Rhode Island Tool Company

also known as Providence Forge & Nut Company, Providence Tool, Greystone, now West River Center

A sprawling pre-Civil-War-era complex with a proud history of metal manufacturing of many kinds, including armaments

About this Property

#Redevelopment

In 2003, Evaristo “Everett” and Sheryl Amaral purchased this historic mill to turn it into West River Center. West River Center received the 2011 Rhody Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation for the creative conversion of the former Rhode Island Tool Company into a mix of medical, state, and corporate offices, as well as a café.1

Everett Amaral was part founder and owner of the engineering firm Amaral Revite. The company was founded in 1991 and incorporated in 1995. The Company specializes in light commercial projects with a niche in restaurant construction and remodeling. Construction volume grew from about $500,000 in 1994 to more than $8 million in 2007. Amaral Revite was one of the anchor tenants of the West River Center project.2 Mr. Amaral died in 2018.

This 5.57 acre site with buildings that have a combined square footage of over 153,000 were renovated over the course of several years starting in 2003. Part of the conversion included removing the 20th-century metal-clad annex buildings that were not historically significant. The former fruit and produce distribution portion of the complex remained under private ownership and industrial use while the rest of the former RI Tool complex was converted to office and commercial spaces. Between 2008 and 2010, the produce distributor sold to the owner of West River Center the handsome three-story addition to the original RI Tool in 1906. Once again, the complex is managed under one owner.3

#Current Events

This collection of structures are now home to various office and commercial spaces, ranging from the former owner’s engineering firm to offices for the Secretary of State to medical practices under the Lifespan umbrella.

#History

From the National Register nomination form, prepared by Matthew Kierstead and Stephen Olausen.

[…] The site is dominated by the sprawling main building, which consists of an agglomeration of attached, single and multistory buildings that occupy a single, complex-plan footprint. […] The main building incorporates six buildings dating from before the Civil War. […] The Rhode Island Tool Company was a light forging works and machine shop specializing in industrial hardware until it closed in early 2003. […] The building functions as indicated on historic maps show changes in building functions over the life of the works.

[…] The works includes a wide range of roof shapes and types with a variety of timber and steel support systems. Fenestration consists of tall, regularly spaced, rectangular or segmental arch windows with granite sills. The predominant window type is multiple pane, double-hung, wood sash. […] This complex structure is visually dominated by the two-story West River Street (east) facade of buildings 1 (1853) and 1A (1853 et seq.), which include an attached four-story stair tower.

[…] Differences in the brickwork and window heights on the east elevation indicate alterations and additions to the building. The core of Building 1 consists of 16 bays, six standing north of the one-bay stair tower, and nine south of the tower. Second floor windows in this section are flush with the walls, and the taller first floor windows are recessed between narrow brick piers that end in a corbeled brick dentil motif below the lintels. […]

The four-story, 15-ft-square, brick stair tower has a shallow pyramidal hipped roof with an overhanging wood cornice with plank soffits and fascia, and curved wood brackets. The tower is divided into four stories with brick string courses between the first and second, and third and fourth floors. Each side of each story contains a Roman arch opening with a protruding brick arch and granite sill. The top story is a belfry with recessed panels and corner piers, and arched openings filled with horizontal metal louvers. […] The ground floor has an ornate, multiple pane, double-hung sash, double-arch- and-oriel window on the south elevation, a replacement aluminum and glass entrance door with an original wood sash fanlight on the east elevation, and a multiple pane wood sash window on the north elevation. The bell and pull rope are still in place and functional.

Significance

The period of significance begins in 1853, when the Providence Forge & Nut Company erected the first component buildings, and ends in 1921, when construction was completed. […] The tool works complex was begun by Providence Forge & Nut Company in 1853, and purchased by the Providence Tool Company in 1861. In the Civil War and post war eras, Providence Tool became an important American rifle manufacturer. During the mid-1870s it was the largest single employer in Providence. The company was reorganized as the Rhode Island Tool Company in 1883, and was the only drop forging operation in Rhode Island when it closed in 2003. The complex is Providence’s most intact surviving complex of pre-Civil War-era base metals industry buildings. […]

Between 1850 and 1860 the number of metalworking firms in Providence grew from 25 to 94. The city was optimally located for receiving and distributing raw materials, and close to many textile mills requiring machinery including steam engines and boilers. Building those machines required increasingly complex machine tools. Several other significant firms were created at this time. The Corliss Works established their West River Street steam engine works, located immediately south of Rhode Island Tool in 1848, and became the national leader in steam engine building. Brown & Sharpe, established in 1833, became Providence’s major machine tool builder, and achieved a national reputation as inventor and creator of critical machine tools such as the Universal Miller, developed for and first used at the Providence Tool Company. Providence’s Nicholson File Company, established in 1864, Gorham Manufacturing Company (silverware), founded 1818, and American Screw Company, incorporated in 1860, became world leaders in their respective specialties.

