American Locomotive Automobile Company buildings

also known as Rhode Island Locomotive Works, Joseph Banigan Rubber Company, Revere Rubber, U.S. Rubber, ALCo

A collection of six brick buildings with a complicated history, series of owners, and name

About this Property

#Redevelopment

The former American Locomotive Company (ALCO) Automobile buildings are interesting because they were part of the U.S. Rubber Company for most of their active life. This history is complicated by the fact that the marketing of the redeveloped property decided to emphasize its original name, and therefore, erase some of the history associated with it being a manufacturer of rubber goods.1

Further, locomotives were never manufactured in these buildings (“on this site”, yes, in previously demolished buildings). The American Locomotive Company designed the buildings to diversify into the manufacture of Berliet2 and ALCO3 automobiles. The expansion ceased here in Rhode Island in 1913, shortly after the buildings were constructed. Building no. 51 specifically was surrounded by a 30 foot wide automobile test track until 1918.

The connection to the Rhode Island Locomotive Works Company is also tenuous. The RI Locomotive Works, incorporated in 1866, was started by General Ambrose Burnside of the Burnside Rifle Company and failed during the Depression of 1893. The works along Hemlock and Valley Streets were sold at public auction in 1898 and largely demolished. The only surviving building is the 1885 Office Building on the eastern edge of the property (U.S. Rubber number 61).4

In 2006, Streuver Brothers, Eccles, and Rouse (SBER) announced ambitious plans for a $333 million redevelopment of the entire 23 acre U.S. Rubber property that would include new construction and parking garages. It would essentially create an entire new neighborhood along Valley Street. Phase 1 would be the redevelopment of the ALCO buildings into a hotel and office space. They wanted to complete the entire project by the end of 2008.

Instead, there was a huge economic downturn in late 2007 and into 2008 that depressed local real estate investment until about 2012. By late 2009, with Phase 1 complete and Phase 2 planned to break ground, ALCO came to a halt along with the then-named Dynamo House project. SBER was overextended in the state and the buildings would eventually be auctioned. Bill Streuver wanted to make Providence the “coolest place in the world” but we all knew that it already was.

In December of 2009, it was announced that out-of-state developers McCormack Baron Salazar would complete a new residential phase at ALCO involving 124 units called “Boxcar Lofts” and 78 units called “The Flats at Iron Horse Way.” Neither of these projects broke ground.5

In 2014, the buildings that were originally built by Banigan Rubber were purchased by Brady Sullivan, a Connecticut developer who had a few successful local projects under their belt (Slater Cotton in Pawtucket and Grants Mill in Providence, among others). The ALCO buildings came under the ownership of Foundry Associates, most known for their redevelopment of the former Brown and Sharpe factory buildings north along the river on Promenade Street.

#Current Events

200,000 square feet of commercial space is under the management of Foundry Associates. Important anchor tenants include U.S. Foods and the RI Commerce Corporation.

#History

Note: This property has been split in our archive into three parts: U.S. Rubber Company Mill Complex, U.S. Rubber Company building 85, and the American Locomotive Automobile Company buildings.

More Sources

For photos of American Locomotive engines, visit ALCoHistoricPhotos.com

For more information about the history of the automobile in Rhode Island, the RI Historical Society has a lovely publication written by J. Stanley Lemons on August, 1994, from which this is excerpted:

Recognizing the direction of automobile production, [ALCO] established a subsidiary called the American Locomotive Automobile Company to build the Berliet, a French luxury gasoline car, under license, using the awkward name American Locomotive Motor Car for its product. Generally called the “American Berliet,” this auto was manufactured from 1906 to 1908, at which time the American Locomotive Company discontinued the Berliet license and began producing its own car under the name Alco. Probably the finest automobile made in the United States prior to World War I, this big, superbly engineered automobile won the Vanderbilt Cup races in 1909 and 1910. The Alco cost from $6,000 to $7,500, making it one of the most expensive autos then produced. With the average annual income of a middle-class family in the first decade of the twentieth century ranging between $900 and $3,000, a $7,500 automobile would cost such a family several years worth of income — and in those days one could not buy cars on the installment plan. A less expensive model of the Alco was widely used for taxis. The American Locomotive Works made Alcos until August 1913, when it abruptly ceased production after an account of its automotive division revealed that the company had lost an average of $460 on every Alco it produced.

