Founded in 1833 by Joseph R. Brown and his son, David, to produce sewing machines, the firm soon turned to the manufacture of precision instruments and precision-tool manufacturing machines. The tremendous nineteenth-century growth of mechanized textile production in Providence and its hinterlands obviously required such tools and machinery, and the precision-tool industry grew concurrently with textile production. In the 1860s and 1870s, Brown & Sharpe (Lucien Sharpe joined the company as partner in 1853) expanded their product line considerably, and so comprehensive were their inventions that mass production would have been unthinkable without their contributions. The company moved to this location in 1872 and occupied a section of the building standing at the northeast corner of Holden and Promenade Streets. Its location here, near the Woonasquatucket River, has nothing to do with proximity to water but rather to the railroad lines that, since the late 1840s, had lined the river and encouraged industrial activity here. Its first building, designed by engineer Frederick Howe, set the course for later ones. In contrast to the flat-wall construction common through the 1860s, Brown & Sharpe employed pier-and-spandrel construction, with load-bearing piers allowing for larger windows and increased light into the building. Technological improvements to roof materials made the near-flat or flat roof, seen here, possible for the first time in a moist climate. The complex expanded east, north, and west of the original building, filling several blocks with four- and five-story buildings impressive in the cadenced articulation they lend to the streets: the view to the north up Holden Street is especially compelling. But the verticality of the complex ultimately doomed its manufacturing use. The mass production concepts and products that originated within the complex proved much more feasible when production was organized horizontally, as Henry Ford first demonstrated so brilliantly at his River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, beginning in 1913. Brown & Sharpe abandoned this complex in 1964 for a one-story facility in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Since that time the complex has served a variety of mixed uses, including offices, artists’ lofts and studios, a restaurant, and a nightclub. It has also been targeted for many unrealized rehabilitation plans, the most recent being luxury apartments.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
From 1872 until 1964, the Foundry housed the Brown & Sharpe Company, a leading precision-tool manufacturer. The sprawling complex, made up of stone-trimmed, brick industrial buildings of four, five and six stories, sits upon a twelve-acre plot adjacent to Interstate 95 overlooking the Woonasquatucket River. Frederick Howe designed the early buildings, the first of which was originally a three-story building 295 feet long by 51 feet deep. Prominent piers define the 36-bay façade whose 20 by 20 feet sash windows rest beneath segmental arches and a corbel cornice. A fourth story, similarly articulated, was later added.
The company, founded as David Brown and Son in 1833, became J.R. Brown and Sharpe in 1853. In 1872 the Company moved to this site from a much smaller property on South Main Street. The company produced and repaired clocks and watches, and performed light precision technical work. Brown and Sharp contributed greatly to industrialization due to its development and production of machinery whose wide range of functions appealed to manufacturers worldwide. The company moved its operations to North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1964, leaving this sprawling facility vacant.
At the time PPS included The Foundry on the Most Endangered Properties list in 1996-1998, much of the Foundry had been redeveloped into commercial spaces and business offices. However, several buildings remained underutilized and there were fears that development pressures from the new Providence Place Mall would increase the risk of demolishing these underutilized buildings.
In 1998, the Foundry was listed along with the Smith Hill National Register District as endangered properties. The threats to the Foundry and the neighborhood were brought into sharp focus as much of the industrial complex was proposed for the site of a sports stadium. PPS listed the district in association with the Foundry in an effort to raise awareness of and advocate for careful planning to limit commercial development in this area, in order to ensure a reasonable quality of life for area residents.
SAVED: Restoration of the last sections of the complex was completed in 2018, with the Sharpe building being fully converted into apartments. As part of the plan, the Foundry, which is part of the Industrial and Commercial Building District (ICBD) and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, utilized historic tax credits to help offset the costs of rehabilitation.