Few give this lonely edifice more than a passing glance as they zip by on I-195. It stands against the shore of the Providence River, a solitary giant lacking neighbors, who were all demolished to make room for the highway. A signpost outside makes an ominous declaration: ‘State Property. Police Take Notice.’ Its windows are broken and graffiti adorns its exterior.
The year was 1990, and a young entrepreneur named Joseph Cerilli decided that Providence’s harbor nightlife needed an upgrade. He thought the adjacent bars of Hot Club and Fish Co. lacked a certain “oomph,” according to Tim M., a contributor to ArtInRuins.com, an online forum dedicated to exploring Rhode Island’s abandoned buildings. Cerilli’s idea: a $6 million, 25,000 square foot multi-story megaclub that would become the epicenter of Providence debauchery and attract party-goers from all over Southern New England. Cerilli’s answer: Shooter’s.
Three floors of fully stocked bars ensured that parched revelers could quench their thirst at their every convenience. Former bartender Craig L. reminisces about the establishment’s earnings: “We would ring over $19,000-$20,000 at the Pub bar in one night.” That was in 1990. He wonders, “How much did we have to serve to ring those numbers every night when an Absolute was $3.75?"
Shooter’s took pains to cater to a particular set of outlandish – not to mention well-heeled – customers. The hidden VIP entrance ushered those paying top dollar for tables on the exclusive roof deck. “It was like a fashion show,” says Kim, who only wished to be identified by her first name. “We would all do our thing, pretty much just to make everyone on the other deck jealous.”
The VIP entrance, however, was not the height of Shooter’s offerings. Jason V, a former member of the management team, writes that the idea was for Shooter’s to be the “nightclub of all nightclubs.” For those really wanting to make an entrance, the club’s riverside location provided alternatives: guests could arrive by boat, mooring their vessels and hopping directly onto the outdoor deck to begin their boozing. According to one online poster identified as Angell, even billionaire Donald Trump made use of this option to visit Shooter’s, though his claim cannot be substantiated.
If guests preferred, they could bring their choppers and touch down on the rooftop helipad, where a bar awaited them just a few feet away. A “Boozy Sunday” brunch attracted those for whom the nights were not enough. Without the impending cut-off of a 2 AM closing time, the brunches could rage as long as the sun shone.
But all of these extravagant features were a sideshow to Shooter’s main attraction: the rooftop pool, which elevated the venue to legendary status. The ‘Hot Body’ contests—a source of excitement for ogling bystanders—did not cement Shooter’s notoriety as much as the masses of mostly-nude bodies jiving to Britney Spears that flocked to the pool did. Kim says, regarding the pool, “I’d really rather not talk about my personal time in there, even though I had so many good times. Let’s just say that everybody loved it and it was the talk of Providence when Shooter’s opened.”
It wasn’t all fun and games at Providence’s most popular spot, described as “the place to be!” by nostalgic online commentator Lisa T. Shooter’s was plagued by a host of problems from the start. Neighborhood residents complained of the hordes of inebriated, loud partiers refusing to end the night even after last call. The club made statewide headlines in 1993, including in the Providence Journal, when there was a fatal shooting in the parking lot after an altercation between two drunken patrons. Indeed, Shooter’s was never a stranger to violence; an assault charge was once filed accusing a woman of using a stiletto as a weapon in the club.
The ownership changed hands by the club’s first anniversary, once the spot was found to be too expensive. In 1994, it began a dragged-out metamorphosis, passing through several reincarnations: first as Shadows, a low-key bar which only used a portion of the huge space, then as Bombers, an upscale restaurant, and finally as Bootlegger’s, which attempted a return to the original Shooter’s model. But, ultimately, none of the building’s occupants would ever live up to its first. Bootlegger’s shut its doors for the last time in 2000. According to The Providence Journal, it was bought by the state’s Department of Transportation for the lower-than-market-value sum of $4.7 million. It has remained empty ever since.
Today, developers eye the location as a prime spot for a hotel or high-rise condominiums. Former Providence mayor David Cicilline and various advocacy groups have called for making the space public, turning it into a marina complex that could boost the city’s fragile economy in conjunction with the harbor’s other attractions, like popular restaurant Al Forno, the Wyndham Garden Hotel, and India Point Park. MakeShootersPublic.com, a website sponsored by the Fox Point Neighborhood Association and dedicated specifically to the cause, hails it as the potential cornerstone of a new, gentrified Providence bay that would provide locals with leisure facilities and tourists with recreation opportunities like Segway and boat rentals.
The abandoned building conjures up images more of a circus than a notorious nightclub, thanks to an eclectic coat of paint, which, internet commenter G Ainsworth notes, was not part of the original design, but a later change. A once-vibrant but still tacky red and yellow façade sits jarringly against the muted colors of the river, its smashed windows facing the open harbor. Multicolored and irregularly placed squares add some seemingly senseless ornament to the already bright exterior. A small triangular structure juts out into the sky from the roof, almost like the acme of a circus tent. Dirty, decrepit, and desolate, Shooter’s stands an eerie remnant of times gone-by.
This hasn’t stopped adventurous Rhode Islanders from venturing into the forbidden building. Photos and stories from inside its walls are posted all over the Internet. The space has devolved into a vandal’s heaven: graffiti covers virtually everything, glass and wood panels have been looted for all of their little worth, and awnings have either been scavenged or deteriorated over time. Ceiling panels have fallen off or been removed, revealing wires and pipes overhead. Beer taps have gathered rust and trampled cans still litter the floor, as if waiting to be cleaned up after a wild night. As observer Jed O. notes on ArtInRuins.com, it is as if everyone just “got up and left.”
An online comment by Krissy encapsulates the Shooter’s experience succinctly: “I remember being in high school and this was one of the places that I could get in under age, quite fun :) I also remember being ‘legal’ a few years later and having the time of my life dancing and being tipsy and falling into the pool!” For those who knew Shooter’s in its heyday, like Krissy, now probably in their 40’s, the idea of taking their kids to see Fourth of July fireworks from that famed rooftop, home to follies of youth, must seem a bizarre idea.
Muhammad Saigol B’12 isn’t really into pool parties.