A device used to make rope at the Ropewalk complex. Joe Timilty is renovating the old ‘ropes factory’ at the Charlestown Navy Yard, turning it into high end housing.
Joe Timilty walks past the old hemp spools, down a fire-charred corridor that stretches as far as the eye can see, and muses about the success that is almost within his reach.
He is about to accomplish a task that no other developer has been able to pull off: resurrecting the old Ropewalk complex in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Redeveloping a structure with these quirky dimensions would be tough enough — it’s more than a quarter-mile long but only 45 feet wide for most of its length. Then add the stiff historic requirements imposed by the National Park Service and the Massachusetts Historical Commission for the roughly 180-year-old granite building. Steel tracks that run down the length of the mill, for example, must be incorporated into the design.
Not Timilty. Over the years, just about every type of use has been floated for this former Navy rope factory left vacant since the early 1970s and now owned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Offices, housing, aquaculture labs, a museum. Some joked that it could make a great bowling alley.
Finally, there’s a tentative date for the construction crews to arrive. They’ll convert this nearly 160,000-square-foot complex, including an adjacent “tar house,” into 97 apartments. To help finance the $42.5 million project, Timilty’s Boston-based firm, Frontier Enterprises Inc., has secured a loan commitment worth up to $31 million from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency.
Now all that’s left is a final approval from the BRA for a long-term lease that will allow Frontier to take over. Timilty, a former state senator, hopes that could happen at the authority’s June meeting, and that construction can begin before Labor Day.
The goal: getting the bulk of these units done by next summer, in time for the peak rental season. There will be a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, and Timilty hopes to command monthly rents from $2,500 to $3,500, depending on the unit. Twenty will rent for much less than that, to meet the affordable housing threshold required to get the project financed.
Most of the units will be built, side-by-side, “townhouse style” within the main ropewalk facility, with doors that would open into a hallway that stretches the length of the building. Several will go in the tar house, where tar was once heated up to coat the hemp for the ropes.
There will also be nods to the site’s history: a rope-making museum at one end, a stone walkway restored along the exterior, and a painted mural down the main corridor. A few handmade machines once used to pull the hemp remain in the building: They’ll be restored so they can be displayed.
So why did it take so long to redevelop the site?
One dominating factor is the property’s historic nature. The National Park Service has made it clear that any changes to the granite exterior walls and slate roof must be minimal.
“From a historical perspective, the restrictions on reuse have had a lot of well-qualified teams scratching their heads,” said Edward O’Donnell, the BRA’s director of real estate.
Among the trickiest issues: figuring out what to do with those steel rails. Timilty’s designers at The Architectural Team, a Chelsea-based firm that specializes in restoring old industrial complexes, said the federal agency wouldn’t let the developer remove the tracks for machinery that traveled through the building’s interior. As a result, floors will be flush with the tracks, leaving the steel rails visible. (The designers are still figuring out how to prevent sound from traveling from unit to unit, along the rails.)
Timilty said the state historic commission had stringent rules requiring historically correct exterior windows, a replica of how they used to look. So developers will install a second set, because the outside windows won’t be particularly energy-efficient or soundproof on their own.
At first, the National Park Service didn’t want additional doors into the building. But that limit made it nearly impossible to comply with state fire codes, given the structure’s unusual length.
Eventually, the agency relented and permitted two new openings for exterior doors.
String - like yarns were fed into a mixmaster-type machine which twists them together to make a single thread at the Ropewalk complex in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston in 1955.
The Ropewalk complex at the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Angelo Nastrangello checked rolls of six-inch rope, ready for shipment to Naval bases for use aboard fleet ships at the Ropewalk in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston in 1955. This rope has minimum breaking strength of 31,000 pounds, weighs over a pound per foot.
The second floor of the old rope factory.
A rendering of an apartment that will be built at the Ropewalk complex.
The interior windows on second floor.
A sketch of the Ropewalk Complex in Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston from 1853.
An exterior view of the entrance of the facility.
A 1955 photo showed the basic processing, in which fiber is fed into breaker machine that oils, blends and combs the individual strands into a straight, uniform strip, called in the trade a “sliver.”
Rails were seen along the first floor.
After leaving the breaker machine, the slivers were twisted together to form yarn, which is wound on a bobbin on the spinning jenny operated here by Gracono D’Amigo.
An original sign on the exterior of the building.
Spools that were used in the facility stored on the second floor.
Developers from Frontier Enterprises Joseph Timilty Jr. and Joseph Timilty Sr. visited the Ropewalk complex withThe Architectural Team Stephen Caswell and Robert J. Verrier.
Capt. Raymond W. Burke, commandant of the Boston Naval Shipyard, and Edmust Skelly, general foreman of the yard’s historic Ropewalk, inspected last coil of rope to be produced at the Ropewalk complex in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston Dec. 17, 1971. The Navy Department has ordered ropewalk closed at the end of the month after 137 years of operation and will buy rope from commercial firms.