Originally published February, 2022 by the Heritage Alliance of Pawtucket
The days of Pawtucket’s iconic Apex building are numbered. In recent years the building and the property on which it sits have been the subject of debate and contention. There’s no doubt that the property is valuable, which is why the building has become disposable. Many don’t like the Apex building, and won’t be sad to see it go, but it nevertheless is an important part of Pawtucket’s story.
The company’s name is attached to the top of the pyramid; the name Apex sits at the building’s literal apex, and that is on purpose. The building was designed in 1969 by Andrew Geller, who was at the time working for the French-born industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Some of Loewy’s best-known designs include the logos for Shell, Exxon, and Trans-World Airlines. He also designed cookware for Le Creuset, and several types of machinery such as Electrolux vacuums, Studebaker cars, and steam locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad. While with Loewy’s firm, Geller helped design the Windows on the World restaurant in the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. He also worked with many department stores and shopping centers such as Lord & Taylor. He agreed to design the Apex building as a side job.
Geller was born in Brooklyn, he took art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, attended the New York High School of Art and Music, and studied architecture at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. Except for the three years during World War Two when he served in the Army Corps of Engineers, Geller lived his entire life in New York, until he died in 2011. Andrew Geller was known for his unusual building shapes, but the distinctive shape of the Apex building had two specific advantages. By making the building itself the company’s sign, Geller evaded the city’s ordinances, and the large pyramid could be easily seen from the highway.
The Apex Company was founded in 1924 by Albert Pilavin, whose initials are the first two letters in the company name. Apex began as an automotive service business with its first shop on Westminster Street in Providence. The hurricane of 1938 destroyed the Providence location so the company moved to Central Avenue in Pawtucket and eventually opened a chain of sixteen retail and service stores. There was a department store in Warwick, and in the 1980s another one opened in the Swansea Mall. After years of waning popularity, and the resulting financial struggles, the Swansea and Warwick stores closed in 2001. Pawtucket’s store stayed open, with a reduced inventory, and the auto center across the street still operates today. The Central Avenue offices are now occupied by Teknor-Apex.
To make room for the building in downtown Pawtucket, six city blocks were razed. On the site were mills, houses, churches, a fire station, and a bakery. The area had already been left nearly derelict by the construction of Interstate 95. As was the case in all neighborhoods through which the highway was built, communities were fragmented and ironically immobilized by a highway system created to facilitate more efficient movement. In 1963, the Pawtucket Redevelopment Authority purchased the triangle-shaped tract between the highway and the Blackstone River, cleared it, and sold it for redevelopment.
The Apex building is an example of what 18th-century French architects called l’architecture parlante, or “talking architecture.”
It was a phrase used to describe structures that are visual reflections of their functions or business names. A well-known example is the Brown Derby Restaurant in Los Angeles, which was shaped like a brown derby hat. Very often, examples of l’architecture parlante helped cities establish or strengthen a sense of identity through such recognizable buildings. When anyone says the name Apex, the next word in everyone’s mind is Pawtucket.
The interstate system was built in 1956 primarily as a transportation network for military forces. The highways and the era of automobile travel offered the promise of economic prosperity; franchised restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and many others, succeeded because people were able to wander around the country in their cars. However, in many cities like Pawtucket, through which the highways were carved, businesses failed after being severed from the neighborhoods in which their customers lived. Pawtucket’s once-thriving downtown suffered, but the Apex building, with its large and easily accessible parking lot, held on for a long time thereafter as a favorite shopping destination.
There have been two major plans that promised a resurgence of Pawtucket’s downtown. The first was the 1965 Slater Urban Renewal Project, for which many buildings near the Blackstone River were demolished, and replaced with large-scale commercial and multi-family residential buildings, or paved over for parking lots. The second plan was the Pawtucket ‘76 plan, written in 1974 and intended to celebrate the Bicentennial by extending redevelopment efforts west of the Slater Urban Renewal Area, further into downtown. The city committed $1 million to clear more properties for new construction. Many will also remember the glass canopies that were installed on the sidewalks of Main Street, which was closed to vehicle traffic and dedicated in 1980 as the McCarthy Mall, in memory of Lawrence A. McCarthy, Mayor of Pawtucket from 1951-1953 and 1954-1966. Other drafted plans included cultural centers, civic spaces, riverfront housing, and even a heliport.
Having a high-speed, multi-lane highway sideswiping Pawtucket’s downtown business district was the subject of fierce debate. Merchants strongly resisted the plan, fearing the highway would interfere with commercial and manufacturing activity, displace residents, and reduce the amount of taxable property, further damaging the city’s fragile economy. These outcomes came to be viewed as the necessary price to pay in order to attract new business investments. In 1954, Mayor McCarthy convinced the Pawtucket City Council to approve the plan for a new elevated highway bridge over Division Street. He declared, “we are going from an old-fashioned New England city into a modern, up-to-date community, accessible and convenient for business and industry.” Over 1,000 residents were displaced, and over 300 buildings demolished to route I-95 through the city.
Urban renewal is a double-edged sword. It can often bring revitalization and positive change, but not always. With highways beginning to pulsate through and near American cities, there were vigorous attempts to revive and beautify places that travelers might want to visit. In many cases, the result was the increased destruction of buildings, many of which were historic and valuable. It was Lady Bird Johnson who took on the job of analyzing the nationwide effects of urban renewal. What came out of it was the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, which codified the government’s commitment to protecting historic resources by requiring federally-funded projects to examine the impact on adjacent historic properties. The Act also created the National Register of Historic Places and established the state Historic Preservation Offices. The Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission is on Benefit Street in Providence.
Advocating for the beauty and value of 1960s buildings is particularly challenging for preservationists. It was after all these buildings which generally led to the creation of many preservation societies. There was a nationwide objection to what we now call Mid-Century Modern, and Brutalism, which were drastically different from the Colonial and Victorian styles that many people wanted to preserve. It was also unfavorable that many buildings in the 1960s were constructed of mass-produced and easily replicated materials, which were generally thought to be less attractive and of lesser quality. These buildings are now more than fifty years old, meeting the first eligibility requirement for the National Register of Historic Places. The once-new buildings that sparked such a backlash are now old and historic.
Historic preservationists are often thought of as people who want to freeze time, to keep everything old and unchanged. There are some preservationists who take that approach, but many don’t. The current board of the Heritage Alliance of Pawtucket views preservation work as the importance of managing historic resources within the context of current needs. In other words, historic resources can be adapted. It requires dedication and creativity, it can be expensive, and there are often challenges. It comes down to whether those challenges are more or less important than dismantling a city’s identity.
In terms of genealogy, old buildings are the city’s ancestors, and we’re losing them. The Historic Preservation Act doesn’t require that all old buildings be saved, only that consideration be given to whether the building is worthy of being saved. Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places (the Apex building is not) doesn’t guarantee preservation either. To what degree a building’s value or importance is considered will depend on several things, such as style, date, location, function, and condition, but if aggressive development projects are a priority, then dilapidated buildings, especially one from the late 1960s, won’t stand a chance.
Our mission is to tell the stories of Pawtucket, to encourage a feeling of responsibility for the historic resources that have been left in our care. We have been the stewards of the Apex building, and every other historic resource in the city. Let us think carefully about what that means to us.