New England Butt Company

also known as Wanskuck Company, Pearl Street Lofts

A large mill complex on the West Side of Providence turns into residential lofts at the beginning of the boom

About this Property

#Redevelopment

The early to mid-oughts post Eagle Square were a boom time for mill redevelopment. With Baltimore-based Streuver Brothers in town, many mills along Valley Street and on the West Side of Providence were being converted. By the crash of 2008, the market finally began to cool off, or in some cases screech to a halt abruptly.

The former New England Butt Company was purchased in 2003 and redeveloped by the Armory Revival Company with design expertise provided by Durkee, Brown, Viveiros & Werenfels Architects. Out of 55 units, 36 were for rent, 19 were for sale, and 4 of those were affordable to purchase by federal and state standards. The term “affordable” is varied, but we appreciated the fact that about 10% of the units were affordable by any means, as no other developer during the early oughts was concerned about making units affordable by any measure.

As part of the redevelopment and design, many of the historic features have remained intact or been enhanced. The original street name tiles are still in place at the corner of Pearl Street and Perkins. The overhead passageway between two of the structures has been made inhabitable — it is an extra room in one of the apartments — and has been painted in a fairly accurate way. All of the units are fairly unique in their layout, and most have one-of-a-kind details. We at A.I.R. even like the new steel-clad addition, and thinks it makes a nice architectural counterpoint to the existing traditional brick structure.

About 44,000 sf of the complex — mostly a one story, less historically significant portion — has been rented out to larger commercial tenants for storage, workshop, and even a rock climbing gym. Neighbors of note are Classical and Central High schools, Good Will Engine Company, and Jones Warehouse.

#Current Events

Pearl Street Lofts occasionally has units for sale or for rent and is managed through the Armory Management Company. Sister properties include Rising Sun Mills, AlCo, the Plant, and Calendar Mills, all along Valley STreet.

#History

From “Downtown Providence: Statewide Historical Preservation Report P-P-5,” prepared by the RIHPHC, May 1981

Established in 1842 by N.A. Fenner, the New England Butt Company manufactured cast-iron butt hinges. By 1880, however, the introduction of cheaper, stamped-metal butts rendered cast-iron butts obsolete, and the company turned to the manufacture of braiding machinery.

The oldest building in this complex is the much altered 2-story, monitor roofed, frame building in the center of the block on Perkins Street (photo 28), built between 1849 and 1857. The main building, constructed in in 1865 from plans by Spencer R. Read, is a handsome, gable roofed, brick structure with corbeled brick cornices, brick window caps, and arched door surrounds. This building, fronting on Pearl Street, was originally used for machining and assembling. A long, brick two-story wing built at the same time behind the main building was later raised to three stories. Although this building has window caps identical to the main building, it may incorporate an older structure. In 1951 a large, flat one-story glass and brick structure replaced the foundry on Perkins and Rice Streets.

By 1901 the New England Butt Company employed 200 skilled workers in the manufacture of braiding machines for silk, worsted, and cotton braid as well as telephone, electric light and crinoline wire. The Wanskuck Corporation bought the New England Butt Company in 1955. (As of 1981,) the factory continues to produce braiding machinery and cabling machinery at this site as well as the works of the former Providence Steam Engine Company at 521 South Main Street.

From the National Register Nomination Form, 1980

The New England Butt Company plant complex is located in the block bounded by Pearl, Perkins, Rice, and A streets (see site plan). Much of the complex pre-dates 1875. The front building, at 304 Pearl Street, was erected in 1865 from the designs of Providence builder-architect Spencer P. Read. Originally, the machining and assembling building and now used for offices, it is a handsome, 3 1/2 story, brick structure, with a trap-door monitor roof, corbelled brick cornices, and brick window caps and arched door surrounds. Exterior changes have been minimal. A long wing, originally two stories in height, but raised to three c. 1907, extends along Perkins Street. Although its brick window caps correspond with those in the Pearl Street building, part of the structure may pre-date 1865.

Perhaps the oldest structure in the complex is the much altered, 2 1/2-story, monitor-roofed, frame building in the center of the block on Perkins Street. It was probably in existence in 1865, and may have been constructed between 1849 and 1857. The factory complex also contained a foundry, which was closed in 1948. A large, flat-roofed, glass-brick structure, replacing the foundry and occupying the rest of the block, was erected in 1951. It is intended to nominate all of the complex except for the 1951 structure.

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

Incorporated in 1842, the New England Butt Company is one of the oldest and most extensive hardware manufacturers in New England. Today only small portions of the company’s c. 1842 buildings survive. They have been either destroyed or greatly altered to make room for a more modern 1-story structure.

The main building, a 3-story, brick structure, 131’ X 38’, built in 1865, is located at the corner of Pearl and Perkins Streets. It has segmental-arch windows with granite sills, an altered trap-door monitor, and a steeply pitched roof.

In 1901, the company employed 200 skilled workmen in the manufacture of machinery, hardware specialties, butt hinges,and fine castings. Among the products of New England Butt were braiding machines for silk, worsted and cotton braid as well as for telephone, electric light, and crinoline wire. A small New England Butt braider, built in the mid-l9th century, is exhibited at the Slater Mill Historic Site. In the hardware line, the company specialized in cast butt-hinges.

Between 1910 and 1913, New England Butt became one of the few Rhode Island firms to experiment with “scientific management” In these years, Frank Gilbreth, a noted follower of Frederick Taylor and a specialist in time and motion study, redesigned the firm’s work process. According to the state’s labor press, Gilbreth wished to “eliminate false moves and drive the worker into a stride that would be as mechanical as the machine he tends.”

New England Butt continues to produce braiding machines here and also occupies the buildings of the former Providence Steam Engine Company. With the exception of a very small number of early 20th-century machine tools, no historic machinery survives.