The Gilbane family, like the Banigans and the Hanleys, were driven from Ireland to America by the potato blight that caused Ireland’s “Great Famine.” William Gilbane, who was born in 1842, arrived in America from County Leitrim with his parents, Thomas and Bridget (O’Brien) Gilbane, in 1845, settling originally at Lime Rock in the Blackstone Valley. On September 5, 1854, William’s brother Thomas was born there.
As a young boy, William left the Valley for Providence to learn the carpenter’s trade. He soon met and apprenticed himself to George A. Brown, a city carpenter who maintained a shop at 25 South Court Street, but William also continued his educational training. Working under the tutelage of carpenter Brown by day, young Gilbane attended night classes at the Providence Evening School and a mechanical drawing school on Fountain Street. Anticipating his entry into the business world, he later undertook coursework at Bryant & Stratton Business College and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Just before 1870, the Gilbane family moved to Providence. At that time, the city was entering its golden age. Nearly 69,000 inhabitants lived within its limits. Ten years later that number would reach 105,000 as a result of annexations from surrounding towns and the steady influx of immigrants seeking a better life.
This swelling immigrant population provided a vast pool of unskilled labor that fed the city’s rapidly expanding industrial base. The city’s burgeoning population, coupled with economic growth, stimulated residential construction and a pressing need for religious and service-oriented institutions. Providence offered almost unlimited opportunity for ambitious, skilled craftsmen such as William Gilbane.
William Gilbane practiced the carpentry trade in Providence under George Brown until June 18, 1873, the date on which Brown succumbed to illness. It was perhaps this tragic incident that prompted the thirty-one year-old carpenter to establish his own business. His younger brother Thomas, now nineteen years of age, had also moved to Providence and was listed in the City Directory as a carpenter. He had, in fact, apprenticed himself to his brother.
William advertised in the 1875 Directory as A.William Gilbane, Contractor and Builder.@ Several years earlier he had moved to a wood frame building at 64 Lippitt Street and made this small house his office. Unfortunately, his carpentry shop opened during a severe economic recession called the Panic of 1873 that precipitated large business failures and created massive unemployment.
The brothers, working together with the return of better economic times, developed a family-based team spirit that soon became an unmistakable trademark of the company. Thomas proved equally ambitious in his drive to succeed. He attended both day and evening classes at Bryant & Stratton Business College, studied at the Fountain Street drawing school, and for six winters took courses at the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 1883 the two brothers formalized their partnership by establishing A.William Gilbane and Brother. Following that merger, continued industrial expansion locally generated increased activity in the building trades. The Gilbanes and their crews worked dawn to dusk, six days a week. They built homes so well that the owners boasted (and still do) “Built by Gilbane” at resale. Before long, Gilbane craftsmen were building the hospitals, churches, schools, public buildings and private homes needed for the city=s expansion. Intricate brickwork, gingerbread cornices, and carved black walnut interiors challenged the ingenuity and abilities of Gilbane’s craftsmen.
Boss William Gilbane, a tough-minded, hard-driving man, wore out two saddle horses a day traveling from job to job inspecting the work and giving encouragement to his men. His brother, Thomas, now company president and the man who estimated most of the jobs, kept the office intact and handled the finances.
Both were devoted family men. William had married Annie Francis Martin in 1870, and by 1890 had fathered five daughters and one son, William, who was born on October 21, 1875. Thomas wed the former Mary Josephine McGuinnes on January 27, 1886. Their marriage produced two daughters.
The Gilbane brothers were devout members of the Catholic Church and participated in a wide range of community activities. For these family men, employees were regarded as family too.
In 1887, the Gilbanes opened an office on 9 Custom House Street in the heart of Downtown. Two years later the firm moved again, this time to a spacious new 10,000 square foot facility on Senter Street.
On April 22, 1897, while the company was busily engaged in the construction of such projects as the new Hope and Technical high schools, Roger Williams Park Casino, its Museum of Natural History, and the new addition to the Butler Hospital, a crushing setback occurred. Fire destroyed their headquarters. Machinery, workmen’s tools, and much of the lumber being used in jobs under contract were gone. The company emerged from the disaster and immediately began plans for a larger, more modern complex on nearby Harris Avenue. Within a year the new office was in operation and quickly became a success.
Business was thriving for William Gilbane and Brother at the turn of the century. It was during this time that the company began its long association with Brown University. In 1900 the Gilbanes were contracted to build a colonial revival brick and marble residence for Brown’s President, William Faunce. A short time later Gilbane workers were on the campus again constructing an administration building and a dormitory, Brunonia Hall (renamed Richardson Hall). In 1902 the company won a major contract to build Providence=s new Central Fire Station, the largest public project at the time. As the business grew, so did the company=s workforce. By 1900, more than two hundred men worked for the firm.
Gilbane workers became more than employees. Everyone knew each other by first name and attended each other’s weddings and funerals, as well as celebrating births and special occasions together.
William Gilbane retired in 1902 shortly after his sixtieth birthday and brought in his son, William H., as a partner of the firm. In September, 1908 the three men officially incorporated the Gilbane Building Company.
The Gilbane family continued to run the growing business throughout the 20th century and to the present day. It is one of the largest privately held, family-owned construction and real estate development firms in the nation. Of all the great local business enterprises of Providence’s golden age only the Gilbane Corporation has survived intact and is still family run.
Tom and Bill Gilbane, grandsons of William, the founder, became not only business and civic leaders but also great collegiate athletes at Brown University. That earned them induction to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1977 forty years before the founders received a similar honor. Sports are always the key to fame. The founders were belatedly inducted in December 2017, giving the Gilbanes four Hall of Fame members. Only the Brown Family has more.