Re-lighting of Walter Baker sign matter of identity for Lower Mills

The Walter Baker sign sits on top of an administrative building in Lower Mills. Dan Sheehan photo

A campaign to re-light the sign atop the former Walter Baker Chocolate factory in Lower Mills is nearing the final stages of its fundraising phase, setting the wheels in motion for a project that would restore the iconic symbol of the neighborhood in a matter of months.

Terry Dolan, Secretary/Treasurer of the Lower Mills Civic Association, told the Reporter this week that the re-illumination project – an idea years in the making that this year was finally made possible by funds from the Community Preservation Act – could be completed as early as this summer or fall. Re-lighting the sign, which sits on top of an administrative building erected in 1919, would restore a central part of the village’s identity, said Dolan.

“We view it as a real identifier of this terrific community,” he said of the sign, which she noted has gotten “kind of tired and forlorn looking” in recent years. “When the Baker chocolate factories closed in the ‘60s and production moved to New Jersey, things changed here. They were kind of desolate in this little corner,” said Dolan, recalling how hundreds of people lost their jobs at the factory, which was at one point the largest employer in Boston.

Re-lighting the sign would cement it as a calling card and geographic marker for Lower Mills and its business district, much like how the Citgo sign has become synonymous with the Fenway neighborhood, reasons Dolan.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a real revitalization and growth of a really terrific small business community with the sign as a visual anchor for the neighborhood,” continued Dolan. “We’re the entry point to Boston from the south. From Milton you can see this sign from blocks away.”

During the estimated two-three-month long process, the sign will be taken down and the steel letters –many of which have rotted through the years – will be retraced and recreated with material that will get them through the next 100 years. The once-neon sign will then be updated with efficient LED bulbs and remounted. 

The price tag for repairing the sign is around $66,000, 83 percent of which ($55,000) is being covered by the CPA grant.

The civic association is appealing to community members to pitch in for the remaining $11,000 or so, offering an opportunity to make a tax-deductible donation and become a part of history: $5000 to buy a word, $1000 to buy a letter, $500 to light a letter, and $50 to buy a bulb. Dolan said a number of neighboring business partners have already chipped in, meaning a few of the letters are already spoken for.

News of the restoration is generating excitement among neighbors, including Dolan herself, who remembers smelling chocolate in the air as a child growing up in Milton “if the wind was blowing in the right direction.”

Dave Mareira, a neighborhood organizer with ties to the project, sees how the project could be symbolic of a fresh start as the community begins to reopen its doors and emerge from the pandemic.

“I’m hoping things are better with Covid and we can use this as a metaphor for re-lighting our economy, remembering those we lost and rejuvenating our spirits,” he said.

The project’s proponents include the Lower Mills Civic Association and WBL Artist Collective, Inc., along with non-profit sponsor DotArt. To donate and to find out more about the campaign, visit dotart.org.

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