History

Manayunk Mill Now an Oasis of Visual Arts

June 21, 2022 | by Jacob Downs

Canton Mills in Manayunk, a 19th century textile factory, is now home to artist studios. | Photo: Jacob Downs

Canton Mills, a former textile factory next to the Manayunk Bridge Trail, stands proudly in an oversized lot between Baker Street and High Street. While the building today has found a new life in the neighborhood, its long history dates back to the late 1860s when business partners Timothy Fitzpatrick and William Holt started a textile business together.

Fitzpatrick and Holt were both immigrants, hailing from Ireland and England respectively. British Isle nations had industrialized before the United States, resulting in newcomers to America who were already familiar with mechanized textile mills. For this reason, the textile center of Manayunk had become an attractive destination. In his early teenage years, Fitzpatrick found work in a textile mill in the neighborhood. He quickly worked his way up to the title of “loom boss,” a floor supervisor that would manage the production of goods amongst a particular group or department within the mill. By 1865, Fitzpatrick, now in his mid-30s and with 15 years of experience working within various textile mills, went into business with his brother to manufacture their own textile products. In 1867, Fitzpatrick’s brother withdrew from their partnership, leaving an opening which was filled by William Holt within the year. Together they purchased the mill located at Baker Street and Leverington Avenue in 1867. The mill was named Canton Mills in reference to the canton fabric that was produced there.

Fitzpatrick and Holt expanded their operation at Canton Mills between 1867 and 1876. Their plan included the construction of another building on the southern portion of the lot they owned. They employed the original developer of the mill, Samuel Streeper Keely of S.S. Keely and Sons Contracting Firm, to complete the project. Keely was a well-known resident of Manayunk. He began his carpentry apprenticeship in 1839 for John Lewis at the age of 17. By 1845, Keely opened his own lumber and building supply company at Leverington Avenue and Washington Street (present day Umbria Street) just across from the lot where Canton Mills would be constructed. In 1860, he had purchased property down Leverington Avenue towards the rail line and canal where he operated a sawmill. Keely would soon establish himself as a building contractor. His business was responsible for the construction of many mills in Manayunk, including Economy Mills, David Wallace Lincoln Mills, Rice and Bean Harmony Textile Mill, and Robert Wilde and Son Yarn Mill. His company would also construct several residential buildings, churches, and schools.

Canton Mills in Hexamer General Surveys, Volume 13, Plate 1213 from 1878. | Image courtesy of Print and Pictures, Free Library of Philadelphia

When the expansion was finished, Canton Mills consisted of five distinct structures constructed with brick and Wissahickon schist, with brick quoins at the buildings’ corners, brick cornices near the roof, and shallow gable roofs that were only slightly pitched. There were two, large multi-storied factory buildings, one which ran along Leverington Avenue and the new building that were constructed along Walnut Street (present day Mallory Street) between High Street and Chestnut Street (present day Baker Street). Each of these bigger buildings shared the majority of production for Canton Mills and were used for the storage of raw material, weaving, spinning, finishing, and packing of goods for shipment. Among the two larger buildings was a smaller dye house that was used for the incoming raw cottons, a drying building that was used after the dyeing process, and a smaller offshoot of the drying building which served as an office space for the mill managers. Between the two larger factory buildings was a brick boiler house with a single smoke stack that towered over all the other structures by over 20 feet. Connecting all these structures were iron bridges and walkways.

The new building brought a considerable increase in production for Fitzpatrick and Holt’s business. From when they purchased the mill to when they were fully operational in 1876, the mill’s employment increased over 30 percent from 150 to 200 men, women, and children. With the growth in the labor force at Canton Mills, they also increased the machinery count, adding 80 more looms, four new sets of cards, and six automatic mules in addition to the four hand mules they already had in use. The mill focused primarily on manufacturing tricot, twill, and doeskin garments.

Not only did the expansion help Canton Mills become a successful textile mill, its geographical location across from a rail line also played a pivotal role. Raw cotton and wool could be shipped into the mill and finished products could be shipped out with relative ease. The movement of these goods could also be handled by onsite laborers, reducing costs.

