North Adams is a city in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, United States. It is part of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Metropolitan Statistical Area. Its population was 13,708 as of the 2010 census, making it the least populous city in the state. Best known as the home of the largest contemporary art museum in the United States, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams has in recent years become a center for tourism, culture and recreation.
North Adams was first settled in 1745 during King George's War. During the war, Canadians and Indians laid siege to Fort Massachusetts (located near the present-day Price Chopper Supermarket). 30 prisoners were taken to Quebec; half died in captivity.
The town was incorporated separately from Adams in 1878. The city is named in honor of Samuel Adams, a leader in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and governor of Massachusetts.
For much of its history, North Adams was a mill town. Manufacturing began in the city before the Revolutionary War, largely because the confluence of the Hoosic River's two branches provided water power for small-scale industry. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, businesses included wholesale shoe manufacturers; a brick yard; a saw mill; cabinet-makers; hat manufacturers; machine shops for the construction of mill machines; marble works; wagon and sleigh-makers; and an ironworks, which provided the pig iron for armor plates on the Civil War ship, the Monitor. North Adams was also the headquarters for building the Hoosac Tunnel.
In 1860, Oliver Arnold and Company was established with the latest equipment for printing cloth. Large government contracts to supply fabric for the Union Army helped the business prosper. During the next four decades, Arnold Print Works became one of the world's leading manufacturers of printed textiles. It also became the largest employer in North Adams, with some 3,200 workers by 1905. Despite decades of success, falling cloth prices and the lingering effects of the Great Depression forced the company to close its Marshall Street operation in 1942 and consolidated at smaller facilities in Adams.
Later that year, the Sprague Electric Company bought the former print works site. Sprague physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and skilled technicians were called upon by the U.S. government during World War II to design and manufacture crucial components of advanced weapons systems, including the atomic bomb.
With state-of-the-art equipment, Sprague was a major research and development center, conducting studies on electricity and semi-conducting materials. After the war, its products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers in a community of 18,000. From the post-war years to the mid-1980s, Sprague produced electrical components for the booming consumer electronics market, but competition from abroad led to declining sales and, in 1985, the company closed operations on Marshall Street. Its closure devastated the local economy. Unemployment rates rose and population declined.
After Sprague closed, business and political leaders in North Adams sought ways to re-use the vast complex. Williams College Museum of Art director Thomas Krens, who would later become Director of the Guggenheim, was looking for space to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries. When Mayor John Barrett III (serving 1984-2009) suggested the vast Marshall Street complex as a possible exhibition site, the idea of creating a contemporary arts center in North Adams began to take shape.
The campaign to build support for the proposed institution, which would serve as a platform for presenting contemporary art and developing links to the region's other cultural institutions, began in earnest. The Massachusetts legislature announced its support for the project in 1988. Subsequent economic upheaval threatened the project, but broad-based support from the community and the private sector, which pledged more than $8 million, ensured that it moved forward. The eventual proposal used the scale and versatility of the industrial spaces to link the facility's past and its new life as the country's largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts.
Since it opened, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) has been part of a larger economic transformation in the region based on cultural, recreational, and educational offerings. North Adams has become home for several new restaurants, contemporary art galleries, and cultural organizations. In addition, once-shuttered area factories and mills have been rehabilitated as lofts for artists to live and work in.