My long-time friend and historical colleague Albert T. Klyberg and I collaborated in writing the following synopsis of our 40-year effort to promote the teaching and study of Rhode Island history from my creation of the Ethnic Heritage subcommittees of the state bicentennial commission (ri76) and the short-lived Rhode Island Heritage Commission, through Al’s determined but unsuccessful quest for a large state historical museum on the Providence waterfront, to the establishment of the well-endowed, grant-giving Heritage Harbor Foundation in late 2015.
The Vision of Heritage Harbor
From the beginning, the purpose for creating a state history museum has been to extend Rhode Island’s historical narrative to modern times in order to include the experiences and contributions of all the state’s diverse ethnocultural and racial groups and to extol the dignity and merit of its people. One purpose of telling this history is to raise our self-esteem and pride of place in order to encourage wide public participation in the democratic process and to promote civic virtue.
This vision originated in the Ethnic Heritage Program of the Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission (ri76), the official state agency that conducted Rhode Island’s observance of state and American Independence during the mid-1970s. The ethnic heritage programs of ri76, devised by the commission’s volunteer chairman, Dr. Patrick T. Conley, were the “software” of this heritage vision, but those who embraced it also advocated “hardware”–an actual physical museum where our heritage could be permanently displayed and observed. To this end, a group led by Albert Klyberg, Robert J. McKenna, Robert Lynch, Mary Brennan, and Rachel Cunha created the Foundation for the Promotion of State Cultural Heritage on June 22, 1979.
The next major historical celebration–the 350th anniversary of Rhode Island’s founding– inspired these museum advocates to make such a facility an enduring legacy of the 350th commemoration. Their ardent support for this project arose from an awareness that Rhode Island was one of only four American states that lacked a state historical museum.
Mission of Heritage Harbor
Transforming the vision of an inclusive community looking-glass into a tangible state museum, where all our residents could see their image in the Rhode Island story, has been the goal of museum advocates since such a facility’s initial conceptualization and the formulation of its mission statement. A further goal of the proposed museum was to create a functioning historical collaborative where many heritage organizations could interact and work together, enjoying the economies of being under one roof. Such consolidation would allow them to coordinate program planning and promotion, share discounts by bulk buying, and join larger pools that would lessen the expense of fine arts insurance and other mundane operating costs that usually account for the bulk of small, non-profit budgets.
Efforts to Secure a Home
In 1986 the quest for a museum site led to the Cranston Street Armory, an historic structure recently vacated by the Rhode Island National Guard. When the state discouraged that option, the search focused upon the vulnerable Shepard’s Department Store between Westminster and Washington Streets, then vacant and threatened with demolition for Downtown parking. That option was eliminated when the state purchased the property and wisely converted it into an extension of the University of Rhode Island. Finally, in 1994, the museum proponents approached Narragansett Electric Company and requested that utility to make a charitable donation of the South Street Power Station on Providence’s inner harbor for a state museum, rather than demolish it as the final stage of the plant’s decommissioning. The power company accepted this overture and donated this property to an aptly-named Heritage Harbor Corporation d/b/a Heritage Harbor Museum (HHM) in 1999, subject to the donee’s assumption of any remaining environmental cleanup obligations and its adherence to a party-wall agreement and cross easements with the still-active and attached substation.
With its location within eyesight of (and access to) the I-95 and I-195 Interchange, New England’s second busiest, South Street Station offered an unparalleled opportunity to enable a Heritage Harbor Museum to be the “hub” of southern New England’s surrounding historical and cultural destinations (such as Sturbridge Village; Old Mystic Seaport; Plimoth Plantation; the Newport mansions; colonial Boston’s Freedom Trail; Bristol’s several museums, the Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor, including Slater Mill; and Providence’s East Side Historic District, including the First Baptist Church and the RISD Museum). The development of this prime location would provide substantial economic benefits to Providence and to the state, because the museum’s projected visitation would make it one of Rhode Island’s top out-of-state tourist attractions.
Consortium Model, Smithsonian Affiliation, and K-12 Education Mandates
Initially, there were four consorting partners: the Rhode Island Historical Society, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, and the Rhode Island State Archives. Eventually, this consortium grew to 19 members.
With the acquisition of the South Street structure, the museum’s mission expanded from being merely a state history museum to one with an affiliation with the nationally prominent Smithsonian Institution, thereby allowing the museum to borrow its artifacts and host its traveling exhibits and programs. The museum also intended to create and transmit Rhode Island history programs directly into the schools and to host school field visits. With these programs, HHM would help to implement the state-mandated teaching of civics and Rhode Island history, an initiative of primary concern to Governor Bruce Sundlun, and one that was subsequently supported by the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, Peter McWalters.
Heritage Harbor: 1999 to 2012
Financial support for the state history museum concept came first from Narragansett Electric, then from the Providence Journal Co., the Rhode Island Foundation, Verizon, Textron, Fleet Bank, the government of Portugal, and Nortek, plus hundreds of generous gifts from local foundations and individuals. The project also received federal, state, and city museum planning and construction grants that enabled HHM to carry out additional environmental abatement on the decommissioned building and to stabilize the building’s shell, thereby preserving it.
In 2000, a statewide effort to gain voter approval for a $25,000,000 appropriation to
build-out the museum and library was narrowly defeated. A second effort in 2002 for $5,000,000 to create exhibits and make site specific improvements won voter approval.
