Perkins Buildings

also known as Rau Fastner, Westfield Lofts

A group of turn-of-the-century mills get converted into affordable residential units and commercial/office space

About this Property

#Redevelopment

The three- and four-story, multi-building complex became a blight in the neighborhood soon after it was vacated when Scovill Manufacturing acquired Rau Fastener in 1996.1 The West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation (WEHDC) took up the challenge of developing the mill into affordable-rate housing with a $15 million project under the urban planning and architecture guidance of Durkee, Brown, Viverios, and Werenfels.

The land under and around the buildings qualified as brown fields and had to be cleaned up. WEHDC received a $400,000 grant and a $500,000 loan from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation using money that came from a $3,000,000 EPA Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund grant.2

The WEHDC converted the former Ada and Providence Lithograph buildings into 69 one and two bedroom residential units. The older and rarer clapboard-covered wood framed Charles H. Perkins Mill on Dexter and Harrison streets has been converted to their office headquarters. A central lot was emptied of non-historic structures, remediated from contamination, and is now home to new construction for commercial space.

The project was the first of a few mill redevelopments in the area. Not far away is ROOMS and WORKS, home to small businesses, market-rate lofts, and a kitchen incubator space; as well as the Virginia & Spanish Peanut outlet.

#Current Events

The property has its historic address on Sprague Street, but its rental office address at 230 Dexter St. Call (401) 272-5061 for rental inquiries.

#History

From the National Register nomination form, prepared by Edward Connors and Associates, 2004

Charles Perkins

Between 1887 and 1892 Providence industrialist Charles H. Perkins constructed three neighboring factory buildings […] in an area that had been dominated since the mid-19th century by the diverse industrial activities of the A. and W. Sprague Company. Over a 35-year period, Perkins acquired more than fifty patents in horse shoe manufacture and metalworking. With the demise of the Sprague interests in 1873, he set off on his own, meeting with great success in his various enterprises. He reinvested his wealth in industrial real estate in South Providence and, in the process, expanded the city’s industrial base.

The three buildings are referred to as the Perkins Buildings; individually they are: the Charles H. Perkins Building (101 Westfield Street, 1887) , the Providence Lithograph Company Building (102 Westfield Street, 1890) , and the Ada Building (85 Sprague Street, 1892).

Description and history of each building

Ada Building, 1892

85 Sprague Street: An asymmetrical T-plan, 4-story brick, predominantly pier-and-spandrel, open plan building […]. A rear wing extends north to Westfield Street.

The building is 118 x 190’ with a shallow-pitched gable roof. Framing is of the slow-burning type: 9.5” wooden columns on the first and second floors (7.5” columns on the third and fourth) with roughly 2” flooring laid on 13x9” beams. Windows are wooden frame, grouped generally in threes, double-hung, with 9/9 sash set in segmental arch openings; some are damaged, filled, or plywood covered. Sills are of quarry-faced granite. A monitor roof is located over the stairwell near the corner of Sprague and Harrison.

The front elevation is eight bays. A hooded and recessed entrance is found at the third bay from Harrison Street. […] Charles Perkins named this building after his daughter, Ada Lucretia Perkins (1868-1931).

Charles H. Perkins, 1887 et seq.

101 Westfield Street: A long, L-shaped, gable-roof, wood frame mill, now disguised by steel panels covering the wall surface, oriented east-west between Dexter and Harrison Streets. The building’s present configuration is the result of a series of additions and expansions between 1887 and 1950. A center, single-bay entrance opens onto Westfield Street. Historically, this building housed as many as four separate companies, each occupying roughly half the space on each floor.

It appears that much of the building’s original clapboard sheathing survives underneath the exterior steel panels applied in 1970. […] There are several small, modern, awning windows. These were inserted into the lower sash openings of the original 12/12 double-hung windows, which are still intact and visible inside the building. Shallow gable ends face Dexter and Harrison Streets.

Though much altered, the Charles H. Perkins Building is defined as contributing because it is an unusually rare example of its type (only a handful of wood frame mills remain in Rhode Island) and because some of its alterations appear to be at least partially reversible.

[The Charles Perkins building is made up of three sections — From 1887, a two story main section measuring 210 x 140’; from 1918(?) a two-story Pattern Shop and North Ell measuring 50 x 20’; and a two-story infill middle ell measuring 25 x 65’ from 1895.]

