2020 Most Endangered Properties
For over 25 years, PPS has worked with concerned neighbors, owners, and activists to develop the annual MEP List. Its purpose is to generate interest in and support for the preservation of vulnerable structures; to educate the public about the benefits of historic preservation and the diverse architectural resources in Providence; and to foster creative collaboration among property owners, developers, and other interested parties to bring about positive changes to each property. Buildings and artifacts on this year’s MEP list represent a variety of aspects from the city’s history.
2020 Most Endangered Properties List
- Industrial Trust Building (aka Superman Building), 111 Westminster Street, Downtown (1928)
- Axelrod Music Neon Sign, 251 Weybosset Street, Downtown (c. 1950s)
- Citizens Bank and Adjacent Parcels, 870 Westminster Street, West End (1921)
- Broad Street Synagogue (aka Temple Beth El), 688 Broad Street, Elmwood (1910)
- Crook Point Bascule Bridge, spanning Seekonk River (c. 1908)
- RI State Board of Public Roads, 30 Arline Street, Smith Hill (1931)
- Commercial Building, 1107 Westminster Street, West End (c. 1890s)
- I-195 Redevelopment District Parcels 42 and P4, between Dyer Street and Providence River, Downtown
- Water Supply Board Building, 552 Academy Avenue, Mount Pleasant (c. 1908)
- Providence Public School Buildings, as represented by Hope High School Auditorium, 324 Hope Street, East Side (1938)
Industrial Trust Building (1928)
111 Westminster Street
Years on MEP: 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
Threat: Demolition by neglect
The tallest building in the state and the keystone of our downtown will mark seven years of vacancy this April.
Locally and lovingly known as the Superman Building, the modern structure was designed by the New York firm Walker & Gillette in an age of optimism and prosperity in the style later to be known as Art Deco. It is embedded with stylized classical motifs and friezes depicting Rhode Island history. The building’s pyramidal massing, topped with a lantern, was inspired by Manhattan set-backs of the time. Rising 26-stories above Kennedy Plaza, the Industrial Trust Co. Building opened exactly one year before the stock market crash that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Yet the landmark survived an 85-year history as a center of banking, which ended in 2013 when tenant Bank of America moved out.
The building’s vacancy in the heart of downtown remains the most critical development and preservation challenge currently facing any historic property in Rhode Island. The perilous vulnerability of the Industrial Trust Co. Building was recognized in May 2019 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which included it on America’s List of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Although the building is in private hands, redevelopment will require an innovative solution, public-private partnership and financing, and will not be easy. Historic tax credits and collaboration among state and city officials, developers, labor, and preservationists are necessary for a full restoration and 21st century adaptive reuse of this local icon due to the building’s age, size, and condition.
We know, however, through the example of South Street Landing’s adaptive reuse that Providence and Rhode Island are capable of creative and large-scale preservation-based success stories. PPS continues to work diligently to advocate for the Industrial Trust Co. Building and to forge a solution. Loss of this landmark would be a psychological blow to Providence and should not be an option. PPS remains determined to see this beacon of hope illuminated once again.
Axelrod Music Neon Sign (c. 1950s)
251 Weybosset Street
Years on MEP: 2020
The listing of this advertising artifact, prominently attached to a building downtown, allows us to contemplate what is architectural and historical—and explore whether something deserves protection.
The U.S. patent for neon lights was filed in 1915 by Frenchman Georges Claude. The technology’s advertising heyday occurred between 1920-1960. Locally, musician and violin dealer Abraham Axelrod established a music store in 1910; by 1913 he opened a shop at the Arcade. Then by mid-century, he moved down the street to 251 Weybosset where the neon sign remains hung at the 2nd and 3rd floor levels, while half of his name is still visible in a sign above the door.
The building with Art Deco references at 249-257 Weybosset is located at a subtle bend in the serpentine street, which was a Pequot Tribe trail running through what is today downtown Providence. The neon Axelrod sign is strategically placed at the angle of the façade for maximum exposure.
As a preservation rule of thumb, structures are considered eligible to be historically significant at 50 years. The Axelrod sign is likely 70 years old and, though the business closed in 2004, remains a visible marker on Weybosset. We invite you to consider if, through survival, this neon sign is now a landmark. Does it contribute to the building façade in such a way that it should be considered part of the architecture and preserved? While not the PPAC marquee across the street or the Citgo sign in Boston, PPS believes the Axelrod sign is a notable piece of downtown history worthy of preservation.
Citizens Bank (1921) and Adjacent Parcels
870 Westminster Street
Neighborhood: West End
Years on MEP: 2020
Threat: Vacancy, redevelopment
This handsome temple-front Georgian Revival bank building, designed by local firm Clarke & Howe, stands on historically significant land at the intersection of Westminster and Cranston Streets. It is located on the site of the renowned Hoyle Tavern (built 1739, demolished 1890), which marked an important Native American and Colonial/Revolutionary gateway to the western Rhode Island and Connecticut commencing at Hoyle, also known as Canonicus, Square.
