August 18, 2010, 11:00 am, by Lawrence Biemiller
Brown University was looking for architects for an $80-million home for its Warren Alpert Medical School when the economy imploded two years ago, forcing the university to rethink its plans. Instead of putting up a new building on an empty lot in Providence’s Jewelry District, the university decided to gut and renovate an existing structure it owned just across the street – a 1928 factory where the Brier Manufacturing Company once made costume jewelry with the brand name Little Nemo.
The change of plans brought some challenges. Tenants in the Little Nemo building, which had been commercial office space since 1972, had to be relocated. And Ellenzweig, the architecture firm that the university eventually hired, had to create an interior design that worked around the factory’s imposing concrete columns, which are on a 20-foot grid. But the renovation will offer the medical school all the same features it would have enjoyed in a brand-new structure – in fact, the renovated building will have slightly more space than would have been in the new building, says Michael J. McCormick, the university’s assistant vice president for planning, design, and construction.
And the project’s price tag? It was cut almost in half, to $45-million, Mr. McCormick says.
The building, located at Richmond and Ship Streets, is one of eight that Brown purchased several years ago in the Jewelry District, for decades a hub of costume-jewelry manufacturing and before that a neighborhood of ship chandlers. Now the district’s late-19th and early-20th-century factories have become residential and commercial buildings, some of them quite elegant. And the imminent removal of an elevated highway that had cut the Jewelry District off from downtown Providence is expected to be a big boon to the neighborhood, Mr. McCormick says. The piers of the bridge that carried the highway across the Providence River are to be reused for a pedestrian crossing that will make it about a 10- or 15-minute walk to Brown’s main campus. Land that had held on- and off-ramps will become a park.
Brown previously renovated the nearby Speidel watch-band building as a molecular-medicine lab. A small medical-device manufacturer has since moved in beside it, creating the nucleus of a medical-science district. For medical students, a big benefit of the new location will be proximity to Hasbro, Rhode Island, and Women & Infants Hospitals, all located on the south side of the Jewelry District.
But the renovated factory will be an attraction in its own right. Ellenzweig’s plans call for cutting a new atrium in the middle of the building as well as for replacing some of the concrete columns with a huge truss to accommodate a pair of open 120-seat lecture halls. Other columns will remain visible, along with the building’s striking waffle-cut ceilings—one goal of the renovation, Mr. McCormick says, is to “let the historic building be the historic building.” The facility will have anatomy labs, classrooms, offices, a library, social spaces for students, and a corner cafe open to the public. A rooftop terrace will offer views of the river and the main campus.
The renovation, due to be completed a year from now, is aiming for LEED gold certification, Mr. McCormick says. It will also let the medical school increase class size from 90 to 120 students. In keeping with an agreement between the city and the university, the building will remain on the Providence tax rolls for a total of 15 years. The university will make full tax payments for five years, then pay at a two-thirds rate for another five years and at a one-third level for the final five.
From the PPS/AIA Industrial Commercial Buildings Survey, 2004
Designed by architect Frank S. Perry, it is a three-story, flat-roof, reinforced concrete building with Art Deco style detailing. The building features curtain walls arranged in piers and spandrels with bands of windows with narrow Roman brick panels underneath. Embellishments to the building include a rounded corner at Ship and Richmond streets, lozenge and geometric panels set within parapets, and concrete piers capped with arrow-shaped panels. The building’s primary entrance is recessed on the Richmond Street side and is comprised of metal-and-glass doors. Rectangular windows are set in groups and are fixed on their upper portions with awning below. At the time of the Jewelry District National Register nomination in 1985, changes to the building’s exterior included the removal of the original marquee and the installation of modern windows in place of the original industrial sash. Changes since 1985 include the removal of the prominent smokestack and the addition of an additional story at the roof level.
Little Nemo Manufacturing Company was founded in 1913 by Benjamin Brier, President; Charles Brier, Vice President; and Samuel Magid, Secretary-Treasurer, to manufacture imitation diamond jewelry. Importers of stones from all over the world, the company cut, polished and in some cases set the stones by machine, producing more than 33,000 pieces of jewelry annually (Book of Rhode Island 1930). Having outgrown its rented quarters on Ship Street, the firm built this factory on the southern outskirts of the jewelry district. The Book of Rhode Island reported that by 1930 the company was the largest manufacturer of imitation diamond jewelry in the world and was one of the leading concerns dealing with the chain stores. Specially designed automatic machines took the raw stock in at one end of the building and sent it out at the other end ready for coloring. Little Nemo occupied the building until the late 1970s (RIHPHC 1981). The building was renovated in 1978 for use as office space and is currently owned by Richmond Street Parking Associates, LLC.
From Jackson Jewels, a history of Jewelry Companies
The “Little Nemo” jewelry of the 1940s and 1950s was of high quality with jewelry designs including patriotic military pins (saber, branch of service hat and gloves), U.S. flags, and U.S. eagles paste set with clear and colored rhinestones and molded colored glass stones of red, white and blue in the enameled base metal.
The [...] Company [...] enjoyed success as a syndicate plant manufacturing costume jewelry designed into necklaces, brooches, pins, bracelets, dress and fur clips, charm bracelets and charms, tiaras, hairclips of gold plated, silver plated, bronze tone, gilded brass and pot metal bases with hand faceted clear and colorful rhinestones, and colored glass stones to catch light and glitter. Mark of Brier Manufacturing Co. that manufactured Little Nemo jewelry: “LN”, “LN25”, “LN50”, “LITTLE NEMO” inside the shape of a ring, “NEMO GOLD SEAL QUALITY LN/25”, “L/N”, “LN” inside a flattened diamond shape, “VENUS” in 1958, and “NEMO” in block letters 1955. The Brier Manufacturing Co. and designs of “Little Nemo” jewelry ceased operations in 1978.
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