— J. Stanley Lemon, “RI History Volume 52 Number 4”, August 1994, Rhode Island Historical Society

National Register Nomination form

From the National Register Nomination form for the United States Rubber Company Mill Complex, Edward Connors, 2005

[…] The earliest industrial exploitation of this area was the relocation to Providence in 1862 of the Bristol (R.I.) Firearms Company, later Burnside Rifle Company. General Ambrose Burnside and two other partners had set up shop in Bristol, RI, in 1853 for the exploitation of patents he held for an improved mechanism for a breech loaded rifle. This company secured extensive and profitable government contracts during the Civil War. Burnside reinvested those profits in 1866 with the incorporation of the Rhode Island Locomotive Works (RILW) and the conversion of this Providence work for this purpose. For about 30 years, this company produced locomotives in a large plant centered along Valley and Hemlock Streets. The company appears to have failed in the Depression of 1893. RILW defaulted on a mortgage taken out one year into the depression and the works were sold at public auction in 1893. […]

In 1901 seven regional locomotive manufacturers were consolidated into the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) as means of eliminating competition. A 1901 Board of Trade Journal article announcing the formations of the company described the necessity of the combination:

…concentrating, as they have, the many plants which were competing at suicidal prices for the construction of locomotives for the vast railroad interests of the United States, the organizers of the American Locomotive Company will be in a position to practice a thorough system of economics and to enter the field of locomotive construction upon a profitable basis.

ALCO ceased production of locomotives in 1907. It appears that ALCO’s intentions for the Providence plant focused from the beginning on a new market: the automobile. Shortly after its formation, ALCO had purchased the International Power Company, Providence-based producer of the Hoadley-Knight steam truck and continued production of these vehicles after acquisition. In 1905, ALCO established a new subsidiary and announced the construction of a new factory building for the American manufacture of the luxury Berliet Automobile, a car produced for the European automobile market in Lyons, France. This car was, arguably, the “finest car produced in the U.S. prior to WWI.” At a price of from $6,000 to $7,500 it was certainly one of the most expensive. […]

This building, followed quickly by Buildings 52 and the older part of Building 58, became the manufacturing plant for a four-cylinder automobile, available in 25 or 40 HP. Berliet Automobiles were produced from 1906 until the expiration of the American license in 1908. From 1908 to 1913 ALCO continued to manufacture cars and trucks in these buildings under their own name. […]

[…] With the U.S. entry into WWI, the company had difficulty meeting war production orders for rubber goods, notably balloons for military use. In what the Providence Journal described as “one of the largest real estate transactions that has been recorded in this city,” U.S. Rubber purchased the idle ALCO buildings [in 1918] and began outfitting them for the manufacture of solid and pneumatic tires.

The U.S. Rubber plant, now encompassing some 23 acres, continued its wartime expansion into the 1920s and 1930s with the manufacture of gold balls and bath caps along with dip goods, tires, and rubber thread. This expansion included […] the south extension of ALCO Building 58. […]

By 1965 U.S. Rubber, beset by labor problems, had reduced its staff to 480, moved much of its production out of state, and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. As buildings became idle, the company tried to market the eleven buildings at the eastern end of the plant (in the vicinity of Hemlock street) as an “industrial park,” leasing space to industrial tenants. This effort was apparently unsuccessful. U.S. Rubber Company changed its name to Uniroyal in 1967.

Labor strife persisted until the plant announced its intent to close in April 1975. Despite efforts by the union, and state, local, and federal intervention, the Providence plant ceased operation a month later. The present [2005] owner, Licht Properties, purchased the plant in July of that year. […]

Architecture

Building 61, Rhode Island Locomotive Works Office Building (c. 1885)

A two-story, 67’ by 39’, brick building with timber framing. Fronting on Hemlock Street, this building rests on a raised granite foundation. It is the sole surviving structure of what was once a rambling complex of predominantly brick locomotive production buildings arrayed along Valley and Hemlock Streets. Most of the windows are late 20th-century aluminum replacement types set in the original rectangular openings with the original quarry-faced granite sills intact. One of the original rectangular north elevation window openings has been plugged with brick. Although three relatively original north elevation windows now appear on the south elevation, this wall originally had no windows for the likely reason that it faced a large RI Locomotive Works foundry building demolished sometimes after 1908. This building has a simple, corbelled cornice and a hipped roof surfaced with rubber membrane. Both front and rear entrances have been altered to accept modern, glass and aluminum doorways. […]

