Barnaby Evans, the creator of WaterFire Providence, toured me through the new WaterFire Arts Center yesterday, mere hours before its ribbon-cutting scheduled for 10:30 this morning. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds at 4 yesterday, finally letting me take the above photo of the place, which was built in 1929 for the U.S. Rubber Co.
We entered the building’s cavernous space, whose square footage betters those of PPAC and Veterans Memorial Auditorium, and almost that of the Cranston Street Armory (not currently usable). Capable of a 2,300-person standing occupancy, or 1,000 seated banquet style, the plant originally constituted a single huge room that has a new rear second floor platform built in that houses WaterFire’s offices and other function spaces – including one large room designed to be used primarily for the construction of boats, of which the organization already has 32.
As a plant for U.S. Rubber, one of up to 29 of its plants in the city’s industrial Valley District long ago, its workers manufactured various products over the years, ranging from golf balls and the interior linings for railroad tanker cars to the rubber soles for Keds sneakers (“tennis shoes”) – but not automobile tires. Joseph Banigan was the Providence industrial magnate who founded the Banigan Rubber Co., merged it with U.S. Rubber, and eventually supplied 80 percent of the U.S. high-quality rubber market after it had developed the process of vulcanization, which enabled rubber to retain its flexibility at low temperatures. Entire freight cars of rubber from Brazil used to pull, on rails, through a huge door in the plant to be unloaded inside the space where some of those reading this will sit for this morning’s ceremony.
Barnaby is one of the relatively few leading citizens of Providence who seem to really like modern architecture, and he appeared to take some small pleasure in asserting that the plant is of modernist design. Its construction came at a time when that style of design was challenging traditional styles for dominance in the profession, at first chiefly in the realm of utilitarian structures. Even Hitler, who with the rest of the world preferred the reigning classical style for civic, institutional, residential and commercial structures, thought modernism was acceptable for factories.
The building’s fenestration of large windows features many small panes of glass (including several sets accidentally laid with horizontal panes), all reproduced as originally built. The building’s brickwork includes such nonutilitarian decoration as a segmented band of stepped brickwork running around the building above the upper of its two levels of windows. Typical of traditional work in the second quarter of the 20th century, the building’s design attempts to address the challenge of modernism by applying that style’s flattened and unadorned features within an otherwise traditional factory format. Or vice versa, if you insist!
The coloration of some interior features, especially the new structure of its frieght elevator, doffs its cap to the artist Piet Mondrian, using WaterFire’s signature color scheme of black, red, yellow and blue. In general, WaterFire, working with architect DBVW and contractor TRAC Builders, kept as much original detailing, including old graffiti and cracked paint, as possible but, in keeping with one theory of preservation practice (if not the best theory), sought to make sure new features would look “newish” so as not be confused with original features. The building’s historical appearance was considered secondary to the needs of curatorial authenticity. Still, the broader idea was to modernize its functionality while maintaining, to the most feasible extent, the way it looked in 1929.
It worked. They did a great job. The building still looks primarily “historical” whether you are inside or outside.
Yesterday, the huge floor just inside the long front wall of the building was lined with a dozen or so of the white trucks WaterFire uses to transport its equipment downtown for event nights. The trucks were not parked higgledy-piggledy – not at all! They were parked on a precise diagonal, each truck seeming to have been situated with meticulous care, as if they were a combat battalion on parade before the general staff.
They may be gone now, but yesterday they struck me as a fine metaphor to symbolize a complex organization run with a healthy degree of managerial savvy. WaterFire has long since become a tradition – a real tradition, not a “new tradition” as some things aspire to these days. Generalissimo Barnaby and his board of directors seem to be expanding the scope of the mission of the organization beyond its original purpose of art to include the facilitation of socially useful education and training, above and beyond renting out its grand new space for occasions. WaterFire is doing good for the citizens of Providence and Rhode Island – without watering down its art in the least.
All of this is, of course, just mahvelous. But in case you don’t make it in time to rummage around the building – where does the WaterFire general staff plot further global conquest!? – here are some photos taken yesterday: