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Written by Mike Spock
The Atlas Terminal Stores, built in 1888, was an unadorned brick warehouse overlooking Fort Point Channel. Board member and real estate developer Ben Shore had commented on its "good bones" structural integrity. It also had an abundance of space: plenty of room to grow before you had to construct any new space. If nothing else, Museum Wharf would become a model of inexpensive adaptability. Our architects described it as a "giant chest of drawers." Only the handles were missing.
The stark simplicity of this empty shell of a building turned out to be one of its greatest assets. Everything was visible, therefore, there were few surprises. (Except one, the "abandoned" railroad right of way, a working siding that serviced the apron in front of the wool warehouse—but more about that development later.) The predictable regularity of the 6 floors x 6 bays = 36-bay grid made it possible to play musical chairs in assigning and later reassigning functions to bays and floors.
In 19th century cities, with inadequate fire departments and justly worried about conflagrations, the brick "party walls" provided separation so wool bales and other stores that might catch fire wouldn't spread flames to neighboring bays. There were few penetrations between the bays. Reminiscent of barn haylofts, each bay, front and back, had giant loading doors. Remnants of simple cranes with block and tackles, used to move cargo off boats tied up at the wharf or to and from wagons and boxcars on the rail siding cutting across the property, remained. The small windows, together with the loading doors, gave warehousemen just enough light to see what they were doing before electrical service came to the bleak neighborhood. Wood or coal stoves had been moved from floor to floor and from chimney to chimney as needed to give comfort to warehousemen working in bitter weather.
Less desirable structural issues also became visible. Anchored on wooden pilings driven into the landfilled harbor muck, Boston was built on reclaimed land was vulnerable to rare but strong earthquakes and could not be counted on to support an unreinforced building like ours. Welcoming school groups and families to our converted warehouse would have to be made safe from the danger of collapsing bricks and pan-caking floors by being bought up to modern earthquake codes.