The skyline at night, showing the Industrial Trust Company Building in the middle.

photo by: Timothy Burling/Flickr CC BY 2.0

May 30, 2019

Providence's Most Iconic Skyscraper Needs a Superhero

In the 1920s, Rhode Island’s capital, Providence, was roaring. Decades of successful industrial production, most notably textile manufacturing, had helped the city grow into a modern boomtown. It had streetcars, telephones, railroad connections, and large factories. It also had the Industrial Trust Company, founded in 1882, which had grown into one of the largest and most powerful banks in New England. Profits were expanding at a dramatic rate. By 1925, the company’s president and board chairman decided to invest its nearly $150 million in assets into a new headquarters, right in the center of the city.

That building would define Providence's skyline for the next nine decades. Today, however, its iconic place above the Providence River is endangered, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named it one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2019. The building has been vacant for six years, and multiple plans for use have fallen through. The tower, affectionately called the "Superman Building" by locals, could use a hero.

The Industrial Trust Company hired the architecture firm Walker & Gillette to construct the massive tower. The forward-thinking firm collaborated with local architect George Frederick Hall, envisioning the building in the style of the times—a thoroughly modern aesthetic that would later be called Art Deco. The style had recently exploded onto the international scene, spurred by a 1925 exhibition in Paris that displayed unique art, design, and architecture to more than 16 million visitors.

A 1928 image of the nearly-completed Industrial Trust Building.

photo by: Providence Public Library CC SA 4.0

A 1928 image of the Industrial Trust Building under construction.

The Industrial Trust Company Building was completed in October of 1928, and its embellishments exemplified Art Deco opulence, with stone eagles flanking the dome (though they were removed in 1950 after one fell to the street), massive bronze doors, an iconic green lantern on top, and exterior ornamentation that tracks the development of Rhode Island’s industries from Native American hunting and gathering to steam and textile manufacturing.

The finished building was both a functioning branch—the base was a banking lobby staffed by tellers and situated above a vault and safe-deposit boxes—and the company’s headquarters, plus office space it rented to other firms. When completed, the 420-foot building became (and remains) the tallest in Rhode Island. Today, locals know it as the "Superman Building" because of its resemblance to the fictional Daily Planet office where Clark Kent works, even though it’s been portrayed onscreen by different Art Deco landmarks like Los Angeles City Hall.

Building a skyscraper in Providence was a vote of confidence for the city and the region. "The completed structure is a striking demonstration of the company’s confidence in the growth and enduring soundness of the City, the State and Country," said Providence Magazine, published by the local Chamber of Commerce, the month it opened to the public.

A page from John Hutchins Cady's scrapbook showing a clipping about the Industrial Trust Building.

photo by: John Hutchins Cady/Providence Public Library CC SA 4.0

A scrapbook in the Providence Library's collection shows an image of the Industrial Trust building.

"It was really this monumental statement saying, 'Providence is on its way,'" says Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society. "Unfortunately, it was the last thing that was built that said that for a long time." The stock market crashed just a year later in October of 1929, ushering in the Great Depression. Providence’s industrial power was sapped by new, non-union manufacturing in the South, a devastating 1938 hurricane, and the lasting effects of the Depression; tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Despite the downturn, the Industrial Trust Company survived—and so did its building. A series of mergers ensured that it remained a regionally powerful bank for decades. In 1982, the conglomerate changed its name to Fleet Financial Group, and in 2004, the bank was absorbed entirely by Bank of America. Four years later, right before the Great Recession began, the building was sold to High Rock Development for $33 million. Bank of America remained the sole tenant. Then, in 2013, its lease ended, and it moved out.

A 1928 aerial view of the Industrial Trust Company Building.

photo by: Arthur Rossi, Providence Magazine, 1928

A 1928 image of the Providence skyline.

An aerial view of the Industrial Trust Building and the surrounding buildings.

photo by: Jef Nickerson/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The modern skyline.

Since Bank of America’s departure six years ago, the building has been vacant. The iconic green lantern that glowed almost continuously since 1928 is dark. The limestone facade is damaged. It’s in serious danger of demolition by neglect.

But Runyon stresses that despite the need for upgrades, the building could easily be reused. "It’s not an abandoned building by any means," he says. "It is structurally sound. It has a functioning heating system and plumbing and electrical. As far as I know, the roofs are all in place and not leaking. The windows are holding the weather out."

The Industrial Trust Building seen from the Providence River, its lantern glowing green.

photo by: duluoz cats/Flickr CC NC ND 2.0

An image taken from the Providence Riverwalk shows the building's iconic green lantern glowing at dusk.

Still, he continues, it needs upgrades before another major company would want to move in. "It needs some creative ideas, and of course, money," he says. "It requires quite a large subsidy to close the gap." But because Rhode Island is phasing out its state historic tax credit, securing that subsidy is a challenge. "We are just advocating to state leaders to make the investment, as they do in so many buildings, both preservation projects and new construction," Runyon explains. "We're advocating that that they should give the same—or even more—consideration to subsidies for the Industrial Trust Building, because it is such an icon."

Providence is no longer the boomtown it was 90 years ago, but it’s full of locals who see the Industrial Trust Building as a crucial part of the skyline. They’re proud of its place in the city’s downtown, and they’re keeping the faith; Instagram is full of pictures of the building tagged with #savesupermanri, a hashtag encouraged by the Save Superman campaign.

Advocates want to see the building used in some way, whether that’s commercial or residential. "The fact that the banking’s no longer here, that the light’s turned off, it’s a little bit of a drag on the local psyche," Runyon says. "While we are proud of the history and the architecture, and that lantern being on for almost 90 years hearkening back to Providence’s heyday and promise, it’s now having the opposite effect. The community’s goal is, minimally, to get that lantern lit again—but it’s really to get that building occupied, serving Providence for the future."

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Emma Sarappo is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She can be found writing or in the kitchen of her century-old DC rowhouse.

Announcing the 2019 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

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