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Candy Plant To Shift From Sugar to Science

Novartis drug company to replace neighborhood candy factory in historic Cambridge

The Necco factory, seen as it stands today, will soon undergo renovations to become a research facility for drug firm Novartis.
The Necco factory, seen as it stands today, will soon undergo renovations to become a research facility for drug firm Novartis.
By Elizabeth S. Widdicombe, Contributing Writer

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.”

Until he retired in 2000, Marshall picked slogans for Necco’s “conversation hearts,” the Valentine’s day confections emblazoned with amorous messages like “Be Mine” and “Far Out.”

Marshall retired from Necco in July of 2000, after 47 years in the candy industry—just as the company was gearing up to move to a new, larger facility in Revere.

Although he says he’s nostalgic for the factory’s past, he also sees Novartis’ purchase of the old Necco plant as “a rebirth.”

“Everything changes–people and businesses,” he says. “Everything has a cycle–a birth and a life and a death.”

Of the company’s decision to move, Marshall says, “It was time.”

The space had become too cramped for Necco.

A system of vintage machinery climbed vertically through six floors, designed for an age when assembly lines were powered by gravity.

And Necco needed to expand out, not up.

But Marshall calls the old factory “a beautiful building.”

“You’d need an atomic bomb to knock it down,” he says.

The factory’s 18-inch concrete floors—thick enough to support huge vats of melted sugar—made it an ideal bomb shelter for the city of Cambridge during World War II.

“We still had the old wicker wheelchairs on each floor, in case someone got hurt,” says Richard P. Gaffney, Necco’s current director of special projects. “There was a locker in the cafeteria where they kept helmets and stretchers for air raids.”

Its door handles were inscribed with the Necco insignia. The upstairs offices were made of oak.

The factory had a hundred such details.

“But our answer was, pretty offices don’t sell candy,” Gaffney says.

After Necco acquired the Clark Candy Company, makers of the Clark Bar, in 1999, and another smaller company, the old factory on Mass. Ave.—even with an extra facility on Cambridge Street and a warehouse in Woburn–wasn’t large enough.

When a space opened up in Revere, Necco decided to move.

“Factories just don’t locate in downtown areas anymore,” says Laurie Cimbalary, Necco’s marketing manager. “We would have liked to stay, but there just wasn’t enough room.”

The new plant has room for more Necco wafers, more conversation hearts, more chocolate bars and more modern operations.

And of the old factory, Marshall says, “It’s going to be better than ever. They’re pumping a lot of money into that place, and its being preserved and upgraded. I think it’s going to have a new life.”

A New Approach

Novartis recently moved its research headquarters to Cambridge—and will split its facilities between Necco and “The 100 Building,” at MIT-owned 100 Technology Place.

Novartis wants to make its facilities in Cambridge the model for a new kind of drug research—they want to work closely with professors from Harvard and MIT and use cutting-edge research on the human genome to tailor their cures to specific diseases.

The typical model for developing drugs has followed something of a guess-and-check approach, Novartis executives say.

Companies would create a chemical compound and then test it out on a simulation of a disease to see what would work.

Diseases were seldom thoroughly understood, they say.

Diabetes, for instance, can take on many forms, with a range of symptoms—some of which can be prevented by certain drugs.

The payoff is big if the pharmaceutical companies find a hit.

But the resulting products don’t always last, because they can’t provide complete or effective solutions.

And while a drug may work to fight the disease in one patient, in another person it could produce a totally different effect.

“Pharmaceutical companies are good at development,” says Fintan R. Steele, vice president of communications at Novartis’s Biomedical Research Institute, the company’s main center for research and development.

“They’ll take something that’s been developed in a lab and wrap it up and make lots of it,” Steele says. “But the issue is that there’s not going to be a huge blockbuster drug that cures lots of diseases.”

So, Steele says, Novartis wants to do something different: they want to conduct research at the molecular level, to target the basic mechanisms of the disease, and then design the drugs that fit.

“It’s a more academic way of looking at the problem,” Steele says.

But it’s also a more expensive, complex approach to doing research.

Novartis wooed Harvard Medical School professor Mark Fishman to head up their Cambridge facilities and to recruit fellow academics to join the Novartis labs—which, executives estimate, will employ about 1,000 people, all told.

A clinician who had worked at the molecular level, Fishman’s background is decidedly not pharmaceutical: he is best known for his research pioneering the use of zebrafish for understanding human diseases.

But Fishman’s ideas about research blend the barriers between scientific fields, and require collaboration between all kinds of different scientists, Steele says.

“There’s so much information out there,” Steele says, “no one can do this alone.”

In the Cambridge research facilities, Fishman said he wanted chemists working with molecular biologists, and signal pathway specialists—who understand what goes on inside a cell—working with the people who know how get a compound inside.

“Our mission is to discover medicines at an increasing pace and with even greater specificity, to better treat those now suffering disease,” Fishman wrote in a prepared statement for The Crimson, “and to improve the process so effectively over the coming years that our children look back with disbelief, surprised that such diseases were ever untreatable.”

Disco Science

For The Stubbins Associates, the architecture firm hired to turn Fishman’s vision of constant collaboration into a physical reality, the challenge was to create labs with “campfire” spaces that would force scientists to put down their beakers and talk to each other.

“I call it the sociology of science,” says Scott Simpson, one of the architects at Stubbins who designed the new lab space. “We have 15 to 20 different groups, and they all need to interrelate.”

At “the 100 building”—which is physically linked to MIT by a glass atrium—Novartis has already opened the first wave of its new research.

