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Joseph Benn and Company (Greystone Mill)
Although Greystone Avenue brings one to the mill entrance, the rear porch of the Whitehall Building provides the best overall view of the front of it. This is among the most complete plants remaining in Rhode Island designed by the leading early twentieth-century firm of industrial engineers in the state. The long spinning mill is a brick-piered block, four stories in front, five to the rear. Tall, inset segmental-arched windows on simple rough-faced granite sills fill the full width between the piers, those for the top story reduced a little in height with roof brackets between to terminate the elevation visually with some sense of the horizontality which a cornice would provide. The immense stair towers divide the elevation into thirds. They are articulated with a double tier of arched windows climaxed by now blocked circular windows or clock faces, all openings framed in inset panels, with “medieval” crenellation and capping, handsomely simplified. In the higher rear elevation, visible on Greystone Avenue, the pier-spandrel / pier-spandrel rhythm is unbroken and inexorable. All is crisply planar, incisively edged, grandly proportioned, in the elegantly modular, simple, and modern style which the Sheldon organization had developed by 1900. Both towers and walls represent a further simplification and aggrandizement of the Sheldon-designed type used for the earlier Ann and Hope Mill at Lonsdale ( CU5).
The great loss is the blinded windows, felt particularly in the blinded sawtooth roof of the low weaving plant in front of the wall of spinning machines—a type of building specifically made for light. The foreground buildings are not easily seen because of the topography, but an overall view of the complex shows the basic array of nineteenth-century architectural inventions for bringing light to the factory: tall windows and minimal walls in the spinning mill; square monitors popping from the flat roof of an old weaving shed (casually oriented east and west); finally, the crisply executed sawtooth monitor scientifically oriented to the steady coolness of northern light. One-story sawtooth-roofed buildings for weaving sheds and other industrial processes with exacting requirements for illumination (before the invention of fluorescent lighting) were a Sheldon specialty. The firm's engineers published several scientific studies on sawtooth design to maximize the most intense and unvarying light by natural means. Although this roof type, with its multiple north-facing skylights, was widely used in weaving sheds in England, where clear steady light was especially prized beginning as early as the 1830s, New England mill architects were slow to adopt it, fearing that the sawtooth could not withstand snow loads. In the late 1890s, however, American architects and engineers, the Sheldon firm in the vanguard, successfully naturalized this serrated roof form by building it in the sturdy plank and timber style of American mill construction, and only later in metal framing.
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