2022 Most Endangered Properties
The MEP List celebrates places of architectural, historical, and cultural significance vulnerable to loss and promotes good, sustainable preservation solutions that save sites and benefit the communities around them. When properties are lost, they are lost forever, like the Ward Baking Co. Administration Building (1901-1908; listed in January 2021 and demolished in February 2021), further eroding the built environment of this city and needlessly wasting embodied energy, materials, and craftsmanship. Further, when we lose structures, we risk losing evidence of living memory, like that of Providence’s historic Cape Verdean community (2022 listing). Preservationists now work to recognize and preserve the memory of places that do not survive or represent conventional architectural integrity.
Industrial Trust Building, aka Superman Building (1928)
111 Westminster Street
Years on MEP: 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022
The Industrial Trust Building has topped PPS’ Most Endangered Properties List many times—and will continue to do so until it is saved. This majestic landmark, affectionately referred to by its nickname the Superman Building, is arguably the most pressing preservation challenge in the state of Rhode Island. Prolonged vacancy (nine years this spring) and lack of action are stunting the vibrancy and renaissance of our downtown by occupying a lifeless void.
Why does the fate of this one building matter? Yes, it is notable as the tallest building in Rhode Island and appears as the unmistakable keystone of the Providence skyline. Yes, it is an early example of an Art Deco skyscraper, designed by New York firm Walker & Gillette and predating the Empire State Building. Yes, it is the most iconic building in Providence—or at least tied with our McKim, Mead, & White State House. Yes, generations of Rhode Islanders have memories of working in this building or passing through the grand banking hall.
These reasons are justifiable, but pale in comparison to the energy and potential embodied in the Superman Building at this time of climate crisis and housing shortage. Add to that the jobs this building represents— construction jobs to restore and modernize the tower and the long-term jobs to support residential or commercial use, as well as jobs in the surrounding Downtown area once the building is repopulated.
There is more reason for hope for the Industrial Trust Building this year than in previous MEP listings. It has been reported that the development team, anchored by owner High Rock Development, is negotiating with State officials to pursue renovation of the building into mostly residential units. This reuse would be welcome from preservation and sustainability perspectives, while providing housing and jobs and reactivating the most important building in Downtown.
PPS is cautiously optimistic that by this time next year, a feasible plan will be enacted to adapt all 428 feet of this skyline superhero into much needed housing, providing work for local builders and tradespeople, and allowing opportunities for Rhode Islanders and tourists alike to once again engage with and enjoy this local landmark.
PPS has continually promoted the preservation of the Industrial Trust Building—from nominating it to America’s List of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2019, to inspiring a RISD Interior Architecture Studio in Spring 2020, to authoring a white paper with Building Enclosure Science to dispel the consistently repeated myth that the building is deteriorating (spoiler: it is not). We even commissioned a wildly popular keepsake ornament to commemorate the Superman Building’s historical and emotional significance to Rhode Islanders.
While buildings are part of the climate crisis, they are also part of the solution. Our city’s architectural icon is well-suited for adaptive reuse and deserves the private and public investment and political will necessary to achieve a 21st-century use. We are confident that adaptive reuse of the Industrial Trust Building will result in a resounding, and likely award-winning, preservation success story attracting national attention. The building will mark its centennial in just six years. Before that celebration occurs, let’s save Superman!
Broad Street Synagogue, aka Temple Beth El (1910)
688 Broad Street
Neighborhood: Upper South Providence
Years on MEP: 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022
Our MEP all-star with the most listings (10) in the roughly 25-year history of the list is a beautiful piece of Classical Revival architecture that is still worth fighting for. And, like the Superman Building, this year there is reason for cautious optimism about the future of this historic synagogue, individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1988).
The Broad Street Synagogue remains in private ownership, but with significant public interest, the Providence Redevelopment Agency may identify a long-term use and tenant of the property. The PRA has invested over $100,000 to stabilize the building following water damage from a roofing failure. Now that the building envelope is stable and weather-proofed, efforts can focus on adaptive reuse schemes.