Because of the loss of the larger bond issue, the Heritage Harbor board of directors felt it prudent to look for a development partner. Following an RFP process, the Heritage Harbor Corporation sold the property to Struever Bros., Eccles, and Rouse of Baltimore (SBER) in exchange for a promise by SBER to provide it with a 55,000 square feet “turn-key” museum condominium. The remainder of the building, which SBER optimistically renamed “Dynamo House,” was to be developed into a hotel and other commercial purposes. Certain building rehabilitation tax benefits deriving from the construction of the museum condominium was to accrue to SBER’s benefit as well. The property was transferred to SBER in 2007 encumbered by a $6 million mortgage to HHM, deed restrictions, an easement, and corporate and personal guarantees–all designed to secure the completion of the museum’s base condominium unit containing a turn-key museum.
In its decision to work with SBER, the Heritage Harbor board of directors relied on SBER’s excellent record of previous performance. The company was a major developer of Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor and was engaged in such successful local factory rehabilitation projects as Royal Mills in West Warwick and Rising Sun Mills on Valley Street in Providence.
In 2008, claiming that the unwise and counterproductive reduction of anticipated state tax credits by the Carcieri administration made the project untenable, Dynamo House LLC, the single purpose entity SBER created to take title to the property, stopped construction and departed from the site. This decision left the museum project stranded and put Struever in default of the transfer agreement’s covenants and obligations. At that point HHM had expended about $800,000 of its 2002 bond money for such approved purposes as historical data collection and exhibit planning. At the end of 2008 with the project at a standstill, the board of directors elected Dr. Conley as president. His focus and sole mission was to salvage some benefit from the foiled museum project, but that objective was dependent upon the revival of the real estate market and an end to the protracted Great Recession. Those conditions did not develop until the latter part of 2012.
New Plan: 2013-2016
As a consequence of SBER’s abandonment of a project it found no longer financially
feasible, the remaining $4.2 million of voter-approved state money from the 2002 bond for exhibitry build-out at the former South Street Station was no longer useful to HHM. The “turn-key” museum condominium within Dynamo House did not exist to receive it; therefore, Heritage Harbor Museum relinquished any claim to these funds in 2013, thereby allowing them to be used for other public purposes.
From early 2013 onward, HHM engaged in protracted and arduous negotiations with developer Commonwealth Ventures to sell its property interests in Dynamo House and forgive and release Dynamo LLC from its obligations to HHM. These obligations and assets included the $6 million mortgage, the deed restrictions and easement mandating that a state history museum be located on the site, and HHM’s state and federal rehabilitation tax credits. The prospective purchaser, Richard Galvin/Commonwealth Ventures, had now assembled a tenant package for the building in concert with Brown University, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island. South Street Station’s projected use is part of a larger anticipated development project in the Jewelry, or Knowledge, District.
Our negotiations resulted in a $4.5 million settlement in exchange for our property interests. Five hundred thousand dollars of this sum involved the assumption by the developer of a loan to HHM by the City of Providence to secure historic tax credits for the museum portion of the building. Of the $4 million in cash received by HHM, approximately $325,000 was used to pay off existing debt, $75,000 was reserved for future operating expenses, and $3.6 million was transferred to the Rhode Island Foundation to fund a Heritage Harbor Foundation. In sum, the net proceeds of the sale of Heritage Harbor’s interests has become the corpus for a new grant- making foundation whereby the Heritage Harbor Museum will fulfill its original mission of promoting Rhode Island’s cultural heritage.
Heritage Harbor Museum’s original state charter of June 22, 1979 established the Foundation for the Promotion of State Cultural Heritage. Ironically, this is a fitting description of its new plan and purpose. Rather than attempting to establish a no-longer feasible state history museum, this new foundation will make grants to Rhode Island historical organizations, scholars, and other qualifying individuals and entities for historical research, publications, presentations, performances, school programs, and public projects consistent with the museum’s “Six Big Ideas” of Rhode Island history. These “ideas,” developed with funding from the 2002 bond issue, were to be themes of the museum’s permanent exhibits. They include: (1) the role played by Narragansett Bay in the state’s development; (2) the impact of immigration and ethnicity on Rhode Island; (3) the ingenuity, inventiveness, enterprise, and design ability of the state’s entrepreneurs; (4) turning points in Rhode Island history; (5) the effect of transportation on state development; and (6) the particular customs and lore of the state’s many villages, parishes, and urban neighborhoods. Historical markers, sculptures, monuments, tableaux, and plaques illustrating any of these themes may also be grant-eligible, but capital improvement grants will not be made by the Foundation.
The 11-member board of the Foundation also intends to create a web-based component, enabling electronic delivery of the content of these basic historical themes to all Rhode Island schools. This online stream of heritage information will help to fulfill the organization’s intent to teach Rhode Island history from kindergarten through high school. It will also be available to the state’s general population and others interested in Rhode Island history, thereby creating a “virtual” version of the museum.
The Foundation will provide grants within the range of each major corporate donor’s interests and in the name of those donors, fulfilling their charitable intent in supporting the Heritage Harbor Museum project. By these means the original vision and mission of the Heritage Harbor Museum will be achieved and implemented. As of early 2016, the long-range plan of the Foundation is to establish a permanent office and exhibit area in a building to be constructed by the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame on a 2.67 acre site in Bristol adjacent to Roger Williams University. To this end, the Foundation has approved an association with the Hall of Fame and another occupant, the Rhode Island Publications Society, to increase public knowledge and appreciation of Rhode Island history and heritage.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley