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Neighborhood of the Week: Armory District mixes
Victorian charm with busy eateries, markets
12:37 AM EST on Sunday, December 2, 2007
By Christine Dunn
Journal Staff Writer
Theresa Labriola tosses a ball for her dogs, Luna
and Enzo, at the Dexter Park dog park. Providence
Journal photo / Bill Murphy
The Armory District/West Broadway neighborhood in Providence’s West End is
known for its variety of Victorian-era architecture. Since the 1980s, as houses have
been restored and rehabilitated, new exterior paint, often in bold color combinations,
has announced their revival.
Dark purple, sage green, neon orange, cranberry red: some of the colors are bright,
and some are muted, but they all give a lift to this emerging inner-city neighborhood.
The Armory District is named after the Cranston Street Armory, a vast structure built
between 1903 and 1907 that was home to the Rhode Island National Guard until
1997.
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The yellow-brick and granite building on Cranston Street, between Dexter and Parade
streets, is next to a 10-acre park that was once used as a training ground for the
militia. Today the park has a playground and is popular with walkers and runners.
The state fire marshal’s office moved into the state-owned Armory building in June,
according to Kari Lang, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood
Association.
Lang said the state has been allocating money each year to restore the Armory, and
she hopes that in the long term, as it is slowly brought back, more state offices will
move into the space in the towers, and that the large drill hall — “an amazing open
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space” — is used once again for a variety of civic functions. The Armory has been
used in the filming of the movies Outside Providence and Underdog, and although
“movies are fun,” Lang said, the film industry really needs “large warehouse space”
rather than historic buildings.
A bond issue to pay for major renovations to the Armory, proposed by Governor
Carcieri in 2004, was defeated by voters, so maintenance work there “is now
proceeding as funds permit,” according to the governor’s office. Maintenance on the
exterior is going on now, and is expected to continue for the next year or so.
Broadway, the wide main street that runs from downtown to Olneyville, is lined with
some of the city’s largest Victorian mansions, many of which have been turned into
professional offices, apartments and condominiums. The city’s largest brick row
house, which is at 412-428 Broadway, has been on the market as a four-unit
multifamily, but it may be sold as individual condominiums, according to the listing
agent, Joseph McCarthy of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.
New stores, flower shops, and a number of restaurants, including Julian’s, Seven
Stars Bakery, Nick’s and Gabriel’s Pizza, are enlivening this once-neglected
thoroughfare. The neighborhood’s large Hispanic population has brought Spanish
markets and restaurants to the area.
Lang said new retail businesses, restaurants, residences and offices on the main
streets, Broadway and Westminster, are helping to revitalize this neighborhood,
which already has “a really wonderful stock of historic architecture,” including “huge
gorgeous painted ladies.”
Another neighborhood institution is the Hudson Street Market, which was founded in
1922. The building that houses the market is for sale with an asking price of
$348,000. The listing agent, Leonard Friedman of Coldwell Banker Residential
Brokerage, said the building is a legal three-family, but the market is a grandfathered
use, and the market has a lease on its space that expires next year.
The West Broadway Neighborhood Association works to support the community on a
number of fronts: it is building affordable housing, runs a community garden and a
food cooperative, operates a safe Halloween program, and advocates on issues such
as school closings. West Broadway Elementary School was closed last year, for
instance, and many in the community would like to see it reopened, Lang said.
Mark Van Noppen, a Dexter Street resident, has played an important role in the
neighborhood since the 1980s, as one of the founders (with B.J. Dupre and Barry
Preston) of the Armory Revival Company, a real estate development company that
specializes in historic renovation in the West End. Today, Van Noppen is also
president of the board of trustees of the Providence Preservation Society. Preston is
also one of the founders of the Providence Preservation Society Revolving Fund, a
nonprofit that runs a loan program for exterior restorations in designated historic
Providence neighborhoods.
They started their company in 1986, after a discussion at Dupre’s annual May
breakfast party about the fate of a parcel of abandoned lots, some with derelict
buildings, in the neighborhood. As members of the neighborhood association, “we
spent a lot of time fighting bad development,” Van Noppen said. “We were tired of
it.”
Van Noppen remembered that during the real estate crash of the early 1990s, Armory
Revival was selling renovated single-family houses in the neighborhood for under
$100,000. But even today, the majority of the residences in the neighborhood are
multifamily rental units, despite the condo conversion trend of the past few years, he
said. “It is a multifamily neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a great starter neighborhood.”
The most challenging thing about living in the Armory/West Broadway area, Van
Noppen said, is that some of the societal problems evident in this urban environment,
including illegal drug use, drive many residents with children to leave. He said the
neighborhood could use more activities for children who are old enough to be out in
the neighborhood but too young to be “mobile.” Van Noppen said that in the case of
his family, he and his wife were able to spend a lot of time with their children in the
years when they were most vulnerable.
The West End’s diversity and affordability attracts a heterogeneous mix of residents,
including artists and young professionals. Lang, who has lived in the Armory District
for 12 years, said the neighborhood is “ethnically and economically diverse,” which
makes the atmosphere interesting and vibrant. “It makes it real,” she said.
“It’s not as white as the East Side,” said Jack Gold, executive director of the
Providence Preservation Society, who lives in the Armory District. “And it’s
younger.” Gold said many younger faculty members of Brown University and the
Rhode Island School of Design live in the neighborhood.
“There is a real sense of community here,” Lang said.
The neighborhood includes two local historic districts, which provides protection to
the historic architecture that this section of Providence is known for. Last week there
were 24 condos listed for sale in the neighborhood, most priced between $100,000
and $200,000. Single-family houses listed for sale ranged in price from $99,900 for a
two-bedroom, 1-bath 1913 bungalow at 86 Waldo St., with 1,000 square feet of
space, to $449,000 for an 1870 Victorian house at 117 Parade St., facing the park,
with three bedrooms and 3,136 square feet of living space.
Of the 825 multifamily properties listed for sale in Rhode Island last week, 69 were in
the Armory, Broadway and West End area; of these, the prices ranged from $60,000
for a bank-owned three-family built in 1900 at 323 Dexter St. to $429,000 for a
“stately bell mansard” on 62 Willow St. The building is a five-unit, but the listing
information said the seller will combine two apartments on the second floor “to
recreate the original spacious floor plan.”
POPULATION:
(Providence, 2000) 173,618
MEDIAN HOUSE PRICE:
(Providence, non-East Side, 2006) $212,475
PUBLIC SCHOOLS:
Asa Messer Elementary School
Classical High School
INTERESTING FACT:
Messer Street, and the Asa Messer Elementary School, were named after Asa Messer
(1769-1836) the third president of Brown University. Messer had a country estate in
what is now the Armory District.
[email protected]
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