Construction on this Providence landmark began 112 years ago. It was built by Providence’s oldest Jewish institution, the Congregation Sons of Israel and David, which originated in 1854 as an Orthodox house of worship and is also one of New England’s earliest Reform congregations. Their first temple was built in Downtown Providence in 1890. This second synagogue, in Elmwood, was designed by local architects and brothers-in-law, Edward T. Banning and Henry C. Thornton, and reflected the new name, Temple Beth-El. The congregation’s third synagogue—a building record among Jewish congregations in Rhode Island—was erected on the East Side in 1954, as the German-Jewish population of South Providence declined.
It was in 1954 that the temple was sold to the new Congregation of Shaare Zedek, and in 1958 a low two-story, flat-roof brick and concrete block addition designed by Harry Marshak was built on the north side. The synagogue officially closed in 2006 and has been struggling ever since.
Though it has suffered damage from theft and the elements, the building’s interior and exterior boast exquisite classical details. Each façade of the Broad Street Synagogue is pedimented and the front portico features prominent Corinthian columns in antis (two columns set between end pillars). The interior two-story auditorium has truncated corners creating an irregular octagonal plan and spaces for the choir, organ, and circulation. The floor slopes downward towards a raised platform on the east end, and the north and south sides feature brilliant full-length stained-glass windows with some panels damaged or missing.
The PRA has learned through public inquiry and an open house they hosted in October 2021 that there is widespread interest within the neighborhood and across the city to save and reactivate this noble building on Broad Street. If you would like to stay informed about reuse activity at the Broad Street Synagogue or are interested in redevelopment of the building, please contact the property owner or Amanda DeGrace, the City of Providence’s Director of Real Estate, at email@example.com.
Providence Gas Company Purifier House (1899-1900)
200 Allens Avenue
Neighborhood: Lower South Providence
Years on MEP: 2022
The Providence Gas Company Purifier House is a recognizable landmark on Allens Avenue with its brick façade, industrial-style windows, and arched roof. This four-story building from the turn of the last century is notable as an isolated and rare survivor from the earliest industrial period of the Providence Harbor and witness to dramatic changes in industry and the waterfront.
The Purifier House was built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, which expanded from bridge fabrication to design and fabrication of special-purpose steel buildings, for the Providence Gas Company. A structure built to enable technological advances in industry was itself a technological advancement. Steel frame construction provided rapid assembly, strength, and custom design. The Purifier House served the process of coal burning gas production for heating and lighting. As part of the Providence Gas Company’s South Station, it was decommissioned in 1916 and the only building of the gas plant spared demolition.
The steel frame, which is largely visible from the exterior, is the building’s most distinctive feature along with the elliptical arch truss roof. The exterior skin and fenestration visible today date from modifications in the1920s, when second and third floors were inserted internally. Many additions and modifications have come and gone, though the main block of this building survives miraculously. The Purifier House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a largely honorary designation, in 2006, and is part of the Providence Landmarks District, a noncontiguous local historic district providing preservation protection to the exterior of the building. Importantly, PLD designation provides demolition review, however, that does not protect it from structural threats or obsolescence caused by the intensive activity of abutting neighbors.
There were various subsequent uses of the building between the gas purification chapter and the Great Depression and Hurricane of 1938, which devastated Providence Harbor. Beginning in 1940 and lasting sixty years, the City Tire Company occupied the site. Most recently, the building was rebranded Conley’s Wharf, housing small businesses, but the property sold in 2017 and is apparently vacant today.
The context affecting the fate of the Purifier House is largely location. Allens Avenue is a major artery running south from Downtown and serving as US 1A. The introduction of Interstate 95, parallel to the west, effectively severed Allens Avenue and the first block of several east-west streets from residential South Providence to the west. This sealed Allens Avenue’s fate as a location for largely noxious uses. Today, Allens Avenue is a lightning rod for citizens concerned with issues of environmental justice and the health and well-being of the riverfront and abutting neighborhoods- and neighbors!
