Industrial Strength

A lauded architect rescues a dilapidated factory from obscurity.

The exterior is anonymous.

Framed by an old metal fence and unchecked weeds, its nondescript brick walls reveal little, save for a faded mural of a Native American astride a horse. Three cats eye visitors warily through empty window panes. On a quiet Somerville side street, the century-old abandoned factory seems just that—abandoned.

It is anything but.

Through the property’s solid wood doors lies a sunny courtyard, an Eden of trees—cherry, crab apple, Japanese snowbell, and weeping redbud. The flora thrives amid the decay, a sure sign that someone has invested heavily in this place. That someone is Adèle Naudé Santos, the erudite dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. This is her home.

When Santos moved to Boston, she says, “I asked my realtor to find me an industrial building, preferably in awful condition, one that required some great imagination.” And when she first stepped among the dilapidated buildings and overgrown courtyard teeming with stray cats, she did not see a desperate ruin near railroad tracks, but, rather, a possibility—just like the San Francisco factory she had renovated a decade earlier.

Santos bought the compound—two big brick buildings separated by a yard—in early 2004 for $1.4 million. Over the course of the following year, she would transform the edifice adjacent to the tracks into 3,500 square feet of living space; the structure across the courtyard, facing the street, would become her 1,700-square-foot, five-person office, the Boston branch of her California-based architecture firm, Santos Prescott and Associates.

In designing her home, Santos says she was guided by a strong desire to maintain the industrial openness that initially drew her to the factory. Her plan herded two small bedrooms (one for her, one for guests) and two and a half bathrooms neatly to one side of the 25-foot-high space. Then she hung a mezzanine from the original massive steel beams, carved out several skylights, and added a radiant heating system under the concrete floor. She kept much of the original factory machinery to preserve the character, including a huge steel pulley once used to haul pieces to and from a casting pit. In a stroke of genius, she decided to replace the original entrance in the large brick archway facing the courtyard with three glass doors, creating a greenhouse-like transitional zone between outside and in.

“When I bought the place,” Santos says in her lilting South African accent, “I thought, ‘How am I going to be dean, turn this place around, and not go completely nuts?’ But somehow I did it. I made the plans very quickly and hired a good builder.” By December 2004, Santos’s contractor, Dave Bortell of Acton-based Bortell/Stroud Associates, had cleared and renovated her living space. The office was completed in 2006.

Santos favors a mix of handcrafted, contemporary, and antique décor, such as a pair of carved African statues that stand guard by her fireplace and a few sun-faded Pakistani rugs. She frequently chides her cats for being lazy as they loll about on modernist furniture designed by Alvar Aalto and Isamu Noguchi, among others. The effect is at once striking and comforting—visitors feel instantly at home in her tasteful rooms. Even more welcoming is Santos’s chatty Panama Amazon parrot, Mio, who calls his owner by name and bids visitors hello and goodbye.

Lounging under the leafy pergola in her enclosed garden, Santos looks like she could be whiling away an afternoon in Provence or Tuscany. Then a loud train rattles by, a reminder that this reborn dwelling is a distinctly urban one. “That would bother some people,” she says as the last cars screech by. “But I think it’s fun.”

DESIGNER Adèle Naudé Santos, Santos Prescott & Associates CONTRACTOR Dave Bortell, Bortell/Stroud Associates