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About this Property
Reason for Demolition
General Electric operated this electric-bulb base plant since its construction circa 1916. Maps consistently show them at this location until they officially closed the plant in the 1990s. A similar plant in Ohio was closed in 2007, citing dipping demand for traditional incandescent light bulbs.1 At its height, this plant employed 500 people.
The building was for sale for $1.5 million, but since 2009 GE says it has spent over $2 million in security, utilities, maintenance and repairs. GE estimated it would cost $4.5 million to mothball the complex and that rehabilitating it for industrial or residential use would cost $11.5 million.2
According to General Electric, if the buildings were demolished and an environmental clean-up of the property completed, the price would increase to $5 million. The company says it has had purchase offers at that price.3
That all said, the proposed demolition was controversial because the building — by its construction type and use — is protected by the Industrial Commercial Buildings District (ICBD). The Standards fr Demolition in this district states that safety hazards cannot be eliminated by “economic means available to the owner.” Criterion C states that preservation would “cause an undue or unreasonable financial hardship, taking into account the financial resources available to the owner…”
The Providence Preservation Society argued at the March 2014 meeting of the Providence Historic District Commission that these criteria were not sufficiently met. Their argument was:
In 2013, General Electric’s revenue topped $146 billion. Its earnings were $5.4 billion in the 4th quarter alone. The estimate of $4.5 million to mothball the complex represents a fraction of the 4th quarter earnings. Also, GE’s outlays of $2 million since 2009 could have been spent to mothball the building early on and therefore to lower the ultimate cost of rehabilitation.”4
Despite local protest and testimony, the City of Providence issued a ruling to allow demolition, but the Providence Preservation Society and local stakeholders filed an appeal. Later, on July 21, 2014, the Providence Zoning Board of Review denied the appeal. Demolition was allowed to proceed in late 2014 and into early 2015. The land remained vacant for about five years.
The land on which the base plant once stood is now a greenhouse for Gotham Greens.
From the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission staff to Mr. Michael Marino, Chairman, Providence Historic District Commission, April 2014
Historical Significance Assessment
[…] In a commemorative history of the Base Works issued in 1953 it was reported that this Providence plant became the largest producer of bases in the world. The operation participated in establishing plants worldwide and sent base making machinery to China, Japan, Europe and South America. In 1952, the plant’s shipment increased to more than one billion bases. At the company’s peak, it employed 500 people. Production here finally ceased in 2000.
The Base Works had its origins in the Providence Gas Burner Company, established in Providence in 1853. By the 1880s, the company had begun producing bases for the newly developed light bulbs as well, acquiring others’ patents and developing their own. In 1902 Providence Gas Burner was acquired by the National Electric Lamp Company of Cleveland, which was affiliated with the Electric Lamp Combination, a national alliance of light bulb producers associated with General Electric. In 1911, following an anti-trust suit brought by the US government against General Electric concerning their manufacturing practices, GE bought the company and renamed it the Providence Base Works. In 1916, they commenced building a new factory at Harris and Atwells Avenue. Completed in 1918, the same plant stands today with very little alteration to the steel and timber-framed, pier-and-spandrel brick buildings. Although the plant has been emptied of machinery, the interior retains the layout of production rooms, laboratory and office spaces that it did during its active manufacturing use.
As demonstrated by the historical record, the Providence Base Works possesses National Register of Historic Places-level significance for its associations with Providence’s industrial history and the origins and growth of the electric light industry. The establishment of the GE Base Works to manufacture the newest electric lighting technology in the early 20th century is a reflection of Providence’s national manufacturing leadership. Industrial know-how, entrepreneurial capital and the ability to lead innovative technology made Providence the right location for this new national industry. […]
From the “Industrial Sites and Commercial Buildings Survey (ICBS)” by PPS and the AIA, 2001-2002, hosted by ProvPlan.org (now defunct)
The property consists of a complex of brick, pier-and-spandrel, industrial buildings. Standing two stories in height on a raised basement, minimal detailing is limited to corbelling above second story windows. Notable is the one-story frontispiece brick office building with minimal detailing and ceramic hip roof. The rear manufacturing building is two stories with pier and spandrel construction. The complex stands as a fine expression of industrial architecture following the First World War and was singled out as such by Henry-Russell Hitchcock in Rhode Island Architecture (Woodward 1986:138). The complex covers over 245,000 square feet of land and is comprised of a small square building facing Atwells avenue, which contains the office, a larger main building behind that, and a third building which is even longer behind the second building. They are all interconnected. There is a separate building to the rear which is utilized as a powerhouse.
