Category: Still Struggling

My Adventure through the Cathedral of St. John

271 N. Main St.


Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

It’s May 10th and I imagine that the Cathedral of St. John is currently enveloped in spring greenery. But when I visited the Cathedral the trees were heavy with snow. It was my very first week embarking on the MEP20 challenge, and I’ve been waiting for just the right time to share my experience touring this building with you. Because out of all of the buildings I’ve explored, my tour of the Cathedral was probably the most memorable.

The Cathedral of St. John is the successor to the King’s Church (not surprisingly, an Anglican church), built in the same spot back in 1722. The current building, designed by John Holden Green, was built in 1810 under the name St. John’s Church. Clad in Smithfield stone, its form is Federal and decorative details Gothic. It became the Cathedral of St. John in 1929 when it was chosen to be the seat of the Episcopal diocese of Rhode Island. With its wooden tower deteriorating and sanctuary ceiling leaking, the Cathedral has been on the MEP list for seven years. Unable to keep up with the high cost of maintenance, the Diocese finally closed its doors in April 2012.

Cathedral of St. John Foyer (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

Cathedral of St. John Foyer (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

I was lucky that Chris DeCelles, who is in charge of maintenance for the Diocese, was willing to open the doors for me. But he didn’t stop there. Chris took me deep inside the Cathedral to secret places I imagine few have traveled before. Of course the tour began in the sanctuary where we admired the stain glass windows and the “saucer-domed” ceiling. I was told that the only dome in Rhode Island larger than the Cathedral’s is the dome in the State House (perhaps not such a remarkable claim considering the size of Rhode Island, but it’s still impressive).

Cathedral of St. John Sanctuary (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

Cathedral of St. John Sanctuary (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

After poking my head inside the Cathedral’s organ where I saw a complicated sea of pipes of varying widths and heights, we went up another flight of stairs. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were headed but suddenly found myself standing over the Cathedral’s domed ceiling. A complex system of beams supporting the dome below and roof above crossed every which way over our heads. I was warned not to test the weight of the 205-year-old planks forming a walkway over the dome. I didn’t.

Standing above the Cathedral of St. John's Dome (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

Standing above the Cathedral of St. John’s Dome (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

We continued on. At this point in our journey we had a series of very old and very steep ladders ahead of us. I swallowed my fear and continued on with sweaty palms and a pounding heart until we found ourselves looking at a series of gears and the backside of the steeple’s clock. Right next to the gears was a small wooden door just big enough for one hand to fit through. Chris opened the door, and in front of us, perfectly framed, was the Rhode Island State House dusted with snow. Now that was something special.

The back side of the clock, Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

The back side of the clock, Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

View of the State House from Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens)

View of the State House from Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens)



THE FUTURE: I could have written an entirely different blog post featuring my excitement around the Diocese’s future plans for the building. Under the leadership of Bishop Nicholas Knisely, the Episcopal Church of Rhode Island has been examining their past relationship to Rhode Island’s history as one corner of the “triangle trade” of slavery. The church further plans to transform the Cathedral of St. John into the nation’s first museum to the transatlantic slave trade and open a Center for Reconciliation. The Diocese is at the beginning of a long process of planning and fundraising towards this ambitious goal. For more information read this article

FURTHER READING: URI Library has some good background on the history of the Cathedral, and I enjoyed reading I [Heart] Rhody’s experience touring the Cathedral. She took some nice photos of the sanctuary while it was still in use back in 2010. Read her post here.

KUDOS to Matt Appenfeller @mwa4 for correctly guessing this week’s challenge!

SHARE: What do you know about the building? We’re interested in any bits of knowledge, thoughts, memories or photos you may have. Comment below, or on twitter @pvdpreservation #mep20.

Saving Broad St. Synagogue: a Community Process

Caroline Stevens, 2015

Caroline Stevens, 2015

As it turns out, Broad St. Synagogue is actually pretty difficult to get into these days. After coordinating our calendars through numerous emails, when I finally arrived for my much anticipated tour, the key didn’t work. Adam Bush, my tour guide and a self defined “community navigator, mediator, steward and connector” for the synagogue, didn’t seem all that surprised. He’s been used to the ups and downs presented by the synagogue ever since he became involved in efforts to save and re-purpose the building in 2011 as part of the Broad Street Synagogue Revitalization Project.

