2007 Ten Most Endangered Properties
Asa Messer Elementary School (1892)
158 Messer Street, West End
PPS Most Endangered Properties List: 2007, 2008, 2011
Built around 1890, the stately three-story, brick Asa Messer Elementary School is a fine Queen Anne style building featuring a cross-gable roof, elaborate corbelling, arches over the windows, arched doors, and tall, paneled chimneys. It was designed by William R. Walker & Son, the prolific architectural firm active from the 1870s into the 1920s and responsible for most of the prominent Rhode Island public buildings from that period, including the nearby Cranston Street Armory.
Beyond its significant architectural quality, this school is an important, historic resource within an historic neighborhood. Located within walking distance of its students, Asa Messer continues in the same functional relationship with its surroundings that it has enjoyed for well over a century and endures as vital visual landmark in the community. Like all too many of Providence’s public schools, it has suffered through years of deferred maintenance, but it is a solid structure capable of restoration and renovation.
The Facilities Master Plan for the Providence Public Schools, prepared by education planners DeJong, Inc., suggests that this magnificent building be replaced with a new school. In recent years, Providence’s public schools have been threatened with closure and neglect. Recently, the School Board voted to close Asa Messer Elementary School and Annex. Although the building has yet to be demolished to create the proposed new school, nothing is being done with it and its future is still uncertain.
Cathedral of St. John (1810)
271 North Main Street
PPS Most Endangered Properties List: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014
The Cathedral of St. John is the successor to King’s Church, organized in the same location in 1722. The building, as it exists today, was designed by Providence’s Federal-era architect John Holden Greene and built in 1810. The church is constructed in Smithfield stone with brownstone trim and combines Federal forms with Gothic detailing: the end-gable-roof Federal mass is articulated with lancet-arch windows with tracery. A clustered-colonnette porch introduces the projecting gabled vestibule, which supports a square clock tower and belfry with spiky pinnacles above it. Inside is a low-saucer-dome ceiling nave supported by clustered colonnettes.
The deteriorated church tower is causing the rotting of wood structural elements as well as cracking and crumbling of the interior plaster walls and the sanctuary ceiling. In April, 2012, the Diocese suspended regular services at the Cathedral due to the high cost of maintaining the building. The Diocese continues to be supportive to efforts to advocate for the building’s preservation. Over the past year, the preservation community has been encouraged by the leadership of the recently elected Bishop of Rhode Island, the Right Reverend W. Nicholas Knisely, and by the Diocese’s creation of a task force dedicated to addressing the Cathedral’s closure.
Earl P. Mason Carriage House (1857)
Behind 296 Benefit Street, College Hill
PPS Most Endangered: 2003, 2007, 2008
In 1857, wealthy druggist Earl P. Mason built the clapboard three-story, Italianate house at 296 Benefit Street. Just thirty-three feet west of the house is this small, two-story, brick and brownstone carriage house, measuring twenty-five by twenty-seven feet, which served as Mason’s private stable. The building had a dirt basement, a ground floor and an attic. The attic is suspended by an interesting star truss, making the ground floor an entirely open space.
Nineteenth-century carriage houses are relatively rare survivors throughout Providence and are especially rare and unusual in this densely built part of College Hill. Located just off Benefit Street (behind 296 Benefit Street), at the end of Benevolent Street, the Earl P. Mason Carriage House sat vacant and unused throughout the 20th century. The building suffered from deferred maintenance, clearly displayed by its missing and broken windows and fallen brick.
The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) acquired the Earl P. Mason Carriage House when they purchased the apartment building and adjacent parking lot. RISD sold the carriage house to a private owner in late 2005. The owner installed vinyl replacement windows in the Mason House, unapproved by the Providence Historic District Commission, causing concern that any future changes to the Carriage House may be inappropriate. Fortunately enough the property was once again sold to yet another private owner who was intent on not only restoring the property, but also doing so in a way that would maintain its historical integrity. The property is now fully rehabilitated.