Citizens Savings Bank was chartered in 1871 and located nearby on Westminster Street—originally High Street in the West End, and renamed Westminster in 1893. The bank established its central headquarters at the structure seen today at 870 Westminster with a later annex building fronting Westminster to the west. Citizens Bank vacated the property in 2019, and the site drew immediate interest.
The existing buildings and adjacent lots are listed on the 2020 MEP list because current redevelopment plans do not pay deference to the importance of this landmark site nor treat the six parcels under common ownership holistically through a master plan. Additionally, the banking hall’s historic interior presents a difficult re-use challenge. PPS champions high-quality, contextual design and planning for this important site at the intersection of two principal West End corridors (Cranston and Westminster Streets). This once-in-a-century development opportunity demands greater creativity and deference than what has been proposed.
Broad Street Synagogue, aka Temple Beth El (1910)
688 Broad Street
Years on MEP: 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
Threat: Neglect, vacancy
At 110 years old and marking its eighth listing on the MEP list, PPS remains optimistic that this important religious building on Broad Street will find new life.
The Broad Street Synagogue, as it is commonly known, was designed by architects Banning & Thornton and constructed in 1910-11 as the new home of the Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David. Each façade is pedimented and the street-front features two prominent Corinthian columns. The interior of the Classical Revival-style synagogue is dominated by a two-story auditorium that reflects the turn of the century Reform movement that integrated families for worship. By the mid-20th century, the congregation relocated to the East Side in response to the declining German-Jewish community once prominent in South Providence.
In 1954, the temple was sold to the new Congregation of Shaare Zedek, and a low two-story, flat-roof brick and concrete block addition was added to the north. Ensuing years of Jewish population decline led to the official closure of the synagogue in 2006. Temple Beth-El was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
By 2012, a group of artists, educators, and residents formed the Broad Street Synagogue Revitalization Project. This volunteer group initiated a number of advocacy and fundraising efforts to revitalize the building; unfortunately, they became inactive in 2014. In 2015, the building was sold again, and the owner rehabilitated the interior and installed a temporary roof. The building sold again in 2016 and no work has taken place since. The temporary roof is failing, causing interior damage.
PPS continues to communicate with the owner and work with the city to identify a new user and steward of this historic Elmwood place of worship.
Crook Point Bascule Bridge (c. 1908)
Spanning Seekonk River
Neighborhood: Fox Point
Years on MEP: 2020
Threat: Deterioration, vandalism, demolition
The Crook Point Bascule Bridge is a rolling lift (or Scherzer, patented in 1893) railroad drawbridge connecting the East Side of Providence to East Providence across the Seekonk River. It was built in 1908 to carry the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad line.
Word of the bridge’s demise was illuminated in the release last year of the state’s 10-year transportation plan, which scheduled demolition for 2026-27. RIDOT cited safety and liability as reasons, and earmarked $6 million for the removal. Mayor Jorge Elorza spoke out in favor of the bridge’s preservation last July when the plan was revealed, and the City has since convened advocates to explore viable re-use options.
Loss of the bridge would unlink us from Providence’s rail history as well as the East Side Tunnel. Listing the Crook Point bridge on the Most Endangered List urges us to contemplate the future plan for demolition, but also prompts the question, what should we do with industrial engineering sites and artifacts especially when they conflict with nature? Can they exist in tandem? Can this bridge be preserved as an artistic and/or recreational landmark? PPS urges the City and State to give thoughtful consideration to all options.
RI State Board of Public Roads (1931)
30 Arline Street
Neighborhood: Smith Hill
Years on MEP: 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2020
Threat: Vacancy, vandalism, neglect
Five years have passed since this industrial Art Deco gem of Smith Hill was last listed, and sadly not much has changed except for the effects of a robust graffiti campaign.
Originally the State Board of Public Roads Maintenance Building, the concrete and brick, 2-story structure is a notable example of the machine aesthetic and was one of the first modernist buildings erected by the State of Rhode Island in the early 1930s.
Narragansett Bay Commission took ownership in 2001 with plans to have the building demolished. Fortunately, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission intervened and determined, in 2003, that the building is eligible for a National Register listing and instituted a preservation easement on the property. The ownership then changed into private hands where it has remained since 2006. While still standing, the building exists in a state of underuse and disrepair, and as a target for vandalism.
Fortunately, the property has the protection of the Providence Landmarks District – Industrial & Commercial Buildings District; therefore, future demolition plans must be approved by the Historic District Commission. PPS envisions a higher and better use for this early modern structure and will happily work with the owners and the State to identify a solution.
Commercial Building (c. 1890s)
1107 Westminster Street
Neighborhood: West End
Years on MEP: 2020
Threat: Vulnerability, demolition by neglect
This vacant and fire-damaged late 19th century brick building in the West End is vulnerable to demolition and redevelopment activity on Westminster Street.
