The following essay, published in the Providence Journal in 2017, was yet another futile attempt to gain state support for our state’s history. I feel like the man who keeps banging his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops.
Rhode Island’s government does not support the observance of Rhode Island history and heritage and sometimes even obstructs it.
When I chaired the state’s observance of the bicentennial of independence (ri 76), my volunteer commission was woefully underfunded for the tasks of creating such popular commemorative events as the first and largest visit of the Tall Ships to any American port, huge parades, ethnic heritage festivals, and the gilding of the Independent Man. I had to rely on 1200 volunteers and money earned from the production of commemorative items. Our largest funding sources were Philadelphia’s Franklin Mint and the Bicentennial Council of the Thirteen Original States.
When I chaired, again as a volunteer, Rhode Island’s bicentennial observance of the U.S. Constitution (1987) and statehood (1990), government funding was negligible. For this much more subdued observance I had to rely on several local corporate sponsors and the U.S. Constitution Council over which I presided as president.
These commemorations were transitory, but Rhode Island’s government has done even less to create a permanent museum of Rhode Island history. In fact, every American state has done more. We rank last in the establishment of a comprehensive museum of Rhode Island history despite three recent efforts along the Providence riverfront to create such a facility.
The most ambitious effort to remedy that defect began in 1999 when the Heritage Harbor Museum acquired the South Street Power Station from Narragansett Electric Company and began the arduous task of creating an innovative, interactive museum of Rhode Island history. It partnered with Streuver Brothers, Eccles, and Rouse, industrial renovators who had transformed Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and preserved such Rhode Island landmarks as Royal Mills in West Warwick and the American Locomotive Works on Valley Street in Providence.
Heritage Harbor and Streuver scaled down the size of the proposed museum to 55,000 square feet leaving the remainder of the huge structure for other educational purposes. Not only was the state contribution to this project minimal, but state action doomed it. After the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, the Carcieri administration drastically curtailed the historic tax credit incentive used by Streuver and other preservationist developers to save our mills. This blunder, coupled with the economic downturn, forced Streuver to abandon the museum project.
The state’s second blow to history on the Providence waterfront came on Allens Avenue. The City of Providence had spent over a million dollars to devise and promote mixed-use development along that strip of Allens Avenue, north of Thurbers Avenue and parallel to I-95. The centerpiece of the plan was historic State Pier No. 1, leased from the state by Promet Shipyard. I had acquired and renovated to National Register status a four-story industrial building next to that state property. My plan was to donate the top two floors to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame and lead a campaign to put a state museum of Rhode Island immigration and ethnic history at the State Pier–our Ellis Island–where 84,000 immigrants had landed between 1913 and 1934 aboard ships of the Fabre Line.
In the midst of this project, the state decided to sell State Pier. The only bidder was Promet Marine Services (d/b/a Tidewater Realty), because Promet held an unbreakable twenty-year state lease on the site. The state accepted Promet’s lone bid of $1,138,000 and transferred title after a court battle with the city. Promet then sold this parcel to a huge international scrap metal company for $12,608,000–an $11½ million profit. The sale was possible because Promet (by whatever means) blocked the mixed-use rezoning ordinance barring scrapyards from being approved by the ordinance committee of the city council.
Strike three for a heritage-oriented riverfront came on October 16th when the state’s I-195 redevelopment commission chose a hotel proposed by Boston developers for riverfront site 1A and bypassed a proposal to move the historic Welcome Arnold House from nearby Planet Street to that parcel to serve both as a museum of Rhode Island Colonial and Revolutionary history and a point of departure for Bob Burke’s innovative and educational Independence Trail.
I testified for the historical use of this historic site where Providence’s first settlers had their house lots. So did Barnaby Evans, creator of Waterfire, and Friedrich St. Florian, nationally-known architect from RISD and one of the architects of Providence’s river relocation, but the hotel got the nod.
My opening sentence is my closing sentence.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley