Nothing screams North Shore like getting lost at the Cummings Center

The Boston Globe

The mixed-use development, once home to the world’s largest factory, has a system for navigating the maze-like complex of more than 2 million square feet. And some people even claim to understand it.

A banner hangs on the facade of a photograph taken when the factory was under construction.
A banner hangs on the facade of a photograph taken when the factory was under construction. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

BEVERLY — Jill LeGrow had eight minutes to get to a doctor’s appointment, and things were not looking good.

“Here’s L, and that’s E, then over here it goes from L to Q, but I need G. Where is G?” she exclaimed, pointing at signs on the outside of a massive building.

“Make it make sense!” LeGrow shouted at a reporter, who was of no use whatsoever. “Explain to me how I’ve managed to travel around the world without getting lost, but I can’t find a doctor’s office 10 minutes from my house in Peabody.”

What LeGrow was experiencing is a particular right of passage on the North Shore, as familiar to locals as roast beef sandwiches and the orange dinosaur on Route 1: She was lost at the Cummings Center.

Formerly the home of the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, “The Shoe,” as it was known, was the largest factory in the world when it opened in Beverly in 1905. By the 1990s, after the company moved to Wilmington, the facility was mostly empty and in disrepair when it was redeveloped into the Cummings Center.

Today, this 77-acre city-within-a-city contains more than 2 million square feet of space, spread across seven buildings that are home to more than 600 offices, labs, restaurants, apartments, gyms, day cares, accountants, dentists, and even churches. You name it, and the Cummings Center probably has it. You just need to find it.

“I probably get 15 people a day minimum who stop here because they’re lost, and I don’t know what to tell them, because I can’t figure it out,” said Sean O’Keefe, who works the desk at the Post Office branch inside the gargantuan main building, known as 100. “I’ve had the numbering system explained to me so many times, and I can’t figure it out.”

Indeed, there is a method to finding your way around, a suite-numbering system that is explained in a key on the many maps posted throughout the hallways. The example they use is 407-L, and here’s the entirety of the explanation: the 4 represents the floor number; 07 is the bay number (north or south); and L is the bay letter (east or west). Got it?

“People get mad at us all the time because they get so frustrated trying to find us,” said Niomi McCallister, a front desk administrator at North Shore Pediatric Dental and Orthodontics.

Directional signs with a piece of factory machinery from the shoe factory at an intersection at the complex.
Directional signs with a piece of factory machinery from the shoe factory at an intersection at the complex. – David L Ryan/Globe Staff

“Our suite is 119-W, so they naturally go to the 100 building, but we’re not in the 100 building; we’re in the 900 building,” McCallister said. “Or they’ll use their GPS, but for some reason that takes them to the loading dock on the back side of this building. If they manage to get in through the loading dock, we put a map on the wall showing them how to walk to where our office is actually located.”

On this day, McCallister was training a new employee, Samantha Priolisi. It was her first day and Priolisi was mortified because she was late after getting lost. Not to worry, McCallister and several other employees assured her; the same thing had happened to them on their first day.

The Cummings Center sees 4,000 to 5,000 employees and visitors each day, and for the many who get lost, the frustration can often boil over. When a reporter approached an older gentleman who appeared to be turned around to ask if he was lost, the man shouted “I’m not lost! This building is lost!” before storming away.

The confusion is such a given that Orthopaedics Plus Physical Therapy reads new patients a detailed script on how to find them, down to the number of speed bumps they’ll drive over. Beautyology, a spa, goes a step further and has a video on its Instagram page showing every turn and stairwell.

“Every hallway looks the same, and they all look like the hallway in ‘The Shining,’ ” said Jenna Horne, an esthetician at Beautyology. “It’s terrifying if you don’t know what you’re doing, and no one knows what they’re doing.”

The Cummings Center, a massive former shoe factory that is now host to offices, restaurants, a post office, and many other businesses.
The Cummings Center, a massive former shoe factory that is now host to offices, restaurants, a post office, and many other businesses. – David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Horne and others said that getting packages delivered is a huge problem. While UPS and FedEx can usually find them, because they use the same drivers each day, Amazon drivers are not quite so consistent. People who work at the loading docks and Post Office report that some Amazon drivers simply dump their packages there and flee.

“It’s a maze. It really is,” said Jacob Scott, an Amazon driver who said he has been delivering to the Cummings Center a couple of days a week for the last year and a half and sort of knows his way around building 100 (the rest remain a mystery to him).

“Some drivers really hate it, but I’ve started to figure it out, like how there’s no 40 door, but you can get to the 40s through the 30 or 50 door, and all the letters are on the inside except for the Qs, which are on the outside, and… now I’m confusing myself.”

Famously, even a seal got lost at the Cummings Center.

Last September, a 235-pound gray seal swam up the Bass River and through a cement tunnel to Shoe Pond on the campus of the Cummings Center. “Shoebert,” as he was nicknamed, spent nine days in the pond, dining on fish and entertaining onlookers. He became such a celebrity that there are now two children’s books about him, and some are calling for a statue in his honor.

Eventually, Shoebert admitted he was lost — something males are known to struggle with — and walked hundreds of yards across the Cummings Center parking lot in the middle of the night, to the back door of the Beverly Police headquarters. Police, with help from a rescue team from the Mystic Aquarium, were able to get him back to the ocean safely.

“At least he knew to go to the police station for help, unlike the people who walk in here and get upset that we don’t know where 705-T is,” said Liz Morris, a medical receptionist at Beth Israel Lahey Primary Care. “Most of the time I can’t help them unless they’re looking for the other Beth Israel Lahey Primary Care.”

That’s right, there are two offices called Beth Israel Lahey Primary Care at the Cummings Center. The one where Morris works, 126-Q, is on the outside of building 100 because it’s a Q. And the other, 111-W, which is in building 900, not 100. Got it?