The Providence Gas Company Purifier House is a recognizable landmark on Allens Avenue with its brick façade, industrial-style windows, and arched roof. This four-story building from the turn of the last century is notable as an isolated and rare survivor from the earliest industrial period of the Providence Harbor and witness to dramatic changes in industry and the waterfront.
The Purifier House was built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, which expanded from bridge fabrication to design and fabrication of special-purpose steel buildings, for the Providence Gas Company. A structure built to enable technological advances in industry was itself a technological advancement. Steel frame construction provided rapid assembly, strength, and custom design. The Purifier House served the process of coal burning gas production for heating and lighting. As part of the Providence Gas Company’s South Station, it was decommissioned in 1916 and the only building of the gas plant spared demolition.
The steel frame, which is largely visible from the exterior, is the building’s most distinctive feature along with the elliptical arch truss roof. The exterior skin and fenestration visible today date from modifications in the1920s, when second and third floors were inserted internally. Many additions and modifications have come and gone, though the main block of this building survives miraculously. The Purifier House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a largely honorary designation, in 2006, and is part of the Providence Landmarks District, a noncontiguous local historic district providing preservation protection to the exterior of the building. Importantly, PLD designation provides demolition review, however, that does not protect it from structural threats or obsolescence caused by the intensive activity of abutting neighbors.
There were various subsequent uses of the building between the gas purification chapter and the Great Depression and Hurricane of 1938, which devastated Providence Harbor. Beginning in 1940 and lasting sixty years, the City Tire Company occupied the site. Patrick T. Conley bought the building in 2005 with big dreams of revitalization, ranging from restaurants, art studios, educational programming, and a hotel. While some light studio and commercial use have occurred, none of these projects have come to full fruition.
The context affecting the fate of the Purifier House is largely location. Allens Avenue is a major artery running south from Downtown and serving as US 1A. The introduction of Interstate 95, parallel to the west, effectively severed Allens Avenue and the first block of several east-west streets from residential South Providence to the west. This sealed Allens Avenue’s fate as a location for largely noxious uses. Today, Allens Avenue is a lightning rod for citizens concerned with issues of environmental justice and the health and well-being of the riverfront and abutting neighborhoods- and neighbors!
The architectural and historical significance of the Purifier House is well-documented. Furthermore, this one building provides a snapshot of rapid, and sometimes ravaging, effects of industrial and environmental changes due to location and use. The preservation and future of the structure have less to do with integrity or adaptive reuse capacity and more to do with the harmful uses that surround it on the waterfront.
The Racial Environmental Justice Committee, the People’s Port Authority, and Sustainability Providence have partnered together with other neighborhood stakeholders and residents to reclaim the waterfront on Public Street next to the Purifier Building. Through public engagement workshops, this Coalition is putting together a design to transform this waterfront back into a community resource.