Providence Fruit and Produce Warehouse

This post first appeared on the Endangered Places, Emerging Stories blog of the Providence Preservation Society. The post can be found here, along with other interesting pieces on buildings lost, saved and on the bubble in Providence.


Harris Avenue was one of the very first places I would explore in Providence shortly after I arrived in 1992.  I can clearly recall the first trip out with the 4x5 camera to that part of town. A spring afternoon, Sunday, the sun clear and warm. Red brick, dusty streets and not a soul around. The area felt ignored and forgotten, as if time had slowed to a crawl. Activity ceased or barely persisting in the evidence of one or two boxcar loads on a siding and a scattering of trucks at a few loading docks. Perfect for me and my slow camera. Plenty of time and none. For if there had been little change over the previous 25 years on Harris Ave. the next 25 would be otherwise. 


There were several structures of interest that together made up the fabric of the district, held together by railroad tracks and the river channel. An ivy covered signal tower from the New Haven railroad era, a single story track side warehouse with a curving wooden dock, the hulking Providence Cold Storage warehouse, and the iconic Silver Top diner.

Front elevation, 1998.

Rear elevation, 1998.

Anchoring the street was the concrete art deco of the Providence Fruit and Produce Warehouse. Long (almost 900 feet) and low it was built in 1929 when rail was king to hold produce unloaded from boxcars for distribution through the city. In 1992 there was some activity but it was hardly a bustling place. One by one these places were pulled from the fabric, torn down or in the case of the Silver Top, moved. The space itself was intruded upon by new highway off ramps.

When the warehouse was finally pulled down in 2008 I wrote this: ...[the warehouse] has great value because it connects us to our past, it is real in a way that buildings like the Providence Place Mall will never be. This is our heritage, built for an honest hard working purpose, not a sham echo of something it is not. This is not a decorated box, which is almost surely what we will get in the place of the warehouse." The rest of this rather angry blog post can be found here.

February 2008

So far all we get in place of what might have been is an empty lot. Perhaps it could have become the year round farmers market that Providence so desperately needs. Perhaps not. Although tons of produce still moves by rail it is not the fruit and veg that the new farm to table trade is built on. Perhaps it could have been arts space. We'll never know. Looking at these pictures reminds me that the only time we have is now, and if we wish to maintain a connection to the past we have to work at it, or all that will remain is a photograph. That said, you can view more photographs here.

Warehouse coming down....A Rant

Well, it's happening, the Providence Fruit and Produce Warehouse is coming down. Shortly after the Judge gave the go ahead demolition began. How is it that it can take months to get a contractor going on even the smallest of projects yet there always seems to be a demolition crew ready to go at a moments notice. Weekends, holidays, midnight? No problem.

Demolition was forced to pause for a little bit when Eric Bright and Clay Rockefeller (and their dogs) climbed on to the roof. They were hoping to buy some time for a State appeal, but no appeal was filed. Nice try anyway, guys. Good to see someone from PPS get involved and get out there, seems like a while since they have been vocal on a demolition issue.

A lot of questions remain around this case. What did the developer agree to regarding preservation? How does a structure become so "unsound" so quickly? With a State budget in crisis and furloughs looming, why does a property get sold at a price below its value on the basis of a vague promise to redevelop?

Finally, why does it seem that the ProJo always comes down on the wrong side of an issue? In two pieces in today's opinion section they make it clear that they only care about pretty buildings that rich people once lived in. In the editorial they state "We shed no tears for the 79-year-old structure..." while at the same time bemoaning the fact that a parking lot now occupies the site of the former Police and Fire headquarters. Well, if you do nothing, don't be surprised when buildings are razed.

The column by David Brussart expands on this narrow-minded vision (expand on narrow-mindedness?). He states flatly: "Don't save the produce terminal". Basing his judgement on the evidence of a few renderings he dismisses out of hand any idea of adaptive reuse. He states "So if its exterior were no longer going to look as it did when it was still in use, then what good would it be as a historical artifact? Not much." I say, a lot. First, I reject the idea that it would not be possible to maintain the look of the building in reuse. The extreme proportions, the art deco elements cast into the exterior, the distinctive profile of the roof line, all of this could be kept quite recognizable. No one is looking to keep the building as a museum piece. Secondly, it has great value because it connects us to our past, it is real in a way that buildings like the Providence Place Mall will never be. This is our heritage, built for an honest hard working purpose, not a sham echo of something it is not. This is not a decorated box, which is almost surely what we will get in the place of the warehouse. This building has character which could be imparted onto a new enterprise. People could go there once again to do things and in so doing they could look around and understand what people once did, and perhaps feel some connection to those who came before.

Brussart also states that the building should come down because it isn't beautiful. Well, I disagree, and so do many others, judging by the comments on Urban Planet. Anyway, that is in the eye of the beholder for sure. As to his other points, I'll finish with a particularly idiotic passage where he says: "If you can’t demolish a building like the produce warehouse, what can you demolish? Yet, to construct new buildings without threatening more and more green space requires demolishing existing buildings. Better they be ugly ones." So this building has to come down to protect green space. Tree hugger.

David, do you want to demolish some buildings? I suggest almost anything on Route 2 from Cranston to South County would be a good start. Leave the properties on the National Register of Historic Places alone.