Images of this Property
66 images: Press to view larger or scroll sideways to see more. Contributions by Rhode Island Photographs Collection (Photo) and Rhode Island Postcards Collection (From River, Aerial) at the Providence Public Library and Edward Connors for the National Register nomination form
Copyright prevents the display of these images: 1896 engraving of buildings and schematic, WikiMedia
About this Property
This sprawling 25 acre complex has been under private ownership since the 1980s, after it was vacated by Brown and Sharpe for more modern facilities in North Kingstown in 1964. Only a small portion of the complex was redeveloped into offices in the 80s, and most of the rest of it sat with sporadic redevelopment here and there. A restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory occupied the former Boiler House building for many years while various state departments rented portions of the complex.
Between 2005 and 2017, a big push to turn the unoccupied buildings into residential began taking place, spurred on in part by the robust State Historic Tax Credits that were available. Buildings 4 and 5, some of the largest in the complex, were turned into apartments. In total, $17 million in federal and state tax credits were applied as well as $30+ million in private funding.
The buildings were maintained fairly well while they were empty, but the redevelopment has made them much better as a whole. The complex is a vibrant mix of commercial and residential steps away from the train station and with roofdeck views of the Woonasquatucket River, the State House, and, well, the highway. With their proud history, it is a benefit to the City that they were saved and reused in this fashion.
At its height, Brown & Sharpe revolutionized the way machine parts were engineered and manufactured, allowing the companies that purchased their products to make more and faster and with easy to replace parts. They had a prominent role as a catalyst in the 19th-century industrial revolution and occupied this site for almost 100 years.
- Rhode Tour: Brown and Sharpe
- Small State Big History: Book review, “Brown & Sharpe and the Measure of American Industry”
Promenade Apartments has details about apartment and office space availability.
Absent from the formal history below is the fact that the original music venue, the Living Room, was located in part of the lessor used portion of this complex. The famous “bubble window” was here. Would love some photos, send ‘em if you got ‘em. This remembrance of Randy Hien has a good photo of the Living Room at that time.
From the National Register nomination form, 2002, prepared by Edward Connors and Associates
The large, red brick, multi-story industrial buildings of the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company lie north of the Woonasquatucket River in the Smith Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. Brown & Sharpe vacated most of the complex in 1964 to move to a modern facility in North Kingstown, RI. The buildings line three city blocks along Promenade Street and spread north about two city blocks to West Park Street. They were constructed between the years 1872 and 1941. […]
The complex occupies an area of slightly more than twenty-five acres. This area is defined by Promenade Street to the south, Bath and Calverly Streets to the west, West Park and Brownell Streets to the north, and Interstate Route 95 and Holden Street to the east. Before the construction of Interstate Route 95 the site comprised thirty-two acres. […]
[…] The present owners [in 2002], Foundry Associates, purchased the complex in 1986. This company has undertaken renovation of a number of the buildings. Buildings No. l and No. 3 are complete and occupied by a number of businesses and state government offices. Buildings No. 2 and No. 5, vacant for over twenty-five years, are in the process of being rehabilitated.
The Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company Complex is significant as the physical expression of a company which was an international leader in the manufacture of machine and measuring tools and the development and promotion of precision machining standards used world-wide. The company’s success in precision machining and manufacturing contributed greatly to the realization of true interchangeability in American industry. The importance of Brown & Sharpe extends beyond their mechanical innovations. The superior attention to efficiency and utility within their design and planning of the Promenade Street manufacturing complex ranks them among the most progressive of turn-of-the-century American manufacturers. During the almost one hundred years of occupancy at this Providence location, Brown & Sharpe’s reputation as machine tool manufacturers was unparalleled locally, nationally, and globally. […]
Brown & Sharpe began in Providence in 1833 as David Brown & Son, makers and repairers of clocks, watches, and light precision tools. Originally located in buildings no longer extant on South Main Street, the company flourished professionally and economically. Joseph R. Brown assumed control of the firm after his father’s retirement in 1841 and by 1850 he had developed the first automatic machine for graduating rules. In 1853 Lucian Sharpe, who had joined the firm as an apprentice in 1848, became a full partner, and the firm became Brown & Sharpe. Sharpe conducted the business side of things and Brown continued to invent.
