Dealing with RI’s Endangered Place


Something seems odd about declaring the Providence Superman Building as “endangered,” making one wonder whether the designation is the result of lobbying by interested parties:

Rhode Island’s tallest — and vacant — landmark, the former Industrial Trust Building in downtown Providence, otherwise known as the Superman Building, is on this year’s list of the nation’s most endangered historic places.

For more than 30 years the National Trust for Historic Preservation has produced a list of the 11 most endangered places in the country to call attention to what it considers “one-of-a-kind treasurers.”

The 91-year-old art deco Superman tower, which earned its nickname for its resemblance to the Daily Planet building from Superman comics, joins Nashville’s Music Row and the National Mall Tidal Basin in Washington, among others, as this year’s threatened places.

On the topic, Matt Allen expresses the extremity of the opposing point of view:  “This is not an ‘iconic’ building. It’s an eyesore and a terrible investment. Tear it down.”  My views are somewhere in the middle, still bogged down in questions I haven’t answered completely.

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How do we measure the value of some publicly accessible (or at least publicly visible) thing, like a building or geological feature that has contributed to an area’s character?  Who gets to determine what can, can’t, should, and shouldn’t be done?

The simplest answer that conforms with my philosophy is that people who want to preserve it should find a way to buy it with private money, and then to maintain it at least to a baseline standard for health and safety.   One complication arises in my belief that local areas can answer the relevant questions differently, so if the people of Providence want to use some measure of public resources to preserve the building, then to the extent the city is acting independently from the rest of the state, I’m not going to tell them they can’t.

This only raises the next question: On the state level, do we want to be the kind of place that preserves its landmarks?

My answer on this one is “no.”  Our state isn’t so thoroughly thriving that we can afford nostalgia.  Just like protectionism with dying industries, if we manipulate the market value of a building like this, we don’t allow the best use of that property.

Let the skyline change.  Let the city’s character change.  That’s the sign of human adjustment, and we should embrace it.  Anybody who disagrees should use their own money and sweat to find some use for the antiquated hulk.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    If it can get a “Historic Tax Credit” usually 20% of costs, that can be sold to provide some cash for the project. I am thinking some portion hotel, some portion office. Big problem is no parking. I have some affection for it, my ggrandfather worked on it, as a kid I can recall the “weather light” on the roof visible for miles. These days, 140 million doesn’t sound so bad, how many million per floor is that. . A big problem is that with all of those “set backs” elevator space is a problem.

  • Makaha Ken

    The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private nonprofit organization with approximately 750,000 members.
    In order to be listed historic the property or area must go through a very strict rules based process.

  • ShannonEntropy

    I’m with Justin in having mixed feelings about our Superman Bldg… kinda like watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Escalade

    The building itself is iconic… I was just inside and then up on top a few weeks ago with an Audubon Society party to band the two male baby peregrine falcons nesting there; and the place is magnificent, no two ways about it

    But I’ve also written about how the building has no good possible future use: there’s not enough plumbing infrastructure to turn it into a residential space and it duzn’t fit into any modern office design plans, having too-low ceilings and too many interior load-bearing walls to create the type of open-floor-plan currently in vogue… and modern offices have a much higher person-per-floor density meaning there’s not nearly enough elevators

    So sad but it prolly is destined to be torn down eventually

  • Rhett Hardwick

    The design was not just fashion. I don’t think Providence had the problem, but in m any cities “zoning” required “set backs” every few floors to prevent “canyon” appearance. There was also an architectural theory, probably based on current artificial light, that work desks should not be more than 8-10 feet from a window. I admit that no efficient re-use occurs to me, that does not mean that no efficient use exists. The Empire State still finds use. I have to admit it was a little “dowdy” last time I was in there.

  • Rhett Hardwick