The city of Providence is the capital of the state of Rhode Island. Unlike many other American state capitals, Providence has retained an aura of leadership and centrality. That is to say, Providence feels integral to the Rhode Island experience. In addition to its historic houses and avenues, the city is the economic hub of the state, housing industries crucial to the state’s GDP, such as finance, government services, and education services. As a college student and newcomer to Rhode Island and Providence, there is one part of the city skyline that has always caught my eye.
The Industrial National Bank Building stands proud in the center of downtown Providence. Constructed in 1928, the Art Deco building looks and feels different to its adjacent towers. Possessing a stepped-back architectural style influenced by New York structural laws, the 26-story structure is a pale limestone titan which looks more like a castle than a banking building.
Architecture aside, it is also the tallest building in the city. In fact, it’s the tallest building in the state. But beyond these details, there is one element of the “Superman Building,” as it’s known to locals, that dominates the heart and mind of the beholder.
The Superman Building is completely deserted. Those regal towers are shuttered, and the massive central column boasts the only true sign of life left, with the light beacon at the tip still illuminating Providence’s nights. However, that bold beacon is, too, a remnant of former glory. This used to be the industrial jewel of a well-encrusted city, but it now sits hollow with an increasingly uncertain future unfurling before it.
How did we get here? More specifically, how did the Industrial National Bank Building rise and fall so dramatically? And what can (or should) happen next in its storied story?
The tale begins with the end of the Revolutionary War in the late 18th Century. The conflict that led to America’s independence was an inherently economic affair, and the establishment of a national government saw the downturn of the wartime market reverse. In the subsequent years of growth, Providence emerged as Rhode Island’s leading commercial center. That role saw the development of the city move from the College Hill area towards what would become downtown, with wharves, shops, and residences being constructed in the low-lying plain fronted by the Providence River. The downtown area was created almost by default, as the surrounding steep hills funneled construction into that low plain with greater accessibility than the surrounding land. In the 19th Century, Providence saw its next great step forward, with the mid-1830s development of the railroad system ushering in a new wave of industrialization. As the rise of Rhode Island manufacturing was met by the expansion of financial and mercantile services, Downtown saw the construction of a major rail station, the city hall building, several commercial buildings including the Butler Exchange Building, and an open plaza known as Exchange Place. This development essentially solidified the Downtown area as Providence’s financial district, and set the stage for the main character of this story.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Providence had crested its economic peak and begun to backslide. But before that could happen, there was a project in the works. As mentioned earlier, there had been a great boom in financial services in Providence, and one bank in particular had been swallowing competitors with a healthy appetite. The Industrial Trust Company, founded by Samuel P. Colt (whose brother was Samuel Colt of firearm fame), had consolidated no less than ten other firms in the year 1900 alone. As the company grew, so too did their ambitions. After a few more years of growth, the ITC was an institution that spanned New England. To match their newfound grandeur, President of the Bank Florriman. M. Howe presented a proposal to build the tallest tower in New England to serve as the company’s new headquarters. The intent was twofold: scale and symbol. At the time, Providence did not have a building taller than 10 stories; the proposed skyscraper would have 26. Not only was the ITC growing too big for its former roosting spot, there was a desire to elevate the status of the city to one that could rival the great hubs of American industrialization. For while Providence had its rail lines, Rhode Island was a diminutive cousin to the influence of New York or the infrastructure of Massachusetts.
And so, the project went underway. The proposal was grand, with towering heights, wrought eagles, a four-story lantern, and a massive globe on the top.
New York architects Walker & Gillette were given the commission for their experience with bank buildings in the Big Apple, and they collaborated with local Providence architect George Hall on the site. The site selected was home to the historic Butler Exchange Building, which had served faithfully as a hub of commerce by the lip of Exchange Place for years. The Second Empire-style building was demolished in 1925 to make room and construction was begun the following year through the Starrett Brothers of New York and Providence. By 1928, the Superman building had donned its cape, though it would be a little while longer before locals noticed the architectural similarities between the new structure and the famous Daily Planet building from the Superman comics and TV shows. At that time, it was squarely known as the Industrial Trust Building.
A marvel of modern construction at the time, the building’s interior frame was built from 7000 tons of steel, covered in Indiana limestone, with a base made of Deer Island granite.
