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Slater Cotton Company New Mill

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1881–1882, Frank P. Sheldon(?). 40–50 Church St. (at Pine St.)

This mill was substantially spoiled when most of its windows were remorselessly blocked. Still, it is among the most powerfully expressive brick mills extant in Rhode Island. A Sayles family operation (see the introduction to Lincoln), the plant had since 1869 produced twills, sateens, and other fine cotton goods across the street in a converted factory before the firm erected this “new mill.” One immediately senses the magnificent scale and rhythm of the segmental-arched windows even without their original wooden sash bisected by a single central mullion. (A few openings still have the old sash.) The windows rest on continous coursings of rough-faced granite, uninterrupted by projections in the wall. For Rhode Island brick factory elevations this treatment is exceptional, if not quite unique. Hence, though the very size of the windows tends to skeletonize the wall consonant with trends in early twentieth-century mill construction, the planarity of the surface works against this perception by recalling an older tradition of the wall as dominant element, merely punched with windows. This conservative treatment is reinforced by the possibility of viewing the window ranges as a stack of arcades set on granite shelves which count the floors within. Seen this way, the wall appears as a superposition of additive weights, in contrast to the then pervasive skeleton mill construction, in which projecting vertical piers oppose inset spandrel bridging elements over and under the window openings.

The beefiness of the identical towers set at either end of the long Church Street elevation is even more at odds with skeletal expression. Severely rectangular, the towers rise to deep, beetling cornices, displaying as they do so the virtuosity possible in standard brick ornamentation, as well as the grandeur of effect which exacting workmanship and noble proportions can create. To the front are stacks of loading doors framed by slightly inset panels, with windows up the side elevations, all resting on the unbroken granite floor markers. The segmental arching which caps these tower openings is excessively overbuilt as hoods from corbeled brackets, indicating a conscious effort at monumentality, as though brick tended toward design in stone. The treatment of the boxy tops is truer to brick. At the lowest stage, rectangular panels of brick are set out in a checkerboard pattern. Above these, the deep cornice begins with corbeling, a coursing of bricks inset at an angle, then vertical slots of brick, and a finale of still more corbeling. A tour de force in brick craftsmanship! Now pity its blindness.

Who is responsible for its design? The Sheldon firm seems a likely candidate. At least one other example known to be theirs, the Lonsdale Mill in Cumberland, shows the same continuous granite coursings as visual shelving for the windows ( CU5), while other Sheldon mills at this time emphasize planar walls climaxed by massive towers articulated with brick ornamentation of comparable precision and virtuosity. This firm seems just then to have sought to combine the sharp-edged openness of aspect expected for emerging twentieth-century factory design with monumental assertiveness as a last hurrah to the image of overwhelming power that nineteenth-century industry came to cherish. Whoever designed this brick mill, no other in Rhode Island deserves more notice.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Slater Cotton Company New Mill", [Pawtucket, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PA11.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 142-143.

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