Phenix Mill

also known as Pheonix MIll (common mis-spelling)

This 175 year old stone mill suffered a suspicious and devastating fire in 2005 which razed it to the ground

About this Property

#Reason for Demolition

In March 30, 2005, a fire swallowed this huge mill complex. The 175-year-old wood beams and floors burned quickly and walls collapsed before firefighter crews could do much about it. The fire was deemed suspicious immediately due to the fact that electric power service to the building had long been cut off.

In 2003, the town sold tax title to the 2.6-acre property for $1 to Mill Conversions, LLC of Woonsocket. Work had not begun on converting the mill property into residential condominiums, but money had been spent on site clean up.

#Current Events

A related nearby building at 771 that survived the fire was converted to six condos but the main site of the former Phenix Mill has not been developed and is currently green space.

#History

From “Historic and Architectural Resources of West Warwick, Rhode Island: A Preliminary Report,” 1987, by the RI Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission

Phenix Mill & the village

Set in the northwest corner of West Warwick, the village of Phenix had its origin when a dam and a cotton mill were built here by the Roger Williams Manufacturing Company in 1810. Following an 1821 fire, the mill was rebuilt with an improved water-power system on a site between Main Street and the river.

[…] As in other villages, housing for mill works was constructged in Phenix. The houses at 776-78 and 780-82 Main Street (c. 1822) are typical — plain, functional dwellings —  and may be the oldest houses of their type in West Warwick. […] By 1850, Phenix was a well established village with mills, mill housing along Main Street and the side streets north of the river, many private residences especially on the former Atwood estate, broken up in 1825, churches, two banks, and a post office.

[…] Mill operations at Phenix remained in the hands of the Lonsdale Company and its corporate successors well into the twentieth century. […] While maintaining a steady pace of production through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Phenix mills never exceeded a moderate capacity. In 1882, for example, the Centerville, Crompton, and Arctic Mills had far greater capacity, and the Natick Mills ran over four times as many spindles as Phenix.

Phenix Mill

The Phenix Mill complex, sited between Main Street and the Pawtuxet River, consists of a 328- by 43-foot, 4-story, stuccoed stone building with a square tower and a Greek Revival belfry, several attached and freestanding buildings, and a wooden gate house astride a raceway leading from a dam to the main building. Across the street is a later weave shed 1902, a 2-story, 122- by 192-foot, flat-roofed brick structure whose windows are covered, connected to the old mill by a steel bridge over the street.

In 1830, […] Crawford Allen became the owner. Seven years later he was joined by his brother Zachariah, a well-known manufacturer and mill engineer, and by David Whitman. Whitman was an important technological innovator in the textile industry, and planned or altered some of the great factories in Lawrence, Lowell, Fall River, and Maine. The Allens and Whitman manufactured what was said to be the first two-and-one-quarter- to three-yard-wide sheeting made in the country.

In 1839, the Lonsdale Company, an outgrowth of the Providence mercantile firm Brown and Ives, acquired one-half of the real estate, and in the following years the mill operated under a variety of leasing arrangements. An addition to the east end of the 1823 mill was made in 1860.

In 1861, the Lonsdale Company partners formed the Hope Company. It included John Carter Brown; Robert H. Ives, and others. By 1867, this company, which also owned the mill property at nearby Hope Village in Scituate, had acquired all the mill property at Phenix. In 1882, the company built a stone connector between the mills, creating a single building measuring 328 by 43 feet, with a capacity of 21,536 spindles and 430 looms.

[…] Textile manufacturing continued into mid-century, when the factory was purchased by a pharmaceutical company, Scott Laboratories. Today, the manufacture of medium cultures and research is carried on by about 400 employees. A machine shop on the property manufactures production equipment for the industry.


By the late 19th century, the cotton mill employed nearly 75 percent of working village residents, who carted, spun, and wove for 13-hour shifts, under dim light and with little ventilation. Portuguese immigrants from the Azores flooded the village, bringing ethnic festivals, while French Canadians opened Our Lady of Good Counsel church, in 1903.

Recent history

In the 1960s, though, a pharmaceutical research company called Scott Laboratories bought the complex and moved in. It later housed various other manufacturers, including Adams Scientific, a biotech company that moved out in 1994. In the summer of 1995, fire destroyed one of the complex’s smaller buildings, which Adams Scientific had used.

#In the News

Investigators Probing Cause Of Phenix Mill Fire

Investigators say the blaze is of suspicious origin because the mill was vacant and the electricity had been shut off.

by Alice Gomstyn, Daniel Barbarisi and Benjamin N. Gedan
Providence Journal | March 31, 2005

An intense fire swallowed the vacant Phenix Mill building last night, sending 40-foot smoke plumes and bright embers into the air and drawing hundreds of spectators. The spectacle brought to mind the 1992 burning of the Crompton Mill, an unsolved arson. Chief Charles Hall said Wednesday’s fire will be “one for the scrapbooks.”

Witnesses described hearing a series of about a dozen “small explosions” when the fire began at about 6:30 p.m., West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said. Though officials didn’t know what caused the popping noises, they deemed the fire suspicious before it was even out because utility service to the building at 771 Main St. had been shut off.

The police urged anyone with information about the fire’s cause to call the detective division at 827-9044.

“This was in a mill building with no electricity,” said West Warwick Police Chief Peter T. Brousseau. “There’s no way for a fire to start in a building like that.” The West Warwick Fire Department, Police Department and the state fire marshal’s office are investigating.

No one was injured in the fire. Hall said all five stories of the building were aflame “within four minutes,” and firefighters did not enter the building, but fought the fire entirely from outside.

For the first hour, the mill building stayed mostly intact as flames leaped through scores of large windows. But at 7:40, a four-story extension collapsed, and from that point on, pieces of walls began to crumble around the building.

At about 7:50 p.m., the steeple atop the mill’s bell tower collapsed to the collective gasp of West Warwick, Coventry and Warwick residents who had stood behind yellow police tape, aiming camcorders and camera phones at the spectacular sight.

By 9 p.m., Hall said that the fire had been contained. By 10 p.m., firefighters were aiming their hoses at the mill wall facing Main Street, hoping to keep the wall from collapsing onto the power lines below.

In 2003, the town sold tax title to the 2.6-acre property for $1 to Mill Conversions, LLC of Woonsocket. Work had not yet begun, but $80,000 has been spent on clean up. James R. Alarie, a manager for Mill Conversions, was there last night. He sat grim-faced watching the flames, but said the company would move forward with the condo project.

Some local officials had already expressed concerns that the company would not develop the entire property, after it requested permission to subdivide the land and develop six condos in a building next to the main structure that burned Wednesday. That building survived the fire. The day of the fire, a Mill Conversions representative had met with Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer, who asked the company to place money in an escrow account to pay for the potential demolition of the mill and the construction of a riverside park, in case the company abandoned the project.

Mill Conversions specializes in transforming old mills, as it did in a similar project in Woonsocket, where the company is based. In a letter proposing the Phenix Mill project, in 2003, Alarie emphasized that the company hoped to retain the mill’s original appearance.