Filling the Dynamo Building with a museum?

May 16, 2013

The Dynamo House, the century-old onetime Narragansett Electric power station, now sits as a forlorn reminder of what once thrived along Providence’s downtown waterfront.  And as Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay notes, it now stands as a guard to the old Jewelry District that state and city officials are trying to rebrand as a Knowledge District.

Perched on the Providence River between the Point Street Bridge and Davol Square, the windowless red brick Dynamo building is more a symbol of broken dreams and development over reach than a structure that could become a linchpin of a recovering economy.

It was once slated to house a Rhode Island history center called the Heritage Harbor Museum that would have showcased our state’s proud immigrant and ethnic history. That plan crashed in a mix of hubris by former leaders of the Rhode Island Historical Society that outpaced the money needed to complete the project and a Baltimore-based urban developer that went bust  in the recession.

No other feasible plan has been advanced to nuture this building that was once the gateway to the Jewelry District. Every time some local college seeks to plant a new program in this old manufacturing area, the Dynamo building gets mentioned. It was viewed as a venue for a joint nursing school to be run by the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. That proposal collapsed in the General Assembly. And some civic leaders urged Brown University to expand its engineering program there, but the university decided to keep its engineering students on the ivied East Side campus.

With its distinctive arched windows and sturdy brick walls, the Dynamo Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also one of the Providence Preservation Society’s list of the city’s 10 most endangered buildings. Yet, for all this historic glory no one has come forward with a proposal that makes economic sense. And we can’t eat prestige.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and his economic team would like a mix of non-profit uses, such as hospital and university-based development, and property tax generating private sector projects.  But the Dynamo Building may present an obstacle to private financing because it is viewed as too expensive to renovate and has been open to the ravages of the weather since it was abandoned four years ago.

There is a non-profit use that would make great sense for this building and also establish another attraction to our state’s historic tourism  economy. That would be relocating Brown’s now-closed Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology from its site in Bristol to the Dynamo.

The Haffenreffer holds a remarkable collection of more than 100,000 ethnographic and archaeological artifacts from the Americans, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.  This museum was originally built from the private collection Rudolph Haffenreffer, a philanthropist whose family donated the collection to Brown after his death in 1954.

But Brown closed the museum to the public in 2008 after university officials decided it was too expensive to renovate to meet the tough fire codes enacted after the Station Nightclub tragedy. Students and scholars still have access to the collection, but the public not so much. The Bristol structure sits on more than 300 acres of pristine land that sweeps down to Mount Hope Bay and is one of the last swaths of undeveloped waterfront property in Bristol. This land is also historic and is sacred to Native American tribes; it was part of the Mount Hope Grant and is recognized as the headquarters of Metacom, the 17th century Wampanoag sachem called King Philip by colonists.

Moving the Haffenreffer Museum 17 miles to Providence would yield public access. It would fit splendidly in the Jewelry District, adjacent to such other historic tourist attractions as Benefit Street, the campuses of Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, the RISD Museum, Sheldon Street Church, the John Brown mansion, the Stephen Hopkins House, the Aldrich House and the historical society’s library.

Such a move would allow Brown and Bristol town officials a chance at devising a permanent plan for preservation of the land overlooking Mount Hope Bay. State Representative Raymond Gaillison of Bristol, who represents this area, says town residents want this scenic slice of the town’s past kept as open space for the future. Perhaps scholars from nearby Roger Williams College, which has a noted historical preservation program, could help put together a preservation proposal.

Brown spokeswoman Marisa Quinn says that the university has over the years gotten received inquiries about plans for the Bristol land.  She also said that ideally, Brown would like to move the collection closer to campus to quote ``to support teaching and research more effectively, and into a structure that is better suited to support these activities.’’

Quinn also pointed to an obvious hurdle, saying the university would ``need to raise substantial funds to support such a move.’’

There is no better time than the present for our state’s only Ivy League university, Providence city government and Bristol town government to explore a plan to keep Rhode Island’s storied tradition of reusing historic buildings. Is there is a Brown alum or philanthropist out there who can do for our community in the 21st century what Rudolph Haffenreffer’s family did in the 20th?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at