The architectural and historical significance of the Purifier House is well-documented. Furthermore, this one building provides a snapshot of rapid, and sometimes ravaging, effects of industrial and environmental changes due to location and use. The preservation and future of the structure have less to do with integrity or adaptive reuse capacity and more to do with the harmful uses that surround it on the waterfront.
Rhodes Street National Register Historic District (1855–1915)
Janes and Rhodes Streets
Neighborhood: Upper South Providence
Years on MEP: 2001, 2002, 2017, 2022
The Rhodes Street Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 in recognition of its significance “as a well-preserved collection of high-quality nineteenth-century domestic architecture and as a representative of the development of South Providence as a Victorian neighborhood.” The district originally included 20 contributing residential buildings on Rhodes, Alphonso, and Janes Streets. When the district was first listed as a MEP in 2001, six of the original buildings had been lost; today only 11 remain, meaning that half of the historic district is gone.
The Rhodes Street Historic District sits on the subdivided land that was formerly the ancestral farm of the Rhodes family. The oldest surviving building is the c. 1855 Asahel Herrick House at 231 Rhodes Street—built when the street was part of Cranston. The streets featured a variety of architectural styles including Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne, and several residential types including large single-family and multi-family dwellings, cottages, bungalows, and tenements.
Economic depressions, the intrusion of Interstate 95, and encroachment of local hospital development have combined to dramatically reduce the housing stock in this neighborhood. Some good has come from the loss of built fabric, however, in the form of green open spaces. Today, on the site of the former Elizabeth Harris House (c. 1893) at 10-12 Janes Street is the Janes Community Garden owned and managed by the Southside Community Land Trust. The Arthur and Ruby Lawrence Park and playground, at the site of the c. 1890 end gable tenement house at 10-12 Alphonso Street, was named for the late couple who resided around the corner on Rhodes Street on the occasion of their 75th wedding anniversary.
The Rhodes Street Historic District is a stark example of how honorary designation on the National Register alone does not protect historic properties. Protection through local historic district designation is a vital preservation tool—especially when it comes to the review of demolition applications. Financial investment, however, is needed to enable historic and elegant buildings like the ones found on Rhodes Street to continue to provide much-needed versatile housing.
The resident of Rhodes Street who nominated the district for the MEP List on behalf of neighbors shared, “We hope to draw attention to the location as an area for investment as part of a multi-pronged effort to clean up, install [PPS historic] markers, and publicize the ongoing improvements on the block.” PPS would love to see these things come to fruition and would like to help in any way we can.
Grace Church Cemetery (1834, 1843, c. 1860)
10 Elmwood Avenue
Years on MEP: 2014, 2015, 2021, 2022
Historic Grace Church Cemetery appears on the MEP List once again, but this year PPS would like to use it to draw wider attention to burial grounds and cemeteries throughout the city that are suffering from vandalism or neglect. Though cemeteries do often contain architecture in the form of buildings, vaults, and monuments in need of preservation, they are more broadly examples of cultural landscapes within urban settings. Grace Church Cemetery, for example, follows the Rhode Island pattern of being placed just outside of the core settlement, in this case in early 19th century Providence, rather than next to the parish church. Burial grounds are sacred spaces for the dead, but they also represent religious and cultural practices, the presence of waves of immigrants, and sometimes rare historical open spaces within cities.
Located at the junction of Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue, Grace Church Cemetery has long served as a gateway to South Providence, though it predates by a generation the older buildings around it today: the few surviving Victorian residences and Trinity United Methodist Church (1864-65). Grace Episcopal Church, built in 1845-46 and located Downtown at Westminster and Mathewson Streets, originally purchased four acres of level land for use as a parish burial ground in 1834; the triangular parcel was doubled in size by 1843. The original portion of the cemetery was laid out on a diagonal with “avenues” between rows of plots named for trees and with a small diamond-shaped area in the middle known as “Cemetery Square.” The larger addition was laid out in a simple east-west grid, and these patterns are still visible today.
