On Christmas Day 2020, a fire broke out in the basement of 883 Eddy Street. This building, originally the Eddy Street School, has long been home to the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, Acacia Club, and other Black civic organizations. The fire, still under investigation, spread throughout the building, causing damage and loss of historical artifacts.
History and Context
South Providence occupies land originally inhabited by the Narragansett nation and settled by Roger Williams; much of it was part of the City of Cranston from 1754 to 1868. Other than industry along the waterfront and structures at a few key intersections, the land in what is now South Providence was largely undeveloped until the latter part of the 19th century. According to Providence: Citywide Survey, “The streetcar played an important role in the settlement of South Providence. The first line, along Eddy, Public, and Ocean Streets and Thurbers Avenue, was in operation by 1875, and by 1880 others extended out Broad Street and Prairie Avenue as well.”
The other great factor influencing the growth of the area was the waves of European immigrants settling in South Providence, the closest area to the ports through which many came to America. In the last quarter of the 19th century, many two- or three-family frame houses were built as rental properties for immigrants in the areas served by streetcars.
With a growing population and demand for services, the local government began a citywide public school building initiative. After 1868, “when Providence re-acquired the portion of South Providence below Dudley Street from Cranston,” several new schools were built in the area, including the school on Eddy Street at Sayles Street.
In the mid-twentieth century, numerous factors caused more established immigrant communities to leave South Providence. After 1950, the Great Migration brought many southern Blacks to the area seeking better employment opportunities. Many settled in the neighborhood; rents were low and the housing stock was old and deteriorated. It was, at first, “all that was available to Blacks in that period of rampant racial segregation.”
While much of the organized social life of the Black community was centered in churches, there were also secular institutions, including the Prince Hall Masonic Temple. The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the State of Rhode Island was established by Prince Hall, an extraordinary 18th century Bostonian and Revolutionary War veteran, who founded his eponymous branch of Black Freemasonry. Hall organized a lodge in Providence in 1797 following the first he established in Boston. The Providence Prince Hall Masons made the old Eddy Street school its home in 1966.
The Temple has acquired its current significance through its association with Providence’s Black community, for whom it has served as a central meeting place for more than half a century. It was where wedding anniversary dinners were held and birthday parties were celebrated. In the basement of the building was the Acacia Club that on some nights doubled as a jazz club and featured local stars such as Leland Baker. Until recently, the lodge was also home to the Providence chapter of the NAACP.
Speaking of the masons, Jim Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP, was quoted in the Providence Journal, “They were here before the NAACP, before the Urban League…The Prince Hall Masons have played a historic role in terms of Black liberation.” He goes on to say that providing a safe space for Black people to gather, discuss the issues affecting their communities and mobilize for change has been an essential part of their work throughout their history. That role in civil rights history is also embedded in the building itself.
The structure appears to have been built in 1893 as a four-room public school building. There is strong evidence to suggest that it was designed by architect George Cady, who is responsible for the very similar– in form and detail– former Almy/Meader Street School (1891) in the Broadway-Armory Historic District (historic photo at right). These two structures are rare in that few early wooden school buildings in Providence survive; in 1896, it was determined that all schools would be built in brick.
Like the Almy Street School, the former Eddy Street School is missing its belfrey, or bell tower; it is reasonable to assume that both were lost in the hurricane of 1938, which took many local church steeples. Both buildings feature bands of fishscale shingle siding at the second story level, now visible at 883 Eddy Street underneath the fire damaged metal siding. Original architectural drawings of the Meader Street School exist and provide great clues to understanding the Eddy Street building.
PPS and the Providence Revolving Fund are working closely with Prince Hall leadership to develop a plan to rehabilitate the building. Restoration would likely require an addition in order to accommodate long-held aspirations, including large group meeting rooms and fully accessible bathrooms. Demolishing and replacing the existing building with a new construction, modern facility is another possibility. While PPS advocates for an outcome that includes preservation and reuse of the historic structure, we support their efforts to ensure the future viability of an important civic and cultural institution.
The Prince Hall Masonic Temple was listed as a 2021 Most Endangered Property in order to call attention to the fire, the history of the building, and the efforts by the freemasons to fund raise and rebuild. PPS recognizes and appreciates local experts who have donated their time and expertise to evaluate the fire damage at 883 Eddy Street: architect Jim Barnes; Erik Nelson, Structures Workshop; Mark Moore, Gilbane Building Company; Wayne Trissler and Thom D’Ovidio, Providence Revolving Fund.