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The Mill: MSU’s $40M?Job to Restore Landmark Structure

The Mill at Mississippi State University will transform a former cotton mill into a conference center and office space.

Tue August 04, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

A more than $40-million construction project in Starkville, Miss., is breathing new life into a landmark structure, while creating new economic opportunities. The Mill at Mississippi State University will transform a former cotton mill into a conference center and office space, while offering an adjacent hotel and parking garage.

“With its opening later this summer, The Mill will provide a world-class meeting place where the university can host major academic and research conferences,” said David Shaw, the university’s vice president of research and economic development. “One of our leading research centers will also move into office space there. The city and larger region will have access to the convention and conference venue, and we expect to see a lot of activity from business groups, non-profits and other organizations, all which will create significant economic activity in the community.”

The 10.89-acre site at the corner of Russell Street and Highway 12 will feature a 73,975-sq. ft. (6,872 sq m) office and conference center, with a 1,000-seat ballroom in the renovated E.E. Cooley Building. The Class-A office space will include exposed wood beams and columns, open spaces and abundant natural light.

“Looking at the long term, The Mill will anchor a new gateway to both the campus and the city that provides an even greater connection and unity,” Shaw said. “We envision The Mill as the centerpiece of development along the Russell Street corridor that enhances the community, provides new quality of life amenities and is a magnet for students, faculty and staff, as well as community members, visitors and alumni.”

The construction is the result of a multi-year, collaborative effort by public and private stakeholders to preserve the building. Several hundred people joined university leaders, elected officials and the developer for the March 2014 groundbreaking to recognize the historic structure, which operated as a cotton mill until 1962. Mississippi State purchased the John M. Stone Cotton Mill in 1965 and renamed it after the school’s former superintendent of utilities. Prior to the start of the renovation, Mississippi State’s facilities management operations were relocated to an existing space on campus.

Castle Properties is serving as the developer on the project.

“The project is transformative for the community,” said Mark Castleberry owner of Castle Properties. “We have developed many projects, but none will impact the community and create additional opportunities as The Mill at MSU. The Cooley Building represents the history of Mississippi moving from a totally agrarian economy to adding value through industrial processes. The founders of The Mill knew they could get trained mill employees at the adjacent [then] Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College’s new textile school that was founded in 1900.

“Structurally, we replaced the roof and did extensive reinforcing of the timber columns and beams. The creation of the free span ballroom was an amazing effort to watch. Most of the original structure is intact with only a coat of paint, so when you walk through the building you will see the round columns from the original 1902 construction, and then see the square columns from the 1928 addition. We sanded the original wood floor in the public areas. The brick walls were in good shape, but needed mortar replacement in many areas. The largest effort was in the mechanical systems. It was a challenge to install the electrical, plumbing, HVAC and data cabling for modern needs, while not seeing miles of conduit and ducts.

“The team did a tremendous job of designing and constructing a very clean look that does not take away from the function or history of the building. The windows were a challenge, since one is restricted to replace them with modern windows. There are several types of windows and glass in the building. Each had to be restored with a great deal of hand work involved.”

The Mill created the Cotton District in the early 1900s, but the significance of the district was a contributing reason to restore The Mill in 2015.

“The Cotton District is a very vibrant area of student and other housing, restaurants and businesses,” said Castleberry. “The restoration of The Mill will only add to its success. The Mill will once again provide a place of employment and services, as it did when conceived. Our efforts in renovating The Mill have caused others to invest in the Cotton District and the surrounding area. We’re very pleased with this synergy for the community and its contribution to our project.

“The parking garage allowed for a much denser development on this location than otherwise possible. Also, we placed the parking garage in the middle of the development to be accessible to all buildings, but be somewhat hidden. We replaced a huge parking lot with an attractive, much smaller footprint garage. The parking garage is needed for The Mill conference center and office space. In addition, the hotel and other developments will use it.”

The hotel will be four stories tall and 105 rooms. It will have a Starbucks in the lobby and a bistro. The exterior will be mostly brick to complement The Mill.

In addition to MSU and the city of Starkville, The National Parks Service, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Mississippi Development Authority have been involved in the project, with Copeland & Johns Inc. serving as general contractor. Work is 95 percent complete, with painting, flooring and ceiling installation currently taking place, along with the installation of audio visual component, lighting, kitchen equipment and restrooms. Installation of the monumental stair millwork began in May. The stair treads and risers were crafted from reclaimed wood from the original building structure.

“In order to construct the ballroom, we had to selectively demolish a large portion of the existing roof structure,” said Jason Lee, project manager of Copeland & Johns. “Then we demolished the second floor to create a vaulted ceiling for the new ballroom. We installed a new structural steel framework comprised of columns, beams and joists that are large enough to freespan the ballroom area, so there are no obtrusive columns in the space. All of this work had to be performed while supporting the exterior brick walls and windows. The walls and windows could not move during the deconstruction of the roof and second floor.”

