5 Avenue of the Arts
Photo above courtesy of Erik Gould. Over twenty years ago, the Providence Preservation Society (PPS) announced their first list of Most Endangered Properties (MEP) on the steps of the Masonic Temple — a building that would later become one of PPS’s greatest success stories. Challenged to explore twenty of the MEP’s in just ten weeks, it seemed only natural to begin my journey in the same place.
It took me a while to grasp the unlikely story behind the classically designed Masonic Temple: that it stood unfinished and vacant for 75 years. Construction on the building (designed by Osgood & Osgood) complex started in 1927 to house the new Grand Lodge of the Providence Freemasons, a fraternal order which dates back to the mid 1750’s in Rhode Island. Plans for the building included an auditorium (which today exists as the Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium), banquet rooms, ballrooms, lodge halls, regalia rooms, meeting rooms and offices. Armed with $1,000,000 towards the $2,500,000 budget the Masons began construction, but unable to raise the remainder of the funds, work on the building ceased in 1928 as the Great Depression took hold of the country. Left completely raw with only the outside walls and roof completed, over the next 75 years the building slowly crumbled directly beneath the shadow of the Rhode Island State House.
From what I gather, sneaking into the abandoned construction site of the Masonic Temple was a rite of passage for generations of Rhode Islanders. Inside and out, layers of graffiti competed for attention, piles of trash littered the site, and thieves picked away the copper roof until it was completely gone. I’m not sure what impresses me more: the fact that the building managed to stay (barely) standing for 75 years, or that after so long the community succeeded in finally completing the building, albeit in an entirely different form. Today the building is a Marriott Renaissance Hotel, with 272 rooms designed in 48 different configurations – necessary due to the constraints of the pre-existing floor-plates and window arrangements.
Approaching the impressive neo-classical building it was easy for me to forget that it didn’t always stand so strong. Despite having dug through PPS’s files on the building, I still half expected a grand classical interior to mimic the grandeur of the building’s exterior, and was disappointed to find myself in an unremarkable (though nice) hotel lobby. I had to remind myself that the very existence of this building is nothing short of amazing.
Art in Ruins offers some great information on the background on the building. And the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel has a nice write up of history on their website as well. Go check out the building yourselves! A series of original blueprints of the Masonic Temple adorn the walls of the first floor hallways.
And share with me YOUR thoughts on this building. What are some of your memories, and stories you’ve been told? Comment on twitter #mep20