Thankfully, I had been lucky enough to tour the building back in November of 2013. Going inside the synagogue was literally the first thing I did upon arriving at the Providence train station. I had come in order to scope out the city to see if maybe I wanted to move here. A friend picked me up from the station and asked if I might be interested in a tour. And it was standing in the sanctuary of Broad St. Synagogue that I decided I’d move to Providence. Clearly this city was full of unexpected surprises and amazing adventures! However, the synagogue I saw was in a terrible state. There were holes in the roof, and the floor was warped beneath my feet.


Photo Courtesy of Broad Street Synagogue Revitalization Project (pre-restoration)

But Adam tells me that “the building inside looks amazing right now. It’s usable and dry walled, and plastered and mold free, and you can be in there in a way you couldn’t a year ago.” It was purchased by Joe Triangelo in June 2014. He invested a great deal of money in the building’s revitalization. Despite doing a fantastic job cleaning it up, he has decided against being the long term owner and programmer of the building. The synagogue is currently for sale, leaving it once again in a vulnerable state.
Caroline Stevens, November 2013

Caroline Stevens, November 2013 (pre-restoration)

For some time now, the Broad Street Synagogue Revitalization Project has been leading a community-based process of determining potential uses for the space. Adam told me, “It was an awesome process, and we’re still in the middle of that process . . . We have continually put at the forefront the messiness of a community conversation. And in some ways that leads to answers and some ways it leads to more questions and this longer drawn out process, which is awesome and beautiful and absolutely messy.”
Listen to my interview with Adam as he tells me more background on the state of the synagogue, some of the ideas that have come out of the community conversation he has helped to lead, and his hopes and concerns for the building:
And I want to hear from you! What are your ideas for re-purposing the Broad St. Synagogue that would benefit the South Providence community in which it stands? Here’s a record of what you’ve said so far; let’s keep talking! Share your thoughts on twitter @pvdpreservation, #mep20.
For more information visit the Broad Street Revitalization Project Website. And to read up on the history of the synagogue, and listen to some great oral histories around the building visit Broad Street Synagogue Memories.
KUDOS to @SouthSidePVD for correctly guessing my whereabouts!

The Sad Story behind the Providence National Bank Facade

35 Weybosset St.


Every time I walk by the Providence National Bank facade, I peer through its empty arched windows to the sky, and entrances out onto a parking lot. It’s a sad and curious site to see the shell of this building, supported by large steel beams, looking so lonely and out of place with only cars for company. Wanting to get to the bottom of what happened here (and falling way behind in my crazy pledge to explore 20 Endangered Properties in 10 Weeks!), I visited my favorite librarian, Kate Wells, over at the Providence Public Library for answers. Once again, she proved herself to be the ultimate superhero of Providence research, and within minutes presented me with a wealth of information on the drama behind the Providence National Bank Building and its sad demise. Here’s a bit of what Kate dug up for me:

Kate Wells, Librarian Extraorinaire!

Kate Wells, Librarian Extraorinaire!

Let’s start by getting oriented. As it turns out, the facade on Weybosset street is just one part of what was once a large building spanning between Weybosset and Westminster. The original Providence National Bank Building, was completed in 1930 and faced Westminster Street. A Colonial Revival style building, it was designed Wallace E. Howe, featured “murals of historic Providence buildings, paneling of Burma Teak, and a floor of Vermont Marble.” In 1950 the building was expanded, and a new Federal Revival style façade was added onto Weybosset St. So the façade in question, was really a backside addition to the bank building. That’s not all though. When you look at the parking lot today, more is missing. Next to the front entrance of the bank building (next to the Arcade), was another building: the First Federal Savings & Loan building. Some of you might better remember it as the “Buck-a-Book” building, with its 1960’s “modernization.” Clearly there’s one more hole: a building between the Weybosset side bank façade and the Turk’s Head building. Anyone know what this building was?

Westminster Side of Parking Lot, Photo Courtesy of Pete Hocking

Westminster Side of Parking Lot, Photo Courtesy of Pete Hocking

Anyhow, they’re all gone now (well, aside from the one façade). Here’s what happened: it all started with a plan to expand a pre-existing lot by demolishing the Buck-a-Book building, and cut into the middle of the bank building for parking. This is where I get lost. Somehow this plan was thrown out, and new plans began to develop to demolish all of the buildings in order to build one big skyscraper, which originally aimed to be the tallest in Rhode Island. The luxury condo tower designed by Cambridge Seven Architects was dubbed One Ten Westminster, and had a projected cost of $105 million. The building was expected to bring “new blood” and economic vitality to the Financial District. And so, in 2005, over the course of six weeks, the buildings were demolished. The Weybosset façade was preserved with plans to incorporate it into the new building. Within months, the solid brass doors and other architectural remnants were stolen.

Rendering of 110 Westminster Building

Rendering of 110 Westminster Building, Courtesy of BHP Development

This is where I am presented by another hole in my research (I’m sure Kate could have solved the mystery had the library not closed on me): what happened next? Well whatever the initial setbacks were (I imagine a struggle to raise $105 million), the recession completely pulled the plug on the project in 2007. And now we’re left with yet another parking lot, this one perhaps more curious than most.

The Weybosset façade of the Providence National Bank building has since been listed on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list three times. When the development plans fell through, the owner wanted to demolish the remaining façade in order to not pay for its maintenance. The contract on the building prohibited this from happening. And while the façade is still standing now, there are no plans for the property other than to park our cars in it.


I’m curious. What do you think about “facadism,” or the act of preserving building facades with new buildings erected behind or around them. Better than nothing, or not worth it?

What would you like to see in this property? Keep it as a parking lot, or turn it into something new? How would you solve the problem of the Providence National Bank Building façade and empty lot? Comment below, and on twitter @pvdpreservation, #mep20 or on facebook.


KUDOS to Challenge Winner Erik Gould @ClickErik, for correctly guessing my whereabouts and even teaching me a thing or two in the process. Follow us on twitter @pvdpreservation to check out our conversation.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Here’s a record of some of our tweets around the Bank Building



Cranston St. Armory: No Trespassers Allowed!

310 Cranston St.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

My hope was to tell you about the view from one of the Cranston St. Armory’s many crenelated towers or of how hard my heart was beating as I walked along the catwalk that’s suspended from the 90ft. ceiling of the giant drill hall. Despite my efforts, I experienced neither of these things. The Armory, perhaps more commonly thought of as Providence’s medieval gothic castle, is surrounded by a modern day moat. A tall fence protects the 165,300sf building, and two layers of iron gates with giant padlocks keep visitors far away from the entrances. If you’ve wondered where all of Providence’s snow ended up this winter, it’s all in the Armory’s small parking lot — the preferred dumping ground for the city. Mountains of gross, gray snow act as the final deterrent for anyone silly enough (me!) to try to permeate the Armory’s boarders or scale its walls. So, I’m left to explore the building through google image searches, library archives, and stories you may have to share.


The present day armory that dominates the landscape of the West End in Providence, wasn’t the first armory on the property. Benefactor Ebenezer Dexter bequeathed the property to the town of Providence as a 10 acre tract for militia training. A small armory was built on the land in the early 1840’s. This armory was replaced in 1907 by the gigantic one that still stands today. William Walker, a Civil War General, and his son designed this building and three others in Rhode Island in the late 19th century. The Cranston St. Armory is by far the grandest and most impressive.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

The National Guard continued to use the building until the late 1990’s. Before Providence’s Civic Center was completed downtown, the building was also used as a place for dog shows, track meets, circuses and even inaugural balls (Mayor Elorza did breath some life back into the building by hosting his inaugural gala in the building this year). Since then (aside from being used a bit by the Fire Marshall) the building, owned by the state, has been mostly abandoned.

This year marks the 8th time that the Cranston Street Armory has been listed on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties List. A sad reality. In 2014, the State of Rhode Island commissioned a feasibility study, which is on-going, to determine sustainable uses for the building. What new purposes can YOU think of for the Cranston Street Armory?


FUN FACT: Did you know that there was once a shooting range in the building’s basement? From what I can tell, this space is now used as parking and storage for miscellaneous items.

Kudos to Challenge Winner: Michael Hogan ‏@mhogan401 who correctly guessed that the following mysterious image was taken (not by me!) at the Cranston St. Armory:

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Share your thoughts, memories and ideas about the Cranston St. Armory by following PPS on twitter @pvdpreservation #mep20. And see our conversation about this building here and thoughts on repurposing it here.

