Main Street in jeopardy

Main Street in jeopardy

The Linton Block on Monument Square, pictured here in a photo from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, is one of more than a dozen historic buildings lost to fire or demolition since 1976. It was destroyed by fire in 2000.
Woonsocket’s historic buildings are disappearing

WOONSOCKET – In 1976, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission published a report on Woonsocket that included a survey of the city’s historical properties. Included on this list were mill buildings, churches, offices and schools that had already withstood the test of urban development in the 20th century, surviving where many other buildings had been taken down. The report urged residents of Woonsocket to take pride in their city and develop a plan for its future preservation.

Over the past 40 years, at least 14 of those properties have been lost to demolition, fire or gradual decay, and many others are in danger of meeting the same fate. For proponents of historic preservation, it’s an urgent reminder of the ease with which even the most treasured historical properties can fall out of public consideration over time.

Larry Poitras, the local historian and preservation proponent who brought the report to the attention of the City Council earlier this year, is familiar with many of the properties on the list. In the 1970s, he and other members of the Woonsocket Historical Society were involved in an unsuccessful campaign to save the St. Ann Gymnasium, the Cumberland Street property that since the 1940s had been home to the Club Marquette. Like other properties of its era, the building eventually came down as a result of urban renewal, and the location now hosts a glass-fronted medical office building. It’s one example, says Poitras, of a building that fell victim to a strategy that prioritizes new construction over historic preservation.

“All through the ’60s and early ’70s, the city was on a massive campaign to tear everything down. And we haven’t done much better since 1976,” he said during an interview at the Woonsocket Historical Society.

Several other properties listed in the 1976 report have fallen victim to fires, including the Alice Mill on Fairmount Street, the Bartlett Mill on Bernon Street, the Linton Block in Monument Square and the St. James Hotel on Main Street. Others, such as the Lafayette Worsted and French Worsted Mills on Hamlet Avenue, were cleared to create space for new development or parking.

The past four decades have also seen preservation successes, most notably the grassroots effort led by Mayor Francis Lanctot to save the Stadium Theatre in the 1990s. Restoration of the 1926 venue was completed in 2001, and the nonprofit theater now serves as one of downtown’s main economic drivers, drawing 110,000 patrons to Main Street every year.

The commercial sector has seen successes as well, including the development of River Falls Restaurant in the former Falls Yarn textile mill. Both of these projects took place in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period Jeffrey Emidy, deputy director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and a city resident, refers to as the “heyday of historic preservation in Rhode Island.” At the time, developers of historic property were eligible to receive tax credits on up to 50 percent of their investment, 20 percent from the federal government and 30 percent from the state. The program, he said, offered a boost to historic preservation and allowed developers to complete many of the larger mill renovation projects.

“It’s an economic driver, a way of getting some money back into the projects,” he explained.

In 2014, however, the state stopped accepting new applications for historic tax credits and has gradually eliminated the program. Investors can still apply for the 20 percent federal tax credit – a program Emidy’s office oversees – but without the state tax credit, investors in historic buildings have lost a significant amount of financial support. Emidy said he thinks opinion has turned against using state funds to support preservation projects, partly because the tax benefits realized by returning an empty building to a functional use tend to be felt more on the local than the state level.

“I think the general consensus was that it was a drain on the state budget to take that money off the tax rolls, to be giving that credit back to people. There are many people out there who would say that there are other things that compensate for that,” he said. “For example, if you take a big mill that’s vacant, they’re paying X amount of tax dollars on vacant spaces.”

Main Street has faced its fair share of development challenges over the years, from the exodus of the city’s commercial businesses to the difficulty of attracting new business to a century-old space. By Emidy’s estimate, 30 percent of the properties along South Main Street between Market Square and Holy Family Church have been demolished since 1976, many of them lost to blight. It’s a challenge faced by traditional downtown areas across the country as they struggle to develop niche markets to draw in new revenue.

“Main Streets are suffering all over the place. If you look at these stores, they’re not sized for putting the kind of stuff that’s out at Dowling Village in. Or even the stuff that’s at Diamond Hill. It doesn’t work,” he said.

One of the sites that has struggled is the Hospital Trust Building, the ornate 1920s-era building across the street from City Hall that has stood vacant since the Division of Motor Vehicles relocated in 2005. In 2015, city officials were eagerly pitching the property to potential investors, with several visiting the site to tour its worn-out but still grand interior. Four years later, conditions have continued to deteriorate. In recent months, the city was forced to set up a fenced-in perimeter around the adjacent municipal parking lot as pieces of the building’s façade literally crumble away, leaving some to question whether it’s worth saving. City officials would not comment on the status of the historic property when The Valley Breeze reached out for information.

One building over, the Longley Building, the 1890 office block currently home to a Domino’s Pizza, may have brighter prospects. The building will stand vacant when Domino’s moves to a new, freestanding building currently under construction in the Social Street plaza, but has potential, according to Emidy. The planned opening of a passenger rail to Providence across the street at Woonsocket Depot next spring could also generate new interest in the property.

“That’s another prime candidate. There’s a lot of space in that building. If you could find some tenants for the first floor, you’ve probably got three or four spaces down there,” he said.

The buildings offer a glimpse into the city’s past, but for most local preservationists, there not much to be done except watch and wait for the next chapter in each building’s history. Meanwhile, the cost to restore them grows every year, leaving many to wonder how many will still be standing in another 40 years’ time.

The St. Ann Gymnasium, later the home of Club Marquette, is pictured on a postcard on file at the Woonsocket Historical Society. The building, demolished in the 1970s, was located on the corner of Cumberland and Clinton Streets.
The Longley Building, currently vacant except for a Domino’s Pizza on street level, was built in 1890. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
A photo on file at the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission shows the construction of the Hospital Trust Bank vault in 1929.
In recent months, a crumbling brick facade has forced city officials to fence off portions of the Hospital Trust Building, vacant since 2005. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
The same view of Main Street looking north toward City Hall today. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

Comments

Congratulations, Ms. Clem----great article and photos! Its title is quite befitting! It is known to most residents that the Stadium Theatre is one of the City's most important assets---if not the MAIN one. When Mayor Francis Lanctot first expressed his idea of wanting to save the Stadium Theatre, there weren't too many people who agreed with him; however, he PERSONALLY invested himself into performing various laboring tasks in this building and soon, others joined him in various ways. As Ms. Clem noted in her article... “ The Stadium Theatre is now one of downtown's main economic drivers, drawing 110,000 patrons to Main Street every year.” We can all thank Mayor Lanctot for this “gem!

Also, again, as Ms. Clem wrote... “Main Streets are suffering all over the place.” If one wants to be REALISTIC, our Main Street will never thrive as it once did! However, not being PRIVY to our City's economic plans, if any, it would be quite prudent to focus on 'revamping' and/or constructing certain businesses which would/could be more conducive to the Stadium Theatre's surroundings. It's very sad to see that the State no longer provides the 30 percent tax credit as a 'boost to historic preservation' because these funds would/could have been very helpful to our City.

In closing, I continue to wonder as to why Mayor Francis L. Lanctot's name has never been recognized and or placed in a certain CITY area as other mayors' names were! Maybe the Stadium Theatre's building could be RE-NAMED the “Francis L. Lanctot Theatre”??? It would be very well deserving. AMEN!