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the last night of the fruit & produce warehouse

March 25, 2008 at 8:29 am

Last Sunday, and another Sunday a couple of weeks before that, M— & I got up early(ish) and met up to go visit the old fruit & produce warehouse on Harris Ave. It’s being torn down, “legally”, in the same way that all demolitions of historic buildings in Providence are legal. Art In Ruins has the whole story, more links, many photographs, and comments from various people. Here‘s the ‘street view’ of it from last year, though who knows how long that link will last…

The demolition of this building is a shame and a crime. Along with a couple of way-too-large, brightly-lit branding/signs on redevelopment projects, golden retrievers being walked up & down Broadway, and the city’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism (yup, those all belong together, folks!), it is one more reason on my list of reasons to leave Providence (which somehow hasn’t gotten long enough yet to a point where I actually leave…).

(image from Art In Ruins!)

When we were there on Sunday, I brought a measuring tape and went around measuring some of the construction details. When the warehouse was originally built, it was 965 feet long (about 100 of those feet were shorn off in 1998 when they built the Rt. 95/Rt. 6 & 10 interchange, which was also when the warehouse was finally closed). Though functional and utilitarian, and built on a massive scale to accommodate the trains and trucks that would pull up next to its loading docks, the building is clearly designed to be used by humans, at a human scale. It was a distribution center for fruits & vegetables, and though the building itself was huge, many small produce companies rented two or three or five of its 15-foot bays, and all had the same connection to the same regional/interstate network. Deep rigid awnings covered the docks to protect people and produce from the weather, but the first floor ceiling was extra-high to make room for a wide window above the awnings (seen in the photo above) which would light the spaces in which the workers spent their time. Compare with modern distribution centers — I couldn’t readily find an image of a really huge one, but you’ve seen them all over the countryside — there’s a massive BJ’s warehouse on Rt. 146 between here and Worcester if you need an example.

The basic function is the same (loading docks, trucks pull up, stuff comes in, stuff goes out) but any kind of details or proportions that would give the building dignity, rhythm, or identity has been cost-adjusted out of the plans — except for that nice white stripe. Natural light is dispensed with (making and maintaining a window is more expensive than making a wall, plus the building is easier to climate-control). The location (somewhere outside of the city) and the ownership structure (centrally owned and operated) both dictate that each warehouse will be accessed and used by one company only — the larger the company, the cheaper their costs will be, the huger a warehouse they can build, the larger a share of the regional economy they can control. The old Providence fruit & produce warehouse was significant not just because it was ‘historic’, and beautiful not only in its decay: from its beginning, it was a structure that fostered a different way of doing business — small-scale instead of massive, local-connected-to-regional instead of national-dominating-local, concerned with human life and experience, instead of concerned with spending less money. It was built by a city that had as its aim fostering better access to food and better business and work opportunities for its citizens — not by a company interested in increasing its market share and profits. All these things are not only political or idealistic: they were, from the start, built into the structure and the proportions of the building itself.

I was interested in paying some closer attention to some of these dimensions and details: what was left, at least. Drawing is pretty much the best way for me to give something my extended attention, comprehend the details, and make sense of connections between different things. Photos are helpful as reference after the fact, especially when time is limited, but the process of making a drawing is crucial to actually understanding something. M— is working on an epic drawing (which is probably going to be about 30 feet long!) of the entire length of the building, so she was also looking for details (of the rubble, as well as of the structure…). On Sunday, only three of the building’s 71 bays were left, and the last remaining cast-iron staircase had been pulled down out of its opening, so we had no way to go up to the second floor (besides a risky climb up a rubble-filled elevator shaft…). Most of the measurements of the upper floor could be inferred up from the facade at the ground floor, or counted off from the regular dimensions of the cinderblocks in the wall that had been built to close off the shortened end (at right in the photo below).

However, we were getting all nerdy and attempting to figure out the dimension of the bricks which were used to fill in the lower part of the walls on the second floor. We found some bricks sitting around the rubble, and measured those, and the widths of the mortar that remained attached to them… but then realized that they were the not the same bricks, but instead were bricks from the elevator shacks that had sat on top of the roof, and were (may have been?) added later… thus probably had a slightly different dimension. (They had a different texture, were a different color, and also most of them were hollow inside.) We scouted around for some of the other bricks on the ground, and found one big chunk, but the side facing up was the inside of the wall (much less even in spacing and mortaring than the outside), and it was too heavy to turn over. As I was trying to measure it, the cops pulled up and we decided to cheese it (of course, at an extremely leisurely and relaxed pace).

Well, tonight, Scøtt and I went back, at around 5 am (still too dark to take decent pictures) and found only one bay of the building remaining. The second floor of the second-to-last bay was falling down at a slope… and underneath it, sitting on the rubble pile, below a broken piece of concrete dangling precariously by a couple of strands of rebar… a large section of the 2nd floor bricks that we had wanted to measure.

  • length: 8″
  • length with mortar: 8 1/4″ to 8 1/2″
  • height: 2 1/4″
  • height of horizontal mortar strip: 3/4″
  • so, height of brick course including mortar: 3″

goodbye, building.

Here are the rest of my measurements from last Sunday.


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