Up and Coming in Downcity: Historic Rehabilitation and the Arts Converge in Providence

Posted on: September 28th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Erica Stewart

The third installment in the ongoing series of blog posts on the National Trust Community Investment Corporation and its decade of new markets and historic tax credit investing takes us to Providence, Rhode Island. NTCIC has invested nearly $14 million in two historic real estate projects by nonprofit developer AS220 that created artist live/work space out of abandoned commercial buildings. Not only have these projects created affordable housing and artist exhibit space that reinforces the city’s commitment to being a “Creative Capital,” but they return vacant historic properties to use, for the economic and aesthetic benefit of the city and its residents.

If you’ve spent any time in downtown Providence as an area resident or visitor, you know there’s much more to the Rhode Island capital than its former mayor whose federal racketeering charge landed him in federal prison for four years. In fact, a visit to Providence, especially its Downcity district, reveals why it is the envy of many big cities, with its nucleus of rehabbed historic commercial buildings, an inviting river front (that hosts the exquisite “WaterFire” performance) and interesting theaters, restaurants and retail. Providence also boasts the largest number of working artists in the country, reflected in its colorful mix of galleries, theaters and museums.

And thanks to the vision and commitment of AS220, a number of these artists now enjoy two economical and inspirational places to live, work and collaborate: the newly rehabbed Mercantile Building and The Dreyfus—both in the heart of downtown Providence’s high-rent district.

The Dreyfus

The Dreyfus interior before restoration.

The Dreyfus interior before restoration.

The Dreyfus was built in the late 1890s as a small hotel, frequented mostly by salesmen arriving at the nearby train station in downtown Providence. In later years, its French restaurant became a favorite for theater goers as the area became known as the city’s theater district (the basement speakeasy was quite popular for different reasons during Prohibition). The property was enlarged in 1917, the hotel closed in the 60s, and then Johnson & Wales operated it as a dormitory from 1975 to 1999. The Dreyfus remained vacant for several years after that while advocates considered an appropriate reuse. In 2005, it was acquired by the well-respected arts nonprofit organization AS220, whose $7.5 million historic rehabilitation created 14 artists’ lofts, 10 work studios, and ground-floor restaurant and retail space. Three of the lofts are market-rate, and the rest of the space is available below-market to facilitate AS220’s goal of building community in downtown Providence through affordable space for artists to live, work, and operate businesses.

The Dreyfus interior after restoration.

The Dreyfus interior after restoration.

The project team was delighted to find much of the hotel’s classic interior covered up, but largely intact. The highly decorative wood paneling and coffered ceilings in the ground floor bar and dining room are considered to be among the finest intact historic commercial interiors in Providence. The magnificent terracotta that adorns the exterior of the building, along with the stunning stained glass windows on the first floor, was painstakingly restored. The loft apartments and studio spaces boast original wood floors, stairway balustrades, moldings and wainscoting.

The Dreyfus re-opened in May 2007, featuring a new restaurant that highlights local ingredients, AS220’s printmaking shop, and studios and lofts for an eclectic mix of artists. The first tenants included painters, photographers, a playwright, a printer, a DJ, a jeweler, a pastry-artist and even a hot-air-balloon maker. Despite their diverse callings in life, you can be sure after one look at their exquisitely-renovated homes, they all share a passion for historic preservation.

Mercantile Building

The Merchantile Building.

The Merchantile Building.

The Mercantile Building, immediately next door to the Dreyfus, follows in a very similar vein. AS220 began its $16.9 million rehabilitation in 2008 to create retail and office space, a restaurant, 22 housing units, and artists’ studios in the 40,000 square-foot, former commercial building. The rehab, in addition to retaining important historic details, is also incorporating many sustainable design elements, including: natural daylighting, low-consumption plumbing fixtures, a reflective roof membrane and recycled building materials.

Tenants will include the Fab Lab, a computer fabrication and technology collaboration between AS220 and MIT, a public silkscreen shop and other retail spaces that provide opportunities to create, display and sell artwork. College Visions, a program that helps disadvantaged youths apply to college, is also set to occupy space. Two longtime Mercantile tenants - a locksmith and a bar - will be continuing their occupancy in the building, in new and very improved spaces. The residences are scheduled to open October 1.

A significant impact of this project, in addition to the estimated 150 construction jobs and 129 permanent jobs generated by the rehab, is its contribution to the revitalization of Martha Street, which abuts the building on one side. Once regarded a back alley fit only for the stable found there, it is being transformed into a vibrant pedestrian way, greatly enhancing neighborhood safety and vitality.

The resulting body of work is an artful illustration of how artistic creativity, innovation and historic preservation can combine to effect the revitalization of a community without losing its soul in the process.

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s community revitalization department.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.