Thomas F. Gilbane

Inducted: 2017
Born: 1854
Died: 1927

Humble origins have been the hallmark of many American and Rhode Island success stories. Not many can match the saga of the Gilbane Brothers and the establishment of the multinational Gilbane Building Company.

The Irish potato famine of the1840’s sent myriads of Hibernian refugees to North America. And so it was with Thomas and Bridget Gilbane–from County Leitrim–who settled in Rhode Island in 1845 with their Irish-born first son, William. Another sibling, Thomas, was native born in 1854.

William and Thomas served apprenticeships to be carpenters, a highly skilled trade, unusual for Irish-Catholic immigrants at the time. Furthermore, the Gilbane boys attended several different night schools, including the Rhode Island School of Design–another peculiar penchant for uneducated Irish newcomers.

Rhode Island, like the rest of Gilded Age America, underwent a major building boom. The Gilbanes literally hammered their way to prominence with expert craftsmanship, quality control, and on-time service. Their schooling prepared them for the challenge of establishing their own construction and contracting operation in 1873; the same year that a depression shook the country and almost toppled Rhode Island financially. Notwithstanding, the brothers persevered with their quality skills and willingness to tackle even the smallest jobs to stay afloat.

When the commercial fog finally lifted the Gilbanes expanded their full-service horizons to include planning, inspections, and estimations. In the 1880s and 1890s, they pierced the skies of Providence with churches, commercial buildings, hospitals, schools–and even occasional private homes like the magnificent Joseph Banigan estate near Wayland Square.

While they invented reinforced concrete to buttress the foundations of their edifices, they also created the next generation of builders siring eight children between them including seven girls. The only boy was named Bill. In 1889 the founders erected a headquarters in Providence; it burned in 1897 but led to the construction of an even more imposing workplace on Harris Avenue.

Buildings followed continuously: Butler Hospital, the Roger Williams Park Casino and Museum, the capital city’s central fire station, and numerous structures at Brown University which conferred an honorary doctorate on the family in 1959. This honor stemmed from the long-standing interaction between the university and the family–one that produced two legendary Brown athletes, Thomas F. and William J. Gilbane, both of whom were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

The original Irish brothers had employed an unusual skill set to achieve such notoriety and popularity. They flourished in the liberal atmosphere of the United States despite the bigotry toward their own kind. They embraced challenges, practiced quality control, invented construction material, and practiced entrepreneurial characteristics. They left the Irish ghetto physically and mentally to gather on the plains of Yankee success. But they never forgot where they originated.

William Sr. retired at age 60 and brought his son, William, into the firm to join his younger, founding brother Tom. In 1908, this duo incorporated the business’s name: the Gilbane Building Company. The brothers watched over an expanding family and operation until they both died within weeks of each other in 1927.

Today the firm has operations throughout the United States and in many other nations. The founders’ progeny still manage the operation while retaining the pioneers’ innovative tactics and progressive labor relations.

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