American Woolen Mills, Office Building

also known as Riverside Worsted Mills

A small, square remnant of a much larger Riverside Mills complex remained as City property for almost 30 years before being torn down.

About this Property

#Reason for Demolition

A large mill fire in 1989 took out much of the Riverside Mills complex along the Woonasquatucket River and the Route 6 extension into Johnston on the edge of Olneyville. The vacancy of these buildings left a huge hole in Olneyville, both in the jobs they represented (for the small businesses that had come to find their home in the mills) and for the sudden change in density along the river. On the other side, though, the newly opened land gave the City a huge opportunity to reinvigorate the neighborhood and offer the community much needed green space. A brownfield remediation project started in the early 2000s.

The City of Providence, Olneyville Housing (now One Neighborhood Builders), and the Woonasquatucket Watershed Council had the best of intentions in saving this remaining building while a multi-million dollar park investment was developing around it. Riverside Park became a popular magnet for additional reinvestment in the community through additional housing, recreation, and a community center. The neighboring Atlantic Mills have recently undergone a revival as well. Crime is down in the area, and generally, the residents have fantastic green space in their backyard.

The building size was approximately 5,000 sf. After another fire in October of 2001, the Planning and Parks Departments moved to stabilize the building. They spent approximately $150,000 on prepping the building for redevelopment, including raising the roof for an additional floor. Their vision for an end use was community space on the first floor, a combination of residential and office on the second floor, and a residence (with deck overlooking the park) on the third floor. They solicited developers for many years without any solid partnerships.

In 2014, the rotting husk of the office building was finally razed. No developer had come forward to purchase the building and repurpose it. The City could not properly maintain it and keep it closed to nefarious uses — a reduction in crime was one of the motivating factors in the demolition of the building. According to some of the reports that came out after the successful reinvention of Riverside Park:

A crucial consensus: The Park will fail unless we address blight and crime in the area, and the Park can anchor Olneyville’s revitalization.1

There were plans on the table for many different ideas to reuse the building. In one iteration, the YMCA was going to renovate it for office space & a youth service center. In the end, though, there was too much riding on the success of the park project to allow a derelict building to present an obstacle. As the aerial images show, the revitalization of the park has had positive affects on the construction of additional housing in the area, much of it affordable housing under the purview of Olneyville Housing Corporation.

#Current Events

Riverside Park and the bike path have been open since about 2008. The site of the former office building has the inscribed granite blocks placed one on top of the other like steps with a “cannonball” safe on top — an artifact found in the building before demolition. These are the only remnants of a multi-acre producer of worsted wool that at its height employed 2700 people.

#History

the first mill in America with electric lights!
— Uncredited source, from an article in the Providence Daily Dose

From the RIHPHC’s survey of Providence Industrial Sites, July 1981

Riverside Mills (1863, 1865, and later): This large complex of 1- 2- 3- and 4-story brick, flat- and gable-roofed mill buildings was founded as a woolen mill by George C. Chapin and Lewis Downes in 1863. An 1865 fire destroyed the carding room, spinning room, and finishing room which were immediately rebuilt. Some of the early 2-story buildings designed by Lewis Downes, working with architect Clifton Hall, have handsome pier-and-panel walls and elaborate, brick, corbeled cornices. Most of the buildings, which date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, are plainer, flat roofed, brick structures.

Chapin and Downes originally began by manufacturing woolen, coffin coverings and cassimeres but soon changed their product to astrakhan (a cloth made of wool or wool and cotton, which has a curled or looped pile) and other ladies’ cloakings. Although the Riverside Mills gained their reputation from their astrakhan, since it was a cloth not widely manufactured in the United States, Chapin and Downes invested most of their energy into the manufacture of worsted cloth for men’s wear. According to one source at the turn-of-the century, Riverside Mills was the first worsted plant in the United States to use the Bolette card feeder and the teasel cross jig. The mills were also innovative in using English-made, self- operating mules and in employing a cold-air wool-drying process. In 1872 Louis Downes sold his shares in the mills. A year later in the panic of 1873 the Riverside mills declared bankruptcy and the property was sold at auction. The new owner, E. P. Chapin, incorporated the mills under the name of the Riverside Worsted mills.

The 1880s and 1890s were a period of expansion and changes for the Riverside Mills. In 1889 when the Riverside Worsted mills merged with the Oswego Falls Manufacturing Company, the worsted complex, under the new name of the Riverside and Oswego Mills, employed 2700 workers. The business again changed hands in 1891. Finally in 1899 the Riverside Mills were bought by the American Woolen Company, a huge textile company which acquired several other mills in or near Olneyville. Under the ownership of the American Woolen Company, the Riverside Mills continued to manufacture worsted cloth for men’s wear. By 1908 the Riverside Mills covered seven acres with approximately eleven mill buildings (most of which were connected) and a 3-story, brick, early 20th-century office on Aleppo Street.

In 1927 the Riverside Mills, with a reduced work force of 1800, was closed by the American Woolen Company; the company was re-opened a year later when the American Woolen Company abandoned its Weybosset and Valley Mills and transferred some of the machinery and workers from the abandoned plants to the Riverside plant. In 1937 the American Woolen Company in liquidating most of its New England mills sold the Riverside Mills to a realty company. One of the first businesses to occupy the Riverside Mills after it was sold was the Providence Warehouse Company, which still occupies part of the complex. Other parts of the mills were rented to various manufacturing companies. At one point there were thirty-three companies in the numerous buildings of the Riverside Mills.

Other Sources

  1. “Building our way out of Crime: The Providence, Rhode Island, Case Study”, Bill Geller & Lisa Belsky, page 18, captured September 29, 2020. http://www.olneyville.org/Geller-Belsky-case-study.pdf