Yonkers, New York

"Soon, I saw ahead of me on the right of the road a great red brick building, three storeys high and of immense length and breadth. Other buildings stretched away behind it, with smoking chimneys. The road was black with crowds going in at the gates. The-trolley cars were in their rush-hour service, bringing people to work: the morning flood was running...

 I had never been associated with any building so big. It loomed up above the road, like a gigantic ship taking in passengers at dockside. As I drew nearer, I heard the enormous murmur of its engines, and saw a general quickening in the steps of those entering. It was now almost seven o'clock."

                                                      ~ In the Mill, John Masefield's description 
                                                         of the Alexander Smith mills ca. 1895.

The worsted yarn mill. The section at left is the oldest surviving mill building, dating to 1871.
The nearly identical northern wing was completed by 1883. This mill was used for spinning and printing.

     The Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Company complex comprises what is perhaps the largest intact mill site in the Hudson Valley. (Once vast mills at Wappingers Falls and Cohoes have lost major buildings over the years; a contemporary factory in Garnerville outside Haverstraw appears to have most of its original buildings.) Located just a short distance from the Hudson River, the mills straddle the Saw Mill (or Nepperhan) River between Saw Mill River Road on the east and Nepperhan Avenue on the west. Although no longer used for milling, the buildings host  a variety of business including YOHO artists' studios, an apparel graphics company, an art framing service, an auto parts store, a boxing gym, and a paper products company. Some of the buildings along Saw Mill River Road now serve as storage facilities. 

    The Alexander Smith company built its first Yonkers mill, which no longer stands, in 1865 at a separate location on Palisade Avenue, nearer the city center (the company relocated from what is now the Bronx). By 1871, Alexander Smith completed the first building along Saw Mill River Road. Soon mills that ran over 500 feet long would grace the new site, which encompassed 19 buildings on 38 acres. Smith was successful in large part due to innovative techniques he developed with inventor Halcyon Skinner. They devised a power loom called the Moquette which produced Axminster carpets that came closest to matching hand-knotted Oriental rugs. Alexander Smith and Sons made both the looms and the rugs produced by the looms. By 1885, the plant consisted of 350 tapestry looms and 250 moquette looms. Daily output was about 26,000 yards of carpet totaling about 8 million yards produced per year by 3,500 workers.

Spinning and prints mills fronting Saw Mill River Road. The same buildings are shown in the photograph above.

    Alexander Smith and Sons continued to be one of the biggest carpet manufactures in the United States right up until the end of World War II. All  that was well would not end well however. Newspapers articles blamed the industrial decline on Chinese embargoes and foreign export quotas. The corporate spin stated that the old factories could not adapt to make the new synthetic rugs that appealed to housewives. The labor unions blamed the low production on low demand due to decreasing prosperity. It seems that the corporations were doing alright where they were - they just realized they could maximize their profits by paying workers less if they moved operations elsewhere. Untold thousands of millhands across the northeast lost their jobs in the 1950s as a result of shifting corporate philosophies. 

    In 1954, workers at the Yonkers plant went on strike, as they did two years prior. This time, the corporate response from Alexander Smith and Sons was to relocate to Greeneville, Mississippi, where the workers were not unionized. More importantly, a state-sponsored industrial development agency enabled the construction of a new mill complex. (Smith and Sons also opened plants in Philadelphia and South Carolina.) The Yonkers plant was shut down, leaving the city without its largest employer. From 1952 to 1954, a total of 5,000 workers lost their jobs. Alexander Smith and Sons itself disappeared in a 1956 merger with Mohawk Carpet - the new firm became known as Mohasco Corporation. (Mohawk Carpet also owned mills in Amsterdam, New York, which was experiencing the same economic troubles Yonkers. The Bigelow-Sanford Company also closed its Amsterdam plant around this time as well.)

    Over the following decades, the mill buildings were sold off to a variety of concerns, including a cigarette manufacturer and the Otis Elevator Company, which had its major plant on the Hudson riverfront in Yonkers. Today, several different property owners have a stake in the Alexander Smith buildings. One building of current interest stands along the south side of Axminster Street and is known as the n-Valley Technology Center.
The 116,00 square floor building was erected in 1922 and was occupied by Purdue Pharma since 1957. The City of Yonkers acquired the building in 2000 for one dollar and spent somewhere in the vicinity of 14 to 21 million dollars renovating the space. The building was to attract start-up firms which would employ about 300 workers. The plan never materialized, and today a glimpse through the tall first floor windows shows a largely unfinished space. In October 2006, this building was apparently sold to developer Joseph Cotter, whose company National RE/Sources will build at Tarrytown's waterfront as well.

Weaving mills, looking west.

    For the most part, the mill building exteriors retain much of their architectural integrity, although the oldest mill building lost a mansard roof on one of its towers some years ago. Moquette Row North, the workers' housing units built off Nepperhan Avenue, suffered from the demolition of the end units when Nepperhan Avenue was widened in the late 1970s. Otherwise the housing units remain and still serve that purpose today.

    Although still in use, the City of Yonkers is eyeing the property as part of its 3.1-billion dollar makeover. Phase Three, as this part of the urban renewal plan is called, will see the redevelopment of the Smith factory site on the heels of the downtown and the waterfront redevelopments. The plans are being led by east-coast developers Struever, Eccles & Rouse, the Fidelco Group; and Westchester builder Louis Cappelli. The developers' proposals are briefly described at the sfcyonkers website. A 2002 planning report by Appleseed for the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency by and large promotes the preservation and reuse of the the mill buildings. However, Appleseed suggests the buildings in the interior part of the complex should be demolished to make way for a parking lot for 750 cars. The report suggests converting some of the older buildings into market-rate apartments/lofts. New construction including a major supermarket is also called for in the plan.

Rear view of the Moquette Mills along Nepperhan Avenue.
Moquette Row workers' housing can been seen at rear left.

    Further information can be found in the following books: Picturing Our Past: National Register Sites in Westchester County (Grey Williams, 2003), American Architecture: Westchester County, New York, (Frank Sanchis, 1977), Landmarks Lost & Found: An Introduction to the Architecture and History of Yonkers (Michael Rebic, 1986), History of Westchester County, New York (Thomas J Scharf, 1886), as well as the National Register Nomination Form.

Two advertisements ca. 1940.

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