FORGED FROM IRON: Opening in 2009, Iron Works Tavern is one of the newer examples of a Rhode Island restaurant taking up space in a historic property. It’s Warwick site was once home to Rhode island Malleable Iron Works factory.
Sometimes when patrons come to Iron Works Tavern in Warwick, they spend more time looking up at the building’s ceiling than at the restaurant’s menu.
But owners Joe and Lori Piscopio don’t mind.
“That’s a cool thing,” Joe Piscopio said. “People appreciate history.”
The history he’s referring to is that of the building’s long-ago occupant, the Rhode Island Malleable Iron Works factory administrative offices that have in some parts been preserved or redone to look as it originally did, with 30-foot ceilings and beams, exposed brick and dark wood. “It’s a great vibe,” said Lori Piscopio. “It has that tavern, exposed feel. We tried to restore as much as possible.”
The Iron Works Tavern opened in November 2009 and it’s hardly alone in its efforts to preserve some of Rhode Island’s industrial history by redeveloping uninhabited, one-time mills and factories into neighborhood eateries where residents and visitors can learn a little something about the state while enjoying some of its local fare.
For example, in Providence there is The American, a semi-upscale restaurant that opened in December 2011 in what was once the Rhode Island Locomotive Works Company building in the late 1800s and early 1900s and Cuban Revolution, a Cuban bar and restaurant on the West Side in the The Plant, which once was a textile mill dating to the late 1700s. River Falls in Woonsocket sits in what once was part of the Woonsocket Rubber Co.
“[The idea] includes the fabric of the past into the fabric of the future,” said Ray Bacon, co-site director of the Museum of Work and Culture, which is just down the street from River Falls. “You can’t create something that’s tradition and I think it’s a great way of renewing and redefining places.”
Jay Hoff was already a twice-established restaurateur, with Buster Krabs in Narragansett and The Abbey in Providence, when he happened on the old Locomotive Works building when in talks with business associates who ultimately passed on a project there.
The locomotive campus on Iron Horse Way also is home to the R.I. Economic Development Corporation and several private businesses, including law offices, an engineering firm and a computer-training center.
Originally thinking the space where The American now is was not laid out well for a restaurant, Hoff began renovations in October 2010.
“It’s a beautiful space built around the history of the building. It’s a tip of the hat to the turn of the century, with a men’s-club feel,” Hoff said. “When I talk to a lot of customers who come in, most have no idea what the original purpose of the building was. We crafted the concept of the restaurant to wrap around the history.”
Hoff actually didn’t keep much that was inside the space, saving just the bar that had come from a previous tenant because it was constructed from reclaimed wood that had come off a naval barge. He also expanded the space to include a foyer, relocated the entrance and added restrooms.
However, he kept and refinished the ceiling’s exposed wood beams, steel high beams and brick work.
The restaurant is decorated with locomotive memorabilia and historical pictures.
“The biggest challenge was to just really add on what was needed to create more seating. We wanted to strip [the space] down to what it was [originally] and work at it from there,” Hoff said. “Anything added on that wasn’t original to the building, we took out.”
The Piscopios purchased the Iron Works property with their business partners, the Newport Hospitality Group in Williamsburg, Va., a dozen years ago and knocked down all the buildings on the factory’s campus except the one where the restaurant now operates.
The group’s first priority was to build the Hilton Garden Inn across from where the Interlink train station now sits at T.F. Green International Airport. The hotel was built and opened five years ago.
“The site was chosen for the hotel,” said Lori Piscopio, who in the 1980s and 1990s operated two other restaurants with her husband. “We decided to save this building with hopes of turning it into a restaurant.”
The downstairs, where the restaurant is, was mostly empty. The couple kept the original floors and fluorescent lights there as well as the building’s solid oak, 300-pound door.
The couple also was able to restore the original sprinkler system.
“It took two gentlemen two weeks to sand it down and finish,” Lori Piscopio said. “It took a year and a half to finish all the wood.”
But the upstairs, private-dining venue, which opened last year, is preserved as it stood in 1917, with an added kitchen and bar top.
“It has a richer, more grand feel to it [than the downstairs],” Lori Piscopio said.
Bacon said the River Falls restaurant, from where he sits, is always busy and feels people flock to it for the building’s significance.
He enjoys, he said, recommending the restaurant to visitors to the museum, which is celebrating its 15th year.
“For the first time in our history we have tourists [in Woonsocket] and many [are from] outside the state and country,” Bacon said. “I think [the restaurant] has flavor and atmosphere. It has ambience. I think people like the idea of going into an area that was once manufacturing and now is turned.”
Joe Piscopio said keeping the building he put Iron Works Tavern into also made long-term economic sense.
“I could have saved a lot of money and knocked the building down but I don’t think that’s the answer,” he said. “I just know that people like these old, antique buildings. People appreciate history.” •