The Worst of Providence: The Destruction of Grove St. School
I admit to initially being confused by the fight to save Grove Street School, and its presence on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list (remember, I’m a newcomer to Providence). The pictures I saw of the building showed that demolition had already started when the fight to save it began. It seemed too far gone to me. Sensing that I clearly didn’t know the whole story I went to Kari Lang, Executive Director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA) for answers. I was surprised to learn all that went into saving this building, and all that was lost when it was ultimately destroyed.
Grove Street School was built in 1901 as a grammar school, designed by the firm of Angell & Swift. Almost as soon as it was completed it became clear that the school, tucked away on a residential street, wasn’t large enough for the growing immigrant population of its Federal Hill neighborhood. That being said, five generations of neighborhood children were educated behind these walls, and many in the neighborhood continue to reflect fondly on their time there. The school closed in the late 1970’s and sat vacant for a long time, before it became embroiled in a drama that rocked the neighborhood for years.
The property’s owner Michael Tarro, planned to demolish the building, included within an historic district (ICBD and National Register), to make way for a parking lot for his family’s funeral home. Without a permit to do so, in February of 2007 (with a stop work order posted on the building) demolition began. Alerted to the news, neighbors and WBNA board members descended upon the property and literally jumped in front of the bulldozer trying to stop the work that had already begun. News channels and even Mayor Cicilline showed up denouncing the illegal demolition. With no other choice, the bulldozer eventually left after a large chunk of the building had already been removed. The drama though had only just begun.
The WBNA worked with an architect, Charles Hagenah, and structural engineer, Wil Yoder, who determined that even partially demolished, the building’s structure was still sound. Proposals were made to turn it into either affordable housing or housing for the developmentally disabled. Offers were made to the owner to purchase the property by a nearby church as well. In July of 2007, a small fire of suspicious origins began.
For four years the Grove St. School continued to deteriorate. A blue tarp partially covered the building’s gaping hole. In April of 2011 a hurricane was headed towards Providence. Initially the city considered the need to tear down Grove. St. School due to safety concerns but decided to secure the building instead. The property owner took advantage of the city’s uncertainty and again resumed illegal demolition. Police halted their efforts, but this time it was too late. The building was no longer structurally sound. Now it had to come down.
As Ms. Lang explained to me, “this is an example of the worst of Providence. You want following the law to prevail, not illegal demolition to prevail.” Nothing was gained from the demolition of this school, destroyed because the owner simply didn’t want to be told what to do. Now an unmaintained, derelict lot is all that remains. Learning the story of the Grove St. School has opened up my eyes to the many holes in Providence’s “swiss cheese” landscape, and the great importance of preservation.
Kudos to Challenge Winner: Chris Wall @CWallEastSide for correctly guessing my whereabouts at Grove St. School!