An edition of the Architectural Forum magazine, published in 1929, waxed lyrical about the materials chosen, stating: “the weight of this structure is carried to the ground visibly and in a logical manner. The building is actually 26 stories high, and its steel bones are sheathed with honed limestone, which has something of the texture of concrete, with the color and richness of the natural stone. The base is made more solid and substantial by the use of granite which harmonizes well with the limestone and gives ridded character and richness to the building's exterior.” The stepped-back shape of the building, consisting of six separate elements organized around a central tower, was informed in a manner both fitting with the status the architects were looking to evoke and uniquely befitting Providence itself. A 1916 New York City law had decreed that new buildings in the city were to step back away from their base in the fashion of a ziggurat the higher they rose, in an attempt to allow more natural light and air to permeate the streets. This was the standard by law in New York, but Providence, possessing a much lighter skyline, was bound by no such restrictions.
However, Walker & Gillette chose to carry forward the stepped style regardless of its necessity. Instead, the pyramidic heights of the structure were treated in a sculptural, reverent manner, allowing the relative sparseness of the surrounding downtown area to paint the Industrial Trust Building as the shining center of the whole city, lantern blazing boldly enough to be seen from miles away in all directions. The interior of the building was no less impressive, with a cavernous and ornate main banking room right through the front doors, 14 busy elevators spiriting visitors and patrons across the structure, a private clubhouse on the top floor accessible only to the president of the bank, and frescoes and friezes abound.
Indeed, the friezes that wrapped their way around the perimeter of the building’s base remain interpretable as two separate visions of what the building meant for Providence. Those friezes depict a variety of key scenes from the development of the city, including Native American women pounding corn, Roger William purchasing Providence from the Narragansett tribe, various trade practices like ironworking and farming, the construction of the first steamboat, and the construction of the first locomotive. There is a message of forward progress and rebirth, and there is a message of colonization and greedy industrialization.
On one hand, the end of construction heralded the beginning of a new city. The image of Providence as a backwater was thrust aside by the scope, magnitude, and audacity of the new structure. This status change was not simply relative to Rhode Island, either. In later years, the Industrial Trust Building would be acknowledged as one of the first major Art Deco buildings to be built, even before the Chrysler Building which opened its doors in 1930. The architecture and scale of the project were all carefully crafted to elevate both the ITC and Providence as a whole, a goal that was accomplished with aplomb.
On the other hand, while Providence was experiencing the same acceleration as the rest of America up to the mid-20th Century, the Great Depression loomed. The Superman Building was one of the last buildings to be built in Downtown before a thirty year hiatus on construction due to the declining economic conditions of the region and the country. As a manufacturing-focused city, Providence was deeply impacted by the Great Depression, and it would be decades filled with mob violence and declining downtown populations before the city would claw back up to a positive figure of residents in town.
The Industrial Trust Company itself was not safe from the decline, either. After a few years of inhabiting the bottom four floors and top floor of their palace, a 1953 merger saw the company rebrand as the Industrial National Bank, changing the building’s name as well. After several more decades of absorptions and reshuffles, the company left Providence and the Superman Building at the close of the millenium, shortly before being absorbed by Bank of America. As the final and only tenant of the Superman Building, Bank of America occupied the full 380,000 square feet of property.
All the while, Providence’s legions of manufacturing had dried up. Jewelry-making, once world-renowned and the most populous source of industry in the city, had fallen by 84% between 1973 and 2000. With the departure of major manufacturing, the financial and mercantile services which had once vitalized the downtown development also began to slip away. As Providence entered the 2010s, the Superman Building had grown too costly and cumbersome an investment for Bank of America to keep around.
And so, in 2013, the last tenant of the former Industrial Trust Building walked away. The lights were dimmed, the doors were shut, and the building was empty.
This brings us to the present day. Ownership of the building was purchased by High Rock Development in 2008 for around $33 million, just before the recession hit. This has proved to be a highly fruitless investment for High Rock and for Providence, as the city has continued to struggle economically through the 21st Century. Existing in an unprofitable post-manufacturing state, Providence has been desperately seeking a pathway to other industries as unemployment and homelessness continue to rise. That desperation has led to costly mistakes by the Rhode Island and city governments, as seen in the 38 Studios debacle.
In 2010, the Rhode Island government committed $75 million in loans to a video game company started by a former professional baseball player. If that sounds like madness to you, dear reader, fear not. You have simply confirmed yourself to be of sounder sanity than the Rhode Island state government, a bar which was impressively low in 2010. Unbearably predictably, the video game company, 38 Studios, declared bankruptcy two years later, in a move that left founder Curt Schilling short by about $50 million and had Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for $90 million in bonds towards former investors. What began as a misguided attempt to branch into a techy, trendy industry ended with an erosion of nearly all the government’s goodwill in a state that had already been struggling.
