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See how this historic R.I. building became a multiuse cultural center

Design New England
A nighttime view of the former US Rubber Factory lit up for a gala reveals the giant, column-free space that makes the WaterFire Arts Center the perfect place for large and festive cultural events. Additional exhibition spaces are provided by the roof garden and outdoor patio.
A nighttime view of the former US Rubber Factory lit up for a gala reveals the giant, column-free space that makes the WaterFire Arts Center the perfect place for large and festive cultural events. Additional exhibition spaces are provided by the roof garden and outdoor patio.

Forty feet of railroad track embedded in the floor of the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence serves as an eloquent reminder of this repurposed building’s role in the heyday of Rhode Island industrialization. A 22-foot-tall door at one end of the giant space allowed locomotives to enter what was the US Rubber Factory with raw material from Brazil, which was unloaded by a rolling gantry crane before the train exited through a door on the opposite wall.

This noble if unsung story inspired the factory’s rescue and renovation. The arts center sits in an extensive complex of former mills lining the Woonasquatucket River; another part of the rubber company building is now residential lofts, while the old Rhode Island Locomotive Works next door was redeveloped into offices. US Rubber bought the factory in 1918 and in 1929 erected what is now the home of WaterFire, a festival of water, flames, and music that is the Rhode Island capital’s premier outdoor cultural event.

Primary colors echoing 1920s Modernism accent the only insertions in the interior of the grand space: a staircase, elevator, and walkway.

Beyond housing WaterFire’s administrative offices, parking for 14 trucks, and workshops for constructing fire-tending boats, the building’s use as an assembly hall extends the organization’s cultural mission. Almost a quarter of a century after the first lighting of mini bonfires in the water along the Providence riverfront, the group that mounts the hugely popular event has, in the words of board chairman Leslie Gardner, “been able to consolidate its studios, workshops, offices, conference rooms, a bookstore, and a lecture hall under one roof and to offer space to other community groups.”

During the third annual FireBall, the organization’s gala fund-raiser, last autumn (the first two were held in the unrestored factory), a flatbed truck carrying a reggae band entered the former train portal while trapeze artists performed beneath the 39-foot-high ceiling. The 73-by-200-foot space can accommodate 2,400 revelers and is the perfect setting for dances, exhibitions, awards ceremonies, and plays. (Five plays ran simultaneously during last year’s Providence Fringe Festival.) “There is no space like this in Providence,” says Russell Morin of Russell Morin Catering & Events in Attleboro, Massachusetts.

Beneath the walkway are some of the trucks used to ferry boats, staff, and supplies that support a WaterFire evening on the river.

The first WaterFire in 1997 was a celebration of the opening up of the Providence River and its banks as the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown. The working waterfront and historic wharves, which had been paved over, now stood uncovered and restored as a public space. Since then, WaterFire, which is staged about a dozen times during the warmer months, has grown into a major tourist attraction. What began as a one-time artistic happening created by Barnaby Evans, a photographer and graduate of Providence’s Brown University, is now a permanent tradition, with Evans as executive artistic director. When WaterFire bought the old rubber factory in 2013, its machinery and staff were scattered in various warehouses. They needed a home.

Even in its fallow state, the building’s potential was evident to Evans: The simple, powerful edifice is a “mixture of the spiritual grace of a cathedral with the industrial grit of a real place of work,” he says. (Built by Irish immigrant and rubber baron Joseph Bannon, the plant operated until 1975.) Peter Van Erp, an architect and chairman of the WaterFire building committee, recalls entering the space for the first time. “My immediate reaction,” he says, “was that what we have here is a basilica.”

The no-nonsense factory exterior gives little hint of the basilica-like interior.

The renovation began in 2016 and was completed a year later. Of the $14 million spent on the project, $1.2 million, funded by a US Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields grant augmented by private donations, went to environmental remediation. Douglas Brown and Virginia Branch of DBVW Architects of Providence worked to retain the integrity of the factory’s restrained Modernism, emphasizing the skeletal structure of steel beams, rivets, bricks, and, not least of all, the 15-ton gantry crane still proudly bearing its maker’s name, Milwaukee Electric Crane and Hoist Corp. Says Brown, “The building told us what to do; it practically designed itself.”

“We did not change the factory’s history,” Branch says. The natural light,  prized during the days of rubber manufacture, still pours through the large windows, defining the nearly perfectly proportioned rectangle and dramatically changing the atmosphere throughout the day.

The rehabilitation by Providence’s TRAC Builders has transformed a single-function arts organization into the keepers of what is essentially Providence’s only contemporary art center, one that can accommodate huge exhibitions or just about anything that contributes to the cultural life of the city.

One-third of the arts center, which is beyond the central space, houses office quarters for the WaterFire staff. The upstairs contains offices and conference rooms, while the ground floor provides the workshops for building boats and other projects. Exposed steel beams add to a muscular industrial aesthetic.

The versatility of the space will be demonstrated when the WaterFire Arts Center becomes the first stop in the repatriation journey of civil rights icon Rosa Parks’s Detroit home. The house was saved by Parks’s niece, who gave it to Ryan Mendoza, an American artist who shipped it and personally reconstructed it on his property in Berlin, Germany. Working with the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, Mendoza will again rebuild Rosa Parks’s fragile home inside the WaterFire Arts Center (the exhibit is scheduled to open April 4 and runs through June 4) before it is moved permanently to Detroit.

At a time when too many cities attempt to resuscitate their older urban cores with sports arenas and everywhere-USA office blocks, Providence identified an existing local resource and gave it new life. The WaterFire Arts Center is a potent symbol of what a local arts group can do. “We understood the potential of the space to expand WaterFire’s mission,” says Brown, “but did not realize how fast it would happen.”

WaterFire Arts Center, 475 Valley St., Providence; artscenter.waterfire.org. Visitor center open daily.

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