By Tracy F. Seelye,
firstname.lastname@example.org WHITMAN — The Bostonian Shoe Lofts have done for commercial properties in town what Whitman Park has done for recreational space — earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The former factory building was designated an historic site under the Commonwealth Shoe Company name on May 13, it was announced earlier this month. Now the owners just have to find a place for the plaque.
“It’s been a long, involved process but they got through it all,” said June O’Leary of the Whitman Historical Commission. “I think it’s marvelous that someone like Fred and his company can come in and look at a building like that and see how it can be bought back.” “It was a good part of my life,” said Fred Kiley, now retired from The Heritage Companies, which purchased the building in 2009. “I wish I could find another Whitman job today, I’d go right back to Whitman. … It was a helluva lot of fun doing it.”
He said the width of the east building was the perfect size for conversion of the upper floors to roomy apartments on both sides along a center corridor. The west building required a corridor along the window line with one row of apartments per floor. “It was love at first sight,” he said of his decision to buy it. The goal from Day One in the Bostonian renovation project was earning a place on the National Register, according to Fred Kiley’s son Michael, who now runs the business. “It was all well worth it,” Michael Kiley said. “It’s well received. The occupancy’s been fantastic.”
The National Register is the nation’s official listing of significant historic resources. In Massachusetts, there are more than 70,000 properties listed in the National Register. The Massachusetts Historical Commission has been administering the National Register of Historic Places program in Massachusetts since 1966. Secretary of State William Galvin serves as chairman of the 17-member Commission, which meets regularly and considers historic resources eligible for the National Register four times a year. “The Massachusetts Historical Commission is dedicated to preserving the Commonwealth’s rich historic, architectural, archaeological, and cultural resources,” Galvin said in his announcement of the national nomination. “Inclusion of the Commonwealth Shoe Company in the National Register helps to preserve an excellent group of late 19th and early 20th-century industrial buildings with strong ties to Whitman’s shoemaking heritage.”
Mill rehabs once word came down that the final meeting on approval was scheduled, the Kiley family of Quincy — owners of The Heritage Companies of real estate and investment firm who bought the former Commonwealth Shoe Company building on Marble Street in 2001, knew approval was imminent. The firm has also renovated the Star Mill Lofts in Middleboro and the Granite Lofts in Quincy among its other projects. “It was a fast turn around,” said Barbara Kiley, sister of founder Fred Kiley and project manager on the Bostonian Lofts project. “We’re very proud and very happy about how it turned out. It’s a tribute to Fred’s foresight.” The phases of the application process followed along with progress on the Bostonian’s renovation, governing details of the work such as how windows can be replicated and use of original bricks. “There are a lot of different specifications that you have to adhere to,” Barbara Kiley said.
The Commonwealth Shoe Company is a large, brick and wood-frame mill complex associated with much of Whitman’s long tradition in the shoemaking industry. The complex increased by increments, starting with the original part of Building 1, which was constructed circa 1864 by an earlier shoe company and became the nucleus of Commonwealth Shoe’s property. Founded in 1884, the Commonwealth Shoe Company’s success was largely based on its popular “Bostonian” shoe, which became nationally renowned as a high-quality dress shoe for men and is still manufactured today by another company. The Bostonian name was bought after the former site, where Regal Marketplace is now located, burned down.
Located on the west side of Marble Street and constructed mainly between 1864 and 1923, Building 1 [west] features two elegant stair towers – one in the Chateau style, and the other in the Colonial Revival style. Both towers are prominent features of the Whitman landscape. Building 2 [east] is a more typical example of a Victorian-era, wood-frame shoe factory. “There’s two things these [balloon-construction] buildings could do very well, they could tip over or they could burn,” Fred Kiley said of the original structure which required stabilizing during renovation. Local support The Kileys lauded the work of the Planning Board, Building Inspector Robert Curran and Whitman Fire chiefs Timothy Travers and Timothy Grenno, who were involved in the renovation planning and work, for their contributions to the project.
The shoe company had made substantial additions to the buildings in 1891, 1893, 1919, and 1923. Boston-based architect J. Williams Beal designed the 1891 and 1893 additions, and most likely designed the 1919 addition as well. The successor firm, J. Williams Beal Sons, designed the 1923 addition. Also included within the complex is the former First Unitarian Church (1888), which was absorbed by Commonwealth Shoe in 1968 when the church closed. The fourth building on the property, a pool house constructed in 2011, does not contribute to the property’s significance due to its age. The town of Whitman took it over in 1981 for $1, and 19 years later, John Campbell of Harding Print & Digital Copy Center, who is also a local historian, bought it from the town for $1 per square-foot.
“What happened was the downsizing of the shoe industry,” Campbell said. “In the ’50s there was 600 people working in this factory. In the ’60s, the factory itself stopped manufacturing and they used it as a warehouse.” When Fred Kiley made an offer, it didn’t take long for Campbell to decide he should sell. “Fred had the knowledge of what to do with that building — and the pocketbook — which I didn’t have,” Campbell said. “I learned so much had so much fun … because I’d follow him around and he’d take a corner that was completely a mess that nobody would even touch it and he did it.”
The Commonwealth Shoe Company had remained under the ownership of founding president Charles H. Jones’s family until 1959, when the family transferred ownership and operation to the company’s management and certain employees. A substantial 2011 rehabilitation of the complex, which utilized state and federal historic preservation tax credits, created 127 residential apartments and 15 commercial/retail spaces at the property.