A granite receiving vault, built into a raised mound in the southern section, was built in the Greek Revival style around 1850. The handsome caretaker’s cottage, just inside the gate at the northern tip, was constructed between 1859-1860 in the Gothic Revival style promoted by A.J. Downing. The cemetery is part of the Trinity Square Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a key element of the Trinity Square streetscape.
The cemetery has experienced vile desecration of gravestones by vandals. Trinity Gateway Historical Improvement Association was formed in 2017 to act as a friends group for the district, including Grace Church Cemetery. Working with Groundwork Rhode Island and Trinity Together, they host volunteer clean-up events.
This spring, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission will collaborate with the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries to present Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks. In addition to cemetery clean-ups, gravestone conservation demonstrations, and tours, there will be additional programs to raise awareness about our state’s historic cemeteries and to promote their preservation. PPS urges community members in Providence to propose and engage in the program offerings and to become more familiar with neighborhood cemeteries, like Grace Church Cemetery.
Cathedral of St. John (1810)
271 North Main Street
Neighborhood: College Hill
Years on MEP: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2022
Church properties throughout the United States are suffering from vacancy and obsolescence due to aging and dwindling congregations—and that was true before the pandemic. Some places of worship transfer from one community to another as immigrant populations change, while other buildings have been sold and successfully adaptively repurposed for residential or commercial use. No location or denomination seems to be immune from the weight and expense of stewarding historic places of worship, and one of Providence’s oldest churches is no exception.
The Cathedral of St. John has stood on North Main Street for 212 years. Designed by noted Federal period architect John Holden Greene, it replaced a wooden structure dating from 1722, King’s Church—a colonial outpost of the Church of England. Following the Revolutionary War, the church was renamed St. John’s, and in 1929 the parish church became the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. The Cathedral doors closed to the congregation a decade ago.
The church itself, constructed of Smithfield stone with brownstone trim, combines Federal forms with Gothic detailing: the end gable elevation is articulated with lancet-arch windows with tracery. Inside the nave, a low saucer-dome ceiling is supported by clustered colonnettes. Notable additions to the property include the transepts by Clifton A. Hall in 1866-67, the chapel to the east by Richard Upjohn circa 1855, and the unmistakably Modern introduction of the diocesan offices to the north by Philemon E. Sturges (the son of a minister) in 1972 in a Brutalist-light manner with tracery. A cemetery has long occupied the central portion of the block.
Many may not realize that the church property encompasses the entire block where the Cathedral is located— bounded by North Main, Church, Benefit, and Star Streets. Buildings include seven 18th and 19th century dwellings on Benefit Street, the standout being the Clarke-Slater House by architect James Bucklin (an apprentice to John Holden Greene), more commonly known as the Hallworth House, a convalescent home for the elderly until it closed in August 2020. While Hallworth is vacant, the rest of the Benefit Street buildings are currently used as rental properties for modest income. Hallworth House’s Modern three-story addition pre-dates the diocesan offices; it was built in 1967-68 to house the nursing home.
In April 2012, the Diocese suspended regular services at the Cathedral due to the high cost of maintaining the building but continues to support efforts to preserve and reuse the church building and other structures. Under the leadership of the Bishop, the Right Reverend W. Nicholas Knisely, the Diocese is weighing all options as it considers the future use and preservation of its College Hill campus—the buildings of which span 200 years.
Tockwotton Fox Point Cape Verdean Community
Neighborhood: Fox Point
Years on MEP: 2022
Preservationists often refer to the layers of history. Some are visible in our built environment and others are invisible—but being invisible, intangible, or erased does not mean that they are not there. The redevelopment of I-195 District parcels following the relocation of the highway provides an important example. These are vacant, buildable parcels now, but they haven’t always been so. Prior to the building of the highway, the affected land in Fox Point was home to businesses and houses—and people. And long before these buildings and people, this land was occupied by the Narragansett people.
The listing this year of the Tockwotton Fox Point Cape Verdean Community allows us to explore the preservation of intangible culture and history. Many of the buildings once occupied by this community are gone due to federal intervention (urban renewal and the Interstate Highway System), gentrification, institutional expansion, and PPS’ own underestimation of the threats. As the East Side I-195 parcels are reimagined and repopulated with buildings, 21st century technology provides important tools to maintain the living history for generations yet to come.
One hundred and thirty years ago, Cape Verdeans began arriving in the Tockwotton neighborhood of Fox Point. They were the first Sub-Saharan African people to immigrate voluntarily to Providence, Rhode Island. Pre I-195 construction, the community stretched from Planet Street and South Main Street through to India Point Park; Wickenden and Brook Streets up to John Street; and Benefit, Traverse, and Brook Streets to the river.
The locus of Cape Verdean “lived history” was South Main Street, home to significant community institutions, organizations, and businesses. Today, it is the location of I-195 District parcels, the redevelopment of which will add a new layer of history. Recalling and understanding history can be made more accessible by pointing to buildings inhabited by ancestors. However, historians are challenged to tell an invisible story when the buildings do not survive or were demolished.
The Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Place Project, Inc. (FPCVHP), incorporated in 2014, is an independent, community-based research initiative. The team, comprised of descendants of the first settlement of Cape Verdeans, aims to open the door to generations of research by being the architects and curators of the lived history of this specific community. They have worked for over fifteen years to insert Cape Verdean history into the stream of narratives told about immigrants to Providence, dating back to Roger Williams and the British Colonists.
How do we capture the intangible surviving memory and generational trauma experienced by the people displaced from their neighborhood? PPS is proud to recognize the work of FPCVHP and their team as they leverage 21st-century digital technology to preserve, maintain, and create a digital footprint of the living but physically erased history of Rhode Island’s first Cape Verdean neighborhood. The awareness and protection of intangible heritage challenges us, as preservationists, to widen the definition of place significance and to encourage the commemoration of the unseen.
Photo courtesy of SPIA Media Productions, Inc.
Prince Hall Grand Lodge (1893)
883 Eddy Street
Neighborhood: Lower South Providence
Years on MEP: 2021, 2022
The Prince Hall Masons in Providence mark a tremendous anniversary this year: their lodge turns 225 years old! Unfortunately, they will not be able to celebrate in their lodge on Eddy Street due to the devastating fire that occurred on Christmas Day 2020. Following this event and during the current economic and health challenges caused by the pandemic, the Prince Hall Masons are working diligently to craft a plan to rebuild. Their aim is to restore the late Victorian school house that has served as their Eddy Street headquarters for over 50 years and to build an addition with modern catering facilities and accessibility.
The lodge and freemasons are named for Prince Hall, an extraordinary 18th century Bostonian who founded his eponymous branch of Black Freemasonry. Hall organized a lodge in Providence in 1797 following lodges established in Boston and Philadelphia. Most Worshipful Prince Hall Masons once gathered on North Main Street, but they have occupied the Eddy Street building since 1966. The lodge has served as a central meeting place for Providence’s Black community, hosting anniversary and birthday parties, toy drives, voter registration, and, until recently, it was also home to the Providence branch of the NAACP. Many in the city may also know the building as the location of the Acacia Club, hosting jazz performances in the basement.
The building at 883 Eddy Street was constructed in 1893 as a two-story, four-room public school house designed by architect George Cady. He also designed the very similar former Almy/Meader Street School in the Armory District. These two structures are rare in that few early wooden school buildings in Providence survive; in 1896, it was determined that all public schools would be built in brick. Fire damage revealed the original clapboard siding at the first floor and shingles at the second of the exterior and interior details such as pressed tin ceilings. The Eddy Street building was used as a school until 1933. The belfry was lost in the Hurricane of 1938.