[…] The Providence Tool Company was not originally formed as an arms producer, and the company charter was not amended to include arms manufacture until January 1863. […] In 1873 the Providence Tool Company competed with several other large arms manufacturers for a massive $10 million rifle contract for the Turkish government. The contract was awarded to Winchester Arms, which subsequently sold it to Providence Tool, as they had mistakenly underestimated on their bid and were unable to wrest away Providence Tool’s patent rights. Providence Tool found themselves with several contracts for a total of 600,000 Martini-Henry improved Peabody-type breech loading rifles. The company made a $2 million capital expenditure on upgrading their armory facilities at West River Street, which rapidly became one of largest armories in the world. The six-acre plant employed 1,800 workers, housed 1,700 machines, and eventually produced up to 600 rifles a day.

[…] The Turkish government delayed payments by months, and in some cases years… By December 1879, Providence Tool had delivered 630,737 Martini-Henry rifles to Turkey. The rifles proved superior to the Russian rifles in the 1876-1878 Russo-Turkish War, which was, however, ultimately won by the better-organized Russian forces. The Turks placed a moratorium on public debt payments in the wake of the war, and Providence Tool was not fully paid for the rifle contract until 1882. The costs for associated interest, penalties, suits, and legal fees drained the company’s operating capital to the point where they could not remain in business. The Providence Tool Company closed and declared bankruptcy in 1883, after having made more than 850,000 firearms, placing them in the top ranks of American rifle makers of the era. In 1880 an article in the London Times declared the rifles “the best in existence at this time.”

[…] Rhode Island Tool’s last owner was The Greystone Group, a metalworking manufacturer with plants in Lincoln and North Providence, Rhode Island, and Virginia. The group is primarily involved in machining, heat treating and plating metal parts for Tier 1 automobile parts suppliers such as Siemens Automotive. Greystone acquired the Rhode Island Tool works in 1984 from the Sides family. […] The company also made firearms parts for several major gun makers, continuing the tradition of firearms parts making begun during the Civil War. The Rhode Island Tool operations became unprofitable in the face of competition from India and China and Greystone sold the plant machinery and dies to DeKalb Forge of DeKalb, IL, and closed the plant in 2003.

More history

From “RHODE ISLAND: An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites”, Gary Kulik and Julia C. Bonham, 1978

Established in 1845 and incorporated in 1847, the Providence Tool Company was originally located at 29 Wickenden Street in the Fox Point section of Providence. The company produced sewing machines, ship chandlers’ hardware, and the Peabody-Martini breech-loading rifle, used by the Turkish army in the Crimean War. While maintaining its plant on Wickenden Street, Providence Tool built a new brick factory in 1861 on what is now West River Street. The building, substantially intact, is two stories high with an Italianate central tower, and first story brick piers. The original gable roof was sub sequently removed and the roof is now sharply reduced in pitch. The 1-story, brick-pier wing on the north was added in 1863, and a six-bay extension of the second floor was built over a portion of that wing subsequently.

The 3-story, brick structure on the west and the current foundry were also added later. The prominent inventor, Frederic Howe, joined the company about 1853. Howe developed a close working relationship with Joseph Brown, of Brown Sharpe and persuaded Brown to re-equip Providence Tool at the onset of the Civil War. On 14 March 1862, Providence Tool became the first company to use Brown Sharpe’s Universal Miller, and later became one of the first firms to produce twist drills. In 1863, Howe designed for the company a prototype of his “Howe Miller” for milling the compound curves of musket lockplates. Howe left the firm to join Brown & Sharpe in 1868.

In 1883, Providence Tool reorganized and two new firms were created. The Household Sewing Machine Company continued the manufacture of sewing machines on Wickenden Street in a building that has since been destroyed. The Rhode Island Tool Company was formed to operate the 1861 plant for the production of job-order machinery, bolts, nuts, and assorted tools. Rhode Island Tool still owns the building and currently produces drop forgings, upset forgings, and special industrial fasteners.

Credit: Munro; Bayles; Hall; Providence Directory, 1860 and 1861; Graphics Collection, RIHS; L. T. C. Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools, 1965.

  1. “Evaristo “Everett” Amaral – Cumberland (Obituary),” Valley Breeze, November 11, 2018. Captured on January 10, 2020 from https://www.valleybreeze.com/2018-11-11/cumberland-lincoln-area/evaristo-everett-amaral-cumberland 

  2. Amaral Revite website, now defunct, captured from Archive.org on January 10, 2020 from https://web.archive.org/web/20081011171317/http://www.amaralrevite.com/ 

  3. “West River Center Complex United”, Bret Ancowitz, GreaterCity Providence, November 18, 2008. Captured on January 10, 2020 from http://www.gcpvd.org/2008/11/18/529/