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Just one look

Most buildings tell a story, and a great story does not have a universal interpretation; it is informed by your unique point of view and imagination. I love to envision historic buildings in their heyday, as one might wish to be a spectator at the Roman Colosseum or alight a DC-3 via Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK airport. I have been fascinated by stories of industrial strength architecture — especially the robust, unapologetic power plants that fueled New England’s manufacturing past.

One example is the South Street Station, also known as the Narragansett Electric Company Power Station in Providence, Rhode Island. Designed by Jenks & Ballou around 1912 in the Georgian Revival style, it is exactly how you would imagine an architect might design a major infrastructure building in the early 20th century. A functional simplicity is conveyed in its massing, with a cubic headhouse facing the city and a long turbine hall stretching to the Providence River. While it does not stir my soul like my favorite buildings by Le Corbusier or Louis Kahn, it does stir my imagination.

Interior of the South Street Station, 2013. Photo: Michael Umbricht 

I can see the cavernous interior, lit with enormous arched windows, sunlight slicing through the coal dust in fierce beams as in a high Gothic cathedral. Monolithic turbines the size of houses roar and vibrate like tethered beasts, shackled to the floor and imprisoned by muscular steel beams supporting overhead bridge cranes, pulleys, and chain hoists. The ravenous coal-eating turbines are fed day and night by barges arriving via the Providence River, delivering the pulverized fossil fuel via conveyor belts to interior rail cars, adding to the metal-on-metal clamor. Towering smokestacks loom over Providence and coat downwind homes in fine black powder, making them almost unlivable in summer. I’m reminded of one of the most gorgeous lines Bruce Springsteen ever wrote, painting a picture of a similar industrial landscape in Youngstown, Ohio, with “smokestacks reaching like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”

Thankfully, the turbines are gone, and the smokestacks have been felled like the industrial sequoias of a bygone era. After decommissioning in 1995, the hulking structure sat vacant for years, boarded up and slowly decaying, with an unseen interior urban forest thriving in the dim light of a fractured floor slab. Several unrealized adaptive reuse projects have been planned for South Street Station over the years, including a potential rebirth as a State Cultural Heritage and History Museum. Currently, Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, and Rhode Island College are developing space in the building, giving new hope for its civic future.

Similar cathedrals of electricity are easy to find, from the Mystic River in Somerville to the Connecticut River in Hartford. Skilled designers transform the lucky ones like the Tate Modern and Battersea museums, both on the Thames River in London. These brownfield brick behemoths are part of urban energy stories that are poised for happy endings. With some imagination, they can continue to power city life in new and creative ways.