Save these buildings!

The Providence Preservation Society fights for the soul of the city
By PHILIP EIL  |  January 31, 2014

The February issue of Providence Monthly highlights 10 of the city’s “most eligible singles” in a feature titled, “Ready to Mingle.” Monthly’s crew of bachelors and bachelorettes — who range from congressional staffers to Army National Guard recruiters to makeup artists to Brown University English professors — are an accomplished, smiling bunch. They talk about laughing, “staying active,” and, in the case of a 30-year-old Rhode Show producer named Ashley, being a “bubbly girly-girl on the surface, but there’s actually a lot more depth to my personality.”

This is not that kind of list.

No, the list we bring you this week is about mold. It’s about rotting floorboards and leaking roofs, vacant skyscrapers, vandalized homes, and churches where sinks and toilets are strewn across dusty basement floors. It’s a list with broken windows, boarded door frames, and cold, abandoned, graffiti-tagged structures that eligible singles would be advised to avoid on a first date. It is, in other words, a report on the Providence Preservation Society’s “Most Endangered Properties” list.

2014 marks the twentieth time that the College Hill-based organization has released a roster of “historically significant properties deemed in threat of deterioration, neglect and demolition.” At the society’s recent annual meeting in a Brown lecture hall, newly-appointed PPS executive director, Brent Runyon — a transplant from Thomasville, Georgia — proudly rang off MEP-list success stories (the Masonic-Temple-turned-Renaissance Hotel, the Shepard Building on Washington Street) and then, in a somber turn, as if honoring deceased family members, the names of various buildings that had been “lost.”

Before we dig in to our report on this list, though, we should say that we at the Phoenix are not PPS spokespeople. Though we have quoted from their “Most Endangered” press materials (in the “PPS SAYS” sections) and spoken with many administrators and board members, they have not seen an advance copy of this article or approved our commentary.

Call it an “unauthorized” or “annotated” list, if you’d like. Call it “The Phoenix Presents the Providence Preservation Society’s ‘Most Endangered Properties.’ ” Or just call it 10 buildings in our beloved city that are in serious need of your attention, lest they be lost to the elements, the wrecking ball, or — horror of all horrors — another surface parking lot.


ICONIC The Industrial Trust building. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
PROPERTY | Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building, 111 Westminster Street, Downtown

CIRCA | 1928

PPS SAYS | “The Art Deco skyscraper features streamlined classical motifs above the second story, and set-back pyramidal massing required by an early version of the Providence Zoning Ordinance. Upon the opening of the building in 1928, Providence Magazine commented that the Industrial Trust ‘has already taken a place in the heart and life of the community.’ PPS believes this should continue.”

OUR TAKE | This 26-story icon is, of course, the headliner of the PPS list. And as an enormous, empty, decadently beautiful, Indiana limestone-clad shell from a bygone era, it’s the ultimate symbol for the bleak mood in our city/state.

So, what can we say about it? Do we quote the dry, CorporateSpeak statement sent over by PR reps for the building’s current owner, Highrock Development? (“The recognition from the Providence Preservation Society that 111 Westminster, the Superman Building is endangered is an important one, and we thank the PPS for their commitment to advocate for a viable repurposing of this iconic building . . . .”)

Do we mention the lawsuits that Highrock and Bank of America (the building’s last major tenant) have recently tossed at one another regarding, among other grievances, who is responsible for paying for repairs to the building’s crumbling façade?

Do we self-promotingly refer you to our May 2013 cover story, “What To Do With the Superman Building,” for which we collected ideas — from installing rooftop swimming pools, to sheathing the building in solar panels, to renting office space at a reduced rate for entrepreneurs and young designers — for adaptive reuse of the building?

Maybe we’ll just say this: if there was ever a time for Rhode Islanders — preservationists and non-preservationists, young and old — to rally around a building, it’s now. “Superman” is the ultimate endangered property, and it seems unlikely that this state will ever come back, economically or psychologically, without its successful reuse.

Will you help brainstorm? Will you talk to your councilperson, your state rep, your mayor, your governor? Will you keep the pressure on the owners of the building to work toward a responsible, promptly executed plan?

“Superman” could remain a symbol of the economic shit storm we’re currently mired in, an architectural middle-finger salute to the rest of the world. Or it could be the symbol of our collective ingenuity and ability to rise to a challenge that literally looms above us all.


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