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Industrial Sites
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In 1790, Rhode Island entrepreneurs started America's Industrial Revolution. In Providence today, city, state and federal governments are working industriously on legislation, economic incentives, surveys and programs — in partnership with nonprofit organizations, companies, developers, artists, and others. This has started a new revolution: the preservation of the city's industrial sites, including their associated historic buildings; the mitigation of past environmental and land use offenses through Brownfields and Greenways programs; and the economic and cultural vitality of Providence.

This revolution is being fueled by development of a Enterprise Zones, which started in the early 1990s; a 1995 state Greenways Act that created a first-ever statewide council to coordinate efforts; 1998 designation of Providence as a federal Brownfields Showcase Community; a Mill Building Revitalization Act; federal and state tax credits; 2002 building-code revisions for historic structures; and another innovation: this year Providence created the country's first thematic local historic district — the Providence Industrial and Commercial Building District.

Through such efforts, Providence and its partners are demonstrating that historic districts —and historic preservation at large — must work with many partners and professions to achieve a multifaceted approach to urban conservation and economic vitality.

The small-scale beginning of Providence's industrial heritage. Here, 3 Steeple Street (left) at the confluence of the rivers and at the bottom of College Hill. This structure is the earliest remaining industrial building in Providence. (September 2002)

Early Industrial Providence
America's first factory, Slater Mill, was built in 1790 on the banks of the Blackstone River, just upstream from Providence. This revolutionary way of harnessing waterpower and industrial production spread quickly throughout the Blackstone Valley, down to Providence, up to Lowell, Massachusetts, and throughout the country. By the 1830s, the use of steam power further drove the development of industry, particularly in cities (including Providence) that lacked sufficient water for power. In the late 1840s, development of hydraulic turbines made water-powered mills more efficient; the Corliss Steam engine — also developed in the 1840s (in Providence) — was an even greater benefit to urban mills using, or changing, to steam. These engines were also employed for for the ships bringing fuel and raw materials to Providence, and manufactured products from Providence to the world.

Mills no longer needed to be on waterways for power — or transportation, as a railroad network was developing by the 1840s. But, while there will always be industrial sites scattered over urban terrain, many industries continued to locate along rivers, which still provide water for industrial activities and transportation, and riverways that offer good development sites and transportation corridors.

For the past two hundred years, industrial sites, waterways, transportation networks, urban settlement, and land use (and abuse) have been inextricably intertwined — like the braided twine made by early manufacturers.

Providence, view south with the old waterfront to the east (left); the Providence River; and Downtown to the west (right). "View of the city of Providence as seen from the dome of the new State House." Signed M. D. Mason, "Supplement to Providence Sunday journal, Nov. 15, 1896." Providence Journal Co., 1896. (Library of Congress)

By the 1830s, Providence was driven by an industry-based economy. Providence's four major areas of manufacturing — base metals and machinery, cotton textiles, woolen textiles, jewelry and silverware — had been established; they dominated the city's economy for the next century. Providence was the center of the country’s most industrialized state; as a result, Rhode Island had the greatest wealth.

By 1900, Providence was a diverse industrial, financial and transportation center. Its board of trade boasted that the Providence had the world's largest tool factory, file factory, engine factory, screw factory, and silverware factory. The city ranked first in the country's in manufacturing jewelry and production of woolen and worsted goods.

After 1900, there was a substantial decline in manufacturing. Following union strikes and the Great Depression in the late 1920s, the textile mills "moved south" to southern states, and the metals industries headed to the Midwest, in the 1930s through the 1950s, leaving underused or vacant buildings. Since 1960, factory employment in Providence declined by 55 percent; over half of this loss has occurred since 1980.

Preserving the City's Industrial Heritage
As early as the 1960s, just as Providence was closing the door on its mills, preservationists and communities in America were recognizing the historic and future potential of industrial mills. In 1968, Randolph Langenbach published compelling prose and photographs in An Epic in Urban Design. Speaking of the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, he observes, "Its architecture is a corporate architecture, using the design elements of an age, rather than one individual's creative expression. The fact that an environment, rather than a monument, was created, explains why it could be designed successfully by a large corporate body over a long period."

Rhode Island was also fostering a similar appreciation for its industrial heritage. In 1979 the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, in cooperation with the Mayor’s office, surveyed the industrial sites in Providence. The goal was to increase the awareness of the significance and potential of these sites and to provide a planning tool to encourage preservation and economic development adaptive use. The Commission published Providence Industrial Sites in 1981.

Many of these large complexes are located along the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, and south of Downtown along banks of the Providence River. Other industrial sites are scattered in Providence neighborhoods. By 1981, Providence had established the Promenade Industrial Center Association Revitalization Area, an early effort at recognizing that preserving single buildings — or even entire company sites — was not enough, but that a broad, inclusive approach was needed.

In 1999 it was concluded that city had 170 reusable, yet deteriorating and at-risk, mill complexes. Recently, Providence has lost some of its greatest mills, such as Gorham Manufacturing Company factory, Silver Spring Bleaching & Dyeing and others. But several mills, such as the Foundry and Monohassett Mills have been preserved through adaptive use for offices, retail space, housing, artists studios, and mixed use.