The parking garage finished mid-June, with the hotel slated for completion by late September. All site demolition is complete. There were approximately seven existing buildings on the site that had to be demolished, including a building that housed MSU’s facilities maintenance department.

“The most difficult part of this project has been coordinating and facilitating the different architect’s, engineer’s, contracts, budgets and schedules that comprise this entire development,” said Lee.

“It was basically an old industrial site. Some portions were well kept, and other areas were dilapidated. All work performed within, and adjacent to, the Cooley building must be approved by the National Parks Service. They require that we adhere to strict guidelines in order to maintain the historical significance of the building.”

Thousands of cubic yards of dirt are being moved on this project. Equipment needed to complete the project includes track hoes, backhoes, skid steers, all terrain lifts, various types of man lifts, all types of scaffolding, two cranes, bulldozers, roller packers and concrete mixers. Materials being used include wood, drywall, metal studs, structural steel, concrete, paint and roofing materials.

“This project had a fairly large civil and infrastructure component,” said Lee. “We constructed new underground utilities, new city streets, private drives, retaining walls, ramps, sidewalks, lighting, irrigation, landscaping and hardscaping.

Rain and chilly temperatures also have been an issue.

“Weather has certainly been a factor with the site work,” Lee said. “We experienced much more wet, cold, weather throughout the winter and early spring than is normal for this area.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure as a whole has endured the test of time.

“We tested the strength of some of the existing wooden beams in the building,” said Lee “While doing so, it was determined that all of the beams were constructed of heart pine. One particular beam was found to have 170 growth rings. It was original to the building, so it had been installed in 1902. That means the tree was born circa 1730.”

Jeff Barnes, AIA, Dale Partners Architects P.A., said the vision for this project was to create a state-of-the-art conference and Class-A corporate facility within a 1902 mill building.

“Because both federal and historic tax credits are being used, all of the upgrades must be accomplished in a manner that does not obfuscate or compromise the original structure and character of the mill,” said Barnes. “Once complete, one must be able to quickly discern original from new, so contrast was the overall design tool we used to accomplish this goal.

“Recording existing conditions was challenging. Leveling the floors and strengthening the split and warped wood structure with pressure injected structural epoxy resin was also a complicated restoration technique. Removing the roof and structural members to accomplish a 1,000 seat clear span ballroom was technically the most difficult, and amazing, to watch. One third of the building sat for a month without a roof.”

Renovating the aging structure took a major effort and commitment by all the team members.

“The developer had the original vision of what The Mill could become, and has worked tirelessly to ensure his original vision is realized,” said Barnes. “It’s no small feat to take a dilapidated structure and transform it into a thriving center for commerce and an impetus for new adjacent developments.”

Barnes said the scale shift from small and intimate residential buildings within the Cotton District to the large industrial airiness of The Mill was both interesting and inspirational.

“Although none of the original mill support buildings remain, it was easy to imagine the village of worker houses and support structures surrounding it. Understanding the historical context helped us alter and add to the site in a more sympathetic manner. The quality of the materials and the amount of care and craftsmanship that was used to construct the original building was phenomenal.

“The original facility was expanded several times over its first 60 years of life. You can track each addition because brick colors vary, outrigger profiles change, column shapes change from round to square and window types change from wood to steel with each successive addition.”

The turn-of-the-century-industrial, heavy timber structure with double and triple wythe solid brick walls around the perimeter features two floors, plus a basement on the east end as the site slopes away. The looms occupied the second floor and were aligned under a central light monitor/a four-sided linear clerestory running the full length of the original building. Flooding the mill floor with natural light reduced the need for oil lamps and lanterns, which were a fire hazard in an environment where fabric was produced.

Moving forward, a signature restaurant is planned at the west end of The Mill. The design will be modern. Additionally, The Mill development team is planning another hotel and restaurant on the two remaining outparcels. The entire district is slated for development. A large condominium project is planned across Russell Street, due north of The Mill. A mixed-use boutique development, 550 Russell, will be built across Mill Street to the west, and will offer street level retail, cafes and dining terraces, offices and luxury condominiums on the upper levels, with views to campus and the new MSU stadium.

A second mixed-use development is planned that will bookend the opposite/east side of The Mill, and frame the front yard. The development to the east will feature street level retail shops and restaurants, with apartments on the upper floors.

“I want all 13 acres of The Mill at MSU to communicate that it’s an exciting and fulfilling place, said Castleberry. “If you are a conference attendee, you will know you are not in a sterile conference center, but in a place with presence. If you are fortunate enough to have an office there, I hope we will have contributed to you having a better, more productive day. The front lawn will not be developed and will likely become an event and gathering place. I look forward to seeing it give back to the community, as it did for so many years as a mill.”

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