Farnum Hall at RISD

An almost 100 year old apartment building turned dormitory became too downtrodden to be useful.

About this Property

#Reason for Demolition

Somewhat sadly, the one-time east side residence hall for the Rhode Island School of Design outlived its usefulness as a dormitory. It was erected in the mid 20s and was constructed quickly and cheaply. Extensive damage to the foundation from years of being built atop the East Side Railroad Tunnel took its toll. Fancier accommodations at 15 West (the former Hospital Trust building) could house 500 more students, so Farnum Hall was no longer needed and not viable for repair and rehabilitation.

It seems as though RISD put in a good effort to study the feasibility of saving the building. Eventually the Providence Historic District Commission granted the request for demolition. To RISD’s credit, a lovely bit of green space has been created in its place in a dense College Hill residential neighborhood.

#Current Events

The plat where Farnum Hall once stood is green space with an overlook view of parts of downtown and Smith Hill. The design of the green space seems to reflect the ghost of Farnum Hall’s central plan design.

#History

From the College Hill Historic District nomination form, 1959

14-20 Congdon Street. Apartment Building, now Farnum Hall, R.I.S.D. a. 1920. 3 stories; flat brick; Upland with multiple entrances around courtyard; yellow-brown tapestry brick with red brick trim; bracketed; pitched overhang.

From Wikipedia’s page on Royal B. Farnum (captured August 2011)

Royal Bailey Farnum (11 June 1884 – 28 August 1967) was an American art educator who served in administrative roles in various public and private educational institutions in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island during the first half of the 20th Century.

[…] In 1929, he took a job as Educational Director for the Rhode Island School of Design and was subsequently promoted to Executive Vice President in 1937. He served as president of the National Association for Art Education from 1936-1938, the National Association of Schools of Design from 1925-1936, and the Federal Council on Art Education from 1925-1936. During World War II, he helped the war effort by assisting in the development of color schemes for optimal camouflage. Farnum was bestowed with an honorary Art Degree from Brown University in 1935 and received the Michael Friedsam Medal in 1942. RISD’s Farnum Hall is named after him. He retired from RISD in 1946 and died in Plainfield, Connecticut in 1967.

#In the News

Farnum Hall

Mathew McNamara
All-Nighter.com | January 19, 2011, captured August 15, 2011. https://all-nighter.com/news/farnum-hall/ (now defunct)

On Congdon Street stands an abandoned building over eighty years old. Located between RISD’s own Congdon house, local Providence housing and America’s First Black Baptist Church, its garden-style typology and grey worn bricks exude aged charm. All good things, however, must come to an end. For Farnum Hall, that end will come after Graduation week of this year, when it will be demolished.

Farnum Hall was originally constructed during the mid ‘20s to early ‘30s as an apartment building for urban professionals. Built around the time of the Great Depression, Farnum was made with inexpensive materials and a cheap house plan and construction. RISD purchased Farnum in 1961 for student housing, approximately thirty years after it was built. It was used as student residency until 2004, when it was deemed unsafe due to its physical condition. That same year, 15 West opened with room for 500 more students, and Farnum Hall was abandoned.

Within the context of RISD planning, Farnum has long been a topic of review and study. According to facilities directors Jack Silva and Paul Mullen, since the early ‘90s, more than five studies have been implemented to see if it was possible to bring the building up to code through reconstruction and renovation. Every study concluded that the building is simply beyond repair. According to Silva, “It doesn’t make any financial sense to try and repair the building as it is.” Silva explained, “Geotechnical experts [have studied] the condition of the site… when the foundation broke it wracked the building.”

Farnum sits directly atop a train tunnel, and over time, the foundation has cracked. As a result, the renovation would involve completely dismantling the building, fixing the foundation, and rebuilding it, which, according to Silva, is not practical. “It would mean going in and literally fixing all of the elements that are now broken, in addition to upgrading to the proper code required dimension of things.”

With that in mind, last summer RISD began Farnum’s application for demolition, holding several meetings with the Providence Historic District Commission and the Providence Preservation Society [PPS] to review Farnum before gaining approval for demolition. RISD alumnus and current Executive Director of PPS, James Hall, shared some concerns about demolishing Farnum.

James Hall reflected on RISD’s proposal to knock Farnum down, “The building was expensive to maintain, didn’t meet their [RISD’s] needs, was in bad condition, and it was based on these issues that we said, ‘Okay, we won’t stand in your way.’” Hall however did describe some issues that PPS has with knocking Farnum down, “What are you [RISD] going to use the spot for instead?” Hall added, “We are concerned about the experience of people walking around the city. We don’t want people having to walk next to parking lots, we want the street edge to be defined.” In meetings that took place, PPS requested that RISD present a fully worked out landscape plan that showed how the space was going to be developed.

At the moment there is no long-term plan as to what Farnum’s future will be. For now, the plan is to turn Farnum Hall into an open space. Raj Bellani, Associate Provost for Student Affairs, described its immediate future as a space for open critiques, a sculpture space, and a reflection space for students. School administrators are considering a variety of options for Farnum and what it could turn into in the more distant future. Bellani referred to Farnum, “The hope is that we will be going through in the future processes to think about what RISD 2025 to what RISD looks like in 2015,” he continued, “It [Farnum] could be a lot, the expansion of classrooms or studio space, it could be new housing options. There is no prescribed plan.” Bellani did however suggest ways for students and staff to get involved. “Gathering input from our current student community, from our faculty, from our staff will help define it’s future.”

It is undecided as to how or who will choose what happens to the Farnum space. For now there is no final say on how the space will be developed. Bellani states, “I can’t wait to see what our community will come up with.”