Building 51, American Locomotive Works Building (1905)

A three-story, steel-frame, brick clad, pier and spandrel building designed for manufacture of the Berliet automobile (1906–1908) and, later, the ALCO automobile (1908–1918). Although the intended original dimensions of this building were roughly 375’ by 60’, the American Locomotive Works added another 125’ to the west end of the building by 1907 at the latest. This building sits on a raised concrete foundation. The roof is a shallow gable.

At the top of each pier, four courses of brick are cantilevered to evoke a classical capital; a double belt course below suggests an astragal. This design element is also found on the brickwork of Buildings 52 and 58.

Windows are rectangular, 12 over 12, wood frame, and double-hung; most are paired. Sills are quarry-faced granite; lintels are steel. […] Along the south elevation facing the river are found a shipping dock, transformer enclosure, and a 1-story brick structure. A brick stairtower built by the Revere Rubber Company between 1918 and 1921 is found at the northwest corner of the building.

A 30’-wide automobile test track surrounded the building from 1905 to 1918. This accounts for the roughly 30’ width of infill Building 53. A private bridge spanning the Woonasquatucket once led to a south elevation entrance, no longer extant. In 1921 Revere Rubber Company used this building as a compound room, calendar room, and tube department. […]

Building 52, American Locomotive Works Building (1907)

The second ALCO factory building is a single-story, 240’ by 112’ steel frame, pier and spandrel structure. The foundation is concrete. The cornice is wooden and the roof has two rows of sawtooth windows, now covered over. The function of this building during the ALCO period is not known. In 1921 Revere Rubber utilized it as a compound room, calendar room, and tube department. The same pier detail described for Building 51 is found on this building. Much of the north elevation is sheathed in corrugated steel.

A ca 1940 concrete and brick addition is found on the north elevation along with a shed of steel sheating and Texture 1-11. A late 20th-century concrete block loading dock extends from the east elevation. […]

Building 58, American Locomotive Works Building (between 1908 and 1918 et seq.)

The last of the American Locomotive Works buildings. A 3 story, brick, steel-frame, flat-roofed, pier and spandrel structure resting on a concrete foundation. […] No original windows survive. A long concrete loading dock extends the length of the west elevation. Six entrances are found on the east elevation, all altered.

Between 1918 and 1926, U.S. Rubber Company extended this building about 70’ toward the river. A stairtower is located at the south east corner of this addition. Steel columns in this newer part of the building are concrete-encased.

The original portion of the Building 58, along with Buildings 51 and 52, was constructed between 1905 and ca 1910 by the American Locomotive Company for manufacture of the Berliet and ALCO automobiles. ALCO ceased automobile manufacture in 1907. The buildings were acquired by the U.S. Rubber Company in 1918. The south extension of Building 58, and Buildings 53, 56, and 73, represent infill and additions made by the U.S. Rubber Company after 1918.

Building 53, U.S. Rubber infill building (between 1918 and 1921)

A single story, flat-roofed, 10’ by 250’, brick infill structure built by Revere Rubber Company to utilize the space once occupied by the ALCO test track. Steel beams were run between the two buildings to support a roof. The floor is concrete. In 1921 this narrow space was used as a tube room. Half-round ceramic coping defines the west elevation roofline.

Building 62, U.S. Rubber Company Cement House (between 1918 and 1926 and seq.)

A single-story, 38’ by 25’, gabled and flat-roofed, brick structure resting on a concrete foundation. The original wing of this building is the gabled south end. After 1926, Revere Rubber Company enlarged the building northerly with a flat-roofed extension. A low parapet with half-round ceramic coping defines the roofline of both sections of the building. The roof is shingled. A concrete stair on the east elevation leads to a steel door. A modern garage door is on the west elevation. […]

Building 87, Precision Industries (between 1937 and 1951) [non-contributing]

A heavily-altered, single story, 180’ by 80’ steel frame building. The 1951 Sanborn map identifies this as a U.S. Rubber factory with “sides mostly glass in steel sash.” This original glass sheathing has been replaced with cinderblock. The roof is metal, simplified mansard commonly found on commercial buildings of the period.

