Five Questions With: Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson, the director of preservation for the Providence Preservation Society, recently spoke to the Providence Business News about some of the new entries on the society’s annual Most Endangered Properties list. In 2019, more than half of the 10 entries are making first-time appearances.

PBN: The William R. Babcock II House is unusual. It has a stone turret. Was this nominated by someone in the Elmhurst neighborhood who saw that it was unoccupied?

ROBINSON: That one was nominated by a local architect. This is indicative of the middle class of Elmwood at the end of the 19th century. I’m sure it was a lovely family home for decades, and it could still be that again. It just needs rehabilitation. The [turret] is something that makes it special.

PBN: The Rialto Theater is downtown, on a side street to Westminster. Tell us about that.

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ROBINSON: This is kind of my favorite this year. It is hidden in plain sight. You’ve walked past it on Mathewson Street, just off Washington. It has unusual provenance. It began as an incredible church, a Greek revival. At some point, around 1900, the portico, the columned porch, across the front was chopped off. A sliver of the church building remains, and this new façade, a kind of yellow brick with the arched windows, was added. In the mid-20th century, the first floor of that addition was redone.

Not too many changes were made to the church, initially. The floor was cleared out. [It was then converted to a theater]. Now it’s been chopped off on the back, as well. You can see the two different roof lines. You can see the peak of what had been a 200-year-old church. It has such an unusual history. I’d like to use this one as a lesson. I hope we would never butcher an early 19th-century church like that. But now that we have this layered history, wouldn’t it be cool to do something really magnificent and 21st century on the back?

PBN: The Richard Brown House is on the campus of Butler Hospital. Is this a single-family home?

ROBINSON:  It’s hidden in plain sight. It’s right after you go in the gates. As far as we know, it is the first instance of a residence being built in brick, and it survived, so it’s our first and oldest.

In talking about this building, I’ve been told a lot of people have memories of it. It’s just fallen into a state of disrepair. But the exterior looks to be in decent shape. With Butler celebrating a big anniversary this year, they just need help celebrating the building and drawing attention to it.

PBN: The Beresford-Nicholson Estate, also on the East Side, is among the Most Endangered. This is a property that may be subject to demolition, under a subdivision proposal. Is it the structures or the historical estate that is important to save?

ROBINSON: Most people seem to be most aware of the carriage house, which is built into the wall. I think the point of this one, is drawing attention to the demolition of the buildings that do not have local historic-district protection. And number two, before this changes permanently, let’s think about the historical estate that is 110 years old, and that has only been in two families. If subdivision is inevitable, how can we do it sensitively? We just want the best outcome.

PBN: In Olneyville, the society has identified a cluster of unrelated and unrenovated mill buildings. What is the thinking here?

ROBINSON: Nearly 20 years ago, we nominated the 19th-century mill buildings citywide. Twenty years later, after Eagle Square, and the reuse of our industrial buildings, while there is plenty going on in Olneyville, they have the capacity for new life and reuse. It’s a moment to say, hey, we’d love to see development and maintenance of these.

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