Inventions flowed constantly from the small shop, including the precision Gear Cutting and Dividing Engine in 1855 and the American Standard Wire Gage about the same time. Even more significant for the company’s future, however, was the signing of a contract in 1858 to manufacture the single-thread Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machine. The sewing-machine contract consolidated the company’s leadership position in the machine-tool industry by increasing company size and profits and setting the company’s course toward development and refinement of interchangeable machine-tool products.
Interchangeable precision machine parts were the key to industrialization and mass production. Until the Civil War, when demand for artillery and small arms stimulated production of thousands of identical mechanical objects, interchangeability of component parts within machinery was seldom required on a broad basis. In the following decades, the machines to make and measure precision-tooled machine parts became Brown & Sharpe’s market niche virtually to the exclusion of competitors. The company held this important industrial position for well over a century. The Universal Milling Machine (1861) and the Universal Grinding Machine (1876) were the foundations of Brown & Sharpe’s business; both machines were refined over their many years of production but fundamentally little changed or challenged by competitors until the late twentieth century, when computer-based technologies superseded the mechanical. Also significant were the company’s vernier calipers, pocket micrometers, the formed-tooth milling cutter (1864), and the automatic screw machine.
Brown & Sharpe’s tremendous growth during the 1860s, including 300 employees working in fourteen different locations, created need for larger and more efficient quarters. In 1872 the company purchased land for immediate construction and later expansion at a site on Promenade Street just above the Woonasquatucket River at the foot of Smith Hill. The brick, cast-iron, and concrete Building No. 1 was designed by Brown & Sharpe employee Thomas McFarlane. McFarlane’s plan was clearly in the vanguard of solid, “fireproof” industrial construction. The 66,000-square-foot building housed all of the company’s facilities; it also included a Drawing Room, where engineers developed refinements to existing machinery as well as creating new ones. […]
The company’s expansion in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries prompted the construction of a complex that eventually filled thirty-three acres with buildings closely linked with development of its product line. As each of the dozen product lines achieved a critical volume, new facilities appear to have been built to house its production. The complex was expanded regularly until the end of World War I. […]
In addition to the importance of the products that Brown & Sharpe manufactured, the company is also significant for its role in educating and developing professional machinists. The Apprenticeship Association, begun under the supervision of Richmond Viall in 1889, provided educational experiences, both at the plant and in local educational institutions (including Rhode Island School of Design), that made its employees among the country’s most proficient. The program gave rise to the company sobriquet “Cradle of the Machine Tool Industry.” The company’s decision to move out of Providence in 1964 was an enormous blow to the city and, also, part of a regional trend toward industrial development on sites outside center cities.
#In the News
After decades, Foundry renovation nears end; late owner wins Providence Preservation award
by Bill Van Siclen
Providence Journal | November 6, 2014 (abridged)
The winners range from a former strip club (now the super-chic Dean Hotel) to a 1960s-era parking garage (the newly refurbished Biltmore Garage) to a classic Art Deco diner (the newly restored West Side Diner on Westminster Street).
Still, it’s another preservation project — the ongoing restoration of the former Brown & Sharpe Mfg. plant on Promenade Street — that may be the sentimental favorite at the Providence Preservation Society’s annual awards ceremony on Friday night.
Once considered a prime candidate for demolition, the sprawling 25-acre site has been transformed over the past decade into a vibrant mixed-use development, with more than 650,000 square feet of high-end office space and more than 200 luxury apartments.
