Above: The Mercantile Block, circa 1915, on Washington Street in downtown Providence (AS220/Providence Public Library)
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The Mercantile Block before its renovation
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Mercantile Block after its renovation
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Rear of Mercantile Block before restoration
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Rear of Mercantile block after restoration
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Rendering of Martha Street behind Mercantile
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Column at rear of the Mercantile in 2007
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Restored staircase inside the Mercantile
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AS220 Print Shop director Morgan Calderini describes the advanced technology and versatile services that make it among the best in nation
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Washington Street, in downtown Providence, was established near the end of the second term of the nation's first president, and was named shortly after his death in 1799. Downtown was a mature residential neighborhood in the early 19th Century, but by century's end much of the street had grown dilapidated. Its houses were being razed and replaced by commercial structures. Among the earliest of these was the Mercantile Block, erected in 1901.
Washington Street don't get no respect. It is not in Florence Parker Simister's Streets of the City: An Anecdotal History of Providence (1968). But it plays a role in my colleague Edward Achorn's biography of Providence Grays pitcher Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, Fifty-Nine in '84 (2010): Washington is the street where Radbourn's lover, Carrie Stanhope, ran an apparently bawdy boarding house.
"The neighborhood was packed," writes Achorn, "with hotels, shops, factories, stables, barrooms, apartments, and even a small brewery, all housed in a jumble of buildings, from sturdy modern brick structures to sagging, grimy clapboard houses of an earlier era."
When the four-story Mercantile Block went up in 1901, it replaced structures that contained a laundry, a scale-repair shop, a livery and probably other merchants. The Mercantile was a leading player in transforming a seedy neighborhood, known in Old Hoss's time as "The Bowery," into a thriving commercial strip.
Newly renovated, the Mercantile reprises its original role as an urban Ajax. After some seven decades of relative prosperity, Washington Street had by 1970 again entered a slovenly period, from which it is only now being rescued. Leading the way in this renaissance is AS220, the arts cooperative based on Empire Street. In 2007, it renovated the Dreyfus Hotel next door, mostly as live/work studios for artists.
The Mercantile Block, which will be dedicated next Monday at 3:30 p.m., has 22 residential studios in the upper two stories. On the second floor are 11 work studios and offices for AS220 programs and nonprofits. On the ground floor, longtime tenant Clark the Locksmith remains, though he has moved to the building's west end. Another old tenant, the formerly down-at-the-heels gay bar Wheels, renamed The Stable, occupies part of the frontage with a new restaurant, Viva Mexico, opening in July. The AS220 Print Shop, one of the nation's most advanced, occupies space entered from Martha Street.
The folks at AS220, and especially its financial rainmaker Lucie Searle, who showed me the building a week ago, are totally psyched by the improvement of Martha Street. In 2007, I wandered down an alley few knew as Martha Street and shot some photos of the deteriorating wooden column capitals that once denoted pretensions quite lofty for an alley. The grimy rear entries were bricked in or boarded up. Today, they are restored, with pleasing sidelights and transoms. Martha now sports café tables and a profusion of perennials.
AS220 purchased the building in 2008. Working with the Providence Revolving Fund to nail down the historical details, the local firm Durkee Brown Viveiros & Werenfels Architects, with engineers Yoder & Tidwell and contractor Pezzuco Construction, retained or replicated the wood flooring and period ornament. While the ornament is not as florid as at the Dreyfus, the Mercantile Block would easily put most modern commercial buildings to shame, if they were capable of any such feeling.
The renaissance on Washington should extend to restoring the nearby George C. Arnold Block. Damaged by fire in 2009, it serves as a flimsy but effective patch over a most obscene parking gulch ripping the street's urban fabric. Its demolition would expose Washington's naked asphalt desert, dimming future prospects for the street and downtown as a whole.
AS220, call your office!
More grist for
the tower mill
Last week's column "Who really built Newport's old tower?," has generated a predictable pile of mail from proponents of alternatives to Jim Egan's Elizabethan theory. Perhaps the most interesting comes from architectural historian John Fitzhugh Millar, of Williamsburg, Va., who asserts that the tower was built to observe the 1761 transit of Venus across the sun. He says the designer was none other than Peter Harrison, the architect of the Redwood Library and Touro Synagogue. Millar will describe his theory in a lecture at Newport's Jane Pickens Theater on Thursday, June 16, at 6 p.m. ($8).
David Brussat (email@example.com) is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.
Below: George C. Arnold Block, kitty-corner on Washington from Mercantile and Dreyfus Hotel, awaits preservation after 2009 fire
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Carrie Stanhope's boarding house, on Washington Street where now stands the Strand Theater. The boarding house, at the corner of Washington and Union (where a Dunkin' Donuts now leases space, has two dormers on its roof.
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Across Washington Street from Carrie Stanhope's boarding house