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The Ropewalk

With its unique design, history and preservation guidelines, it's hard to say what the Ropewalk Complex should be used for in the future.

The ropewalk in the Charlestown Navy Yard is the last remaining naval rope factory in the country. It was built in 1838, when Andrew Jackson was president. It was an operating rope making factory until 1971, and closed a few years before the rest of the Navy Yard closed.

Charlestown had been making rope since 1638 and at one time there were several outdoor rope walks in the town. These long, slender walks evolved because making rope from hemp meant it had to be stretched to its full length. The rope maker literally "walked" the rope, twisting it as he moved. The practice began as an ancient handcraft -- pictures from ancient Egyptian tombs show men walking while making rope. When it was mechanized in the 19th century the craft moved indoors. 

The Navy Yard Ropewalk Complex is three buildings: the ropewalk itself, a long, slender building 1,320 feet long and 42 feet wide; plus a tarring house and a hemp store house. The walls are two to three feet thick. The door and window shutters are wrought iron, and the roofs are made of copper and slate.

Future plans for the Ropewalk

Since it closed there have been several development plans presented and discussed, but no work on the site has happened yet. The Ropewalk Complex is under the supervision of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but all development must be approved be the Boston National Historical Park Service. It’s a tough marriage, as the Park Service has strict guidelines as to the kind of development that is allowed.

One proposal was for the three buildings to be turned into a museum complex, where the ropewalk would become a rope making museum and the other two smaller buildings would be used for conservation exhibits, archives of historical Boston documents and a maritime museum. A great creative idea, but no funding.

Another plan to turn the complex into a hotel met a dead end. The Park Service guidelines prevent any new additions, which meant that, for example, no additional entrance doors beyond the ones that now exist at the north and south side of the building could be built. No additional doors would mean a quarter mile between entrances for hotel guests. The wrought iron fence, separating the ropewalk from Chelsea Street, is also considered an artifact and cannot be removed. Thus, there could be no direct access to or from Chelsea Street.

There was a discussion to create a series of artist’s lofts, where children might learn to play  guitar, weave a basket, or even make some rope. Boston Redevelopment Authority planners, with the enthusiastic following of Mayor Thomas Menino, talked of envisioning the ropewalk as an "incubator for fledging artistic entrepreneurs such as painters, furniture makers, musicians, playwrights, graphic designers, and others." This proposal came with a price tag of $30 million, which also included the cost of restoring the building from the effects of a recent fire.

While only a few of granite-era buildings remain in downtown Boston, all three of the Navy Yard's rope making structures  still survive. Even the nine-alarm fire in 2002 did only moderate damage. Firefighters discovered that the building, because of its three-foot walls and copper and slate roofs, was more "fortress than factory," and was nearly impenetrable. 

What do you think should be done with the ropewalk? Should it be an art center, a condo, or a museum? One writer suggested turning it into a fish farm, where fish could be spawned in long tanks and then released into Boston Harbor to restock depleting supplies. Ideas on a funnier note suggest a mausoleum, a bowling alley or a very long car wash.

  • Where is it?
    In the Navy Yard. The Ropewalk complex is part of the 30 acre Historic Buildings section.
  • When was it built?
    1838
  • Who built it?
    The building was designed in Greek Revival and Boston Granite Style by architect Alexander Parris, who also designed the Navy Yard and Quincy Market.
  • What was it built for and who was the first occupant?
    It was built as a place to make rope. Stephen Whitmore, Master Ropemaker, was the walk's first superintendent.
  • Why was it built? 
    As a place to manufacture rope. The ships in the  Navy Yard needed 1,000 tons of rope each year. During World War II the ropewalk supplied 22 million pounds of rope a year. During the 1950s the tarring and hemp store house were turned into research and development facilities. They created the nylon rope we use today.
  • How was it built? 
    Of granite, stone, brick and timber. The granite is backed with very hard burnt brick. The walls are two to three feet thick. The ropewalk is a quarter mile long and 45 feet wide.  The longest portion, the "laying up ground" is 1,100 feet long, one story with low ceilings and a basement. There is a 200 foot section two stories and a three-story head house.
  • What are the future plans for the structure? 
    Proposals so far have not led to development. It has  apparently been a difficult sell to potential developers because of Park Service insistence that the integrity of the structure be preserved. Until something new happens the ropewalk sits, in its Greek Revival simplicity, a monument to itself.

Information for this article was compiled through information from Friends of the Navy Yard, from ‘The Ropewalk at the Charlestown Navy Yard: A History and Reuse Plan" by Leslie Larson, Boston Globe archives and by interview. Also, a great Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyYhPPTv1D8.

Gtree February 15, 2011 at 08:49 PM
Not much will happen with the Ropewalk until the adjacent Building 108 is addressed. 108 is in unsafe condition (falling walls, holes in roof, unboarded broken windows) and has contamination (asbestoes, lead, oil, and others) within.
Nancy Hannan February 16, 2011 at 06:23 PM
It's wonderful that you bring these buildings to the attention of Patch's readership. We can only hope that by shedding light on the fact that they exist can any change ever occur. Does the Park Service also have stewardship on Building 108? Thanks for the informative article.
Helen O'Neil February 18, 2011 at 09:24 PM
Thank you for pointing out the difficulty posed by Building 108, the Navy Yard’s main power plant, built in 1903. Apparently in the 1920’s a coal hopper and tipple was built along the south part of the ropewalk to serve Building 108. There is a 1922 photo of the inside of 108 at www.retrosnapshots.com/1980s-boston-power-plant-interior-charleston-navy-yard-photo.html. And a discussion of asbestos used at the Navy Yard at www.asbestos.net/exposure/specific-company-sites/charlestown-navy-yard.
Helen O'Neil February 18, 2011 at 09:24 PM
Building 108 is located within the Historic Building Section of the Navy Yard.
Gtree February 19, 2011 at 09:53 PM
Building 108 is loaded with asbestoes simply read the online file MassDEP has on it. Search here: http://db.state.ma.us/dep/cleanup/sites/search.asp Only remedy on the table at this point is to take the whole thing down and dispose of it as asbestoes contaminated material. If BRA (the owner) did something with building earlier, maybe the facade could have been saved, but at this point the safety hazards posed by this building outway the cost of saving even the facade.
Morry Jordan February 21, 2011 at 05:20 PM
A restaurant, and a Banquet Hall with Themed Parties available Re. the colonial day's, weddings, once a month dancing for the locals to attend
How about as a location for Boston's long-touted, long-awaited indoor Public Market? With Bldg. 108 gone, surely there could be parking--maybe even a bus stop since there is, regretably, no public transportation within the Navy Yard, especially now that the Water Shuttle was moved to a remote pier!
Helen O'Neil March 14, 2013 at 06:40 PM
Great idea. I don't know, though, if Building 108 is going anytime soon. For more about the power plant, see http://charlestown.patch.com/articles/building-108-the-navy-yard-power-plant. It would seem that building needs to be dealt with first, before anyone can consider functional re-use of the Rope Walk. It is a lovely thought,however, to have a large public market in C'town.
Marie LaSpina May 14, 2013 at 03:55 PM
indoor public market sounds like just what area needs, and part of mrkt can have videos of how it use to be, etc. great for tourists as well as neighborhood.
Marie LaSpina May 14, 2013 at 03:56 PM
would be nice to hear comments. ml

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