According to a Providence Magazine article from 1916 the General Electric Company constructed the Providence Base Works at 586 Atwells Avenue for the purpose of manufacturing lamp bases. The company manufactured the base part of electric light bulbs for household lights as well as those used in automotive and “specialty lamp” operations. At the company’s peak, it employed 500 people (Providence Journal 3/13/1998). General Electric closed the plan in the 1990s.
In the News
Opinion: Preserve Providence’s magnificent industrial buildings
by Brent Runyon
Providence Journal | May 5, 2014
Today, the Providence Historic District Commission is scheduled to render a decision on the demolition of the General Electric Base Plant, a 230,000-square-foot complex next to the Woonasquatucket River on Atwells Avenue. This significant industrial building, constructed in 1917 and once the largest producer of electric light bases in the world, has been vacant since the plant was shut down in 2000.
Its owner, General Electric, has applied for a demolition permit to raze the site. The permit will probably be granted because of the language of the zoning ordinance. The commission will probably face a similar situation in the coming months with a demolition proposal for the Ward Baking Company building on Eddy Street.
These complexes are within the city’s Industrial and Commercial Buildings District (ICBD), a thematic historic district — based on building type, not location — that is supposed to protect Providence’s industrial heritage. The ICBD was created at a time when city leadership recognized the broad community support for preservation of these buildings and concern for what would replace them if they were lost.
Without time to consider options, the community has reached no conclusion on what the ultimate fate of the GE Base Plant should be. Its significance is much greater than has been recognized to date, yet its form does not lend itself to obvious uses (e.g. residential, office).
The Providence Preservation Society opposes the demolition on the basis of our internal guidelines, which consider what will replace the existing building. Because of numerous demolitions in downtown Providence associated with developments that did not move forward, regulations there now require a complete building permit for a replacement structure before a demolition permit can be issued.
Unfortunately, many buildings in the ICBD, and much of Providence’s industrial heritage, could disappear in the coming years and be replaced by vacant lots, or worse. A mechanism for considering what replaces these structures in cases of demolition is needed to ensure that we are not simply losing our historic fabric with no knowledge of what will follow.
Historic architecture and vibrant neighborhoods are our most valuable economic assets. The prospect of a revived state historic tax credit this year offers hope for stalled and previously infeasible projects that would create jobs and increase property-tax revenue. But unless we work to better protect these buildings from demolition, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for the redevelopment of our historic industrial sites. At best, we’ll be left with photographs, memories and perhaps a bronze marker or two.
The City of Providence’s zoning ordinance is currently being revamped to offer a predictable and efficient approval process. The ordinance draft made available to the public in March is a massive step forward, and the Department of Planning and Development should be applauded for its efforts. However, the current draft leaves historic preservation regulations largely unchanged and the future of many landmarks in jeopardy.
PPS encourages all who care about the history and the future of Providence to support the preservation and reuse of our industrial buildings by advocating stronger protection for the ICBD in the new zoning ordinance.
Brent Runyon is executive director of the Providence Preservation Society.
RUNYON, BRENT. “Preserve Providence’s magnificent industrial buildings.” Providence Journal (RI), 1 ed., sec. News, 5 May 2014, p. COMM_01. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/15241EA744EF2348. Accessed 29 Nov. 2021.
TODD, MARK. “GE plant to close in a year.” Star Beacon (OH), 4 October 2007. https://www.starbeacon.com/news/local_news/ge-plant-to-close-in-a-year/article_e63dedfd-ca85-5e6e-9f63-d9f9eb9b562e.html. Accessed November 29, 2021. ↩
PINA, TATIANA. “Providence | Groups try to save site.” Providence Journal (RI), 1 ed., sec. News, 9 July 2014, p. MAIN_08. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/15241C496A9D5510. Accessed 29 Nov. 2021. ↩
“Testimony of the Providence Preservation Society To the Providence Historic District Commission Re: General Electric Base Plant demolition application,” Providence Preservation Society. 24 March, 2014. ↩