Candy Plant To Shift From Sugar to Science

Novartis drug company to replace neighborhood candy factory in historic Cambridge

Sarah M.J. Welch

The Necco factory, seen as it stands today, will soon undergo renovations to become a research facility for drug firm Novartis.

In 1928, the founder of New York’s Museum of Modern Art wrote in The Arts Magazine about a brand-new building which he described as the promising future of American architecture: the Necco candy factory.

Defying the “rabble” of Mass. Ave., wrote Alfred J. Barr, the “beautiful” factory stood in stark contrast to the “sad gray walls of Technology” and “the monstrous rear of the Widener library.”

“Robed in rich yellow brick,” and crowned by a smokestack that Barr compared to an Italian basilica, the Necco factory united the three ideals coined by the earliest Roman architect: Venustas, architectural beauty; Firmitas, “exquisite structural virtuosity;” and Utilitas—usefulness—the trait that made the building “genuinely modern.”

But by the 1990s, the modernity of assembly lines had receded into history, and the old Necco factory had become more a crumbling reminder of Cambridge’s industrial past than a shining example of futuristic Utilitas.

Other major blue-collar employers once located within Cambridge’s borders, like Ford Motors and Lever Brothers soap, had long since left the area.

Meanwhile, pompous Widener and gray MIT—and the brains they attracted—had come to dominate the white-collar, high-tech industries that filled Cambridge.

Although it held out into the twenty-first century, the New England Confectionary Company (Necco) factory—since 1901 the world’s supplier of thin, powdery sugar treats known as Necco wafers—was an area fossil.

In 2001, when Necco finally decided to move out of Cambridge, “it was the last large, traditional manufacturer to go,” says Charles M. Sullivan, director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

“It’s a symbolic step in the evolution of Cambridge,” Sullivan says.

But with Necco gone, the building’s fate will be exactly that: an evolution.

Novartis, a pharmaceutical giant based in Basel, Switzerland, has gutted the old candy factory, and plans to move a cutting-edge research and development department into the Necco building by the end of the year.

And Novartis’ plans for the factory will restore the building to the position that Alfred J. Barr first envisioned for it.

“It will exist for the new generation,” Barr wrote of the Necco plant, “not merely as a document in the growth of a new style, but as one of the most living and beautiful buildings in New England.”

The construction signs are up. The original windows have been restored. And the Necco factory is being reborn.

Blessed By The King of Hearts

Walter J. Marshall, the former vice president of planning at Necco, is best known to some as “the king of hearts.”