In its early years, the modest but dignified two-story Palladian structure served both commercial and residential boarding uses according to city directories and was organized by five street numbers (1107-1115). A variety of pre-World War II businesses operated there, including: dry goods, laundry, bakery, grocery, doctors’ offices, a pool room, used furniture, and even an ice cream factory. Current evidence does not support earlier claims that this building was previously owned by the American Building Company or John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Fire damage from 1967 and 1998 has rendered the interior of the structure severely damaged and the building vacant. A sign on the east side advertises a “2004” opening for “residence- work/condos”. Obviously that plan has not come to fruition 16 years later. The building has local preservation protection through the Providence Landmarks District – Industrial & Commercial Buildings District, a noncontiguous district across Providence.
PPS is hopeful that renewed interest in development on Westminster will spur interest in this building without making it more vulnerable to demolition. Its handsome façade contributes to the largely eroded late 19th and early 20th century streetscape of this major westward corridor.
I-195 Redevelopment District Parcels 42 and P4
Between Dyer Street and Providence River
Years on MEP: 2019 (West Side Park), 2020
Threat: Inappropriate development
As Providence anticipates the opening of public parks on the east and west sides of the Providence River and the new pedestrian bridge, the threat of an inappropriately sited luxury high-rise tower continues to overshadow this public amenity before it opens.
Last year, we included the West Side Park (Parcel P4) on the MEP List citing grave concerns about land taken from the park (23,004 square feet) by the General Assembly for private development on Parcel 42. This year, we include both parcels as under eminent threat. Although the Hope Point Tower application continues to move through the approval process at the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, serious questions remain about the proposal’s viability while litigation to stop the tower is pending.
Through design review at the city level and I-195 District, PPS has testified that the design of the 6-story commercial and parking podium base will negatively affect the abutting public park. We continue to closely monitor this situation and raise concerns about the future health and success of the park amenity.
Water Supply Board Building (c. 1908)
552 Academy Avenue
Neighborhood: Mount Pleasant
Years on MEP: 2018, 2019, 2020
Threat: Uncertain future
While not under eminent threat of demolition, PPS remains concerned about the future of the city-owned former Water Supply Board building off Smith Street in Mount Pleasant.
The Rhode Island Company had their Academy Avenue Car House at this location as of 1908, on land that seems to have been a dairy farm. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the property was transferred to the Supreme Amusement Corporation and later United Electric Railways Co. In 1950 it was acquired by the City of Providence for use by the Water Supply Board.
The appearance of the original early 20th century car barn is unknown. The steel, stone, and brick street façade seen today reflects the later Streamline Moderne style, an evolution of Art Deco, which likely dates from work done under Mayor Walter Reynolds in 1954. The structure is a one- and two-story, flat-roofed, brick industrial office building with a notable curved corner at its southern end.
The Water Supply Board vacated the property in 2017 for new offices off Huntington Avenue leaving the future of the Academy Avenue building uncertain. Future uses, or demolition, of the building will require approval by the Historic District Commission as it is protected by Providence Landmarks District – Industrial & Commercial Buildings District designation.
PPS advocates for adaptive reuse of this versatile and stylistically notable building.
Providence Public School Buildings, as represented by Hope High School Auditorium (1938)
Citywide and 324 Hope Street
Neighborhood: East Side
Years on MEP: 2001 (tower), 2002 (school), 2020
Threat: Neglect; 30-year old fire and water damage
The health of our students is paramount. This is affected by the health of our public school buildings.
The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy was commissioned by the State of Rhode Island to review the status of the Providence Public School District. The report, released last summer, was sobering. Language used to describe the findings includes: damning, devastating, bleak, blistering, and scathing. Much of the report focuses on the condition of school facilities with evidence of crumbling buildings, asbestos, peeling paint, and plumbing and water quality issues. The Washington Post noted, “The worst [school conditions] reduced seasoned members of the review team to tears” (June 27, 2019).
PPS has a vested interested in the city’s public schools because 70% of our members live in the city and our office is located in the oldest standing public school building in Providence, which last year celebrated its 250th anniversary. During the MEP nomination period, PPS was contacted by Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune who suggested that we consider Hope High School. Following a site visit, PPS was saddened by the condition of the once state-of-the-art and now fire-damaged auditorium. As exterior work is currently taking place at the school, we decided to use Hope High School auditorium as an exemplar of the condition of public school buildings throughout Providence.
Fortunately for Hope High School, a group of dedicated alumni are taking matters into their own hands to restore, repair, and reinstate the theater facility. They have a fundraising goal of $13 million to realize the preservation plan laid out by LLB Architects.
Listing Hope High School Auditorium as an example of the deteriorating condition of Providence Public School buildings, PPS intends to raise awareness of the effects of deferred maintenance and lack of funding for capital improvements. Our public school students deserve better.