The Eagle Square project, where the developer demolished — despite community opposition — several mills with the intent of construction a single-story commercial structure. Finally, the developer, under intense community opposition, and through a creative legal mechanisms, agreed to save the remaining structures, and to minimize the poor design of the new buildings. (September 2002)

In response, Providence has developed the noncontiguous Providence Industrial and Commercial Building District: first thematic local historic district in the country. To accomplish this, the Providence Preservation Society (PPS), with funding in part provided by a Certified Local Government grant from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), has been working throughout 2002 on a survey of over 220 industrial and commercial buildings in Providence. PPS has been working in cooperation with with the city's Department of Planning and Development, the Providence Historic District Commission, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC, the SHPO), and the PPS Revolving Fund. The project is designed to provide the documentation necessary to consider the sites for inclusion in the new Providence Industrial and Commercial Buildings District (PICBD). To date, only 13 structures have not made the criteria for inclusion. All known industrial sites have been included in the survey. But, facilitated by the noncontiguous, thematic nature of the district, ongoing work will identify more commercial sites throughout the city.

Monohasset Mill Restoration
Exterior masonry is being restored and new roof and drain systems are being installed. Spectacular spaces define the interior. Here: part of a single loft. (September 2002)

Monohasset Mill, 530-532 Kinsley Avenue, is being adaptively used for artists' lofts by four artists who have formed a partnership, Monohasset Mill, LLC, and are rehabilitating 50,000 S.F. of space for $4 million.

PS Revolving Fund is serving as their development consultant. The partnership purchased the mostly vacant mill in 2001. They conceived a plan to develop the mill as mixed-income artist loft condominiums to include 36 residential units and one gallery. Of the 36 residential units, six units will be designated affordable for artists with incomes below 80% of median income. All units will be owner occupied. The affordable units will range in size from 1575 square feet to 960 square feet. Work is anticipated to cost only $42 per square foot. It is the first legal and affordable artist housing developed under the Mill Initiative, and will provide housing in a market in need of affordable and market rate housing.

The project is being funded from a variety of sources including $637,000 from the Providence Economic Development Corporation ($262,000 allocated to Phase 1), $650,000 from Bank Rhode Island, $200,000 in State Tax Credits, $546,700 in partner equity. It is being developed in three phases. The affordable housing will be in Phase 1. (Source: PPS Revolving Fund)


Monohasset Mill exhibit in conjunction with a concurrent show at the Rhode Island Foundation, (Winter 2001)

The survey research is being input by PPS in Access (a relational database) to include information from the RIHP&HC state and National Register surveys; data (and future links to GIS information) from the Department of Planning and Development; much additional research by PPS employing several resources: city directories, Sanborn Insurance maps, atlases, photographs (at the Rhode Island Historical Society), Board of Trade Journal articles, Providence Journal articles, and assessor’s cards for information on ownership and recent changes to the buildings.

Specific data include estimates of gross and rentable space, details about a site's many structures and each addition, and a written description of features. In addition, the survey identifies whether specific sites are within other existing historic districts; greeenways projects; brownfields areas; the city's Mill Building Revitalization Program; and an Enterprise Zone.

This information will be used to guide future planning and decision making. Specific data will be available to developers considering investment opportunities in Providence: certified rehabilitation of these historic industrial sites, which are eligible for state and federal tax credits (totaling 50 percent: 30% from the state; 20% from the federal government), possible loans, and other economic incentives. The research will help developers work with city, state and federal government develop, evaluate and approve preservation-sensitive rehabilitation work. The district is under the purview of the Providence Historic District Commission (PHDC), which oversees seven other districts — all of these having defined boundaries. Controls are different for structures and sites in this district. The PHDC has loose guidelines that come in to effect only if there is a proposed demolition, a major alteration, or work on over ten percent of the structure or exterior elevations.

Sources and Resources

The Brookings Institution. Vacant Land in Cities: An Urban Resource. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2001.
Success in Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund Program Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation
Providence, RI, May 17, 2002

Langenbach, Randolph. An Epic in Urban Design, Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Volume 70, Number 12, April 13, 1968's%20resume&%20pub's/RL-publications/Milltowns/1968-HARVbulletin/HarvBulletin.htm

Mill Building Reuse: A Survey of Current Mill Conditions in Rhode Island and the Market for Mill Space, Statewide Planning Program Technical Paper 150, Statewide Planning Program, Rhode Island Department of Administration, Information Services

Mill Building Revitalization Act, Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation

Mill Building Revitalization Program, described by Clean-Start Redevelopment Company, LLC

Providence Industrial Sites, Statewide Historical Preservation Report P-P-6, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, July 1981; Online Survey Publications, available in PDF format

Industrial Land Use Plan, Report Number 100, Element 212, Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program (link to PDF file)

Department of Planning & Development, City of Providence

Providence Preservation Society

Reinhard, Willa. "Revised Eagle Square plan would reuse four mills," Preservation Magazine, Sept. 21, 2001

Renewal Communities, Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities (RC/EZ/EC), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development