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Breaking into ‘the Vault’: 93 Benevolent St.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Let the rumors die. 93 Benevolent St. – the abandoned red brick house across the street from WBRU – otherwise known as “the Vault,” is not home to a secret society. It is not a music recording studio. Despite the bars on the windows, it is not a home for the insane, and, their boasts aside, the fraternities probably don’t have the cash to buy it.

It might, however, be picked up, taken downtown, and turned into a museum.

Though 93 Benevolent St. is popularly known as the Vault – the name, after all, is painted on its front door – it’s also known as Bannister House. Edward Bannister was a prominent black painter who lived at 93 Benevolent St. from 1884 to 1899 with his wife, Christiana, though neither ever owned the property. Bannister was one of the founders of the Providence Art Club and was a successful artist in his own time – his accolades include a medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, the first World’s Fair in the United States.

Due to Bannister’s prominence as a black artist at the end of the 19th century, 93 Benevolent St. has significant historical value. During the construction of the Heritage Harbor Museum in 2000, the building was considered an artifact that could be moved to the museum’s waterfront location, according to University Curator Robert Emlen. While the Heritage Harbor Museum ultimately went in a different direction, other organizations – including the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society – have expressed interest in the building for its historical value.

In the 1930s, Euchlin Reeves owned the house and drastically remodeled it. According to a March 4, 1951 article in the Providence Sunday Journal, the Reeves family renovated Bannister House from 1938 to 1941. They lived next door to Bannister House and used it as a small museum to house their collection of antiques. It is for this reason that the building has bars on the windows, and, according to Brendan McNally, special assistant to the executive vice president for planning, a metal fire-door on the interior. These architectural details are what gives the building its popular name, the Vault.

According to the Journal article, the Reeves family originally intended for Bannister House to serve as a guest house. However, Mrs. Reeves told the Journal that “when guests come to spend a weekend or longer, she and Mr. Reeves retire in the museum and let the guests remain in the cottage. She realizes that it would be inhospitable to caution guests about reverence due chairs once owned by George Washington.”

Bannister House is currently owned by the University, and was listed in 2001 by the Providence Preservation Society as one of the Top Ten Most Endangered Properties in the city, due to the fact that it is “vacant and in disrepair,” according to the PPS Web site. The University technically classifies the building as a storage facility, though nothing is currently stored in the house, according to McNally.

The University acquired the property in 1989 and used it for several years as a rental property for student housing, McNally said. The house was vacated by the mid-1990s, as were several other properties that “were in tough shape in terms of needed upgrades.”

Properties such as Bannister House are often acquired by the University not because of their particular potential for use but due to the strategic value of the land for long-term University use, according to Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning.

The Rhode Island Tax Assessor’s database values the land and the house together at a total of $407,300. While Spies said he was not aware of any outside individuals or organizations trying to buy the property, he said the University has “made it pretty clear that it would take a lot to make us consider selling the land – an unusual combination of circumstances.”

Spies told The Herald that since Bannister House is such a small property – just 2,400 square feet – that “as an institutional building, it’s hard to imagine.”

Spies referenced the 2002 Strategic Framework for Physical Planning, saying that the University would be looking into the area between Hope and Brook streets as a potential area for further expansion “in the long term.”

However, the University has no plans to take steps to renovate or preserve the building as it stands due to its small size. In the past there has been discussion of its being used as a museum by the University, Spies said, but he added, “It doesn’t make sense for us to try to run it as a museum. We don’t have the expertise.”

Though the University has no interest in Bannister House as the site for a museum, Spies said, it is willing to consider proposals from other organizations “about how it might be preserved.”

The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society is one such organization interested in the building. Bela Teixeria, the executive director, told The Herald that the Black Heritage Society hopes to acquire land off of College Hill, move the property and convert it into a museum. As she envisioned it, the museum site would ultimately include several buildings, some new and some of historical value, including Bannister House’s next-door neighbor, 89 Benevolent St., which is also owned by the University.

“We’ve secured, in a way, the University’s agreement to give us the house if we move it,” Teixeria said.

The Black Heritage Society has identified an area where they would like the building to be moved. It is a state-owned property that was recently vacated by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation – though Teixeria declined to elaborate on exactly where, fearing competition from other nonprofits.

Teixeria said the Black Heritage Society still needs to “raise the necessary funds” to secure the land and move the property, as well as construct the museum that it intends to surround it. “It’s not the University’s fault that we haven’t taken possession of the building yet,” Teixeria said.

However, Emlen expressed concerns about whether Bannister House would survive being moved downtown. The red bricks visible at the front and sides of the building do not form the structure of the building – they are merely a facade added to the face of the original wood building when it was owned by the Reeves family during the 1930s. According to Emlen, if the building was lifted off the ground there is a risk that the bricks could crumble off the original wood frame.

Currently, the future of Bannister House remains uncertain. Spies said that the University has no plans “in the foreseeable future” to expand or build in that area of Benevolent Street and that it is “prepared to sit tight for awhile” to wait for proposals of historical renovation. “If we reach a point where there is a tight time frame, we will let people know,” he said.

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  1. What about the masonic symbol carved into the stone on the building’s West side?

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