Allen Printworks

also known as Woonsocket Company Print Works, Providence Picture Frame

A large mill built in stages with an iconic square, open-top stair tower visible from Interstate 95.

About this Property

#Previous Tenants

For many years — we would say from 1980 to 2017 — this once important mill flew under-the-radar of the mill conversion frenzy. It was by the highway in a light industrial part of town, so the pressure to become residential was not there. It had long term tenants using its large spaces as well. While the mill was not generally kept in fantastic condition, the roof did its job and graffiti eventually was painted over. Many of the windows had bee bricked in and those that remained were replacement windows from perhaps the 80s.

As long as we have been in Providence – since 1999 – this building was home to the Providence Picture Frame Company and Dryden Galleries. There is also some office space in the back. According to some of the anecdotes left below, the Providence Picture Frame company may be about the same age as the smaller stone mill at 25 Dryden Lane, with roots going back to 1830.

The Benny’s sign from the highway os one of the more recognizable advertisements along the Providence stretch of I-95 and was in very good shape in the photo from Jay Boersma in 1976. Our guess is that it has been there since the 60s. Benny’s Branch Avenue location closed in 2017, signaling the end of one era and the beginning of another.

#Current Events

Providence Picture Frame moved to Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence starting in late 2019. The building is undergoing a conversion to Class A medical office space under the direction of Union Studio Architecture. Their Instagram post shows a little bit of detail ad seems to close in a bit of the west side with a modern glass atrium addition and a parking deck that takes advantage of the natural slope of the land.

#History

More about Zachariah Allen at Small State, Big History.

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

The Allen Printworks, more than any other printing establishment in Providence, was a vital force in the textile and cloth-printing industry. Founded in 1830 by Phillip Allen — an engineer, inventor, and governor and state senator — the Phillip Allen & Sons Company originally printed cloth by hand with carved blocks, but as early as 1835 Allen introduced printing machines to his establishment which greatly increased the speed of calico production. By 1846 Phillip Allen & Sons had five printing machines and employed 250 workers who turned out 130,000 yards of calico cloth a week. By 1849 the printworks had one main mill and six ancillary structures surrounding it.

When the panic of 1857 swept the country, however, Phillip Allen & Sons was one of the many firms forced to declare bankruptcy. The printworks, which had tripled in size since 1849, were bought by Phillip Allen’s brother Crawford and were reorganized as the Woonsocket Company. Crawford Allen, who had been involved in the printworks and cotton industry in Valley Falls and in Pawtucket, managed the business aspect of the operation, while Zachariah Allen, the middle and most famous Allen brother, managed the plant itself. Zachariah Allen was well known for his contributions to steam-engine and textile-machine technology.

In 1870 Crawford Allen retired from active management, and in 1871 the company was reorganized under the control of Allen’s lawyers as the Allen Printworks; at this time Zachariah Allen also retired. When the newly organized printworks failed, however, in 1879, the works were reorganized and put back into operation by the major stockholders of the company. By this time the Allen Printworks had had its greatest period of growth with most of the building having occurred in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s under the control of the Allen Brothers.

One of the remaining buildings in this sprawling complex is the main mill which is a 3-story brick structure with a 5-story central tower and a jerkinhead-gable roof. The northern part of the mill was rebuilt in 1874 after a fire and incorporated part of an earlier stone mill. The section south of the tower was built in 1871. To the east of the main mill is a small, 2-story, stone and brick structure with a trapdoor-monitor roof. This building is the oldest on the site and may be the original stone structure built by Phillip Allen in 1830. For twenty years after the printworks were taken over by the stockholders, printing operations continued under the name of The Allen Printworks. In 1901, however, the stockholders sold the printworks to the Roger Williams Finishing Company which leased the works to a cloth-printing company. In 1907 all of the printing machinery was sold. The Roger Williams Finishing Company seems to have occupied the plant for a few years in the early 1920s, but by the 1930s the plant was occupied by several smaller businesses. Today the remaining buildings have been converted to commercial and light industrial use.

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

Phillip Allen & Sons established a print works on this site in 1830–1831. Crawford Allen purchased the company in 1857. The firm was known as the Woonsocket Company Print Works until 1871 when it was incorporated as the Allen Print Works. At that time, the plant covered a large area in the northeast part of Providence. Over 350 workers manufactured calico goods which were sold primarily in the south and west. The company owned the first Boulton-Watt low pressure, condensing steam engine built in Providence and was said to be the first American textile form to import the improved English bobbin and fly frame.

The main brick mill on the site stands three to four stories high. The section north of the 5-story central tower was built in 1874 and measures 115’ x 51’ – 54’. The section south of the tower, 54æ x 79’ – 62’, was built three years earlier. The back of the north section is largely stone, suggesting that an older structure was incorporated into the 1874 wing. A jerkinhead roof covers both the 1871 and 1874 wings. A small, 2-story, stone and brick structure, with a trap-door monitor roof, stands to the east of the main mill. Perhaps the oldest building on the site, it may very well be the original 1830 mill.

Other than two steam pumps, no old machinery remains. The buildings are now tenanted.