Candy coated

Power-cleaning clears way for labs at old Necco factory

By Naomi Aoki, Globe Staff, 7/9/2003

CAMBRIDGE -- To convert the 1926 Necco candy factory into Novartis Pharma AG research labs, construction workers first had to deal with the building's sticky past. During the decades when Necco cranked out its signature pink, purple, green, and yellow candy wafers, sugar spores burrowed into the pores of the building's concrete walls. A gooey residue coated the basement floor, where six tanks once stored 30,000 gallons of corn syrup, molasses, and sugar. Small sugary patches remained in areas where mixing vats once held batches of chocolate.

Sugar and laboratory experiments don't mix, though. So floor by floor, workers are power-washing away the remnants of sweeter days, with hot water and bleach. The cleaning, among the first steps in an intricately choreographed $175 million project, is akin to a rite of passage for a city that evolved from a confectionery capital into a biotechnology hub.

''I like finding new uses for old buildings,'' said David Clem, managing director of Lyme Properties, which has converted several old Cambridge buildings into lab space.

''I love that at One Kendall Square, in the same building where the first bicycle tires were created, that we had a biotech company accelerating the growth of human skin,'' he said.

The Necco building sits on Massachusetts Avenue, a stone's throw from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and within a mile's walk of more than 70 biotechnology firms. Novartis, based in Basel, Switzerland, signed a 45-year lease for the candy factory's 500,000 square feet as part of setting up its research headquarters in Cambridge, where it will house about 1,000 scientists.

Many other biotech firms are breathing new life into old Cambridge's buildings.

The Boston Woven Hose Co. factory at One Kendall Square was converted in the mid-1980s into lab space. Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. occupies a former Ford Motor Co. plant on Memorial Drive, where the automaker once built Model Ts. Transkaryotic Therapies Inc. moved into 180,000 square feet of renovated lab and office space in the former Kaplan Furniture building, on Main Street.

In many cases, renovating costs less than building -- and offers attributes that would be too costly to recreate in new construction. In other cases, adapting an old plant can be just as costly as building from the ground up. But recycling old plants allows biotech companies to be in sections of the city where they would otherwise be hard pressed for space: near MIT, Harvard University, and other academic centers, on which they rely heavily.

''What I love about recycling these old industrial buildings is that it preserves the character of the city and reveals some of its history,'' said Roger Boothe, Cambridge's director of urban design.

Until Necco, or the New England Confectionery Co., began moving out last fall (it's now in Revere), the factory was one of the last and mightiest vestiges of the days when the region was a candy-making hub. A block away, a factory now owned by Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. continues to turn out Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies, and Sugar Babies. Candy makers like Fanny Farmer, Great American Brands, and Squirrel Brand Co. were once also nearby in Cambridge. Schrafft's was in Charlestown, and Fox-Cross Candy Co. made Charlestown Chew bars in Everett.

Necco traces its roots to the founding of Chase Candy Co. in Boston in 1847. By the end of the 1920s, just a few years after the opening of the Necco factory on Mass. Ave., the city was home to 375 manufacturing firms.

Many of the features that made the Necco building state of the art when it was built in 1926 also make it ideal for conversion into lab space. Made of concrete instead of the steel-frame construction that is more common today, the building better resists vibrations, which can spoil sensitive experiments. The concrete also gives the building a three-hour fire rating (the highest possible rating), which allows Novartis to store flammable chemicals for mixing drugs.

Its floors, between 9 and 14 inches thick, can hold as much as 250 pounds per square foot, strong enough to support storage tanks, mixing vats, and conveyor belts needed to make candy as well as the robotics, screening machinery, and other heavy machinery used in drug research. The 14-foot ceilings allow for drop ceilings that can hide an elaborate network of pipes and ducts needed to constantly circulate fresh air throughout the labs.

The building will house about 700 of the 1,000 scientists Novartis plans to employ in Cambridge by the end of 2004. Before it signed the lease last year, Novartis was looking for a large amount of lab space that could be ready quickly.

The company had already leased more than 200,000 square feet of space at 100 Technology Square. ''We wanted something close to our other building,'' said Novartis spokesman Fintan Steele. ''Necco was the size we needed; it had good structural features. It's a happy coincidence that the building is also a nice part of the history of Cambridge.'' Arthur Solomon, senior partner of DSF Real Estate Investors in Boston, the building's owner, estimated the cost of buying and renovating the candy factory for Novartis will total $175 million by the time it is completed next spring.

DSF and its architect, Ed Tsoi of the Cambridge firm Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, are preserving the building's exterior, including the water tower painted to look like a giant roll of Necco wafers. Because of those efforts, the building will be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, earning a tax credit equal to 20 percent of the renovation cost.

Inside is a different story. Workers carved out amoeba-shaped openings on each floor to make way for a sunlit atrium and a winding stairwell. They replaced glass-bricked windows, installed years after the factory opened to protect the candy from sunlight, with replicas of the building's original large windowns. A winter garden and main lobby will replace a loading dock on the ground floor, where railroad cars once delivered sugar and corn syrup.

Workers are converting an old power plant into a cafeteria and auditorium. The plans also call for a parking garage, with three of its five levels underground, to replace a parking lot. Tsoi's design also includes a courtyard that resembles a small Post Office Square, with benches, gardens, and a fountain. It will open onto Mass. Ave.

''In its day, the Necco building was a demonstration of manufacturing,'' Tsoi said. ''In our day, it will be a demonstration of research.''

Naomi Aoki can be reached at

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 7/9/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.