Providence Lithograph Company, 1890

102 Westfield Street, Freeborn Johnson, carpenter-builder: A rectangular plan, 3-story brick building oriented north-south between Sprague and Westfield Streets. This building has a shallow-pitched gable roof and plain wood cornice. Framing is of the slow-burning type: approximately 9” wooden columns with 2.75” thick sub flooring laid on 13.5 x 9” beams. Third floor trusses span the entire space. Rows of secondary steel columns have been added on both sides of the original single row of wooden columns. Many of the original wooden-frame windows survive; some are replaced with 20th-century metal frame inserts. Most of the windows, set in segmental arch openings, have fixed sashes (either 8/12 or 12/12) with swinging four-light transoms. A likely later alteration allows some of the formerly fixed lower sashes to pivot and swing out on a central axis. Sills are quarry-faced granite.

The front (Westfield Street) elevation consists of five symmetrical bays with a recessed entranceway occupying the first (westernmost) bay. The rear (south) elevation also has five bays; the center bay has a double, wood-frame loading door at each floor. Once freestanding and separated from the Ada Building by an alley, the Providence Lithograph Building is now connected to the Ada Building by mid-20th-century infill and an elevated walkway. […]

Plating and Shipping Addition, Providence Lithograph Building (1952 [considered non-contributing, now demolished]): A 2-story, 60 x 190’ addition attached to the Dexter Street wall of the Providence Lithograph Building. The original exterior wall of the older building is intact. Built by Rau Fastener in 1952, this addition is typical of mid-20th-century industrial construction: near-flat roof, brick skin on steel frame, metal frame windows, and concrete foundation. A moderne two-story entrance surfaced in cast stone opens onto Westfield Street. A wide stairway leads to a recessed glass and metal frame doorway. Above this doorway is a wide, 15-light metal frame rectangular window, above that a decorative panel of white brick. There are two concrete shipping platforms on the Dexter Street elevation.

Rau Fastner

Rau Fastener Company moved in as a tenant in 1917, expanded its operations, and owned and occupied the three Perkins buildings by the 1970s. They expanded the complex in 1952, as noted above.

In 1911 Romanian immigrant Lues Reiter (1871-1947) established a small company of four employees producing metal stampings and fasteners for fabric. In 1917 the company moved from its Blount Street, Providence, location to occupy two floors of the Providence Lithograph Building. By 1940 Rau had a staff of 100, working in 40,000 sq ft of space that included some of the Ada Building next door.

The company grew dramatically during the war years, employing 450 and earning four Army-Navy E awards for production of a range of buckles and fasteners for the war effort. […]

Around 1968 the company established a new division, Rau Findings Company (located in the Olneyville section of the Providence), even as it was considering the option of going public or merging with a larger company. Choosing the latter, the company was sold to U.S. Industries in 1968. In 1971 Rau purchased the Charles H. Perkins Building, refitting it for its Rimco subsidiary and machine rebuilding department.

In 1975 the Rau division of U.S. Industries was sold to Premier Metal; ten years later it was sold again to London-based Hanson Trust. By 1990 the local management of Rau was concerned that a competitor, Georgia-based Scovill Fastener, was planning to acquire the company for the purpose of consolidating it into its Georgia operation. In response Rau’s officers borrowed substantially to buy the division back from Hanson. The purchase was accomplished, but the repatriated Rau lost money in 1991, 1992, and 1993. […] Rau filed for receivership in September, 1994, with a debt of $8.8 million.

More history

From the “Industrial Sites and Commercial Buildings Survey (ICBS)” by PPS and the AIA, 2001-2002, hosted by ProvPlan.org (now defunct)

A large complex on the east side of Dexter Street at the corner of Dexter and Sprague streets. The complex consists of three parts: a three-story brick building facing Westfield Street (1890), a two-story brick factory building facing Dexter Street, and a four-story building (Ada Building) to the east. The Dexter Street factory building (1952) stands behind a paved lot on the east side of Dexter Street. It is a large, two-story, brick, rectangular structure with a flat roof. Several loading bays are located on the first floor level of the west elevation. Fenestration is comprised of rows of rectangular, fixed and awning windows. To the east is the three-story, brick block set perpendicular to the street. The building features segmental-arch window openings with a combination of multi-light sash and brick and wood infill with stone sills. A tall, brick smokestack with brick corbelling stands as a prominent feature of the complex. To the east is the four-story, gable-roof, L-shaped Loft building, which stands parallel to Sprague Street. This block features similar fenestration to the three-story block and features a one-story boiler room on its northwest side. A two-story, wood-frame building clad in metal sheathing stands on the north side of Westfield Street.

