February 14, 2013

District once a manufacturing jewel

By Chris Barrett

Joseph DiBattista remembers opening his jewelry plant on Chestnut Street in Providence in 1964. Manufacturers, platers, wire formers, stampers, enamellers and other businesses lined the streets. Signs boasted the names of some of the biggest designers in the world. Blue-collar workers gathered for lunch and, inevitably, the topic of jewelry came up. There was little question that Providence – and specifically its Jewelry District – reigned as the jewelry capital of the world.

“It was a very lively, precious neighborhood,” said DiBattista, who sold his business in 1989.

In the early years after Europeans first arrived in the area, however, there was little to suggest that such an industry would rise to prominence. The city founded by Roger Williams was, after all, a simple seaside community filled with more farmers than jewelers.

“In 1786 there was nothing to indicate that a century later the flats and fields of the west side would be covered with jewelry shops,” wrote Welcome Arnold Greene in a history of Providence published in 1886.

The industry received its start far from what became recognized as the modern Jewelry District – broadly defined as a pie wedge bounded by Interstate 95, the Providence River and Pine Street.

In 1794, Nehemiah Dodge established himself as a jeweler and clockmaker on North Main Street, near what is today Roger Williams National Memorial Park. Dodge took up a specialization in costume jewelry – relatively inexpensive necklaces, earrings and watches that appeal to the masses.

By 1810, competitors arose and about 100 people worked in the industry, according to Greene’s history. By 1820, that number had risen to 300 men producing jewelry valued at $600,000. Over the coming decades, the industry would grow and work its way south toward Broad Street and then Eddy Street, as jewelers searched for land to host their shops and factories.

In 1897, a loose association of jewelers would form the New England Manufacturing Jewelers Association, the forerunner to the Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America. For years, the association would maintain its headquarters in Providence and become a leading voice in the industry. (In 2009, the association moved to Attleboro.)

By 1880, the U.S. Census showed 142 jewelry shops in Providence that had invested $2.8 million in capital. They paid some $1.6 million in wages and sold some $5.4 million in goods. It was a maledominated industry, employing 2,411 men, 675 women and 178 children. From there, the industry mushroomed.

“Once this place had an international reputation, you wanted to be here,” said Ned Connors, a preservation consultant.

The jewelry industry gave rise to other businesses, some related and some not. The Roberts Paper Co. opened a facility on Bassett Street in the 1920s to supply packaging to the jewelry industry. Many jewelry barons constructed buildings too large for their needs and rented the extra space to small startup firms, whether jewelry-related or not.

Outside of the factory walls, aspiring businessmen opened bars, bakeries and restaurants to cater to workers and visitors. “Just because we call it the Jewelry District doesn’t mean everything happening here was jewelry,” Connors said.

But jewelry firms stole the spotlight. Often started by two partners, some would live relatively short lives, succumbing to economic downturns. Others would pass from generation to generation, and their owners gained prominence for their wealth and their inventions.

Fred I. Marcy & Co. would perfect the French concept of a lever button, in which a hinged button slips through a hole and is then tilted to keep cloth together. Levi Burdon invented seamless, filled wire, which stimulated the chain-making industry. The Speidel Co. gained prominence as one of the first companies to manufacture the metal watchband.

“They made everything, from A to Z,” said D. Scott Molloy, a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Rhode Island. At first, they would work in modest buildings. Around the turn of the 19th century, impressive five-to seven-story brick factories supported by heavy timbers and boasting arched windows, granite sills, corbelled cornices and smokestacks arose in the district. In the ensuing decades came reinforcedconcrete buildings. One factory – the Coro Building – would gain distinction for devoting a whopping 160,000 square feet of space to a jewelry operation. Later, steel-frame buildings with long, horizontal bands of windows would dominate the industrial look of factories not just in the Jewelry District but across the state.

The national government would recognize the architectural importance of the buildings the jewelers left behind in 1984 with the approval of the roughly 19-acre Providence Jewelry Manufacturing Historic District. The recognition by the U.S. Department of the Interior provides prominence while allowing property owners access to federal historic tax credits. In 2009, Providence commissioned Connors to take another look at the district and its inventory of buildings originally compiled in the mid-1980s by Rick Greenwood, now deputy director at the R.I. Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

Connors upped the historically significant building count to 29 from 19 and tweaked the boundaries. His recommendations now head to the state preservation commission for review and then the National Park Service for approval. But jewelry alone does not define the area’s history. The factories displaced wooden houses that dotted the landscape. The area attracted residents who cut across demographics. Workers who labored in factories to the north by day would return to the area at night. Marine tradesmen worked at docks along the Providence River.

And even members of the elite took up residence. Providence Mayor Thomas Doyle lived in a Federalstyle building that stands today on Chestnut Street. “This was a cheek-to-jowl residential area,” Connors said. Now all that remains from the time are three historic houses, spared from the encroachment of factories, parking lots and – in the mid 20th century – two interstate highways.

The later part of the 20th century would also bring a shift in development. In 1977, Brier Manufacturing Co. – a jewelry maker – went bankrupt. That year developer James Winoker purchased the company’s home at 222 Richmond St., converted the factory to office space and built a parking garage next door. In would move the Big East basketball association, Brown University’s investment office and others (including Providence Business News). During the next two decades, Winoker and his partners would buy more properties, assembling a collection of more than a dozen. Winoker converted them to offices for accountants, attorneys, nonprofits and government agencies. As they arrived, jewelry manufacturers squeezed by the shifting global economy left. “It was a slow death,” of the jewelry industry in the district, Winoker said.

But Winoker and his family saw potential in the neighborhood close to downtown and offering easy highway access. As factories moved out, Winoker and others converted the hulking structures to offices and residences. Brown University slowly moved in as well. In 2006, the university purchased 14 properties from Winoker. The purchase could set the stage for another shift in the neighborhood’s identity as officials now tout its potential to serve as hub of life science research, an idea that reached an early peak this fall with the opening of Brown’s new home for the Warren Alpert Medical School, at 222 Richmond St. But Winoker says it’s important to remember the mix of businesses that moved in as the jewelry workers moved out. “The 30-year gap was the important bridge that got us to … what we are today,” he said.