Developer Matt Bupp surveyed the long, cavernous room as it stretched into the dimness. “I can’t stress to you how filled this place was,” he said.
In November 2007, Bupp and a silent financial partner bought the Stehli & Co. Silk Mill in Manheim Township for $1.35 million.
Since then, workers have carted away more than 800 pieces of furniture, a “couple hundred tons” of old files from print services provider R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. and tons more of assorted trash and detritus, he said.
They demolished 40,000 square feet of unusable or unsound buildings, reducing the 245,000-square-foot complex to 205,000 square feet.
Bupp said he hopes to convert the massive, century-old industrial site to senior housing, perhaps with a mix of retail as well. He is in preliminary talks with several potential partners, he said.
Reviving the huge, hulking building that stretches more than 900 feet along Martha Avenue would be transformative for the neighborhood.
“Everyone would like to see something happen on that property,” said Lisa Douglas, Manheim Township’s director of planning and zoning.
Opened in 1898 and repeatedly expanded, in its heyday the Stehli mill was the longest silk mill in the world. It employed 2,500 people and turned out more than $20 million worth of silk annually in the 1920s, according to archival news reports.
A 1931 Lancaster Sunday News article described the extensive gardens planted around the mill to improve employee morale. They featured edelweiss, fish ponds and more than 1,000 rose bushes.
“There is not a window in the vast mills that which does not look out upon some scene of beauty,” the newspaper said.
But by 1954, when production shut down, the facility had only 80 workers. Electronics giant RCA bought the property in 1955 and made picture tubes there until 1973. Since then it has been used as a warehouse by R.R. Donnelley and other firms.
Other developers floated plans similar to Bupp’s from time to time, but all failed to materialize.
Today, the mill is surrounded by weeds and a chain-link fence. The paint is peeling on the casements and the window panes are cracked or broken. Inside, pigeons flit down the silent halls where looms once whirred, and nest in the rafters.
Despite the decay, the building is solid, “built like a bunker,” Bupp said. Two structural engineers and an environmental engineer have given it the thumbs-up, he said.
Bupp has finished environmental remediation and abatement, which he said was modest in scope. The building now is a “vanilla box” with a clean bill of health, ready for redevelopment, he said.
As the tons of junk were removed, Bupp repurposed as much of it as he could. Usable furniture went to several local charities. A few odds and ends went to a movie prop wrangler, he said.
Bupp said he envisions dividing the main building into thirds, each with a different type of senior housing. Apartments also could go in the large secondary building set at right angles to the main building on the 11-acre property. Up to 90 apartments could easily fit in the two structures, with plenty of space left over for retail, he said.
Those plans will require a zoning change. An undeveloped 1-acre corner of the property extends into Lancaster, but the buildings are in Manheim Township.
The site is zoned industrial, so “straight housing would not be permitted under the ordinance,” Douglas said.
Manuel Tolivia, a specialist in vintage lumber reclamation, is helping Bupp with some floor repair. Tolivia said he was impressed by the Stehli building’s solid construction and high-quality materials.
The beams and decking are pine and the floors are maple, the same materials one would use for a basketball court, Tolivia said.
“It was the hardest thing for floors they had available at the time,” he said.
The building has seven elevators, numerous wide stairwells and some odd features, such as a huge central chimney whose purpose initially puzzled Bupp and his team.
It turned out to be part of an ingenious air-conditioning system that took advantage of a natural spring in the basement. Fans drew air cooled by the natural spring into the chimney to be blown through the rest of the building.
The main building will be more challenging to renovate than the secondary building because it is narrower, Bupp said. The former is 45 feet wide, compared with 65 feet for the latter.
Bupp has taken on such projects before. He was the principal agent in redeveloping the 500,000-square-foot former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. site in York, since acquired by York College of Pennsylvania.
He said he much prefers redevelopment projects to building on new land. He tried the latter, but “it didn’t feel right,” he said.“I don’t like ripping up cornfields,” he said.