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history of the distillery building

The Crystal Springs Rum Years

The Distillery building was built between 1840 and 1860, originally as a brewery. Around 1908, it was bought by Felton and Sons, an expanding rum manufacturer operating out of Newburyport and South Boston. Felton converted the building into a distillery for rum, strengthening the floors by putting in steel cross-beams, reinforced concrete piers, and doubling up the floor joists in the warehouse. The location was good for both brewing and distilling for a number of reasons. The harbor line was originally where First Street is now, allowing ships to dock right at the building to offload coal and molasses.

Fredrick L. Felton

Converted the old malt distillery building to a rum distillery around 1908


Subsequently when the channel was filled, the building was supplied by a railroad line down the middle of First Street. Both brewing and distilling use large amounts of water. Fortunately, there is natural spring under the building, though the brand name of Crystal Springs Rum is probably an exaggeration. The pump is still there and can pump 80 gallons a minute

The Original Fenton & Son Crystal Spring Building



Old Mr. Boston

In 1960, Felton sold the company to Old Mr. Boston, who also made spirits at 1010 Mass Ave (now the City of Boston’s Dept. of Inspectional Services). Old Mr. Boston continued making rum in the building up to 1982, when The Distillery building was purchased by the current management. At that time, it became difficult to get high grade molasses from the Caribbean, and rum production was no longer economical. The equipment was sold, and the vats and distiller were dismantled. The fermenting area had been in the basement of the warehouse, with vats extending up through 10 ft holes in the first floor, where the progress of the brew could be monitored. The distiller was a single piece of equipment that stood in the main lobby and went up to the fourth floor. The steel I-beam at the roof (now in a tenant space) had a rolling crane that was used to lift off the cap from the machine. Distilling operations used 200,000 gallons of oil a year to evaporate the spirits. When the current owner purchased The Distillery building it was filthy, irregular, and dripping with molasses, which you can still smell faintly on a hot summer day. The warehouse had 6,000 barrels of alcohol per floor, an enormous weight, (necessitating doubled-up floor joists), and extremely flammable. You can still see fire scars in the wood.

We learned much of the lore of The Distillery from Tom Desmond, who was the engineer for the boiler and the maintenance electrician in the old factory. For example, the holes in the upright beam on the 4th floor distilling area (now a tenant space) were from a disgruntled employee who used to go across the street to Casey and Hayes during his lunch break and shoot out the windows.

Felton and Sons was the oldest rum distilling company in the continental United States, and was a substantial part of the largest manufacturing industry in the pre-revolutionary colonies. Rum was part of the tri-angular trade: the rum was sold to Africa for slaves who were brought to the West Indies to grow sugar cane, and the molasses was shipped to New England. This is the part of the "Romance of Rum" which was less than romantic.

"Nested Narratives"

"Nested Narratives" by Jonah Stern examines the ways in which the dynamic forces of industrialization, transportation, urban development, and social change shaped the past and shape the future of South Boston, East First Street, and the Distillery. Stern is currently a Masters candidate in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning where he is studying the intersection of urban design and neighborhood revitalization in America's post-industrial cities.

Artists & Artisans

The building began its conversion into a vibrant community of artists, artisans, and small businesses in 1984, ultimately transforming the rum factory into its current incarnation as studios and studio apartments. To learn more about The Distillery's industrial history and conversion process, read "Distilling History Into Commerce" in Boston Business. (1989).