The Phenix Building
My experience approaching the reception desk of the Phenix Building was familiar. At this point in my journey of exploring 20 endangered properties in 10 weeks (just 2 more buildings and 1 week to go!), I’m used to the perplexed stares of strangers as I try to explain why I’m there and what I’m looking to do. As the receptionist contemplated what to do with me, a friendly face I hadn’t noticed before said, “I can tell you about the building! Come with me!” For a second I stood there in disbelief. I wasn’t expecting my visit to the Phenix (yes, this is the correct spelling) to be so fruitful.
The friendly face was Loren Williams, Operations Manager for Brown’s Division of Advancement. Brown’s development office moved into the building, far removed from the rest of the campus, in 1999. Vacant for years, entire sections of the roof had fallen through making its demolition eminent. The building was listed on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list for five years before plans were made for its rehab, with Brown secured as a tenant. Part of the terms of Brown’s lease allowed the university to design the floor plans. It’s lucky that this building was saved considering that so much else was lost including adjacent buildings and Phenix’s prominent smokestack.
Loren brought me into his office and without pause, launched into telling me everything he could about the building, hardly giving me time to take out my notebook. Loren is my favorite kind of historian: a really excited one. Unfortunately, he didn’t know everything. But he did know much more than the very little I found written about it. I’ll share with you what he shared with me. And then I hope you can all complete this puzzle by contributing any information you know of or are able to dig up.
Okay, this is what I learned:
- The building was built in 1848 to be part of a foundry specializing in the manufacturing of hydraulic presses, dyers, printers, bleachers’ machinery, castings, and shaftings. The foundry was one of the first to produce the earliest American textile-printing machines.
- The Phenix Co. dates back to 1830 and was founded by George D. Holmes
- Legend has it that the building was a canon ball factory during the Civil War. Loren can’t find any evidence to back this legend up. It’s possible that a few canon balls were cast here, but it’s unlikely that at any point the building was solely dedicated to canon ball manufacturing.
- After its time as a foundry, Loren says the building was turned into a bleachery. And then it became part of the Narragansett Electric Company who mainly used the building as its dumping ground.
- The building was basically built without a foundation and was sinking into the ground when rehab began. The only thing holding it up was a giant cistern original to the building. It would have been full of water for use of the foundry, but Narragansett Electric used it to dispose of all kinds of things including mountains of light bulbs.
- It’s a beautiful old industrial building, and unique in that it’s faced with granite ashlar. The Elm Street facade is dominated by three large rounded-arched openings, one on top of the other. I assume this was an early elevator lift?
- Loren referred to the brick addition to the building as the “machine shop”, elsewhere I read that this was an “elevator tower” addition.
What do you know about the building? We’re interested in any bits of knowledge, photos or theories you may have. Comment on twitter @pvdpreservation #mep20.
Here’s one question to start you off with: how did it get the name “Phenix”? Did Mr. Holmes mean to call it the “Phoenix” and just not know how to spell?
HERE IS WHAT YOU SHARED WITH ME:
The Rhode Island Historical Society @RIHistory came through with the most fruitful information about the Phenix Building in sharing the Rhode Island Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites compiled by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1978. The report had some new information including:
By late 19th century nearly every bleachery in the country had been fitted by the Phenix Co.
In 1863 Phenix expanded 2 include another machine shop, foundry, woodworking & blacksmith shop.
In 1978 Phenix Building was home to a LUGGAGE manufacturer! Definitely hadn’t heard that one before
Erik Gould @ClickErik clued me into the fact that photographer Ira Garber had taken a number of wonderful photographs of the Phenix Building prior to its renovation. Some of these photos, and the information the Historical Society found can be seen in our storify story for this building below. Have more to share? Let us know @pvdpreservation!
Twitter follower Steven Lubar, @lubar, did some digging and found a few exciting clues into the Phenix Building’s past! Lubar shared both a 1905 sanborn map picturing the building (surrounded by worker’s housing? he asks) and some 1891 Phenix Co. letterhead. The letterhead depicts the Phenix Co. complex in its early days and tells us that the company was the “sole manufacturer of the Nagle Power Feed Pump.” Not sure what that was.
link shared with us by @lubar. Apparently if you’re interested in exploring Rhode Island company letterheads you’ll want to visit this site. @lubar also found a lot of information about the Phenix building in a book titled, “The Industrial advantages of Rhode Island“. According to this book, the first American made calico printing machine was produced at the Phenix Iron Foundry and they published the “largest catalog of gears and pulleys in the country.”You can zoom in really close to the letter head by following this
Vanessa Ryan, @vlryan, may have solved the mystery behind the Phenix Co. name! She asked if perhaps the name “Phenix” is connected to the village Phenix in West Warwick, pointing out that in that town there was also Phenix Mill (1810) and Phenix Hotel (1871). Sounds like a great theory to me! I had no idea that the village of Phenix existed! Did you?!