Vesta Knitting Mills

also known as Vesta Underwear Company, Imperial Knife, Imperial Place

A collection of handsome late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings that served as headquarters for a knitted good company as well as rental space for jewelry businesses

About this Property

#Redevelopment

Imperial Place is one of the earlier residential conversions for a mill building in Providence. Instead of becomming empty industrial space after the Imperial Knife company moved out in the late 80s, the building was converted for ground-floor commercial use and upper floor residential condominiums in the early 90s.

It is made up of four buildings, occupying a block bounded by Imperial Place, Elm Street, Hospital Street, and Bassett Streets:

  • 14 Imperial Place (22 units of residential/mixed use)
  • 18 Imperial Place (46? units of residential/mixed use)
  • 15 Imperial Place is “Imperial Hall” (Johnson & Wales) houses approximately 115 students in 4 different room types1
  • and one low slung building on Hospital Street.

14 Imperial Place is home to the restaurant CAV. Jerry’s Art-a-Rama art supply store and framing shop used to occupy the inner courtyard area, but moved out in 2015.

#Current Events

Condominium units become available from time to time and are listed with all the major real estate sites. They typically start at $225k for a one bedroom and go up from there depending on size and views.

#History

An interview excerpt with Louis Fazanno about his family’s involvement with the Imperial Knife Company conducted by Sarah Gleason.

Similar information available in the PPS Online Architecture Guide


From the National Register nomination form for the Providence Jewelry Manufacturing Historic District, 1985

2 Imperial Place Vesta Knitting Mills, now known as Imperial Knife Company (1893, 1903): The 1893 factory is a 6-story, flat-roof brick building with rounded corners, segmental-arched windows and a corbeled cornice, that runs east along Bassett Street from the intersection of Imperial Place and Bassett. The 1903 factory is a plainer, L-shaped,6-story, flat-roof brick building with segmental-arched windows with granite sills, that extends south along Imperial Place and east along Elm Street. Between the north and south wings formed by these two buildings there is a complex of smaller brick buildings, including a two-story, gable-roof, brick building with segmental-arched windows that dates from c.1888. There are two brick and one concrete-block, single-story flat-roofed outbuildings attached to the east side of the complex that were added in the 1950s and 1960s.


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

In 1883 Rudolph Berry established a company to manufacture ribbed, knitted underwear and hosiery made on circular-knitting machines. This type of jersey underwear for women and children previously had been imported from France, England, and Switzerland. Berry’s company started in a small, 2-story building. By 1888 he had outgrown these structures and built two 3-story buildings. A few years later, in 1891, the business incorporated as the Vesta Knitting Mills. By this time the company had doubled its output of knitted goods. The machinery included spinning, carding, drying, scouring, and knitting machines which were operated by 300 employees. The company soon established a sales office in New York and Vesta products were distributed throughout the country.

The Vesta Knitting Mills, one of the few textile companies located in this part of the city, took advantage of the proximity of the jewelry district in a few blocks to the northeast when it expanded its factory in 1893 and 1903. The Vesta Company occupied most of its 1893 factory — a handsome, 6-story, brick structure with segmental-arch windows, rounded corners, and a corbeled cornice — and rented the remaining space to jewelry manufacturers.

With jewelry-manufacturing rental space at a premium in or near the jewelry district, the Vesta Knitting Mills soon invested in a second large factory designed primarily for jewelry manufacturing. The company rented five of the six floors to jewelry manufacturers and occupied one floor of the new structure. This plain brick structure with a flat roof, segmental-arch windows, and granite sills is adjacent to the earlier structure. In 1916 the Vesta Knitting Mills reorganized as the Vesta Underwear Company with Ovide de St. Aubin as the president and his brother Percival as the treasurer. By 1930 the Vesta Underwear Company was producing 4000 dozen garments a week.

In 1941, however, the Vesta Underwear Company closed its plant and sold the buildings to the Imperial Knife Company which already occupied the 1903 structure. The Imperial Knife Company founded by Felix Mirando was the first large American manufacturer of jack knives, a product which had previously been imported from Germany and England. By 1929 the company employed 1,000 workers. The Imperial Knife Company, which now manufactures all kinds of cutlery, still occupies these buildings.

#In the News

Imperial Knife Co. to close, a victim of foreign competition

by Paul Edward Parker
Providence Journal | June 28, 1987 (abridged)

The Imperial Knife Co.’s 150 employees learned by letter yesterday that the company will close its King Street plant in the fall. The letter said the company — once the largest manufacturer of cutlery in the world — was a victim of foreign competition.

Loss of a $15.5-million Army bayonet contract last fall was also a factor in the decision to consolidate the company’s kitchen cutlery operations in its Allenville, N.Y., plant, general manager Michael M. Grove said yesterday.

The plant will shut down at the end of the fall manufacturing season — about the end of October — Grove said. The plant is closed now as part of a normal two-week summer holiday. Grove said he will discuss employees’ futures with them when they return from the break.

“The basic reason for closing down is that the cutlery business has been very severely impacted by the imports,” Grove said. […]

Imperial Knife worker Horst K. Lichtenberger, a tool and die maker from Warwick, took the closing in stride; “I feel bad. I worked in that company for almost 33 years. They treated me well; they paid me well.” As for the future: “I hang in there until the place is going to close and I look for another job.” Lichtenberger said he is not old enough to retire. […]

Imperial lost the bayonet contract to a California firm, Phrobis III Ltd., after making Army bayonets since the beginning of World War II. Imperial fought for the job, claiming Phrobis was illegally helped by a retired Army weapons officer, but the federal General Accounting Office dismissed Imperial’s complaint.

The letter to employees said a foreign nine-knife set retails for $19.95. Imperial’s costs about twice that, Grove said.

Imperial was founded in Olneyville by Felix Mirando, an Italian immigrant, in 1917. In 1944, the company received the Army-Navy “E” for excellence in wartime production. In 1958, when the King Street plant opened, Imperial was the largest manufacturer of cutlery in the world. In 1965, the company had more than a thousand employees.

By 1984, the company began regrouping, merging its Davol Square plant with the King Street operation.

PARKER, PAUL EDWARD. “Imperial Knife Co. to close, a victim of foreign competition.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. NEWS, 28 June 1987, pp. A-01. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/15252B4D60CFDB48. Accessed 29 Dec. 2021.

  1. Information gathered from the Johnson and Wales website. Captured September 21, 2021 from https://livingoncampus.jwu.edu/providence-imperial.html