2023 Most Endangered Properties
PPS’ annual Most Endangered Property list is our organization’s signature statement on the stewardship of Providence’s rich architectural legacy. This year’s list puts a focus on publicly-owned buildings, an effort to emphasize the urgency of decades of deferred maintenance, neglect, or underutilization that is reaching a critical point.
In 2023, we have included the entirety of the Providence Public School District’s 4.2 million square feet of building space on the list. PPSD identifies only five percent of its property as high-quality learning facilities, with an average age of 75 for a Providence school building and many more than 100 years old. Other public properties on the list include the RIDOT headquarters and garage on Smith Hill, the Humboldt Avenue Fire Station, and the Urban League of Rhode Island site. The Superman Building also appears on the list for the ninth time.
2023 Most Endangered Properties List
- Industrial Trust Building (aka Superman Building), 111 Westminster Street, Downtown (1928)
- Asa Messer Elementary School, 158 Messer Street, West End (ca. 1890)
- Humboldt Fire Station, 155 Humboldt Avenue, Wayland (1906)
- Providence Gas Co. Purifier House, 200 Allens Avenue, South Providence (1900)
- RIDOT Headquarters and Garage, 30 Arline Street, Smith Hill (1927)
- Standard Wholesale Liquors Co., 115 Harris Avenue, Smith Hill (1937)
- Urban League of Rhode Island Site, 246 Prairie Avenue, Upper South Providence (ca. 1970s)
- Providence Public Schools, Citywide (various)
- Providence Infrastructure, Citywide (various)
Industrial Trust Building, aka Superman Building (1928)
111 Westminster Street
Years on MEP: 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023
Threat: Vacancy, Follow-through on Development
The Industrial Trust Building has occupied the number one seat on PPS’ Most Endangered Properties list for almost a decade. And in 2022, we began to see real possibility for a new life for Rhode Island’s tallest building. It is because we are so close to the finish line that the Industrial Trust Building remains on this list.
Popularly known as the Superman Building, this Art Deco skyscraper was designed by New York City-based architectural firm Walker & Gillette in 1928. With 26 floors, the Industrial Trust Building is still the tallest building in the state and the star of Providence’s skyline.
In April, Massachusetts-based building owner High Rock Development came to an agreement with the City of Providence regarding the reuse plan for the building. The tower will be converted into 285 residential units (20% of which will be slated for affordable housing), and 8,000 square feet of commercial space. The original bank floorplan will be reserved for retail, community, and event space. In October, the City Council recommended a 30-year Tax Stabilization Agreement, allowing for the project to viably move forward.
This plan is also estimated to create at least 1,600 construction jobs, with a goal of hiring 20% minority and women-owned businesses and will help activate downtown with new residents, businesses, and attractions after nearly ten years of vacancy. And from a sustainability perspective, the reuse of buildings, especially one of this massing and caliber, is vital to addressing the climate change crisis.
PPS has advocated for the building since it was vacated in 2013. Beyond being prominently included on this list annually, PPS has successfully nominated it to the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2019, inspired a RISD Interior Design Studio in 2020, authored a paper with Building Enclosure Science to combat the myth of the building’s deterioration, and commissioned a keepsake ornament of the building. Even with plans underway, we will continue to advocate for its best possible future.
Before the ink dries on the reuse plan, we hope to see more public use for the Industrial Trust Building, especially as it will be funded by a public-private partnership. We suggest an observation deck, like those at the Empire State Building, the Edge at Hudson Yards, and SkyDeck in Chicago. This will activate the building’s touristic opportunities, and provide an avenue for education regarding Providence’s development, planning, and architecture. We also recommend that the affordability of the apartment units be re-examined; in our national housing crisis, all units are critical, and Providence residents deserve a fairer opportunity to find housing in this landmark building. This could be addressed through a higher amount of affordable units, making existing affordable units realistically affordable for the city’s Area Median Income (AMI), and limiting a percentage of units for Providence residents or workers.
Asa Messer Elementary School (ca. 1890)
158 Messer Street
Neighborhood: West End
Years on MEP: AM: 2007, 2008, 2011, 2023
Threat: Vacancy, Lack of Maintenance
The Asa Messer Elementary School, circa 1890, is a Queen Anne-style building, exemplified by its strong arches over windows and entryways, square chimney towers, asymmetrical massing, and a brick façade. It was designed by William R. Walker & Son, a prolific architectural firm responsible for most of the prominent Rhode Island public buildings between the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like the Cranston Street Armory), making it part of a significant local architectural collection.
The school is also an important historic asset within the West End neighborhood. It’s a contributing building of the Broadway-Armory Historic District, significant for its development as a streetcar suburb in the Victorian era, full of houses, schools, and churches. Over the last century, this school has served generations of families and became a vital community landmark.
