Lofty Ambitions

The famous Tourister Mill enjoys a second life as luxury living

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Not long ago, Danielle Marcello was giving a tour of the Tourister Mill, the colossal brick apartment complex on the edge of Warren. The visitors were a married couple from Massachusetts, and they seemed awestruck by the voluminous rooms, the high ceilings, and the tall windows. This reaction was nothing new; as property manager for the Tourister Mill, Marcello has seen a lot of stunned expressions. But as she talked with her guests, Marcello learned something about their past: Both husband and wife were once employees for the American Tourister Luggage company. In fact, they used to work in this very building.

“They were just amazed at what we had done,” recalls Marcello. The couple remembered what the factory used to look like. They could picture the industrial cranes that once loomed over the lot. They ogled the archival photos blown up and hanging on the walls, as well as vintage suitcases on display. They could pinpoint their own workstations – where they had spent years of their lives. They told Marcello that they’d never wanted to leave the East Bay, but when American Tourister sent most of its operations overseas, the couple migrated north to work for its parent company, Samsonite.

“I hear a lot of stories,” says Marcello. “When people ask me what I do for a job, anyone from the area knows what the building is, and the consensus is the same. They’re very happy that it’s been renovated. They’re happy that it’s not dilapidated anymore.”

In the 1970s, American Tourister ran a series of TV commercials showing a gorilla – or at least an actor dressed like one – stomping on a suitcase and hurling it around a cage. The ad was meant to show off American Tourister’s indestructible luggage. In hindsight, it also displayed the confidence of a national brand in its heyday. Where better to manufacture such a durable, trusted product than Rhode Island?

Unfortunately, all that ended in 1996. Samsonite had acquired American Tourister, and the luggage giant closed the facilities in Warren along with a second plant in Florida, terminating

137 positions. The company had employed much of Warren’s population since the Great Depression, and the factory itself dated back to 1896. There was no hiding such a closure; the site covered about 12 acres of waterfront property, just a stone’s throw from the Warren Bridge. For years, commuters would drive past that empty brick shell, the titanic ruins of a bygone age.

Enter Brady Sullivan, the plucky real estate developer from New Hampshire. The company boasts a diverse portfolio of houses and commercial projects spread across New England, but its trademark is upscale apartments in former industrial buildings. Brady Sullivan purchased the Tourister property in 2013 and embarked on a two-year renovation process. Their goal: to install 190 loft apartments of various shapes and sizes inside the original structure. They would replace 900 windows, but they would also retain and refinish the original wood floors, among countless other architectural curios.

The restoration extends beyond the rental units. Brady Sullivan has also developed 65,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, as well as a generous outdoor patio. There is a game room, a fitness center full of brand-new exercise machines, an indoor cinema with wide-screen TVs and plush seating, and even a putting room for golfers. Meanwhile, the company is spearheading a 2,200-squarefoot boardwalk along the Palmer River, which will be available to the public. Brady Sullivan’s staff is tightlipped about details, but it suffices to say that this project is ambitious and ongoing.

But all this begs the question: Who actually lives in the Tourister Mill? Many of us fantasize about open plan lofts with exposed brick and 10-foot ceilings, but such habitation doesn’t come cheap. Monthly rents start at $1,260 for a studio, all the way up to a five-bedroom apartment for $3,800. “A lot of them are young professionals,” says Alison Phillips, senior regional property manager for Brady Sullivan. “Downsizers, too. At this particular location, the water is a huge draw. People who grew up near the water, they love the view. We have a good handful of people who do commute to Providence. Some people work certain days from home.”

The industrial aesthetic attracts all kinds, and it’s become in popular urban settings like Harlem and the Garment District in New York. Despite its size, Warren offers certain benefits of a bigger city, such as walkable roads. You can easily stroll on foot to Water Street, which is replete with restaurants, specialty shops, and art spaces. Residents can cross the bridge to Barrington, on foot or by car. They can even hop on the East Bay Bike Trail and pedal all the way to India Point Park. Commuters can still drive to Downcity in under a half-hour, which is about the national average. For many, Tourister is a bedroom community that is neither tract home suburb nor gated plan. Residents get the best of a city and a small town, and they can wake up to a vista of sailboats docked at the nearby marina. The most peculiar perk of living at Tourister is that leases start at six months. This is punishingly rare in the rental industry, but Brady Sullivan knows its market. Many residents, like visiting nurses or homeowners in mid-renovation, move into a loft for the short-term. There is also a population of retirees who like the low-maintenance lifestyle because there’s no lawn to care for, no security system to install, and no mortgage-level commitment. On-site storage and garaged parking make it easy to keep bigger possessions safe, if not visible. Marcello mentions one couple that signed a 16-month lease, knowing that they would spend six of those months in Florida. Even sailboat owners – and there are many in the East Bay – have a nearby place to tie up their craft. In other parts of Rhode Island, it’s hard to imagine getting such a return on, say, $2,000 a month.

The commercial spaces have also attracted renters, including studio47 Pilates and a local branch of Blue Fin Capital. The vast spaces can accommodate a wide range of businesses. Customers have plenty of parking, and some of them can just walk downstairs.

“We have a lot of tenants who actually have started to use services in the building,” says Marcello. “It’s great, because there’s the convenience of being their own home. We have a dentist who recently moved in, and they offer the tenants lots of different kinds of discounts. We have a couple of financial groups, also, and they bring in a lot of clients in and out of the building.”

The revived Tourister Mill is still new, but residents have made fast connections. “I feel like the tenants have created a great community together,” adds Modello. “Everybody is friendly and talks to one another. I’ve worked at many other properties, and there is a good amount of people here who want to come together. Everybody walks past each other and says hi. They’ve put together their own community functions and reserved the party room, so they can meet one another.” She says there have been three such events so far – the complex’s equivalent of a block party – and all have been well attended.

“I work in real estate in Massachusetts,” says Alison Makuch, “and I always have an ear out. I’m always out here in the East Bay Area, and I really like it a lot.”

In fact, Makuch and her husband liked the area so much that they sold their house and moved into the Tourister Mill last October. She wanted to take advantage of the seller’s market. They had lived in an 18th century cottage, and they knew that such historic structures would be harder to sell when the market shifted. Their children grown, the couple had little motivation to stay anchored.

“We looked at many different rentals, private homes, many other mills that were converted,” says Makuch. “But Brady Sullivan did an amazing job on the quality of the renovation.”

Makuch’s husband doesn’t mind his hour-long commute to work in Massachusetts, and their only reservation about moving into Tourister was the close quarters. Makuch has always lived in single-family homes separate from other people, and she was wary of so many other units stacked all around her. But Makuch and her husband have adapted smoothly to their new digs. When an electrical plug stopped working, a maintenance worker arrived in minutes, a promptness she had never experienced before. “The staff is amazing,” she says. “It’s quiet. I don’t have any complaints.”

Makuch grew up in Swansea, and her real estate office is based in Fall River. “There were some mills in Fall River, but they’re sitting on I-95,” she notes. “Warren is a funky old working town, an old blue-collar sea town, like where I grew up. We were only going to stay six months, but we thought, ‘Oh, no. We have to stay longer.’ That’s how much it’s allowing us to take a deep breath. It’s been seamless for us.” The real clincher: “The water. I grew up by the water.”