a lot in limbo

110 Westminster Street: Recent Past, Present & Future

Lyceum Era (1856-1926)

Today most people in Providence refer to the big vacant lot that stretches between 94 and 110 Westminster Street as simply, “One Ten Westminster.” Despite its simple name, the site possesses a long and rich history that includes multiple addresses, structures, owners, and occupants. This complex history reveals the importance of this lot to Providence and offers a reminder about the continual process of change in the city.

One of the earliest buildings on record to occupy the space was erected in 1856, under the supervision of George W. Danielson, the editor of the Providence Journal. The Westminster Street address was home to several organizations, most notably the Franklin Lyceum, a prominent male debating society, which, in 1858, moved into the grand new structure built at 94-98 Westminster Street.

The Lyceum Building, as the site became known, was a symbol of progressive architectural design. It was the first building in Providence to have large plate-glass windows, imported from France. More notably, it showcased the first iron-front building on Westminster Street. A niche in the front of the building bore a life-sized statue of Benjamin Franklin, the founder of the nation’s first debating society. The statue was also reportedly the first public statue erected in Rhode Island. Within the Lyceum Building, a powerful Providence debating society thrived. The structure’s upper rooms were used as debating rooms, while the lower ones held the second largest library in Rhode Island (its collection surpassed in size only by the Providence Athenaeum).The society became well known throughout the northeast and hosted such orators as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, Horace Mann, and a wealth of others. Decades later, in December of 1928, an article in the Providence Journal looked back on the 19th century influence of the society, stating that “Under [the Franklin Lyceum’s] guiding influence most of the men prominent in public life in Rhode Island, for several generations, obtained their training.”

By the 1890s the society ceased meeting regularly at the Lyceum, despite attempts by some members to keep the tradition alive. In the  decades after the Franklin Lyceum discontinued its use of the building, a number of businesses occupied the space, such as booksellers Preston & Rounds, tailors Tripp & Olson, The Danielson ad agency, and the Providence Chess Club. The buildings that surrounded it—all of which once stood in the now-empty lot—held similarly diverse businesses. Indeed, six distinct buildings occupied the site known today as “One Ten Westminster.” Over sixty different individuals and businesses were present at any given time, including opticians, hairdressers, cigar sellers, and restaurant owners. In the first decades of the twentieth century, this piece of land sat at the center of commercial life in Providence.

Providence National Bank Era (1930-1985)

In 1926, Providence National Bank merged with Merchants National Bank, and prepared to moved from its location on South Main Street. The bank purchased the famed Lyceum Building for its new home. The sale price of $250,000 set a new high record for property in that vicinity, especially because of its relatively small size (3800 square feet). Soon after, a new city development plan authorized widening the downtown streets, a move that required the removal of the original Lyceum building. And so the historical Lyceum Building disappeared and work began on the structure more familiar to recent Providence residents—The Providence National Bank.

Construction on the new building was rapid, and it was completed by early 1930, boasting a fashionable Colonial Revival façade. After several decades without notable change, in 1948 Providence National merged with Blackstone Canal National Bank and required more space for the bookkeeping and clerical departments. President Rupert Thompson described them as “bursting at the seams”   To deal with this crowding, bank officials decided to build a substantial addition, taking over two parcels of land behind the bank, thus extending it through to Weybosset Street. New doorways on Weybosset Street were intended to be an employee and service entrance and to relieve traffic congestion in the main part of the bank. The façade on Weybosset Street garnered much attention at the time for its aesthetic appeal (Federal Revival style) and its recessed windows that provided both privacy and clarity.

With the addition, Providence National grew much larger and reorganized to make the banking experience more accessible—all officers serving customers were located on the ground floor. In the original building, colorful murals adorned the walls, and the addition continued this tradition.  The bank operated at this location until 1985, shortly after it merged with Fleet National Bank, giving up its name for the first time in 250 years and abandoning the site at 96 Westminster. It remained vacant for several years before Downing Corp purchased it for $3 million in 1987, with the intention of moving its business to the spacious old building.

