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Providence refocuses preservation efforts

The Narragansett Electric Lighting House, or "Dynamo House," and the Ward Baking Company Administration Building - two buildings in the Jewelry District - were included on the Providence Preservation Society's 2012 list of the most endangered buildings in Providence. These preservation efforts follow a series of successful movements to preserve historical buildings in the district.

Restoration of historic buildings has been prevalent in the Jewelry District since the 1970s, after a group of Rhode Island School of Design students converted a historic building into condominiums - the first such buildings in Providence, said James Hall, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society.

"The Jewelry District is an area that has seen the growth of adaptive reuse," Hall said.

But this has not been the case with Dynamo House and the Ward building, which are considered endangered because they have not been appropriated for use. The buildings are currently vacant and exposed to the elements.

Dynamo House has been on the society's list since 2011. The building originally belonged to the National Grid and is a decommissioned power plant. There have been a number of plans to restore Dynamo House over the past decades, but none have come to fruition.

"It's a prominent building, so it's in the minds of preservationists," said Paul Wackrow, the coordinator of advocacy and education for the Providence Preservation Society.

Arthur Salisbury, the president of the Jewelry District Association, said the building is also important because of its prime waterfront location.

One of the most significant past plans for the building was a combined effort in 1999 by the Rhode Island Historical Society and a number of smaller historical societies to turn it into a museum of Rhode Island history.

According to Salisbury, the groups spent $4 million to $5 million to restore the exterior masonry of the building before the plan fell through in 2003. A developer bought the building that year and started to put condominiums on the top floor, removing the roof in the building process. When the housing bubble collapsed in 2008, the plans for condominiums fell through, and the building has remained roofless since. It's currently owned by a company in Baltimore.

"It just sits there without any signs of moving forward," Hall said.

The Ward building is on the list for the first time this year. Once part of a larger building that housed a baking company, it was used by a jewelry-crafting company when the area became invested in the jewelry industry, but the toxic chemicals used by the company caused the building to fall into disrepair after a number of years.

The back of the building is open, Hall said, leaving it exposed to vagrants and fires.

Hall cited the building's unique art moderne style as one of the its valuable aspects, and Salisbury said its location on a street corner makes it worthy of preservation.

The buildings on the Providence Preservation Society's list are selected privately through a call for nominations on the society's website in the spring. The Planning and Architectural Review Committee, composed of interested preservationists from the community, subsequently votes on the final list.

Hall noted that Jewelry District preservation efforts have improved greatly in the past five years and added that demolition has slowed down. He said the demolition of Route I-195 as well as the increased presence of Brown and Johnson and Wales University have boosted public awareness of the district.

"Many people didn't even know there were residents (in the Jewelry District)," he said. "There's still a sense of history there, and the residents are committed to that history."

Hall also praised Brown's preservation efforts in the district, particularly its conversion of the Little Nemo Manufacturing Building into the Alpert Medical School. In May, the Providence Preservation Society granted former President Ruth Simmons a Special Preservation Award for her rehabilitation of several buildings in the city.

Even with the new developments in the neighborhood, Salisbury noted that most building companies try to keep the size of new buildings in line with the current scale of buildings to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood.

"It's clear that the area originally had a manufacturing or industrial purpose, even if some of the buildings have residential, commercial or academic purposes now," Wackrow said.


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