This incident would have crippling ramifications for the Superman Building, too. In 2013, High Rock had submitted a proposal to retrofit the property into 280 luxury apartments. As the building had been in a state of disrepair for some time, the proposal requested $75 million in public funds to assist with the renovation. While this bid possessed some positive qualities, such as a viable commercial plan and a slew of jobs opened up through construction, due to the very recent, public failure of the 38 Studios incident, Rhode Island taxpayers were vehemently opposed to supporting yet another venture of murky success. In the years since then, High Rock has struggled to find a viable plan for the Superman Building while keeping up a modicum of maintenance on the structure. They have toyed with demolition plans, further housing ideas, and on one occasion, nearly lost the rights to the building in a tax sale before paying their due at the last minute.
In the meantime, the city of Providence has found itself increasingly shifting to a knowledge economy, as the many universities in the city expand their reach out from College Hill and into the Jewelry District and Downtown. In fact, the educational sector has taken its own pass at what to do with the Superman Building, with a group of RISD graduate students specializing in Adaptive Reuse offering community-driven proposals for how the structure could be reused. While these student proposals lean more speculatively, they possess something which High Rock and other downtown developers keenly lack: an eye for who this structure should be for. The RISD student proposals are often focused on finding ways for the homeless or the elderly to gain from a revived Superman Building.
Meanwhile, High Rock followed up their initial luxury apartment proposal with a second, more expensive luxury apartment proposal in recent years.
This issue is one experienced by other key areas of Downtown as well. Kennedy Plaza, the open area opposed to Westminster Street formerly known as Exchange Place, shares a footprint with the Superman Building and has done so since the building’s inception. Indeed, several architectural reviews have specifically commented on the open nature of the Plaza allowing the Superman to feel fully unconstrained in the urban setting. However, the modern Kennedy Plaza suffers from a great deal of homelessness, violence, panhandling, drug dealing, prostitution, and overcrowding. In many ways, the decline of the Plaza, the Superman, and the city can be epitomized in this quote by former mayor and current real-estate partner Joseph Paolino Jr., “No wonder the Superman Building is vacant. What company would want to go there with the problems that exist in Kennedy Plaza today?” With this, Paolino lays the blame for the dereliction of the city’s business and buildings at the doorstep of the most vulnerable and least responsible group of people in the city. Unfortunately, the mindset that the at-risk members of the city need to be shunted out of sight to return business to normal is pervasive among the city government, as evidenced by support for city ordinances which would see a ban on panhandling from vehicles. As the Rhode Island economy continues to slip, wealthy community members like Paolino and High Rock maintain their development of luxury properties, actions which directly exacerbate the ability of low-income residents to afford housing. In this manner, the people behind the Superman Building are more responsible for the issues facing Kennedy Plaza than those who are forced to live within it.
The future of the Industrial National Bank Building is still as nebulous and elusive as the winter winds that whip around downtown Providence as I write these words. Living in New England for the past four years has meant learning to manage the feeling of frost on my face as I leave my Kennedy Plaza apartment and head for College Hill. But despite my begrudging acceptance of the winter climate, I have never been able to predict the ways those winds will blow. As they wisp and cut my face with their frozen ferocity, I am reminded that the tightly-arranged corridors of the downtown architecture form perfect tunnels to heighten their effect. The winds and the buildings that conduct them form an ever-present gauntlet between me and my destination, one that is constantly randomized and remixed with each individual gust. In this unpatterned pattern, I am reminded of the unknowable path that sits in front of the Superman Building. The story of its development is heavily linked to the industrial state of Providence’s past, but possesses an equally weighty link to the hearts and eyes of the people who have lived here for the past few generations. As Rhode Island begins to build a stronger economy with the growth of the “Knowledge District” proving fruitful, there is still hope that the Superman Building can be saved. But the question now becomes, if the city chooses to move backwards, prioritizing the next generation of Providence industrialization and leaving the building derelict at the detriment of the marginalized people in the community, does it deserve to be saved? What does that say about our intent for our cities and the people who live within them?
It doesn’t have to end like this. The city could begin to find ways to reapproach this historic space in ways that serve the people in the city, rather than the ones who own the land. That would be a poetic transition - from the pocket of the elite to the space of the citizen. Concepts and ideas exist which prove a more sustainable and socially beneficial structure is attainable. It may even be possible to reapproach the Superman Building as low-cost housing rather than luxury, perhaps finding a way to help heal Kennedy Plaza and rehabilitate the city’s shining center in one fell swoop.
While there is still much haze around the future of the building, I remain optimistic that, just as those winter winds will always keep blowing through those downtown corridors, the ever-iconic Superman Building will always remain a central figure in the story of Providence, past, present, and (hopefully) future.
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