Education planners DeJong, Inc. prepared a Facilities Master Plan for the Providence Public Schools in 2006 that recommended replacing this building with a new school, prompting Asa Messer’s inclusion on the 2007 and 2008 Most Endangered Properties List, but there has been little movement to address the state of this building. In 2016, a portion of the roof fell onto a teacher’s desk, prompting the school occupying it, Trinity Academy for Performing Arts (TAPA), to immediately move out and find an alternate home. Now, it serves as light storage for the school district and continues to deteriorate from extended neglect. There have also been reports of squatting, which becomes a riskier and potentially fatal situation the longer the building’s maintenance goes unaddressed.
Yet, the building and its architectural features can still be saved. If the district does not plan to fully use or maintain the building, it would be in the best interest of the district and the building that it be deemed released for a developer to restore and adapt to another use. As a contributing building to a historic district, there are several incentives for the rehabilitation of buildings at the federal and state level via loans and tax credits. With the right stakeholders and plan in place, this building could see new life.
Humboldt Fire Station (1906)
155 Humboldt Avenue
Years on MEP: 2017, 2023
Threat: Vacancy, Lack of Maintenance
The Humboldt Fire Station was built in 1906 and designed by W.T. Banning. Included in the Wayland National Register Historic District, a residential neighborhood developed in the early 20th century, this Beaux-Arts-style fire station is the only one of its kind in Providence. The Beaux-Arts Movement, begun at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was wildly popular stateside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Due to its classical influences and highly ornamented style, it was mostly used for public buildings to confer gravitas and civic pride.
This fire station was decommissioned in 2017 as the neighborhood’s call volume had become too low to justify the number of fire trucks. The building is still lightly used by the fire department, but its full potential is far from realized. While the needs of the neighborhood have shifted away from robust fire service, it does not mean that the building cannot provide other services for the city – today, most emergency calls are related to health and require Emergency Medical Technicians. EMTs and other social services would benefit from having stations across the city to serve each neighborhood effectively. Using decommissioned buildings like the Humboldt Fire Station would be an opportunity to achieve that.
While a reassignment of a decommissioned building inevitably requires some time to organize, these transitions can be proactively organized as often as the City of Providence revises its Comprehensive Plan. Transitioning to other needed services would allow the best use of the Humboldt Station while keeping the spirit of its original use alive: to help and save Wayland Square residents when there is an emergency. The state of the building, due to its comparatively recent decommission, leaves it in an ideal situation to continue its legacy of public service.
Providence Gas Co. Purifier House (1900)
200 Allens Avenue
Neighborhood: South Providence
Years on MEP: 2022, 2023
Threat: Vacancy, Pollution
The Providence Gas Company Purifier House, located on Allens Avenue and Public Street, is an iconic landmark distinguished by its exposed steel frame. This four-story industrial building was built in 1900 by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company for its namesake, the Providence Gas Company, to purify gas from the South Station. When the Providence Gas Company plant closed in 1917, the building was sold several times, with each owner making interior changes and adding new sections as the needs of the waterfront evolved over the last century – transforming it from a purifier house into a conventional industrial building, warehouse, showroom, and garage.
These elements are what qualified this building for the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Architecturally, it’s one of the earliest examples of steel construction in architectural engineering, one of the only surviving projects of the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, and the only example in Rhode Island of that company’s signature “arch truss” roof. Historically, this building’s use and location reflect the full range of industry along the Providence waterfront.
Today, the building sits largely vacant, with little sign of activity. Patrick T. Conley bought the building in 2005 with big dreams of revitalization, ranging from restaurants, art studios, educational programming, and a hotel. While some light studio and commercial use have occurred, none of these projects have come to full fruition.
Its location right on the South Providence waterfront plays a role in limiting the building’s adaptive reuse potential. Allens Avenue is a heavily trafficked commercial corridor bordering a neighborhood beleaguered by noxious industry, climate impact, and neglected infrastructure. These are only some of the challenges that South Providence residents and coalitions like the Washington Park Association and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee are trying to tackle.
The Racial Environmental Justice Committee, the People’s Port Authority, and Sustainability Providence have partnered together with other neighborhood stakeholders and residents to reclaim the waterfront on Public Street next to the Purifier Building. Through public engagement workshops, this Coalition is putting together a design to transform this waterfront back into a community resource. The reclamation of this waterfront for neighborhood residents is an opportunity to reclaim the Gas Co. Purifier Building for community use as well.
RIDOT Headquarters and Garage (1927)
30 Arline Street
Neighborhood: Smith Hill
Years on MEP: 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2023
Threat: Deterioration, Underutilization
This two-story Art Deco building served as the headquarters for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation for decades. Built in 1927, it is one of the first modernist public buildings and one of the only remaining examples of machine aesthetic architecture in Smith Hill.
The Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) acquired the building circa 2004, and the building was almost demolished. However, the building ultimately received local preservation protections through designation on the Industrial & Commercial Buildings District (ICBD), the state’s first thematic and non-contiguous historic district. In 2006, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) also determined that the building is potentially eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which would elevate the building from local to national significance. Due to these protections, the building should have been restored and maintained, but the building remains in disrepair. This disconnect has prompted PPS to list this property as endangered five times between 2008 and 2015.
In February 2019, the building was purchased by Quality Food Company, a local and family-owned distributor. PPS hopes that with fresh ideas, new energy, and collaboration this building can be restored.
Standard Wholesale Liquors Co. (ca. 1920s)
115 Harris Avenue
Neighborhood: Smith Hill
Years on MEP: 2021, 2023
Threat: Vacancy, Fire
This little brick building is the only surviving portion of the Brownell & Field Company warehouse building. An extension constructed in the 1920s, it originally was the Standardized Wholesale Liquors Co. building. Its location makes for a distinctive shape, notable for an oversized and recessed opening and unusual proximity to the railroad tracks, which are flush with the building’s distinctive chamfered corner. The original building itself was listed on the 2010 Most Endangered List owing to disrepair, but its owner, the Providence Journal Company, received approval for demolition from the Providence Historic Districts Commission. 115 Harris was listed once before in 2021 due to its location and relative isolation.
These industrial warehouses were common in this portion of Smith Hill, previously known as the Provisions Warehouse District, but very few are left. This district was vital and vibrant throughout the 20th century and featured Providence’s most prominent food storage, processing, and distribution industries. By the 1980s, the construction of the I-95 ramp for the then-new Providence Place Mall prompted the demolition of several buildings in this area.
115 Harris has survived a century of change in this part of Providence. It is part of the local and non-contiguous Industrial & Commercial Buildings District (ICBD) so it does have protections, but it needs some TLC to restore and convert it into new use, like much-needed housing. Many of the buildings within the ICBD, like Rising Sun and Paragon Mills, have found new life as lofts or commercial space, and we hope that the same can happen with 115 Harris Avenue.
Urban League of Rhode Island Site (ca. 1970s)
246 Prairie Avenue
Neighborhood: Upper South Providence
Years on MEP: 2022, 2023
Threat: Loss of Significance, Disconnect from Community
In 2022, we listed the Urban League Building as a Most Endangered Property because of redevelopment discussions that put not only the building, but its historical significance for the community at risk. In the last year, the property has been turned over to the Providence Redevelopment Agency with promises that whatever the new revitalization plan, the Urban League and surrounding community would be involved in deciding its future. Whether or not the building remains a part of the plan, it is essential that the PRA follows through on these statements. That is why this year’s list includes not just the building, but the site itself.
The Urban League has been operating on Prairie Avenue since the 1970s, providing 50 years’ worth of services to the South Providence community, including food and clothes donations, economic development, services, health clinics, and a daycare. The Urban League was originally founded in New York City in 1910, and the Rhode Island Chapter dates to 1939. This establishes the Urban League as one of the oldest community-based civil rights organizations in the United States, with more than a century’s worth of civic and social services provided to African Americans across the nation.
The building and its history are connected to a movement that has had local and national impact on our country’s history, and one that is still active. This significance should be preserved, not just in its tangible manifestation – the building itself – but in its intangible connection to the community.
Many promises are made, and many are not kept. Urban renewal policies in the mid-20th century displaced many families, particularly in Latin and Black neighborhoods, with promises of returning them to better homes and neighborhoods that never materialized. The site of the Urban League was the first in Providence to experience urban renewal in 1954 with the Willard Center Redevelopment Project. 200 families were displaced to make room for a shopping center, the Edmund W. Flynn Elementary School, and a park. Due to displacement and disinvestment, the shopping center was demolished in 1970, with the Urban League building replacing it. The elementary school was closed in 2012 and has since been demolished.
This pattern of displacement and disruption catalyzed the preservation movement in Providence, as residents organized to fight urban renewal policies and protect historic fabric in parts of the city. While there were many wins, many communities were not so lucky. We have since learned many hard lessons about urban renewal’s effects on community and what happens when the people who live in these communities are not prioritized. PPS hopes that the incoming mayoral administration will keep these lessons in mind when envisioning a new program for the Urban League site – one that prioritizes the Urban League, what made it a historically and culturally significant community anchor, and the South Providence community.
Providence Public Schools (various)
Years on MEP: 2020, 2023
Threat: Deterioration, Neglect, Misinformation
The Providence Public School District (PPSD) as we know it traces its roots to 1828 with the passage of the Public School Act, which provided state funds for a centralized public school system. Over the next century, the city’s booming population demanded the construction of several new schools to accommodate all of Providence’s school-age children. 14 of the 37 active schools listed on the Providence Public Schools website date from 1900 to 1936 – the remaining schools largely date to the 1950s and ‘60s when the city experienced another surge in population.
