Once developer Buff Chace started saving downtown Providence by rehabbing old buildings into lofts, no building seemed to elude his grasp more dishearteningly than the Old Journal Building, built in 1906. It was downtown’s holy grail, but for years its cranky owner would not budge. Now another developer has bought it from a subsequent owner and wants to turn the building at the corner of Westminster and Eddy streets, along with its 1927 Art Deco neighbor, Kresge’s, into a microloft hotel.
That’s extraordinary news. The developer, Jim Abdo, says he wants to spend another $30 million above the $4.3 million purchase price to rehab the two buildings not just for visitors to sleep in but for locals to mix in. Abdo’s first establishment of this kind was Hotel Hive, in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, not far from the State Department and George Washington University, or for that matter from the White House.
Let’s hope that Abdo refrains from monkeying around with the Old Journal’s exterior façades. In the mid-1950s, as city hall and the federal government prepared to ram urban renewal down Providence’s craw, the owner slapped light green metal siding up on the building’s first two stories, flattening its Corinthian pilasters and leaving its roof, cornices and dormers free to grieve at its sick new appearance. This “clumsy attempt at modernity,” as first described by the state preservation office in 1981, became by 1986, in the words of the same office, “much admired at the time.” Really? I doubt it.
In fact, by 1986 the building had undergone restoration, its modernist crud ripped off and its pilasters fixed using new decorative technology. The job was beautifully done by the Estes Burgin Partnership (now Burgin Lambert Architects) and overseen by owners Joseph Cerilli and Joseph Mollicone Jr., the latter a mobbed-up socialite banker who in 1990 absconded after looting his own bank, triggering a massive state scandal called RISDIC. He gave up after hiding out in Utah for two years. Yes, bad people can do good work!
And yet, other than occasional municipal office leases, the Providence Watch Factory, Big Nazzo Puppets, a gym, a disco that masqueraded as a restaurant (“Mama’s”) and a few beauty supply and other dinky shops, the place failed to leverage its revived allure into lucrative tenants. Buff Chace attempted to buy the building several times over this period without success, though (as I understand it) he offered more money than it sold for to Abdo last Friday, with former mayor Joe Paolino acting as middle man.
Between 1999 and 2010, I lived in Buff’s first rehab, the Smith Building, behind city hall and kitty corner from the Old Journal. What a view to the east up Fulton Street between those two buildings! I had dreams that my employer, the Journal, still at 75 Fountain St. (now whittled down to a single floor), might relocate to its old digs. I would be able to rig up a shuttle seat enabling me to slide the 30 feet or so from my fifth-floor loft to the upper corner of what I hoped would be the Journal’s new editorial offices.
Well, that never happened, of course, but I’ve long dreamed the building might come into its own someday. Now, maybe that’s about to happen.