The damage caused by the fire, which started in the basement, is largely confined to the first floor; however, water damage resulted from the heroic efforts of the fire department in saving the building from total loss. One of the original staircases is still usable and the second floor and attic suffered relatively little fire damage. The lodge lost many ceremonial artifacts and archival items from the office and library, but the masons have salvaged what they can. Openings in the roof and windows that have been exposed to the elements for over a year will soon be covered to protect the structure from further damage by rain and snow.
PPS is honored to provide support to this distinguished and historic civic organization as the leadership envisions a future for their Lower South Providence property. Resources of time, energy, and money are needed to recover from a tragic event like a fire, and the Prince Hall Masons are determined to forge ahead. If you would like to contribute to their fundraising effort to restore and rebuild, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Editor’s note October 2022: This description was updated to reflect the official name of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge (previously listed as Prince Hall Masonic Temple).*
Urban League of Rhode Island Building (c. 1970s)
246 Prairie Avenue
Neighborhood: Upper South Providence
Years on MEP: 2022
Some may wonder why PPS would be interested in a non-distinct, late 20th century commercial building. We are experts in historical architecture and would be hard pressed to make a case for this example. But we are also concerned with the cultural and historical value of sites throughout Providence, which is why we were pleased to receive a nomination from the public to list the Urban League of Rhode Island building. By examining the site’s history, we can all be reminded of the layers embodied in one site. The headquarters building at Prairie Avenue, where Comstock Avenue, Robinson Street, and Willard Avenue meet it from the west, is at the intersection of structure and culture, and worthy of acknowledgement.
The Urban League was established nationally in New York City in 1910, and locally in Rhode Island in 1939, as one of the oldest community-based civil rights organizations in the United States. Our state affiliate continues to promote economic empowerment by helping neighbors transition from dependency to financial independence.
At present, the Urban League of RI leadership is working to hold onto their building and site in the wake of past financial impropriety and despite the property being in receivership. The City of Providence provided aid to repair the roof, but resources are needed to realize further upgrades, maintenance, and financial obligations. The Urban League offices remain housed at Prairie Avenue, and they have two sister nonprofit organizations as tenants, but without being at full capacity, the large building is often the target of vandalism and theft.
The site is prominently located in Upper South Providence next to two important neighbors, the Liston Campus of the Community College of Rhode Island to the east and the massive hospital campus of Rhode Island Hospital, Women and Infants, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital to the north. With its placement on Prairie Avenue, the Urban League building serves as a gateway to the residential neighborhood to the west. Some may view the 120 parking spaces and development potential of the site as more important than the reuse of the existing building—without paying deference to the site’s local civil rights and African American and immigrant history.
What may not be known to younger generations or newcomers is that this site was the first official urban renewal project in Providence: Willard Center Redevelopment in 1954. The project included a shopping center, the Edmund W. Flynn Elementary School (closed in 2012 and recently demolished), and a park. The redevelopment itself displaced as many as 200 families who occupied the 18-acre site—which had more than 70 19th century buildings on it per the 1900 Sanborn map.
Displacement, disinvestment, and decline led to disturbances, violence, and arson at or near the Willard Avenue Shopping Center beginning with the Emancipation Day freedom rally in 1966 and culminating in 1970. The original shopping center was demolished, and the current building replaced it.
The repetitive pattern of voluntary or forced resettlement of immigrant populations within a city can be found all over the United States, and South Providence is no exception. Irish and Italian neighborhoods become Jewish centers that become African American communities that today are home to more recent arrivals from Latin America. (See also the listing of the Broad Street Synagogue). And, unfortunately, the record of government-orchestrated urban renewal largely failing the people it was meant to benefit is also a pattern that played out across the country. These two threads, resettlement and urban renewal, represent two critical chapters in the history of South Providence that are still visible in the built environment.
From a sustainability perspective, the current Urban League of Rhode Island building should be repaired and continue to serve the present and future generations of the community by housing nonprofit organizations and other services. If the site were to be redeveloped in the future, however, plans should consider the significance of this site’s 20th century place in local history.