Today, most of these school buildings are in disrepair and suffering from decades of delayed maintenance, inviting loaded discussions about what should be done to address these aging public buildings. However, school infrastructure is only one piece of a much larger puzzle that points to broader disinvestment in quality education. The state takeover of Providence schools in 2019 was prompted by a report conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy that described a struggling school district facing “deep, systemic dysfunction.”
A December 2022 announcement that two elementary schools would be closed at the end of the 2022-2023 school year surprised many residents and demonstrates a continuation of that dysfunction. The abrupt school closure of Carl G. Lauro Elementary (1928) and Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary at Broad Street (1897) is being justified as “part of a plan to dramatically increase the number of students and teachers in modern facilities.” This framing points fingers at the buildings’ age as the driving factor necessitating their closure.
But for many, the layered history of a school is a source of identity, connection, and community. Principal Scott Barr of Classical High School, where the campus boasts buildings dating from 1897 through the 1970s, feels that this is true for his students: “There’s an immense source of pride coming through the school. It’s got a lot of history and success.” Classical High School funded recent renovations through the latest school bond measure, allowing for major improvements to its main academic buildings. Barr adds that students are excited about the investment in upgrading their buildings, arguing that “when the city invests in their school and education, [students] feel valued.”
Meanwhile, the families at the Lauro and Broad elementary schools are devastated at the impending loss of their institutions. Broad Street Kindergarten teacher Nina Ciniglio shared, “Although the demographics and businesses have changed over the years, the school is the one institution that has remained the same. (…) As the only school in the Washington Park community, it would be an immense loss.” The communities surrounding these schools are fighting to save their schools because they are an essential part of their neighborhoods.
“Historic” only comes to mean “inadequate” when generations of policymakers and administrators neglect their responsibility to care for the public buildings where our city’s youth spend their formative years. The city’s historic neighborhood schools should be viewed as an asset as the district regroups and makes strategic investments, and the fate of Lauro and Broad Street schools should be revisited so we can preserve not only the buildings, but the ecosystem of relationships and community ties around them. Providence must invest in the renovation, maintenance, and modernization of the district’s remaining school buildings — the students and teachers that learn and work in these buildings deserve better.
(Pictured: Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary)
Providence Infrastructure (various)
Years on MEP: 2023
Threat: Deterioration, Neglect, Misinformation
In 2021, we put the City of Providence on the Most Endangered Properties List citing its vulnerability to climate change impacts. This summer, Providence’s months-long drought was truncated by an intense storm event on Labor Day that flooded buildings and roadways and rendered areas of the city impassable. As nearly a foot of rain fell in a single day, drainage systems were completely inundated, even with RIDOT employees working hours to clear out excess water. In short: Providence’s infrastructure showed itself to be extremely vulnerable to the type of weather we can expect more of in the coming years.
Much of Providence’s downtown core sits on the footprint of the historic Great Salt Cove, which covered several hundred acres and was once deep enough to admit sailing ships. Over time, the cove’s marshes were filled in and the rivers engineered to create land for development. And although the city successfully tamed its waterways, contemporary FEMA maps identify these areas as most at risk to storm surge and sea level rise. The Army Corps of Engineers built the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in 1966 to protect Providence’s vulnerable urban center and the surrounding low-lying areas from major storms surge. But the barrier does not protect against heavy rainfall and “nuisance” flooding, sea level rise, or increasingly high tides – and nearly a third of the city’s waterfront lies outside the barrier.
A significant challenge to addressing storm-related flooding is a scarcity of data – where flooding is occurring and to what degree. Pam Rubinoff and Thais Fournier at the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island are working to create resources, tools, and capacity-building for flooding and other coastal issues. Their team administrates a community-run monitoring program via MyCoast: Rhode Island to collect data on flood hazards and future flood conditions. Funding and participating in projects like this offer an excellent opportunity to better understand how flooding will affect our city’s infrastructure and historic resources so we can prioritize what structural improvements and resilience strategies will help protect our city’s historic resources.
The City Plan Commission has begun preparing Providence’s next Comprehensive Plan. Last updated in 2014, the Comprehensive Plan outlines the policy and objectives for the City’s growth and development. This is a once-a-decade opportunity to influence policy and prioritize the preservation and sustainability of Providence. Evaluating our infrastructure for flooding resiliency is an integral part of that. It should include updating our drainage systems, creating more permeable surfaces, and working with organizations like the Coastal Resources Center. We must also re-evaluate our historic preservation policies and conventions so that we can incorporate ideas to better adapt and protect our historic resources from flooding and other adverse impacts. It is imperative that our goals moving forward are holistic and climate inclusive, so we can keep our city and our history above water.