Five Questions With: Paul Loether

Paul Loether is the executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, as well as the state’s historic preservation officer. He’s had a career spanning more than 40 years in historic preservation, including as chief of the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program.

Loether responded this week to questions about the upcoming Rhode Island state historic preservation conference. The April 6 conference will be held at points throughout East Providence.

PBN: How did RIHPHC decide on the agenda and theme this year, which is recreation and sports in history?

LOETHER: Visiting East Providence with local preservation leaders in anticipation of the conference, we found that many of the sites related to sports and recreation. This makes a lot of sense. For city dwellers in Providence, taking a steamship excursion or trolley ride to Crescent Park, playing a round of golf at Metacomet, or attending a high school football game at Pierce Field was an easy getaway.

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One of East Providence’s most beloved historic places is the 1895 Looff Carousel at Crescent Park, and it was saved from destruction by a grassroots preservation effort by the community. RIHPHC is supporting its restoration with a state preservation grant. Last year, Agawam Hunt in Rumford made news for its agreement with the Nature Conservancy to protect the 82-acre golf course from development. And there are historic places in East Providence repurposed for recreation, [such as] the East Bay Bike Path created by [the R.I. Department of Transportation] in 1987-1992.

PBN: People may not be as familiar with East Providence as some other cities – were you surprised to learn about some of the background on the city yourself?

LOETHER: One of the best surprises came when Haven United Methodist Church welcomed us to use the church as a conference venue. This historic church on Taunton Avenue was built in 1929-31 with a basement gymnasium for local youth. Haven has hosted recreational basketball teams for more than 80 years. That’s sports and spirit under the same roof.

Another surprise: At the turn of the century, there were four amusement parks in East Providence. Not just Crescent Park, but also Hunts Mills, Vanity Fair, and Boyden Heights. The variety of neighborhoods is remarkable. Colonial Rumford developed around the Ring of the Green – with a centralized plan that reflected its Plymouth Bay Colony origins. The mid-19th-century summer colony at Riverside evolved into a streetcar suburb. Phillipsdale is a classic mill village with generations of worker housing and a large industrial plant. And we are getting to know 20th-century neighborhoods – [such as] the Bungalow Colony at Elm Tree Plat and automobile-oriented streetscapes [such as] Newport Avenue.

PBN: What sessions are the most popular for signups? A few have already sold out, but could you give us an idea what is popular among the offerings?

LOETHER: There’s a lot of interest in the sessions about African-American civil rights, roadside and dockside architecture, historic baseball venues, and new preservation research.

I am hosting a session on Planning for Preservation, where we are asking Rhode Islanders for input on RIHPHC priorities as we begin to update RIHPHC’s 2012 State Historic Preservation Plan.

A handful of tours have sold out – boat tours and the visit to the Cape Verdean Museum – but there are many tours available. One of the most unique spots we will visit is the Indoor Tennis Court, built in 1913 for Lyra Brown Nickerson of Providence. One of the country’s oldest indoor tennis facilities, it has hosted champion players, local tennis groups and kids’ lessons for more than a century. It’s on a tour with Agawam Hunt – one of Rhode Island’s oldest country clubs.

There are [also] still seats available on several neighborhood tours: Rumford, Riverside, Phillipsdale – all hosted by local experts.

PBN: What will people find on the Phillipsdale tour?

LOETHER: The Richmond Paper Co. Mill Complex and the Phillipsdale Historic District were listed in the National Register in 2006 and 2011, [respectively] so there’s a lot of recent research to share. Our guide is a lifelong “townie,” preservation consultant Ned Connors. Roger Williams makes a cameo on the tour. He escaped Massachusetts Bay Colony to launch his settlement here in 1636 – only to relocate again because the land was part of the Plymouth Bay Colony. We will see the spring where he first settled.

Ned will point out the generations of mill housing developed for workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as railroad bridges and other local landmarks. We will visit some of the 19th- and 20th-century industrial plants along the Seekonk River. Ned will tell us about their history and architecture – and reveal how they are being repurposed by local businesses and entrepreneurs.

PBN: The schedule also includes a boat trip to an underwater graveyard for 29 ships. What was the reason so many ships were left in this area?

LOETHER: Before a major 2015 cleanup effort, the Rhode Island Sea Grant funded a study of the debris in Green Jacket Shoal, to assist RIHPHC in determining if any of the derelict vessels were significant cultural resources. Marine archaeologist David Robinson of the University of Rhode Island, who carried out a survey of the shoal, counted 29 shipwrecks. There are six classes of ships: two sidewheeler cruise ships, 17 scow barges, four sailing ships, three harbor steamers, two steam/diesel boats, and one schooner barge. RIHPHC has determined that these wrecks are potentially eligible for listing on the National Register.

Why so many at Green Jacket shoal? The ships abandoned at Green Jacket Shoal were past their useful lives. There was a shipyard next to the shoal, and after the vessels were stripped at the shipyard of any salvageable parts, [such as] engines and hardware, they were simply dumped in the waters of Green Jacket Shoal, which were too shallow for navigation.

Ironically, because the water of the upper bay was badly polluted by the beginning of the 20th century, the marine organisms that help break wood down weren’t able to thrive there, leading to excellent preservation of the derelict vessels. Not all the ships abandoned there are historic. Clean Bays removed two modern derelict vessels in 2015, and another modern barge is also slated to be removed.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.