Former Police and Fire Headquarters (1940)
197 Fountain Street, Downtown
PPS Most Endangered: 2007
Constructed between 1938 and 1940 and first occupied in 1940, the former Police and Fire Headquarters was a four story, stone-sheathed, L-plan structure. Designed by architects in the Office of the Commissioner of Public Buildings, the building was in the classicizing Art Deco mode with a pedimented façade and organic Art Deco details. Art Deco buildings are exceptionally rare in Providence, and this was one of the city’s most prominently sited examples, second only to the 1928 Industrial Trust skyscraper. The Headquarters’ height, materials, and simplicity complemented the more elaborate public library across the street. In 2002, the Police and Fire Departments moved into their new building beside I-95 at 325 Washington Street, the Public Safety Complex. The former Police and Fire Headquarters was later purchased by a private developer which left the building unoccupied and used only the limited open space around it as a parking lot.
Although a contributing resource within the Downtown Providence National Register Historic District, the former Police and Fire Headquarters was deteriorating for some time, while neglect and improper security rendered it reportedly home to vermin, drug dealing, and the homeless. The building occupied a very crucial parcel on LaSalle Square, close to Trinity Repertory Company and the Providence Public Library. Development plans provided for razing this important piece of Providence architecture and constructing an office tower with attached parking garage in its place. While the building was not useful in its current state, no plans were proposed to adaptively reuse all or some of the structure or to take advantage of available historic tax credits.
The private developer attempted to bypass regulatory procedure by applying for a demolition variance through the Zoning Board of Review on the grounds that the building was a public safety risk. The Providence Preservation Society strongly advocated for the preservation and reuse of the building, but ultimately they were unsuccessful. The former Police and Fire Headquarters was lost on 1 August, 2007. The current owner does not have immediate development plans for the site and it will remain as a surface parking lot for the foreseeable future.
George J. West Elementary School (1916)
145 Beaufort Street, Mount Pleasant
PPS Most Endangered: 2007
George J. West Elementary School was built as the Beaufort Street Grammar School in 1916. Its Gothicizing detailing, a nod toward the increasing popularity of the enclosed quadrangular English medieval college as an academic model, was seen first in Providence Public Schools in this building.
Architects Murphy, Hindle & Wright, specialists in ecclesiastical architecture, provenders of designs for many early twentieth-century church complexes within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, were a logical choice for such a commission This three-story-on-high-basement, flat-roof, red-brick, Tudor style building with cast-stone trim originally included on the central portion of the building and was later expanded by construction of identical wings on either side. West is important as a neighborhood landmark, an ample presence on a significant open space in this densely built early twentieth-century residential neighborhood. It projects a powerful architectural statement not easily replaced.
The Facilities Master Plan for the Providence Public Schools, by educational planner DeJONG, recommended that George J. West be replaced by a new school resulting in the placement of this property on the Ten Most Endangered Properties List. Fortunately enough, the plans proposed by DeJONG fell through, keeping George J. West and other public schools safe.
Grove Street Elementary School (1901)
95 Grove St, Federal Hill
PPS Most Endangered: 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
The Grove Street Elementary School was constructed in 1901 as a grammar school to accommodate the massive influx of immigrants to the surrounding Broadway-Armory neighborhood. The building was an imposing 2-story, T-shaped, brick structure on a granite foundation with a hipped roof and impressive chimney. The school featured brick quoins on the corners and modillion blocks at the cornices. The two entrances, originally separate for boys and girls, were recessed within arched openings, embellished with brick corbelling and keystones. Architecturally, the school signified a distinct presence among the multi-family houses of quiet Grove Street. The Grove Street School was part of the Industrial and Commercial Buildings District and was also listed as a contributing feature in the Broadway-Armory National Register Historic District.
The Grove Street School was closed in 1975 as Providence experienced a decline in its population. In 1983, the building was purchased from the city by a private owner. The owners began to demolish the Grove Street School in February 2001 without a permit and in violation of a stop-work order. The city filed a lawsuit against the owners, who argued during the trial that the building was unsafe and had to be demolished.
In April 2008, Judge Daniel Procaccini fined the owners for trying to demolish the school without a permit, but he concluded that the structure was a threat to public safety and he directed that the building inspector issue a demolition permit. The city appealed the decision, and in July 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling, stating that Procaccini had no right to order the city to do anything. Justice Paul Suttell agreed that the Grove Street School was unsafe, but he said that it was up to city to decide how to address it. The city ordered the owners to make major repairs to the elementary school, but the building had been open to the elements for several years and had suffered further deterioration. In 2011, the owners received the necessary permits to complete the demolition of the Grove Street School.
Mt. Pleasant High School (1938)
434 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Mount Pleasant
PPS Most Endangered: 2007
Completed in 1938 to designs provided by architects at the Office of the Commissioner of Public Buildings, Mount Pleasant High School is a monumental four-story red-brick-and-limestone building in the Collegiate Gothic mode so popular for educational institutions across the country but relatively scarce in Providence.
Its lively façade is animated by stringcourses defining the stories, a pair of large and asymmetrical towers in dynamic juxtaposition flanking the principal entrance at its center, and a very fine interior, still largely intact. It is impressively sited on one of the city’s largest public-school campuses, which provides welcome and much used recreational open space in the otherwise densely built neighborhood.
Under the recommendation of the Facilities Master Plan by DeJONG educational consultants, Mt. Pleasant High School was slated for demolition and replacement by two new schools. Word of this demolition has resulted in an outcry from the neighborhood residents.
Nathan Bishop Middle School (1929)
101 Sessions Street, Blackstone
PPS Most Endangered: 2007
Designed by architects at the Office of the Commission of Public Buildings, Nathan Bishop School is an ample three-story, brick and limestone, Georgian Revival building with a flat roof and stripped classical detailing. Nathan Bishop was built as a junior high school in 1929, just as the northern part of the East Side underwent its most intensive development.
The school, which was closed a year ago, due to a debate between East Side residents and the Providence school board about whether the building should be repurposed into a high school, suffers from deferred maintenance. However, the major threat to the building was an active group of parents and neighbors that formed wanted to see the current building demolished and a new school built in its place. The parents were not alone in this, as school board officials were also looking into the best way to utilize this building.
In 2007 it was decided that building would undergo a renovation as opposed to being demolished. The plans allotted for an increase in useable space, creating more classrooms offices and an auditorium. These renovations allowed for the building to maintain its historic appearance while making it useful to both teachers and students.
Providence Produce Warehouse (1929)
2 Harris Avenue, Smith Hill
PPS Most Endangered: 2002, 2003, 2007
The Providence Produce Warehouse was lost in 2008.
The Providence Produce Warehouse was built in 1929 to designs by the architecture firm of Jenks & Ballou as a hub for the distribution of meat and produce in Southeastern New England. Construction costs for the then state-of-the-art structure totaled over one million dollars and included innovative technology and building techniques reflecting changing transportation systems. Direct train access facilitated the transfer of goods from trains along the southern elevation and trucks along the northern one, while cable-stayed awnings sheltered the elevated loading docks of both sides. The brick facade on the northern side featured seventy-one loading bays punctuated by seven concrete towers. The art-deco detailing of the reinforced pilasters along these towers provided the only ornamentation on the functional building. On the southern side eleven windowed cupolas contained freight elevators to transfer goods among the building’s three stories. At the time of its 1929 construction, the Warehouse stood 965 feet long, 58 feet wide, and 25 feet tall.
Throughout the latter half of the century, however, the continued decentralization of industry, in addition to the introduction of refrigerated trucks and subsequent decline of the commercial railway network, rendered the Warehouse obsolete, even useless, by contemporary standards. By the 1980s the majority of the 174,000 square foot structure was vacant. The Federal government then purchased the structure and tore down the railroad bays and eastern most towers in order to accommodate the construction of an on-ramp to I-95. In 1999, the last vendor vacated the building.
The now 810 feet long building remains largely intact despite vacancy and deterioration. PPS included the warehouse on its 2000, 2002, and 2003 Most Endangered Lists to call attention to a unique and promising development opportunity. Interestingly situated, the Warehouse neighbors both Providence Place and the new “903” Condominium Complex. Its proximity to Waterplace Park, Union Station, and available parking offer further reasons for development. Meanwhile, its open layout affords a developer rare freedom with regards to its design. Since its first Most Endangered listing, the condition of the Providence Produce Warehouse has continued to worsen; an early morning fire in 2002 severely damaged the upper level. Another fire in 2005 was quickly extinguished and only burned wooden crates and pallets that were inside the concrete building.
The Warehouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and is part of the City’s Industrial and Commercial Buildings District (ICBD), both of which provide considerable potential tax advantages for rehabilitation and ensure some preservation protection. Preservation-minded residents and several state agencies have expressed concern over the future of this important building. In 2003, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, the owner of the warehouse at that time, completed a preliminary analysis, which not only confirmed the structural integrity of the building but also advocated for its reuse as residential condominiums, and issued a public request for proposals from developers. Carpionato Properties, a developer with headquarters in Johnston, had recently purchased the building from the State after three years in limbo following the signing of a purchase and sales agreement.
With the expansion of interstate 95, the building was demolished in order to provide space for a stretch of highway.
Teste Block (1860)
88 Dorrance Street, Downtown
PPS Most Endangered: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
The Teste Block was built in 1860 to designs by Providence architect Charles P. Hartshorn (1833-1880) whose work is now exceptionally rare. Among the oldest commercial buildings in downtown, it is an important component of the cluster of those remaining along Westminster and Weybosset Streets between Turk’s Head and Dorrance Street.
Featuring red brick with white trim and paired arch windows, this diminutive yet monumental building is striking because of its relatively small size and significant as one of the last of the narrow, low-rise commercial structures in historic Downtown Providence.
Though previously used for office space on the upper floors and retail on the ground floor, the Teste Block had been vacant for three years. Then owner, National Grid, whose Providence office is immediately adjacent on Dorrance Street, had no plans to use or sell it. While the parcel on which it stands had little economic utility by itself, it offers its owner room to expand its local headquarters. In another two years, the owner would have able to legally demolish the building under Downcity Review Commission regulations, which allow demolition of buildings that remain unoccupied for five years.
National Grid however, had no plans of demolishing the building. Paired with support from Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, who urged finding ways to repurpose existing structures, a campaign began to find a developer interested in the property. Providence Capital LLC was just the group, as they not only expressed interest but planned to develop the property into apartments and restaurants. The said plans have since been approved and the necessary renovations are underway.
What Cheer Laundry (1906)
93 Cranston Street, West End
PPS Most Endangered: 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2007
What Cheer Laundry was lost in 2008.
In 1896, English immigrant William E. Louttit founded Louttit’s Home Hand Laundry. The small business grew and grew and moved to larger and larger facilities until finally purchasing two large brick buildings, previously What Cheer Steam Laundry, on Cranston Street in 1918. This complex, built in 1906, has a handsome Georgian Revival office block, with projecting pedimented entrance, as its frontispiece; the complex originally boasted over 280,000 square feet. By 1925, Louttit had grown to the largest laundry facility in Rhode Island with over 150 employees and sixteen outlets statewide. After ninety years of family ownership, the Louttit family sold its name and facility for 1.2 million dollars in 1985. Two years later the new owners, facing bankruptcy, closed the laundry works and auctioned the site. The building has since remained vacant.
The abandonment of this structure has led to its rapid deterioration. In response, PPS has included the Louttit Laundry on the Most Endangered List seven times since 1995 in an effort to attract a developer. The property sits prominently at the entrance to the Broadway-Armory Historic District; its restoration would further reactivate Hoyle Square and thus encourage further development along Cranston Street and the surrounding neighborhood. In 1998, a film studio executive expressed interest in developing the property into upscale apartments, giving hope to preservationists and neighbors. Still, the development proposal, like others before and since, fell through.
In 2001, a fire destroyed the rear half of the complex, thus greatly diminishing the potential of the structure for redevelopment. Preservation groups and local residents remain committed to the restoration of the Louttit Laundry, advocates for which recognize many viable options for its redevelopment as residential, commercial, or entertainment space. Ironically, the 2001 fire has increased available funding from statewide and national Brownfield redevelopment assistance funds, which would facilitate the cleanup of any on-site contaminants. In 2004 the building was listed on National Register of Historic Places, establishing its eligibility for Federal Tax Credits. The building is now property of the City of Providence and Stop Wasting Abandoned Property (SWAP) has the development rights. The Providence Historic District Commission has granted approval to demolish all but the first ten feet of the Cranston Street façade so that environmental remediation may take place. The city was reportedly investigating ways to remediate the environmental problems but the building continued to sit abandoned and deteriorate, until it was demolished in 2008.