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Narragansett Electric Company Power Plants

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1903, George B. Francis, engineer. 1913. 1940–1950, United Engineers and Contractors, Inc. (Manchester Street plant). 1908, 1913, Narragansett Company staff engineers. 1924–1925, Narragansett Electric staff with Jenks and Ballou, engineers (South Street plant). 460 Eddy St. (at Manchester St.) and 342 Eddy St. (at South St.)

Bracketing Davol Square are two impressive early-twentieth-century powerhouses named for the side streets that access them off Eddy Street: the earlier opposite the entrance to Davol Square and set back from Point Street; the later stretching most of the length of South Street, marking the rear boundary of the Davol property. Both now belong to Narragansett Electric, although the earlier was originally built by the Rhode Island Electric Company to power its trolleys. The former trolley company is easily confused with the short-lived Rhode Island Electric Light Company, founded in 1882 as Providence's first power company. Three years later it disappeared into Narragansett Electric, originally organized as a consortium of businessmen under the leadership of Marsden J. Perry to build its own competing power plant, but with the long-range goal of consolidating the plethora of small electric companies that then existed throughout the state. In 1913 Narragansett swallowed the Rhode Island Company, in the process acquiring its trolleys as well as its powerhouse. Around the same time, in a burst of building activity, Narragansett simultaneously began the expansion of the 1903 powerhouse in a congruent style, while also demolishing its own initial generating plant to replace and enlarge it with the South Street Powerhouse in a different style. The fortune Perry acquired from these and other business and banking interests enabled him to purchase the grandest of Providence's colonial mansions and to embellish it with a sumptuous collection of eighteenth-century British and American furniture (see PR96.1).

Of the two, the earlier (Manchester Street) plant is more abstractly rationalized, and hence displays the more “industrial” aspect. Ranges of tall, narrow arches with metal sash along the side elevations light the interior, expanding to broader arched windows under stepped gables at either end. The chunky, close-fisted quality of this powerhouse is appropriate for the dynamos within and expressive of the concentration of energy at the point of its release. On the other hand, the 1913 building spreads as a classicized screen. Industry is self-con-sciously monumentalized toward the higher order of public grandeur associated with the classicism favored by the City Beautiful movement, here in an alternating rhythm of giant arches and pilasters ranged between a high base and an entablature. But this is stripped classicism, as though intended as well to celebrate the ideals of time-and-motion efficiencies, then also a conspicuous part of the progressive American industrial credo. Whatever Perry's role in the choice of this design (if any), one feels that he would have sympathized with its classical appeal.

Until 1991 an overhead conveyor belt linked the South Street powerhouse with coal piles adjacent to the Manchester Street complex two blocks away. It was removed in 1992 partly because of the closure of the South Street plant and partly to arcadianize as much as possible the linear park which now extends along the river frontage between the plants. As this book goes to press, the South Street building is poised for rehabilitation as Heritage Harbor, a consortium of historical museums, archives, and libraries.

As a complex, particularly as a spotlighted nighttime silhouette, the powerhouses are best viewed from the east bank of the Providence River. Cross on the Point Street Bridge (1928–1929, Boston Bridge Works), a trussed swing bridge (now fixed in place) with its onetime control shanty tucked into the trussing. Its sidewalks provide a good vantage point for views up the Providence River into the downtown.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Narragansett Electric Company Power Plants", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PR42.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 59-60.

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