In the 1990s, Providence unearthed a long-neglected river, buried a rail yard, and started moving a highway out of its downtown. A wave of developers took notice of the city’s massive, publically funded effort to change its image. Much of Providence’s industrial building stock was sitting, vacant, for them when they arrived.
Either unknown to or ignored by developers and city planners, art collectives had been living in formerly industrial buildings in Olneyville and Valley. One of these collectives was the now-legendary Fort Thunder, whose music, prints, and comics have since been featured in retrospectives at the Whitney and RISD museums. When the Feldco Development Corporation’s plans to raze a cluster of mill buildings in Eagle Square went public in 2001, over 250 artists, scenesters, preservationists, and neighborhood residents crowded into a City Plan Commission meeting to protest. They called for both the preservation of Eagle Square’s mill buildings and the provision of legal, affordable live-work spaces for artists. Bob Azar, Deputy Director of City Planning and Development, called it the “fiercest land use debate I’ve ever witnessed.”
In the end, Feldco compromised and tore down fewer buildings than initially planned, but Fort Thunder was still forced to surrender. Following the dispute, J Hogue, a graphic designer recently transplanted from Boston, started photographing and researching buildings like the ones in Eagle Square—historic buildings that the Providence Preservation Society never ordained with one of their iconic white nameplates. Hogue compiled his findings on a website he named Art in Ruins, which now maintains profiles on over 300 buildings. Hogue sorts these profiles into discrete categories like “Redeveloped,” “RIP,” “Still in Use,” and “Urban Decay.” Click on a category’s name and the website will redirect to a random building’s page, complete with a brief history and extensive photo gallery. Now father to a four-year-old, Hogue has fallen behind on the never-ending task of documenting endangered architecture in a changing city. He has a backlog of roughly 50 buildings and he accepts tips, both monetary and informational. The College Hill Independent met with J Hogue to check up on Providence’s industrial building stock.
The College Hill Independent: Why did you start Art in Ruins?
J Hogue: Around 2001 or 2002, right after I moved here, there was a lot of interest in redeveloping the mills. Eagle Square was the first one, the big one really. It became a Shaws Plaza and now it’s a Price Rite… it was on the news. Public meetings. People showed up and were really pretty vocal about it. There was actually a mill that came down just before that, where the Home Depot is on Charles Street. So it just started to feel like, “oh, this is going to keep happening.”
And so out of Fort Thunder, out of the Eagle Square fight, came a nonprofit real estate company for arts called Puente. Steelyard came out of there, Monohasset Mill came out of there, and so Art in Ruins came out of it too really. As a documentary project, I just started taking as many photos as I could. I liked exploring the places that were available at the time, and there were a lot of them. The Masonic Temple was easy to get into; Brown and Sharpe, which is now the Foundry, parts of it were easy to get into. There were a lot of abandoned spots and since it was so under the radar there was a lot of urban exploration that could be done.
In the early ‘90s, Providence was more like what I guess New York’s West Village would’ve been like in the ‘70s. Great for art, not great for safety, not great for tourism. Providence was that and then, trying to be more than that, shifted towards becoming a city that developers wanted to have a piece of. They were looking at all these ‘vacant’ mills that were doing a lot but not generating a lot of revenue.
The Indy: Is Providence doing a good job preserving its building stock?
JH: Right now? No. Because there are no historic tax credits right now, development has sort of grinded to a halt, which I think is in some ways a good thing because development was happening too quickly for a while. But it’s dropped off so much that it’s not really at a sustainable level. It’s at no level.
The Indy: When did that peak in development take place?
JH: It all coincided with 2008, which wasn’t a good year for anybody. The recession was bad and then tax credits ran out and the city didn’t want to renew them because they were losing money on that deal. So that made developers go belly up or move out of town.
You really don’t see any large mill developments anymore. You see smaller projects here and there, maybe five or six units, but nothing on the scale of Rising Sun, or The Plant, or Calendar Mills, or Pearl Street Lofts, or the Foundry. I think that’s good in some ways, because we lost oversight while it was burning really hot. But now we’re losing things to demolition because the value proposition to turn the mill buildings into something viable isn’t there anymore.
The Indy: One of most interesting parts of Art in Ruins is how populated the ‘anecdotes’ sections at the bottom of every building’s page are. I was impressed that you were able to bring this crowd of older folks to a pretty obscure corner of the web. I’m wondering how you cultivated that level of engagement.
JH: I’m not sure exactly how that happened. I think it’s primarily because if someone is fairly new to the Internet, maybe, they’re going to do a couple searches. And they’re going to search for maybe the place where they worked. And it just so happens, if it’s been torn down in the last ten years, I probably have documentation of it. So they find it, and they see my photos, and they see maybe a couple other anecdotes that are up there… it just happened naturally. I thought it was going to be more about the photography but people being able to tell their story has worked out better than I could’ve imagined. The amount of trolling is so tiny.
The Indy: Do you think it’s ever better to leave a building as a ruin than to rehabilitate it?
JH: I would love to see that. I don’t think anyone here in a dense New England city would let that happen. Some people call what I do ‘ruin porn.’ You could say that. There is some of that there. But at the same time, I think there is some value to it. Things that are shiny and bright and new are nice for one thing, but things that are old and have a natural decay to them and have layers of reuse and patching have a completely different character. The Chinese term for that is wok hei, which is basically the flavor of the wok. The more it’s used, the more flavor it imparts on what it cooks. That’s how I think about some of these shells. And it would be sort of nice to have some of those that are open, like a Greek ruin. They’d be there for what they are and what they were, not what they could become.
The Indy: What about that brick façade on Weybosset Street?
JH: That’s a victim of the exuberance of 2007–2008. The 110 it was called. I forget how tall it was going to but it was just shy of the Industrial Trust Building. Residential tower, glass façade, you know, the whole nine yards. They got that spot because they were going to preserve that façade, which was an 1890 bank façade I believe. So they tore down the rest of the structures there that were from the same era. And now all that’s left is that façade. So again, the intent was good, but who’s going to pay to keep propping that up? How is that going to be repurposed?
The Indy: Have you ever been emotionally affected by a particular building going down?
JH: The Fruit and Produce warehouse was a favorite of mine. I’m not even really sure why. I was never able to get into that building. But it was just such an interesting, low-slung, long building built by the railroad tracks. Had such a specific use. Had a really nice, simple, clean architectural detail about it. The way it came down seemed so backhanded and nefarious. For nothing to be built in its spot, that felt like a stab. Really unnecessary. Especially since it took them six months to demolish that building. It was only two stories tall but the walls were so thick… it was basically built to be a refrigerated building. There was nothing structurally wrong with it.
The Indy: Any buildings on your mind these days?
JH: Yeah, there’s one that I might drive up and take some photos of right after this if I have time. Off of the highway heading towards Boston there’s a giant, giant building on the edge of Central Falls and North Attleboro that’s coming down right now. Those kinds of towns, they have so much of that building stock that they don’t value them in the same way. It’s a 40-acre parcel. It’s sort of crumbling. But up until very recently there were still tenants in there. It’s just massive, it’s so big, and I kind of can’t imagine anyone building something of that magnitude around here again. I think that’s what’s interesting about a lot of these buildings. You can’t really imagine the industry that needed that sort of space