And besides the 100 building and the two major research universities in the city, Necco’s neighborhood has other perks—it is just across the river from several of the Northeast’s strongest hospitals and it is part of a tide of a biotech hub growing in Cambridge.

The 100 building is just around the corner from the Whitehead Institute, one of the major contributors to the finalized human genome map completed earlier this month.

At the 100 building, amidst boxes and newly assembled furniture, the design principles that will characterize the new lab space are already being put into effect.

The aesthetic looks like a cross between a 70s dance floor and Star Wars, with neon blue lights illuminating stainless steel structures and bamboo floors.

“Traditionally, a lot of labs are closed in and isolated,” says Steele. “The prevailing notion is that a scientist is a solitary person sitting at their bench. But these labs make that impossible.”

Even more deliberate are the gathering spots or “cafés,” positioned at intervals between the lab rooms. Food, coffee and computers are strategically positioned to draw scientists out of their labs.

“I call it disco-science,” Steele says. “These areas need to be at the crossroads, where everyone has to walk through.”

The café areas, the architects say, will be around-the-clock meeting areas.

The designs include plans for a 24-hour global conferencing centers, with plasma screens linking the Cambridge labs to those of Novartis’ other research departments in Switzerland.

“These people work during all 24 hours of the day,” says Eric Hollenburg, who is one of the principle architects. “If its midnight in Boston, its 7 a.m. in Basel. We want them to be able to walk into the cyber café and strike up a conversation with another scientist halfway around the globe.”

Steele estimates that the finishing touches on the 100 building will be completed by December, and the Necco factory will be done soon after.

Meanwhile, the candy factory is being readied.

Novartis picked the Necco building because a renovation would be faster than building from the ground up.

The high ceilings and thick concrete floors of the factory make its ideal for lab equipment. But transforming an ancient candy factory into a state-of-the-art research facility will by no means be easy.

“We could see in the bones of the building that it would work,” said Simpson. “And we knew what kind of life we could bring to it.”

First, they cut a hole in the middle.

The atrium, the exposed area in the center, will form what Simpson calls “the glue that holds the whole thing together.”

Light will pour in through a glass ceiling, and six stories of thick, concrete columns will be exposed, with offices along the inside divided only by glass from the center—the architects intentionally used glass so that everyone would be able to see everyone else.

An abstract pattern resembling strands of DNA, will be woven into the floor.

“We want this to be the symbol of total modernity,” Simpson says. “We want it to be totally new.”

An Eye to the Past

Despite their emphasis on innovation, architects of the Necco factory’s renovation have a great deal of history to take into account.

In order to receive a tax credit as one of Cambridge’s historical places, construction must meet stringent requirements.

The building’s external color, molding, and roofscape must be preserved.

And inside, the wood paneling of the old offices on will be preserved.

Many of the old features of the site will be transformed for their second life.

The power plant, a separate structure outside of the factory, will be turned into a cafeteria and welcoming facility.

And from the old loading dock, where shipments of sugar were once brought into the factory by a rail link, Stubbins plans to build a “winter garden” surrounded in glass, that will fuse the building’s traditional brick outline with the aesthetic of its new function.

The building’s signature candy-striped water tower, painted to resemble a Necco wafer, will stay put.

“Of course we’re keeping the water tower,” Simpson said. “I don’t think it was even a question.”

A Changed City

The Necco factory’s transformation has broad implications for Cambridge, on a practical as well as symbolic level.

“This is a big step in the evolution of Cambridge,” Sullivan says.

The Necco factory’s fate signals the transformation of an industrial city into a high-tech mecca–one that depends on its universities for survival.

The move might speed up a change in the demographics of the city: Necco was a large employer of Cambridge’s immigrant labor force, which, according to Gaffney, was once mostly Italian and is now for the most part Brazilian.

80 percent of the company’s employees will have jobs at the new factory in Revere.

But when Novartis makes its hires, it will draw, to a large extent, on the “intellectual capital” of Cambridge’s population, rather than its semi- skilled labor.

Sullivan guesses that the Novartis’ move will probably nudge up real estate prices in an area already under great pressure from gentrification.

“We think of it as too much money chasing too little real estate,” he says. “Novartis will certainly add to that.”

The presence of the new research facilities will, however, be a boon for Cambridge’s universities, and for people looking for employment in the high-tech industry.

“I think Cambridge’s history has really passed it by,” Gaffney says. “Necco was the largest footprint left around MIT, and now it’s going to be high tech. I think it’s good for the city–and maybe it’s what Cambridge wants.”

Steele says that Novartis is planning to establish major ties with both Harvard and MIT. At the 100 Building, conference rooms with await seminars with academia. And although he declined to discuss specifics, Steele says that concrete plans are already underway for collaborative projects between Novartis and scientists at MIT.

Utilitas

Kendall Square smells different these days—the era when neighbors could tell whether Necco was churning out chocolates or peppermints just by taking a deep breath is over.

If you call Necco to ask for a tour of the old factory, they’ll tell you it’s empty these days.

“They’re still scraping the sugar off the walls,” a receptionist says.

But Novartis has already started the new brand of science that will fill the Necco building. Steele says that after the first few months, Novartis’s new research methods have already yielded some early discoveries.

“For us the proof that this works will come when we are delivering really good drugs,” Steele says. “When that happens, it’s going to change the whole industry. It’s going to change the way medicine’s done.”

Steele’s goals for the Necco facility include new knowledge about the nature of disease, and long-term cures for such illnesses as diabetes and cancer.

And the face of architecture born in 1926 lives on. Even as it confirms the end of an era for Cambridge, the transformation of the building announces a whole new definition of modernity.

That’s more Utilitas than even Alfred J. Barr could have imagined.

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