Dream Factory

Cover Story

February 13, 2000|By TEXT BY MICHAEL OLLOVE | TEXT BY MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN STAFF

The Broom Factory has never been a risk to win any architectural awards. Hulking above the eastern regions of the harbor, it is a sloppy assemblage of boxy, mismatched red-brick structures resembling something put together by a child at the very beginning of a building-blocks career. A child without much artistic promise.

And yet, the fact that the Broom Factory continues to exist at all as it approaches its 100th anniversary is one of those marvels of urban adaptability and regeneration that make cities such curious organisms. It is proof that aged old buildings are often more than bricks and mortar. Sometimes, they are as capable of whimsy and resilience as those who inhabit them.

The building was constructed in stages by August Rosenberger, a diligent German immigrant who had operated a successful broom manufacturing company in the Midwest. Desiring a location closer to his biggest buyer, the A&P grocery chain, he opened another plant in Baltimore on the corner of Boston and Baylis streets in Canton. It proved a prosperous decision. At the height of its business -- during the Depression, no less -- the Atlantic Southwestern Broom Co. sold more than 3 million brooms a year and employed 300 people. It cleaned up.

But not forever. A combination of lesser leadership after August's death in 1931 and cheaper imports left the business reeling. In 1989, Scott Rosenberger was forced to sell off his great-grandfather's dwindling business to an Ohio company. The only remnant he kept was a three-man business that makes grooming brushes for animals. It operates out of a small space on the factory's first floor. Most of the rest of the massive structure was left to the pigeons and rats.

Scott wasn't sure what to do with it. Buyers weren't clamoring for it, and he didn't have the capital to undertake a renovation. "If I had that kind of money, I'd just move to Key West," he says. And the government wasn't offering any help at all, not even a tax break.

But then Scott made a valuable friend named Lois Foster, a single mother and paralegal with outsized ambitions and the drive to realize them. She convinced Scott that she could fill the factory by offering tenants the cheapest rents in town, as ridiculously low as a dollar a square foot. For that, all they'd get was space -- usually space with exposed pipes and wooden beams, floors layered under filth, broken windows and scads of broom corn.

They came anyway. Artists, craftsmen, Internet start-ups, the occasional S&M outfitter. Even a couple of lawyers and accountants. They fixed up their spaces, most primitively, some imaginatively. They put up with a heating system that gave too much attention to some areas and not enough to others. They cursed a freight elevator that is reliably unreliable and an electric system too often overmatched. Oh, and there's no hot water.

But today the Broom Factory is full, with 85 tenants and a sizable waiting list. Homely as ever, it is even turning a small profit.

"It'll never be the Taj Mahal," Scott acknowledges. But then, when was the last time the Taj Mahal went for a dollar a square foot?

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