What to do with the Superman building?

Some feasible — and fanciful — visions for Rhode Island's architectural icon
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 13, 2013

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The building is ours.

When we crest a hill on Route 146 or round a curve on I-95, the Industrial Trust Building tells us we're home. When we stamp the building's silhouette on our websites, T-shirts, and corporate logos, we offer no description; the silhouette speaks for itself. When we find no historical ties whatsoever between the building and the Superman TV show, we still defiantly call it the "Superman Building." Why? The building is ours.

Except it isn't. It's owned by a company named High Rock Development from Newton, Massachusetts. And in late April, along with Providence-based developers Cornish Associates and a team of out-of-state consultants, the company released plans to develop the skyscraper into apartments marketed to "young professionals; older single professionals; older professional couples without children; empty nesters; Boston commuters; and students," with restaurants and retail to be installed on the lower levels.

The reports are the latest chapter in a freewheeling debate in which even demolition has been floated as a possibility. And as we sifted through the paperwork — the 47-page "Economic and Fiscal Impacts of Proposed Conversion of 111 Westminster into Residential Use," the 90-page "Market Study [for] Proposed Redevelopment of 111 Westminster Street," the 10-page summary of those two reports — our minds began to drift to pure, unencumbered fantasies.

What if demographic data and market analyses were tossed aside? What if we simply imagined what this glorious 26-story, 85-year-old, 441,000-gross-square-foot vessel could contain?

This isn't just daydreaming. As the state's most potent architectural symbol, no building makes us feel worse when it goes dark and vacant. And no building could be more galvanizing if put to productive, forward-thinking use.

So we at the Phoenix have compiled a few ideas — padded by conversations in the weeks before High Rock's data dump — into a report for you, our fellow emotional shareholders in Rhode Island's most iconic address. We call it our "non-feasibility study."

With stakes this high, did you really think we'd keep our thoughts to ourselves?


A GRAND ENTRANCE

Few people describe the Industrial Trust's grand Art Deco lobby better than Mack Woodward, chief architectural historian at Rhode Island's Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

"You have to approach it in the right way," the author of the PPA/AIAri Guide to Providence Architecture says, as he tells us to envision following him into the building from the North (Kennedy Plaza) or South (Westminster Street) entrance, not the side entrance from the former Fleet Center next door.

"The sequence of space is so wonderful," he says. You walk into a small vestibule, climb a set of stairs, open the door, "and then suddenly you're in this huge soaring space . . . surrounded by these wonderful columns . . . It's really one of the great spaces in Providence"

But what do we do with it?

We turn it into a "petting zoo for artists," says Bert Crenca, artistic director and co-founder of AS220. Crenca has "very, very, incredibly, extremely radical" ideas for the building, which include installing a high-roller casino and hotel on the upper floors and blanketing the building's walls with graffiti as a massive public art project. But his plans start at the ground level.

"We're not capitalizing on these incredibly skilled people making these amazing things [in Rhode Island]," he says. With galleries displaying ceramics, glassware, and the work of local artisans in one section of the space and live-action studios in another corner, this lobby could change that.

John Caserta has an even more democratic vision: a Grand Central Terminal-style public transportation hub dotted with kiosks, coffee shops, and pop-up markets. Caserta — an assistant professor of graphic design at RISD — has experience converting historic spaces for new uses. He changed a former corporate office space on the second floor of 204 Westminster Street into a sleek, quiet, drop-in rentable work space he calls the "Design Office."

"It's the experience of the citizen . . . the experience of the visitor that you need to think about," Caserta says of the Industrial Trust lobby, "and right now if you want to wait on a bus, you're going into that dinky little, somewhat unsafe terminal, looking at a TV monitor telling you if your bus is 12 minutes late."

Converting the lobby would not only add grandeur to daily rituals like buying a morning coffee, Caserta says. It might provide the requisite traffic and energy to spark activity on the building's upper floors.

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  Topics: News Features , Bert Crenca, DOWNCITY
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