National Historic Preservation Trust’s "2009 11 Most Endangered List" Includes The Ames Shovel Shops In North Easton, Massachusetts

This year marks the 22nd annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has used this list as a powerful alarm to raise awareness of the serious threats facing the nation’s greatest treasures. It has become one of the most effective tools in the fight to save the country’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural and natural heritage. In the days leading up to and during the National Preservation Trust’s Nashville Conference, Nashville Past And Present will highlight the historic buildings, structures and places on this years most endangered list.

In southeastern Massachusetts, an important piece of our nation’s industrial heritage is threatened by development. The Ames Shovel Shops complex, an eight-acre site comprising 15 granite and wood buildings dating from 1852 through 1928, is the central core of what many consider a museum of 19th-century American development. To some, the area is so scenic it looks more like a New England college campus than an industrial village, complete with worker housing and civic buildings of international architectural reputation. The iron-bladed shovels fabricated here by generations of the Ames family literally built America. They were critical elements of the California Gold Rush, the Civil War and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad – but today, the new owners of the Ames Shovel Shop want to tear down some of the site’s historic buildings and radically alter others in order to pave the way for a new mixed-use development.

Captain John Ames, a blacksmith, began manufacturing a simple but vital tool, the iron-bladed shovel, around 1774. His son, Oliver, established the Ames Shovel Works in Easton in 1803, and by 1870, the company, which pioneered early mass-production techniques, sold 60 percent of the shovels used worldwide. Thanks to the patronage of the Ames family, the town of North Easton flourished and is now a treasure trove of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Romanesque Revival architecture and Frederick Law Olmsted lanscapes.

Although the Shovel Shops left Easton in 1953 after a series of mergers, the Ames company remains in business today as Ames True Temper, based in Pennsylvania. The complex was sold in the 1970s to a local businessman who leased portions of the buildings for office space.

After being granted a comprehensive permit for the affordable housing complex proposed at Ames Shovel Shops, the developer filed demolition applications that would destroy 15 of the historic buildings on the site. Read more.

In 2007, the Shovel Shops were sold again to developers who now propose building a 177-unit affordable-housing complex with 15,000 square feet of office space. The plan, filed under Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable-housing law, is making its way through the permitting process. If approved, it would allow the demolition of several of the buildings and the dramatic expansion of others and would have an adverse impact on both National Landmark and National Register historic districts surrounding the Shovel Shops site.

The Easton Historical Commission, one of the groups leading the charge to save the Ames Shovel Shops, believes the best way to preserve the site is to keep it in active use, but not in a way that so devastatingly impacts the entire historic area. The developer has rejected alternative design concepts that would retain the historic character of the former factory complex and has threatened to apply for demolition permits if the current proposal is rejected. Despite being urged to pursue a project with state and federal historic tax credit programs which are designed to provide compensation for preservation projects just like this, the developer has refused to revise plans to protect these important and unique historic resources.


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