Paolino vs. Industrial Trust

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Proposed 36-story tower on site of Industrial Trust Building. (GoLocalProv.com)

According to GoLocalProv.com, former mayor and longtime property owner Joseph Paolino Jr. wants to tear down Providence’s beloved Industrial Trust Building – widely known as the Superman Building – vacant since 2013.

Who does the PR for this guy?

The Industrial Trust’s chief rival as iconic building is the Rhode Island State House itself. Paolino’s proposal is even worse than Governor Almond’s plan 20 years ago to demolish its neighbor, the Masonic Temple. It was vacant since 1928 (the same year the Industrial Trust was completed). Now the temple is a successful luxury hotel.

GoLocal declared the Industrial Trust to be “Rhode Island’s biggest eyesore.” Huh? Maybe the writer meant “white elephant.” which would at least be accurate.

GoLocal’s story “Plan to Build Hasbro Headquarters in Providence – Demo Superman Building” reports that Paolino’s plan is one of several responding to rumors that the toymaker might acquire rival Mattel. Poor Pawtucket! Imagine losing both Hasbro and the PawSox in one fell swoop.

I’m sure GoLocal’s reporting of Paolino’s proposal is accurate; it’s Paolino’s proposal that reads like fake news.

Imagine Paolino paying millions to buy the Industrial Trust, then paying millions more to clear the land, then paying millions more to build an ugly 36-story tower on it when he already owns a large vacant lot across the street.

Why? How does this make sense?

In fact, Paolino’s proposal makes perfect sense in the context of Providence’s recent development history. The policy of the current and recent mayors seems to be this: Tear down everything that represents the city’s venerable brand and replace it with anything that can be relied upon to weaken its brand.

Hey! Sounds like a plan! This plan has a pedigree that reaches back to the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

For those shaking their heads in wonder, yes, Providence has already traveled down that road. The Downtown Providence 1970 Plan, announced in 1960, proposed demolishing the city’s beauty and replacing it with ugliness. Pure urban removal. Fortunately, only Cathedral Square and Westminster Mall were built. The former, though the brainchild of modernist icon I.M. Pei, remains dead space. As for the latter, Paolino himself deserves a lot of credit, as mayor in the 1980s, for removing the failed pedestrian mall, which was just as ugly as Cathedral Square, and replacing it with a street that can sit alongside many of Europe’s finest for beauty and civility.

But poor Joe Junior appears to have learned nothing even from his own role in the history of the city where he once was mayor.

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Industrial Trust Bank Building, erected in 1929. (Photo by David Brussat)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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13 Responses to Paolino vs. Industrial Trust

  1. Nathaniel Robert Walker says:

    The Industrial Tower is a cultural treasure and a goldmine waiting to happen. It should be transformed into apartments, attracting renters from both Providence and Boston, not torn down. The very idea that it would be demolished is repulsive, and a thick shadow on whatever mind produced the idea. Provincial ignorance is the only explanation. The list of boom towns that would kill for a Jazz Age masterpiece such as this is long. The Zeppelin-styled rooftop bar alone would generate serious money.

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    • I’ve long preferred the residential option, Nathan, but nowadays I’d find almost anything acceptable, such as a corporate use – though I think the lobby and mezz should be kept open to the public in any use. Now I suppose residential may be too prohibitive. Office use might better fit the existing configuration. Buildings are rewired and have their HVAC upgraded all the time, but residential would (I imagine) require reworking the entire layout of the floors. Residential would boost downtown animation, but corporate might be, alas, more feasible. Tearing it down is a nonstarter. Yes, as you say, most boom towns would kill for it, and that’s what the local powers that be fail to understand.

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  2. Eric Daum says:

    Were this to come to pass, the vandals will have had made it through the gates. David, one way to look at it is as the first chapter of the sequel to your book. Who are these neanderthals who see only money where others see beauty? Who see only a quick cheap buck rather than a symbol beloved throughout the state? Who claim to work for the Public good as they seek to line their pockets at our expense and destroy an iconic piece of Rhode Island history.

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    • Very well said, Eric. I think the vandals have been inside the gates of Providence for very many years, and only its lagging economy has protected its beauty – this extends back for five or six decades. Even though the city seems to be riding a wave, somewhat, of prosperity, I still don’t think the Industrial Trust is truly at risk, not yet. But not for lack of willingness on the part of the usual suspects.

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  3. Steve says:

    Well, the Hasbro move to Providence makes perfect sense…being in a dismal suburb is not a place for a world class corporate headquarters. A question- David, are you sure that Paolino owns the 110 Westminster parcel? If so, why wouldn’t the new structure go there…with no demolition costs, far less construction time, and a clean build. If he owns that 110 lot, this is strange and destructive to a classic part of the skyline.

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    • Agreed on benefits to Providence of Hasbro moving there, but not at the cost of demolishing such an icon as the Industrial Trust. Paolino purchased the lot at 110 Westminster in January 2014 and has not flipped it so far as I know. Since it has the lovely surviving Weybosset facade of the Providence National Bank on the lot, that would have made news. Maybe Paolino thinks the lot is too small, but if so why not propose a taller new building? Few would object to that – although I might object to its design.

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  4. petervanerp says:

    The circus tent in Kennedy Plaza is most appropriate, since only a bunch of clowns could have thought this is a good idea.

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  5. David, when I first heard about Hasbro consolidating downtown I was gleeful – but I was also very tired after a long day of meetings…I wake this morning to read this and wonder at the wise wisdom of “sleeping on it” and have amended my Facebook post. Tear down the very pillar of Providence history? Put up a glass cube? Not to even think of the logistical reconstruction problem…for another nondescript downtown building…you’re right – who does their PR? Anyway, I remain gleeful for Hasbro wanting to come to downtown Providence – a game changer indeed it will be…and I grow more weary and woeful at the plight of Pawtucket who has lost the Gamm Theatre, Memorial Hospital and is on their way to losing the PawSox…a whole new charrette of city identification should be their next plan. TY for slapping this idea upside the head, as they say, on a chilly winter’s morning.

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    • Thanks, Nancy. Yes, I think Providence does need to think about its identity. A charrette toward that end would be a good idea – but if it is just the usual suspects, they will rubber stamp the same falsehoods that they’ve lived off of for decades.

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  6. Michael Tyrrell says:

    What an ill-advised notion… I’m stumped!…
    Providence deserves better than this.

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  7. Surely Hasbro could fit in the existing Industrial Trust building, couldn’t they? Imagine that, reusuing an existing building, being good for the environment, good for the local history lover and out-of-town visitor alike, good for the local economy, good for architecture lovers everywhere. Everything about the proposed glass box tower is just plain bad news.

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    • I believe that many potential users of the building are spooked by estimates of renovation costs that I think have been too high. You might need $100 million to renovate it to highest use, such as luxury condos, but if you just want to re-use it as corporate offices, the cost would be considerably less.

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  8. Kenneth J. Filarski says:

    Banality is raised to new levels. The most interesting aspect of the rendering is the carousel in Kennedy Plaza, and even that has its own claim to banality.

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