The friendly face was Loren Williams, Operations Manager for Brown’s Division of Advancement. Brown’s development office moved into the building, far removed from the rest of the campus, in 1999. Vacant for years, entire sections of the roof had fallen through making its demolition eminent. The building was listed on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list for five years before plans were made for its rehab, with Brown secured as a tenant. Part of the terms of Brown’s lease allowed the university to design the floor plans. It’s lucky that this building was saved considering that so much else was lost including adjacent buildings and Phenix’s prominent smokestack.
Loren brought me into his office and without pause, launched into telling me everything he could about the building, hardly giving me time to take out my notebook. Loren is my favorite kind of historian: a really excited one. Unfortunately, he didn’t know everything. But he did know much more than the very little I found written about it. I’ll share with you what he shared with me. And then I hope you can all complete this puzzle by contributing any information you know of or are able to dig up.
Okay, this is what I learned:
- The building was built in 1848 to be part of a foundry specializing in the manufacturing of hydraulic presses, dyers, printers, bleachers’ machinery, castings, and shaftings. The foundry was one of the first to produce the earliest American textile-printing machines.
- The Phenix Co. dates back to 1830 and was founded by George D. Holmes
- Legend has it that the building was a canon ball factory during the Civil War. Loren can’t find any evidence to back this legend up. It’s possible that a few canon balls were cast here, but it’s unlikely that at any point the building was solely dedicated to canon ball manufacturing.
- After its time as a foundry it became part of the Narragansett Electric Company who mainly used the building as its dumping ground.
- The building was basically built without a foundation and was sinking into the ground when rehab began. The only thing holding it up was a giant cistern original to the building. It would have been full of water for use of the foundry, but Narragansett Electric used it to dispose of all kinds of things including mountains of light bulbs.
- It’s a beautiful old industrial building, and unique in that it’s faced with granite ashlar. The Elm Street facade is dominated by three large rounded-arched openings, one on top of the other. I assume this was an early elevator lift?
- Loren referred to the brick addition to the building as the “machine shop”, elsewhere I read that this was an “elevator tower” addition.
- By late 19th century nearly every bleachery in the country had been fitted by the Phenix Co.
- In 1863 Phenix expanded 2 include another machine shop, foundry, woodworking & blacksmith shop.
- In 1978 Phenix Building was home to a LUGGAGE manufacturer! Definitely hadn’t heard that one before
Erik Gould @ClickErik clued me into the fact that photographer Ira Garber had taken a number of wonderful photographs of the Phenix Building prior to its renovation. Some of these photos, and the information the Historical Society found can be seen in our storify story for this building below. Have more to share? Let us know @pvdpreservation!
Twitter follower Steven Lubar, @lubar, did some digging and found a few exciting clues into the Phenix Building’s past! Lubar shared both a 1905 Sanborn Map picturing the building (surrounded by worker’s housing? he asks) and some 1891 Phenix Co. letterhead. The letterhead depicts the Phenix Co. complex in its early days and tells us that the company was the “sole manufacturer of the Nagle Power Feed Pump.” Not sure what that was. The complex depicted shares little resemblance to the building today leaving us to wonder at what point the building went through some pretty major alterations.
Hover over the images to see the text!