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But Wait, There’s (One) More!

As noted, I worked on the Gilbreth construction history and the resulting paper (not to mention the copious amount of material that's going into the book) for something like two years. That was well over a year of primary research, a few months of writing the submission draft of the paper, then the usual journal tango as it went back and forth with mostly cuts to fit Construction History Journal's length needs. But much of that time was static; I'd done the research, written it up for my needs, drafted the paper and moved on.

And the day after I sent back the final page proofs... I found another Gilbreth construction project. Even knowing that there are likely more yet undiscovered, it was a truly head-smacking moment.

It's not one of great consequence but it does have interesting aspects, and it adds to the list of Gilbreth works still standing and in use. I am also the first to connect it to Frank Gilbreth since the days when it was first built. Although the building is well-known and recognized for its history and its origins at the hands of architects Martin & Hall, the builder—who was even then of some note—was forgotten.

The clue was found in my usual way, sifting the digitzed record of the construction and engineering journals for a specific period. In this case, I was trying to fill in that annoying gap between 1899–1902 in which Frank Gilbreth (and Frank B. Gilbreth, General Contractor) were either on holiday or simply drew no notice for their work. What popped up was a single contract notice for a building in Providence, Rhode Island, which turned out to be both standing and something of a local treasure.

The October 1903 contract notice was that FBG had been given the job of "razing several buildings and erecting a brick 5-story business block" at the corner of Chestnut and Clifford Streets in Providence. So besides several attempts at finding collateral references (none found), I made the usual journey to that location using Google Streets. There were four brick buildings on the multiple corners of the somewhat complicated intersection, and one looked to be of the right age and style. (Another was far too modern, and another looked far too new.)

So the next step, without finding any useful information in digitized archives, is to contact local history and architectural groups in the area and hope one of them knows something. In this case, it was Google Maps that pointed out that an architectural firm with some specialty in historic renovation overlooked the intersection from another building. A polite inquiry brought back a wealth of information from a local architectural historian who leads walking tours of what is now known as Providence's Jewelry District.

And I had the wrong building; the venerable structure I'd put my finger (okay, mouse pointer) on was both older (ca. 1888) and had been built in stages. So I was pleased to receive a prompt reply from the local building preservation society, which pointed me to the correct building: the one on the opposite corner that looked far too new to be of 1903 vintage:

The Irons-Russell Building of 1903, as renovated (and possibly refaced) into loft condos in 2018. The original wraparound storefront remains.

But to collapse the rest of the story, the building Gilbreth built here was for Irons-Russell, one of the first jewelry manufacturers (if not the first) to site their business in what became the Jewelry District, filled with similar manufacturers and wholesalers until around WWII. The building included factory space, business space for the firm itself, the full-width storefront seen above, and several floors of space rented to other businesses.

It was the first building in Providence constructed to be “all electric” and included a birdcage elevator that is still in place (and was renovated along with the building... but is apparently not used due to code issues). It also used an innovative heating system that directed heat across the tables of the jewelry factory for the comfort (and winter productivity, no doubt) of the employees.

The building was renovated under historic preservation guidelines into loft condos in 2017–18, and both the original elevator and terrazzo tiling in public areas retained. The “new” look apparently comes from a full refinishing or refacing of the two outer walls, seen above; a peek around the corner from the parking lot shows much more weathered brick betraying the building's 120-year age.

Another forgotten and remembered triumph for FBG, found one day too late. But the search for more such works continues.

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