Harry A. Scheer (1933)

BUILDING HISTORY

111 Westminster Street History

Industrial Trust – Founding and Early Years
The Industrial Trust Company was founded in 1886 by Samuel Pomeroy Colt of Bristol, Rhode Island. Colt was an industrialist and former Attorney General of Rhode Island, who descended from two prominent New England families. His mother, Theodora, was the daughter of George DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island. DeWolf was a merchant, who made most of his wealth in the Triangle Trade. The family residence “Linden Place” stands today. Colt’s father, Christopher, was brother to the noted arms maker Samuel Colt of Hartford, Connecticut. The Colt family had a large farm and summer house in Bristol, now known as Colt State Park.

Shortly after Samuel P. Colt began the Industrial Trust Company, he began the United State Rubber Company in 1892, now known as Uniroyal. He would serve as President of both companies simultaneously for several years. In 1908, he left leadership of Industrial Trust and in 1918, left the leadership of the United States Rubber Company.  During his tenure of Industrial Trust; however, the company became a financial powerhouse in New England, ultimately the largest banking institution in Rhode Island.

In the war boom years of the 1920s, the company was growing at an immense speed. Their resources grew from $56 million in 1915 to $130 million by 1925. Bank President Florriman M. Howe and the Chairman of the Board, Samuel M. Nicholson were both relatively new in their roles, but they quickly realized the need for a larger building; a building that would reflect on the company’s past achievements, but a building that would also strongly indicate their investment in the state.

Howe and Nicholson would soon hire the New York architectural firm of Walker & Gillette to design a new headquarters for the growing banking institution. Partnering with the local architectural firm of Martin & Hall, the two teams drafted plans for what would be the tallest building in the state. When completed, 111 Westminster Street would the third tallest building in New England.

Walker & Gillette – Architects
Walker & Gillette consisted of A. Stewart Walker and Leon N. Gillette. Walker’s wife Sybil was the daughter of prominent banker Grenville Kane. The Kane family was well-known in the social circle of Tuxedo Park, New York, a connection that would later prove incredibly rewarding to the young firm. Gillette was a University of Pennsylvania grad and traveled to Paris to study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. He came back to the United States in 1903 and went to work for the firm of Warren & Wetmore – their best known work would be Grand Central Terminal, completed in 1914, and locally, the Providence Biltmore Hotel, completed in 1922. Gillette continued his studies under Edward Masqueray, once the lead draftsman under architect Richard Morris Hunt – the Dean of American Architecture.

Through Walker’s family connection in Tuxedo Park, the young firm began acquiring clients all seeking to build modest cottages. Their portfolio would later consist of society residences in New York City, mansions in Long Island for the Brokaws and Pulitzers, and many suburban residences in rural Tuxedo Park. Their best residential design is considered to be the William Goadby Loew House on East 93rd Street in Manhattan.

By 1921, the firm began to shift towards commercial architecture. Of their commissions, the National City Bank branch building on Canal Street (1927) is considered their best work. The 1929 Fuller Building – a 40-story conservative Art Deco skyscraper – is among their largest works. In the 1930s, the firm continued with their residences and commercial endeavors, among them was the renovation of the street level storefronts of the Empire State Building; Walker & Gillette worked with stainless steel as part of the renovation project.

111 Westminster Street
The Industrial Trust Company acquired the site that housed the Butler Exchange, a large Second Empire structure that was built in 1873 by Arthur Gillman. Butler Exchange stood on the periphery of Exchange Place, at the center of all commercial activity in Providence.

The New York firm of Starret Brothers was hired to oversee the construction of 111 Westminster. Their past experience with skyscraper construction made them a suitable candidate for this project. The structure for 111 Westminster is of steel frame enclosed by masonry. Nearly 3,300 concrete filled steel piles were driven into the ground to stabilize the structure. The exterior is faced in Indiana limestone, while the base is faced in Deer Island granite.

What made the structure unique in Rhode Island is that it was an early example of Art Deco, considered at the time to be the new “modern style”. The key design element is its stepped massing – an attribute to the strict 1916 zoning laws of New York City that required tall buildings to be set back to allow light and air down onto the streets below – and has major setbacks above the 15th, 22nd, and 26th floors. The pinnacle of the structure is the four story beacon, which originally had a circle of 7 ½ ton stone eagles surrounding a globe at the point. In fact, the stepped massing program displayed on 111 Westminster pre-dates other well-known Art Deco skyscrapers: the Empire State Building (1930-31) and the Chrysler Building (1928-30). The base of the building features two classically articulated entrance facades for Westminster Street and Exchange Place with matching large round-head windows above the entry doors. Above the windows, a band of 22 stone carvings depict colonial Rhode Island and its later industrialization. 

To complete the overall effect that gave the building its presence was its site. In the book Buildings on Paper; Rhode Island Architectural Drawings 1845-1945 (1982), William Jordy and Christopher Monkhouse make note of the building’s site:

“Its size and unique shape make it readily identifiable from any angle. Its siting is masterful, for as Winston Weisman has observed, a building of this scale needs an “open parklike area of sufficient size to provide a vista”. Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park furnish this necessary balance while maintaining an urban feeling.”

On October 1st, 1928, the building opened to the public. After its completion, 111 Westminster has withstood the ever-changing economic climates. Weather has not been as kind. In 1932, an early summer storm brought damaging lightning to the area. Lightning struck the top of 111 Westminster and damaged one of the eagles atop the beacon. One of the eagles landed in Arcade Street, narrowly missing a parked car with passengers seated inside. By 1950, Theron Curtis, the bank’s Vice President, ordered the eagles removed. He stated to a reporter from the Providence Journal, “They were something the architect wanted up there. Supposed to look like a flower pot or something. You couldn’t tell from the street. A crazy idea, in my opinion.”

In 1982, Industrial Trust Company changed its name to Fleet Bank. The bank retained its headquarters in 111 Westminster Street until Fleet merged with Boston’s Shawmut Bank in 1995. At that point, the headquarters relocated to Boston and the company was renamed to Fleet Boston. In 1998, Fleet Boston was acquired by Bank of America. At 111 Westminster, Bank of America would remain its sole tenant until April 2013, when the bank relocated its branch to a smaller office nearby.

 

Sources:

“Samuel P. Colt.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 6 March 2016. Web. 27 April 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_P._Colt >

“Walker & Gillette.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 August 2015. Web. 22 April 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walker_%26_Gillette>

Gregory, M. P. "Industrial Trust Company Building, Providence." Architectural Forum May 1929: 637-46. Print.

 

Industrial Trust Company. Providence Journal 19 Oct. 1925. Print. Rhode Island Historical Society Library, Providence, RI

 

Jordy, William H., and Christopher P. Monkhouse. Buildings on Paper: Rhode Island Architectural Drawings, 1825-1945. Providence, RI: Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown U, 1982. Print.

 

Loveridge, G. Y. "Bolt Knocks Big Eagles off Top of Building." The Providence Journal 1 June 1932: 1. Web. Rhode Island Historic Society Library, Providence, RI

 

Loveridge, G. Y. "Off with Their Heads and Wings." The Providence Journal 12 Nov. 1950, Sunday ed., sec. M: 3. Web. Rhode Island Historical Society Library, Providence, RI

 

“Custom House Tower.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 6 January 2016.Web. 3 May 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Custom_House_Tower>


“Travelers Tower.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 13 March 2015. Web. 3 May 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelers_Tower>


Woodward, William McKenzie. Providence, A City Wide Survey of Historic Resources. Providence: The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1980.