimore-style Belgian-block granite pavers.

His daughter, Jennifer Tufaro Nolley, oversaw the design features in the inviting public spaces.

The building celebrates its industrial heritage. Parts of the ancient furnace and boiler, massive iron doors and what seem like a forest of re-purposed timbers contribute to the factory experience.

Tufaro Nolley credited the Baltimore Museum of Industry with sharing its archives and its treasures. The museum permitted a 1940 Stehedco loom, which once functioned here, to be returned to the Jones Falls Valley where it now sits in a place of honor. A motto on the loom could be the project's theme: "Quality must be woven into the cloth."

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