Ideas on how to Re-Purpose the Armory? Here’s what some people had to say:

And here’s what people otherwise had to say about the Armory (lots of good historic pictures here!):

Atlantic Mills: the Family behind the Towers

120 Manton Ave.

I recently heard rumor of a museum located in the depths of Atlantic Mills and went on a quest to find it. Unable to do so, and told I needed permission to wander the halls, I found myself talking with Jocelynne, officer manager for the complex’s owner, Manton Industries. She told me there was no museum, but gave me permission to look around. All of ten feet from her office I found the following sign:

The sign on the door reads: Manton Industries: “A-Team” Employee Lounge & Lunch Room & Historic Museum.  I returned to Jocelynne who said, “Oh! Our lunch room?! I should have known that Robby calls it a museum, let me get the key for you.” Behind the door was a small, windowless room dominated by a lunch table strewn with coffee cups, paper towels and the like. The walls were decorated with family photos and treasures from Atlantic Mill’s past: newspaper clippings, old company advertisements, and glass cases full of found objects from the building’s time as one of the country’s top textile mills. Sure I had stumbled upon a truly special place, I made arrangements to return for a tour led by Atlantic Mill’s maintenance man and museum curator, Robby McCall. Here’s a very short audio clip from Robby’s museum tour:

Robby walked me through his collection of old soda bottles he had found buried along the property, and tools used to make the worsted wool the factory, first opened in 1851, was famous for.


Sully’s Chair

Next Robby took me on a tour of the building’s sprawling flea market, where I met 93 year-old Sully Colleta, long-time manager of the Big Top Flea. Sully zips around in his motorized wheelchair to converse with his adoring fans and trouble-shoot the many problems that pop up when overseeing 50,000 sf of retail space and over 200 stalls.

I met a host of interesting people, like “Chooch” co-owner of the stall “Junk from the Trunk” who sells a myriad of things left behind when people sell their cars for parts. I also met frequent shopper, “Tiny the Terrible,” who was dressed as a leprechaun for the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. He encouraged me to look him up on Wikipedia, and I encourage you to do the same.

Chooch and Danny, "Junk from the Trunk (photo: Caroline Stevens)

Chooch and Danny, “Junk from the Trunk (photo: Caroline Stevens)

I ended my tour with a juicy steak and cheese hoagie purchased at the flea market’s “Snack Shop” that opened only two weeks ago. It was delicious. I left Atlantic Mills with the understanding that the building is so much more than a pair of crumbling towers and a landmark of industrial history. Everyone who walks through the buildings’ doors – shopkeepers, customers, and Manton Industries staff – is family. I just hope that they can secure the funds necessary to restore the building, so that it can continue to be their home and cornerstone to the Olneyville community for years to come.

Caroline Stevens, 2015

(photo: Caroline Stevens, 2015)


Fun Fact: Atlantic Mills was the first mill to use a George H. Corliss steam power engine in the nation in 1852. It wasn’t the first steam engine, but it was by far the best, and its tremendous success transformed the milling industry. Corliss was confronted left and right by skeptics, and thus presented Atlantic Mills with a choice: either pay him outright for the engine, or pay him a percentage of the cost difference of using coal. The owners chose the latter and paid handsomely for the choice. The steam powered engine proved to be extremely efficient.

Fun Fact #2: Over its 102 year history (1851-1953), Atlantic Mills was the site of numerous powerful worker strikes. Having been told on Nov. 7th, 1893 that their wages would be cut by 10%, thousands of workers gathered at nearby Assembly Hall to discuss the question of striking. “The crowd was great and the floor being over-weighted, it fell in with a grinding and thundering crash . . . the falling floor broke gas pipes off short and the building was nearly blown up by escaping gas.” (Boston Daily Globe). This story came to me by way of Michael Umbricht.

Kudos to Challenge Winner Michael Umbricht @W9GYR! He correctly guessed my whereabouts, and went on to prove himself to be a superbly impressive researcher and master of Atlantic Mills history. If you haven’t yet, check out @pvdpreservation, #mep20 to read the many fascinating stories he shared on the Atlantic Mills complex. Below is one of his behind-the-scenes pictures from inside at the top of one of the towers:

Inside the Tower, Photo courtesy of Michael Umbricht

Photo courtesy of Michael Umbricht, 2013

What stories do you have about Atlantic Mills? Share your comments below and on twitter, #mep20.

