Artists shape rebirth of Nashua’s Picker Building

The red brick building sits in the shadow of a towering smokestack, with white lettering running its length that announces, “MILLYARD.” The Nashua River runs behind the building, as the water cuts through downtown Nashua.

Wide wood-planked circular stairs carry visitors through the Civil War-era structure. A distinctive smell on the staircase hints at the years gone by.

Inside the Picker Building, artists and artisans are opening studios carved out of former manufacturing space.

Rita Nichols arrived some six years ago, and her Warm Stone Studio was the first business for the creative set.

“I begged and pleaded,” Nichols said recently about convincing the owner to let her move in.

Nichols, 62, sat in a white wicker chair, and the studio’s future owner, Leslie Maloof, sat in a stuffed wingback chair during a conversation last month. The two were sipping tea from mugs made in the studio.

A native of Indiana, Nichols worked in the hospitality business before opening the studio. It started with a small potter’s wheel in a corner room. Requests came in from folks interested in turning wet clay into handcrafted pottery. There are now six wheels and a 2,000-square-foot studio.

Nichols and her husband, Fred, are ending a conversation that lasted three years and are moving to 26 acres in western Pennsylvania to retire, open another pottery studio and maybe a retail store.

As she leaves Warm Stone Studio behind, Nichols is credited with being the first presence in what has become a budding art colony in the building.

“It’s such a little secret kind of place,” said Kris Maffee, of Out on a Limb Pottery, a tenant of three years.

The building was built between 1861 and 1865 as part of the Nashua Manufacturing Co. empire. It gets its name — the Picker Building — from its role in the textile process back in the millyard’s heyday.

Workers in the building picked seeds and debris from cotton bales before the bales were dispatched to other parts of the industrial plant.

Jack Bolger, of Chelmsford, Mass., owns the building at 99 Pine St. Ext. He is an engineer by training and ran a coated fabric line in the building for a time. Bolger is a walking encyclopedia about the building and a jack-of-all-trades for tenants.

The change in the millyard that Bolger witnessed started around the time the Nashua Manufacturing mill became the Clocktower Place apartments in the 1980s.

The factories and the hundreds of employees started to move out, he said. People seemed to want a folksier atmosphere, he said, not the dirty and loud work of manufacturing.

The river views are prized by those involved in the creative arts, he said, while in the past, products and debris would just as likely have blocked the windows. Indeed, there are overflowing leftovers of past enterprises, such as woodworking equipment and even cars, scattered throughout the building.

“Manufacturers could care less (about the views),” Bolger said. “I don’t want to say craftspeople are dreamers. They like the ambiance.”

When Bolger rented to Nichols about half a dozen years ago, hers was the first arts-focused business in the building. There are eight businesses now that focus on the arts or related work, such as window treatments or photography, helping to fill the building.

“I have a lot of variety and they are very good people,” he said.

Bolger sees them as cottage industries, since they are often small, one-person shops. His building remains profitable with the change of tenants, but he carries a torch for the industrial jobs with wages high enough to raise a family.

“If these guys make a living, they are lucky,” he said.

The Picker Building is not the only building undergoing change in the millyard. Another building hosts a yoga studio, and a third will be the future home of the Nashua Area Artists Association.

That is not to say all manufacturing jobs are gone. Nim-Cor continues to operate here making machinery, and the Nashua Technology Park houses high-tech firms. The Picker Building still has a sign shop, and a heating system and air conditioning company just moved in.

But long-timers know those jobs are becoming fewer and the long-planned Broad Street Parkway is mapped to roll right through here. Some structures have already been torn down in the millyard, but the parkway spares the Picker Building, swinging to the west of it. – ANDREW NELSON/THE TELEGRAPH

Categories: News