#In the News

Smiles, Optimism Surround Project In Mill District

by Cathleen Crowley
Providence Journal | March 9, 2006 (abridged)

“We want to make Providence the coolest place in the world,” says developer Bill Struever.

Read the full article

A concrete loading dock set the stage for city and state officials to celebrate the proposed transformation of several Valley Street mill buildings.

[… A] new locomotive engine moved in yesterday. Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse officially announced their plan to infuse $333 million into the 22.5-acre site. Struever wants to refurbish 26 historic buildings and construct a handful of new buildings to create a neighborhood of retail, office space, apartments and condominiums. The plan includes two parking garages wrapped up and hidden behind condominiums.

The project consist[ed] of the former American Locomotive Works, U.S. Rubber and a portion of the Nicholson File sites, which are all owned by the Licht family. The development is nicknamed ALCO, and its insignia was borrowed and updated from American Locomotive Works’ letterhead. Struever hopes to complete the first phase of the project, which includes a hotel and office buildings, by the end of the year, and finish the entire project by 2008.

[…Governor] Carcieri… has threatened to cut back the state’s historic tax-credit program, said ALCO was the perfect, neighborhood-transforming use of the credits. Struever will be using $30 million in state historic tax credits.

Rep. Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, said the credits will benefit the city and state through increased property taxes, jobs, income taxes and sales taxes…

But beneath yesterday’s atmosphere of good cheer hovered a layer of uncertainty. The ALCO project will displace more than 30 small businesses, and community leaders fear that it will drive real-estate values above the means of the low-income and working families in the nearby neighborhoods. Also, the developer is relying on the city to approve a $40-million bond to pay for infrastructure improvements.

[…] One person who was not in the crowd was Norman A. Ospina, president of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association. Ospina said he wasn’t invited. Ospina is skeptical that ALCO will improve the lives of the people who reside nearby. He thinks it will force them out.

“We don’t want to displace all the low-income people,” Ospina said. “We need people to clean the hotel bathrooms and shovel the sidewalks, but we don’t want to build housing for them to live in a dignified manner. This is not going to be for our people. This is going to be out of their reach.”

Indeed, the 600 residential units at ALCO will range from $1,200 to $1,800 a month for rental units and $300,000 to $450,000 for condominiums.

Bill Struever acknowledged that the project will drive up property values, but his company plans to partner with affordable-housing agencies and other community projects. The company has dedicated 2 percent of its construction costs to community projects and an additional 10 percent of the profits from the project to a trust fund for community initiatives, including affordable housing […]

  1. Longer essay about this from the Rhode Island Photographic Survey at ripsinfo.blogspot.com/2007/02/alco-i-dont-think-so.html 

  2. Marius Berliet started his experiments with automobiles in 1894 in France. Some single-cylinder cars were followed in 1900 by a twin-cylinder model. […] Berliet started to build four-cylinder automobiles featured by a honeycomb radiator and steel chassis frame instead of wood. The next year, a model was launched that was similar to contemporary Mercedes. In 1906, Berliet sold the license for manufacturing his model to the American Locomotive Company. Captured July 15, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berliet 

  3. […i]n 1906, [American Locomotive] produc[ed] French Berliet designs under license. Production was located at Alco’s Rhode Island Locomotive Works in Providence, Rhode Island. Two years later, the Berliet license was abandoned, and the company began to produce its own designs instead. An Alco racing car won the Vanderbilt Cup in both 1909 and 1910 and competed in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 […]. But, ALCO’s automotive venture was unprofitable, and they abandoned automobile manufacture in 1913. Captured July 15, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Locomotive_Company 

  4. Information excerpted from the U.S. Rubber nomination form to the National Register of Historic Places, Edward Connors, 2005 

  5. “Developer of Providence’s American Locomotive Works gets financing,” Philip Marcelo, Providence Journal, December 26, 2009. Captured July 18, 2021 from an Archive.org copy of the article at https://web.archive.org/web/20091229160253/http://www.projo.com/news/content/ALCO_TAX_CREDITS_12-26-09_PBGT6NA_v12.3462ae7.html