Check out what other people are saying about Atlantic Mills:


Meeting the Bannisters

93 Benevolent Street

Despite stomping through three feet of snow to walk the perimeter of the home at 93 Benevolent Street, I wasn’t able to see much of anything (note to self: when snooping around vacant properties after a winter of heavy snow, do not wear high heeled boots). I peered through windows, and found the walls stripped down to their studs; a radiator sat abandoned in the middle of the living room. A mountain of snow blocked access to the front door, and the sign marking it as property of Brown University, and the former home of the Bannisters, had been suspiciously removed.

While I didn’t learn a lot from trudging around the property, I learned a great deal about the home and its two most famous renters through talking with Ray Rickman, historian and former President of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. Edward and Christiana Bannister were an extraordinary African American couple who lived among the elites of 19th century Providence. Edward met Christiana as a barber working in her hair salon in Boston, and he went on to becoming one of the most celebrated and prolific artists in the country. In 1880 he was one of the founding members, the only one of color, of the Providence Art Club.

Click here for a nice collection of his paintings.


But as Mr. Rickman told me, little of this would have been possible without the support of his wife Christiana. He quoted Edward saying, “Without her, I would have been nothing.” Christiana owned popular hair salons in Providence and Boston, and sold hair product. She was very successful. Mr. Rickman guessed that she was the only black woman in Rhode Island with a substantial business outside the home in the late 19th century. A decade older than Edward, her income made it possible for Edward to concentrate on his painting. She was also an abolitionist and philanthropist, opening the Home for Aged and Colored Women, and helping black soldiers coming back from the Civil War. I was amazed to learn how much Edward and Christiana were able to accomplish during one of the most racially divided times in our country.

From 1884 to 1899 they rented the home at 93 Benevolent Street. Little remains of the home they lived in, having gone through an extensive renovation in the 1930’s to house the antiques of Euchlin Reeves. It’s owned by Brown University today, and for a time was used for storing not art, but refrigerators. It was put on the PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list in 2001. I’m told that Brown intends to restore the building for use as university housing. I hope that happens soon, from my vantage point it was looking sad and forgotten.


Fun Fact: Edward Bannister came to national attention in 1876, when his four-by-five-foot painting Under the Oaks won a first-prize medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The award was nearly denied to him when the committee discovered, upon his approaching the stage, that he was black. From what I understand, that painting has gone missing. But here’s a sketch:

under the oaks

Kudos to this Week’s Challenge Winner: Hassan Bagheri @archphotographr for correctly guessing the identity of the Bannisters. He took a great photo of the building when it was in better shape.

Follow my journey through 20 of PPS’s Most Endangered Properties in 10 Weeks @pvdpreservation, #mep20 and subscribe to this blog.

Do you know anything more about this home and/or the Bannisters? Share below!

UPDATE 3/30! I GOT INSIDE! Here are some pics of what I found:

Bannister009 Bannister011 Bannister019 Bannister021

BONUS: Sneak Peak inside the General Ambrose Burnside House

314 Benefit St.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak inside the General Ambrose Burnside Home today while I was walking by.  It was one of the first buildings that drew my attention when I moved to Providence last summer, and it remains a favorite. I love its curves, Queen Anne window, and how it sits nestled into the corner of Benefit and Planet streets. One of the construction workers was kind enough to let me poke my head in, but not far, and not for long. I did manage to snap a couple of photos (see below) before I was hurried out.

Notice how the curves of the inside stairwell mimic the rounded bay of the building. And I wonder who is pictured in the emblem above the carved wooden fireplace. What do you think?

I was told that the building was in the process of being broken up into seven different apartments, and that the work would supposedly be completed in the next two months.

This building was first listed on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties  (MEP) list in 2009 when neighbors noticed that the building was falling into serious disrepair. See this building, and all of the other MEP’s on my MEP map here. Join in on my journey as I visit over 20 MEP’s in 10 weeks by following #mep20

FUN FACTS: General Burnside was a Civil War veteran, rifle manufacturer, US Senator, and RI Governor.

This home was one of the early designs of architect Alfred Stone, who went on to become the most prominent architect in Providence during the last quarter of the 19th century.

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