The earliest part of the complex is the Ada Building, which is identified by a datestone as having been constructed in 1892. By 1919, the property was occupied by Providence Lithograph which owned the 102 Westfield Street section. At that time, storage houses for Providence Lithograph were located at the Dexter Street side of the complex where the 1952 addition was constructed. On the Harrison Avenue side of the complex there was a neighboring building which housed the National Elastic and Webbing Company. Rau Fasteners, established in 1912, was the leading distributor of metal snap fasteners in the nation and played a large role in the Rhode Island economy. According to the Providence Journal, the company was founded by Lues Reiter. The 1929 directory identifies Rau Fastener at the 102 Westfield Street location, with a capitalization of $100,000 under the leadership of Lues Reiter, president, and James H. Arthur, secretary-treasurer. By 1949, the company was run by Harold J. Reiter, president, and Herman Reiter, treasurer.

A 30,000 square foot addition was made in 1952, greatly enhancing the size of the complex. By 1955 the complex appears as it does today. Rau Fasteners retained ownership of the property through to 1961. According to the Providence Journal, the complex was purchased by U.S. Industries in 1968. The property was transferred to Rau Fasteners, Inc. in 1985. The most recent owner is Rhode Island Industries.

#In the News

Rau Fastener Offers A New Model For Affordable Lofts

by Robin Amer
Providence Phoenix | April 29, 2005

Starting in December 2005, units will be available in Westfield Lofts, formerly the Rau Fastener mill complex, on Dexter Street near the Cranston Street Armory. The West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation is the force behind the $15 million rehab project, remaking the 1890 mill complex into 69 one- and two-bedroom lofts. Upon completion, Westfield Lofts will be the city’s only CDC-sponsored mill redevelopment effort, offering units of low-income housing, and moderate-income units far cheaper than other loft projects in town.

The project is almost 10 years in the making. Sharon Conard-Wells, West Elmwood’s executive director, says the seeds were planted in 1997, when neighborhood residents asked her, “What are you going to do with this thing in the middle of the neighborhood?” Her response was “We don’t do mills.” But neighbors felt so strongly that they presented petitions and letters to West Elmwood’s board, in hopes it would tackle the four-story, 109,000-square-foot building.

Westfield Lofts will consist of 22 affordable one- and two-bedroom rental units, starting at a monthly rent of $498, a price bounded by the tax credits used to partially finance the project. Prospective tenants must meet federal low-income guidelines. There will also be 47 one- and two-bedroom units renting at between $850 and $1300 a month – about half the price of similar lofts being developed downtown and in other mill redevelopment projects.

Conard-Wells says the mixed-income rent structure will benefit neighborhood families who make too much to qualify for low-income housing, but need help on their way to home ownership. The affordable units will be mixed in with the other units, rather than clustered in one section of the building.

The mill rehab is the first phase of the CDC’s bigger plans for the area. An adjacent mill building will eventually be converted into office space. A large vacant lot behind the property will be turned into 24 townhouses, and lots across Dexter Street will be redeveloped into multi-family homes. Conard-Wells believes the efforts will improve people’s perception of the neighborhood. “I’m one of the first to say the neighborhood isn’t 100 percent of what it should be,” she says. “But I’m also one of the first to say it’s not nearly as bad as the perception. This project will help close the gap between perception and reality.” The project could also have a major impact on property values, Conard-Wells says, and on the investment current residents are willing to make in their own homes.

Asked how West Elmwood managed to finance such a project, she laughs, “I beg. I have no pride. I’ll ask for money all the time.” In reality, the organization pieced together multiple sources, including federal funds, low-income tax credits, US Environmental Protection Agency bucks for environmental remediation, a bridge loan from Bank of America, and help from such national groups as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Neighborworks America. Conard-Wells says project architects Durkee Brown Viveiros & Werenfels, which is receiving a percentage of the total construction costs, subordinated an increase in its fee when construction costs increased.

Low- and moderate-income artists are among those being targeted as residents, in hopes that their presence will accentuate the neighborhood’s positive characteristics. The units will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis, provided prospective renters’ credit checks out.

“This is a really cool project,” says Laura Mullen of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts’ Sustainable Artist Space Initiative. “I’m so impressed by Sharon and what they’ve been able to accomplish and how much thought they’ve been able to put into it.”

Mullen says the Rau Fastener project is proof that for all the cost and difficulty associated with turning old mill buildings into new housing, it is possible to create affordable spaces. “Sharon’s previous experience in the affordable housing world gave her all the skills to make this happen,” Mullen says. “Because she already knew the nonprofit affordable housing world.… she also had access to funding and grants not available to for-profit developers. That’s part of the beauty of nonprofit developing.”

  1. Morito Scovill Americas, About Us/Our History page, captured January 1, 2020 from http://www.scovill.com/about-us/history/ 

  2. “Westfield Lofts - Providence, RI (April 2006)”, EPA archive, captured January 1, 2020 from https://archive.epa.gov/region1/brownfields/web/html/wl_providence_ri_rlf_tba.html