Perhaps even more surprising, the huge complex is now almost fully leased, with only one building — the so-called Sharpe Building — still awaiting renovation as luxury apartments. Once those units are rented, the site, now formally known as the Foundry Corporate Office Center and Promenade Apartments, will be fully occupied for the first time since the early 1960s.
“It’s been a long road, but we can finally see the finish line,” says Anthony Thomas, a member of the Guerra family, owners of the property since 1968.
“When you consider the sheer size of the Foundry property — more than 20 acres with something like a dozen major buildings — what [the late Antonio “Tony” Guerra] was able to achieve is really special,” says PPS spokesman Paul Wackrow. “And to do it over a span of nearly five decades is even more amazing.”
Still, there were times when even Guerra’s faith must have wavered.
“I remember one time when we brought in a company from Boston to assess the property,” Thomas says with a laugh. “This was back in the mid-1980s, when we thought we needed an up-to-date assessment for our dealings with lenders and creditors. Well, when the assessment finally came in the mail it basically said that our assets and liabilities canceled each other out, so the property had no value — zero. Needless to say, that didn’t make our bankers very happy.”
Then there was time then-Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. tried to persuade the New England Patriots to build a new football stadium in downtown Providence. His preferred location: the Foundry, which would have been demolished had the Patriots said yes.
“That kind of caught us off guard,” Thomas says. “There were no discussions or phone calls or anything. We heard about it on the nightly news, just like everyone else.”
Eventually, Guerra’s persistence paid off — not through flashy projects like a stadium or a convention center, but through smaller improvements to the dozen or so buildings scattered around the Foundry property. One of the first tenants was Robinson, Green, Beretta, an architecture firm that still occupies the building that once served as Brown & Sharpe’s boiler room.
Other early tenants included state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Management and the Narragansett Bay Commission and Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, a statewide health-care provider. Of those three, two — the DEM and NHPRI — still have offices at the Foundry.
“Having DEM and the Bay Commission as tenants was huge for us,” Thomas says. “They helped us get through some tough times in the local real estate market.”
More recently, the Guerras were able to take advantage of the state’s historic tax-credit program to develop the Promenade, a 237-unit luxury apartment complex. The project, which opened in 2005, proved so successful that it will have company: earlier this year, work began on the so-called Sharpe Building, the last undeveloped structure on the Foundry property.
Due to open in late August 2015, the Sharpe Building will boast another 197 luxury apartments, along with a gymnasium, reflecting pool and a rooftop viewing deck.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Thomas says. “Just the views of the city from the rooftop are to die for.”
Captured on January 19, 2021 from https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20141106/news/311069980
New sculpture overlooking Route 95 in Providence honors city’s working past
by Katie Mulvaney
Providence Journal | October 20, 2017 (abridged)
[…] “The Foundry Clock Man”, a towering sculpture conceptualized by Jamestown sculptor Peter Diepenbrock, is now atop the Sharpe building at The Promenade Apartments overlooking the highway. And the sculpture of a laborer pushing a massive two-sided functioning vintage clock will literally be alight in the evenings for passing motorists and all to see. […]
The sculpture is a tribute to the Browne & Sharpe Manufacturing Co. and its first product: clocks. Brown & Sharpe, which grew to become one of the world’s largest machine tool manufacturers during the industrial revolution era of Providence, made its home on the Foundry Campus in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The sculpture also celebrates the completion of the restoration and renovation of the last of 13 mill buildings on the Foundry’s 26-acre campus, which has been under the ownership of the Guerra family for almost 50 years. […]
For Diepenbrock, the installation on top of the Sharpe building was particularly fitting. He was among dozens of artists and investors who set up shop in the Foundry buildings in the mid-1980s to 1995, he said. Those artists included glassblowers, ceramicists, photographers and even Barnaby Evans, WaterFire creator and artistic director. […]
Captured on January 19, 2021 from https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20171020/new-sculpture-overlooking-route-95-in-providence-honors-citys-working-past