In addition to the Providence National Bank, two other noteworthy local institutions occupied the Westminster Street side of the “One Ten” site. Immediately next door, at 102 Westminster Street, was the Mee Hong Chinese Restaurant. The Chin family opened Mee Hong Restaurant in 1938 and the business thrived as a popular dining spot for white-collar and pink collar professionals during the work week and for families on shopping trips during the weekend. Mee Hong served both American and Chinese dishes.  The main cook, Fook “Sarge” Chin, learned how to cook American dishes during his time in the Army. After Mee Hong closed on February 24, 1979, the building was demolished to make way for a parking lot for the adjacent First Federal Savings & Loan Assocation.

From the early 1940s until 1952, the F.E. Ballou Co. shoe store stood between Mee Hong and the iconic Providence Arcade building. The building was renovated in 1953 into a modern bank building. Architects Cull & Robinson were hired by First Federal Savings & Loan Association to reinvent the space, replacing the brick facade with a front of transparent and opaque glass. First Federal moved to its new location at 110 Westminster Street from 20 Westminster Street, increasing their floor space by three times. The radical transformation of the building was praised in 1954 by Progressive Architecture, which referred to the new facade as “quieter and more elegant.” The First Federal building was most recently occupied by the Buck-a-Book retailer before the building was demolished in September 2005 to make way for a large-scale residential tower.

One Ten Westminster: The Dream

In late February 2005, Providence Mayor David Cicilline unveiled a plan to construct a 32 story tower that would combine residential condominiums and a W. Hotel at 110 Westminster Street.  The project, headed by local real estate developer Granoff Associates, in partnership with Boston-based developer Blue Chip Properties, had an estimated $90 million dollar price tag and would have added approximately 130 private residences to the Downcity area.  The units were projected to sell between $500,000 to $2.5 million and construction required no local or state subsidies.  Standing at some 360 feet, the tower would be the tallest residential building in the city, and the first constructed in the city’s financial district in 20 years.

The project’s tremendous potential to stimulate downtown economic growth generated tremendous enthusiasm from Mayor Cicilline: “This is an exciting time for Providence when our downtown is transforming into a neighborhood, and our neighborhoods are becoming local economic engines. This project will bring more people to the City’s streets, every day and every night. These new residents will be invested in Providence, and have a reason to contribute to its vitality.”

Project supporters echoed the Mayor’s emphasis on a transformation of downtown Providence from a strictly commercial/corporate business center to a “mixed-use” space that could attract new residents and bring life into the city after business hours.

In spite of the Mayor’s enthusiasm, the project met fierce resistance from those who opposed the plan to demolish the First Federal Bank Building and the Providence National Bank Building.  Developers at the site justified the demolition as a “necessary trade off for economic development” and emphasized that the new structure’s design would be compatible with the architecture of surrounding buildings, including the Turk’s Head Building and the Arcade.  In September of 2005, developers razed most of both bank buildings.  The 1950 facade at 35 Weybosset Street was preserved and marks the last remaining structural element of the historic bank building.

After demolition in the fall 2005,  One Ten Westminster underwent more changes before all construction and development halted in 2008.  In March 2006, Blue Chip properties submitted a revised plan for the structure, increasing it from a 30-story to a 38 story tower, making it the tallest skyscraper in Providence.  Shortly after, Granoff Associates sold the property to Blue Chip, who submitted a second revision in October 2006 to incorporate a 200-room “W” hotel at the site and reduce the number of private residences from 130 to 75.  In 2008, O’Connor Capital Properties acquired the property, but no further construction has taken place.

One Ten Westminster: The Reality

In November 2009, O’Connor Capital Properties appealed to the city’s Downcity Design Review Committee to gain permission to demolish the remaining 1950 facade on Weybosset street in order to build a temporary parking lot on the property.

The Design Review Committee, after hearing arguments from Weybosset Street business-owners & O’Connor about the rapidly deteriorating facade and associated public safety concerns, as well as those emphasizing the historical significance of the facade as a last reminder of the Providence National Bank, voted to postpone any decision.  The facade on Weybosset still stands on the property and no progress on the construction of a parking lot has been made to date. Without any recent action, 110 Westminster Street has faded quietly back into the downtown landscape as a hole in Providence’s urban fabric.

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