Inside former Canton Mills today. | Photos: Jacob Downs

Another geographical advantage the mill held was its proximity to the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill River. At the time a small stream ran underneath the property and drained into the canal. Canton Mills drew from the stream for the steam-powered boilers, and the dye house discharged its waste into there as well. This abundance of water underneath the mill was thought to also help manage a fairly common issue many mills faced during the Industrial Age: fires. A reporter for the Manayunk Sentinel wrote on September 15, 1876 that the underground water source would, “in case of fire prove a very convenient source from which to draw in subduing the flames.” Unfortunately for Fitzpatrick, Holt, and the hundreds of workers, this prediction by the newspaper reporter was proved wrong. On January 13, 1883 a fire erupted on the third floor of the large mill building running along Leverington Avenue. No deaths were reported from the blaze, however, the building itself suffered tremendous damage, with nearly the entire structure being destroyed and causing an estimated $20,000 in damages. Just 11 months later, on December 17 of the same year, another fire broke out causing another $12,000 in damages. Not only did these two emergencies completely halt production, but left all two hundred laborers out of work. Despite the damages caused by the two fires, Fitzpatrick and Holt were able to rebuild the mill quickly. By 1885 the mill was operating at full capacity once again.

Canton Mills would operate for the remainder of the 19 century and well into the 1900s. Fitzpatrick passed away in 1887 at the age of 59. When Holt passed away his brother J.P. Holt, who already worked at the mill as a manager, would continue the operation until the end of World War I when the textile industry in Philadelphia would begin to fold. Canton Mills would hold a number of other occupants after it closed in the early 20th century. Between the 1940s and 1970s the mill had become Molded Rubber Inc., which produced a variety of rubber products. In the early 1970s, the mill was used as a warehouse for the Perma Plant, Inc., a manufacturer of artificial plants and similar decorations. In the early 1990s, the mill was purchased and repurposed as studio space for local artists.

Inside former Canton Mills today. | Photos: Jacob Downs

Of the five structures that comprised Canton Mills at the end of the 19th century, only two have survived to the present. The large building that ran along Leverington Avenue was demolished early in the 1900s. The drying house, office space, boiler house, and smoke stack were removed midcentury. Today, only the dye house and the second large factory building which was constructed after Fitzpatrick and Holt purchased the mill remains standing. The Leverington Avenue-facing portion of the structures that remain have been covered with stucco. The bridge access points have been covered, giving an asymmetrical appearance to the building. Many of the street level windows have also been covered as well as the few hoisting points that were built into the other large building. Despite many of these changes, most of the original brickwork can be seen along the sides of the building that run down High, Mallory, and Baker Streets.

Canton Mills is now known as Mill Studios. The interior of the remaining structures still have the character of the old Manayunk mill, but the open space floor plan has been partitioned to create individual artist’s studio spaces. Mill Studios tenants include painters, potters, photographers, sculptors, and jewelers. It is perhaps the textile and dye artists that keep the spirit of this once-forgotten Philadelphia textile mill alive, and their art pays homage to the hundreds of laborers who once worked inside.



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About the Author

Jacob Downs is a Philadelphia native who was born and raised in the city's far Northeast. As an undergraduate, he studied American history and political science. He continued his history education with a master’s degree focusing on perceptions of gender during Philadelphia’s industrial past.

8 Comments:

  1. Kday says:

    Great article!

  2. James says:

    Who owns the building and has it been restored?

  3. Ryan says:

    Fantastic article, really enjoyed it. Never even heard of the Manayunk Sentinel, will check it out on Google News Archives.

  4. Also Davis says:

    I never heard about this space. I have to wonder, why are all such projects devoted to only visual artists? Musicians need space, too. Especially soundproof.

    1. John Olszewski(Property Manager says:

      Hello,
      The building is zoned Industrial/Commercial.
      In the late 1970’s the business that occupied the building closed it’s doors. The owner developed and created cubed spaces to rent out. He placed an AD in a magazine the Main Line called Art Matters. He received over 20 inquires into spaces by Artists. Since that time it has stayed visual artists spaces. Sound/Musical artists would have been a disruption to the buildings zen type atmosphere.

  5. Irene Nunn says:

    This is a thorough and well written article about an important time in Philadelphia’s history. As an artist, who has been at the Mill Studios for over 20 years, I can attest to the residue of the old structures still present. The building now is a labyrinth of wonders, the halls festooned with the gorgeous art work of working artists.

  6. Great article! Thank you Jacob, I always wondered about the history of the place. 🙂

  7. Margery Cooper says:

    Thank you Jacob! Your article is very much appreciated. I have been in the Mill for thirty years, but I only discovered bits and pieces of its history over time. It is a wonderful building where art and friendships are created by an interesting and diverse group of artists.
    Well done!

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