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Jewelry Factories in the Chestnut Street Area

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1888–1911. Late 1970s, mid-1980s, several converted to offices and apartments. Chestnut St. from Pine to Point sts. 91 Friendship St.

The Waite-Thresher Building ( PR36.1; 1911, Dwight Seabury; 1984–1985, reuse conversion), at 30–32 Chestnut Street (corner of Pine Street) introduces a line of brick factory buildings in the heart of what used to be the larger Jewelry District. These are straightforward loft buildings. Their functional beauty depends on the fine quality of their brickwork in planar or pier-and-spandrel walls, in conjunction with the regular rhythm of their generously proportioned sash windows, mostly in wood, all silled in granite and topped with shallow brick relieving arches. The window unit is usually (but not always) divided by a center mullion to form a pair, each half with two sash, the height often stretched by a fixed transom to increase interior light. Variations occur in dimensions and divisions into panes from four over four to ten over ten, with two to five for the transom.

In contrast to the spread of the three- and four-story brick textile mills (see especially examples in Pawtucket), these are compact blocks of five to seven stories. The projecting towers characteristic of the textile mills were unnecessary where rented loft space accommodated a patchwork of changing tenants and the products were tiny and precious. Nor is there either a reason or a place in these buildings for the assertive custom brick design and fancy capping found on many of the textile towers, through which their owners customarily proclaimed corporate identity and dominance. By contrast, the loft factory is essentially anonymous, its ornamentation mostly limited to the standard treatments of the corbeled eaves. But take a closer look at these beetling structures, which literally step out from the plane of the wall, terminating it while also integrally of it. Despite their apparent sameness, consider the variations among three buildings: the Waite-Thresher Building; the Horace Remington and Sons Company Building ( PR36.2; 1888), at 91 Friendship Street; and the Irons and Russell Company Building ( PR36.3; 1903–1904, Martin and Hall, 95 Chestnut (at Clifford Street). Corbeling in the eaves of the Waite-Thresher and Remington buildings occurs in two stages: immediately under the cornice edge in sheet copper or terra-cotta, below which is an entablature-like plane, then at or just below the topmost window arching. The effectiveness of the cornice is thereby doubled by providing projection and shadow both at the top of each stack of windows and again under the cornice. The Waite-Thresher Building also has a projecting topmost relieving arch, which further intensifies depth of shadow under the eaves. Alternatively, the corbeled cornice of the Irons and Russell building is lifted above the windows, as a separate element, which emphasizes the plane of the wall rather than its beetling termination.

In all three of these buildings, window elements within each stack are inset except for the bottommost sill. This projects a little beyond the plane of the piers and interlocks with them, so as to provide a baseline for each of the window stacks. In the unaltered storefronts set into the “front” walls of each of these buildings, the divisions between shop windows for the first two are framed in boxlike piers: those for the Waite-Thresher Building faced in wood and relatively narrow; those for Remington faced in cast iron and much wider, in accord with the exceptional width of the windows. For the Irons and Russell building, cast iron columns mark the divisions. These comparisons demonstrate the double nature of the most vital vernacular traditions: standardization based on “right” ways of building as these have evolved over time and variation in the possibilities of an infinity of particular expressions. Occasional details even break with anonymity. In the first building a wrought iron gate into which the original owners' names are worked closes a rear court off Pine Street. In the second, spare ornamentation occurs at the tops of the window frames where they fill the shallow curve of the relieving arch.

The final two examples display an alternate standard: simple windows punched into a planar wall, as opposed to paired windows inset within a piered wall. The wedge-shaped Champlin Manufacturing Company building ( PR36.4; 1888, 1901; 1978, reuse conversion), 116 Chestnut (at Clifford, Ship, and Bassett streets) indicates how much is lost when, as was the custom during the early phase of “modernization” of these buildings, sheets of plate glass, allowing easier maintenance and improved climate control from double glazing, replaced the animation of grids made by panes, sashes, and transoms. The plane of the wall is lost across these voids. Scale is disrupted. The eyes of the building become empty sockets. However impressive its laconic acceptance of the functional imperatives of the brick wall regularly punched with identical openings, the potential for choice within the vernacular tradition is severely diminished in the Doran Building ( PR36.5; 1907; late 1970s, reuse conversion), 150 Chestnut, addition at 70 Ship (at Elbow Street). The treatment is routinized, and the assertion of distinctive expression possible from formulaic anonymity diminished.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Jewelry Factories in the Chestnut Street Area", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PR36.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 55-57.

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