A large portion of the Brown and Sharpe complex has been turned into a luxury residential development called The Promenade. Fund-raising events coupled with $17 million in federal and state tax credits have enabled the restoration to move forward.
The Foundry made its move from “Decay” into “Redeveloped” in April 2004 as the plans to make some of its unused space into rental units occured. It is projected to be a $40 million dollar project. Under private management, the Foundry offers commercial space (about $20 a sq ft), and its largest tenant so far is the city’s DEM. Once these units hit the market, along with Jefferson Place, there will be around 600 luxury units available within a 500 yard radius of the Providence Place Mall.
The old powerhouse for the Foundry (still says Spaghetti Warehouse on it) has been turned into a sports/gym complex.
The 25-acre parcel along the Woonasquatucket River in Smith Hill encompasses 12 buildings and three structures constructed between 1872 and 1941 – the first of them being America’s first steel-framed factory building. The earliest was a four-story structure on Holden Street and Promenade with 20 over 20 pane windows. This structure does not survive today, it was where the parking lot is now.
Brown & Sharpe originated in 1833 in the South Main Street shop of David Brown & Son, makers and repairers of clocks, watches, and light precision tools. The firm took its present name in 1853 when Brown’s son, Joseph, made Lucian Sharpe a full partner. Inventions flowed constantly from the small shop, including the first automatic machine for graduating rules (1850) and the precision Gear Cutting and Dividing Engine (1855).
With the award of a contract to manufacture the single-thread Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machine, Brown & Sharpe moved to the forefront of the machine-tool industry by increasing company size and profits and by focusing on the development of interchangeable machine-tool products, the key to industrialization and mass production. Brown & Sharpe’s Universal Milling Machine (1861) and Universal Grinding Machine (1876) set the standard for more than a century, until computer-based technologies superseded the mechanical. Other significant inventions and refinements included vernier calipers, pocket micrometers, the formed-tooth milling cutter, and the automatic screw machine. At the turn of the 20th century, Brown & Sharpe was the world’s largest manufacturer of machine tools.
With business booming and the company expanding – including 300 employees working at 14 different locations – Brown & Sharpe purchased land on Promenade Street along the Woonasquatucket River in 1872. Employee Thomas McFarlane designed the first building – a 66,000-square-foot, brick, cast-iron, and concrete structure that included spaces for all the company’s functions, from design studios to production areas. The company filled out its 33-acre parcel (later reduced to 25 acres when a portion of the site was cleared to accommodate Route95) with buildings closely linked with the development of various machine-tool products. Among the structures are a carpenter shop, powerhouse, machine shops, warehouses, grinding shop, and steel storage bins.
By 1920, much of the physical plant had been built, and sales and production continued to grow. Brown & Sharpe succeeded so dramatically due to the increased mechanization of daily life, as demonstrated in countless automotive, aeronautic, commercial, and domestic products. The standard for precision that the firm established was critical to the development of the automobile and aviation industries and to the emergence of the United States as the leader in manufacturing.
The six-story east wing features steel-and-brick arch construction with wood-plank floors and huge wood windows. A 135-foot-tall square chimney rises 65 feet above the roof – one of the highest points in the capital city.
Early owners, the Guerra family, purchased the complex in 1964 for $3.2 million. The present owners, Foundry Associates, purchased the complex in 1986 and have renovated several buildings. Two buildings are occupied by business and state government offices, and two additional buildings are in the process of being rehabilitated.
Promenade Street, not far from Brown and Sharpe, was the birthplace of the Diner. In 1858 Walter Scott, a part-time pressman and type compositor in Providence, supplemented his income by selling sandwiches and coffee from a basket to newspaper night workers and patrons of men’s club rooms. By 1872 business became so lucrative that Scott quit his printing work and began to sell food at night from a horse-drawn covered express wagon parked outside the Providence Journal newspaper office. In doing so, Walter Scott unknowingly inspired the birth of what would become one of America’s most recognized icons – the diner (americandinermuseum.org). How appropriate that up until 2001, the Silver Top Diner was parked in front of Brown and Sharpe, across the River (where the Jefferson Place apartments are now).
Kristin Gracy Dec 26 2014 I recently won an auction bid on www.Shopgoodwill.com for a pair of Brown & Sharpe hair clippers to trim my horses bridle path (top of their head between their ears) because I didn’t want noisy electric hair trimmers that they might not like buzzing around their ears plus I don’t have electricity at my barn. I thought these would be idea because it would be a better cut and safer than scissors. I have enjoyed reading about the history of the manufacturing company who made these. I had no idea of the history. They are very well made, it is obvious. Too bad products aren’t manufactured like that quality anymore.
Salem Apr 29 2014 I often perform repair work to Brown & Sharpe precision machine tools for the company's current owner, Bourn & Koch Machine Tool Co in Rockford, Illinois. These machines are heavily relied upon by machine shops across the U.S. -many of these shops being highly advanced, such as aerospace industries. They are very well built and out-perform many current foreign built brands. Let's realize this company did not sink because the products became obsolete or unneeded, They are one of the thousands of U.S. employers that disappeared following the global trade agreements that our federal government attached us to. There's no way to compete with labor costs in third world and second world countries.
Jim McDonald Dec 21 2013 I worked there in the late 60s. It was like something out of Oliver Twist, bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, unbelievable dust and dirt. I still have a scar on my instep from a drop of molten iron. It was quite an experience.
Pepe Imperial Jul 22 2010 I have this machine for cutting hair, Brown and Sharpe Bressant and I discovered this swastika inside when I was cleaning. Anyone know anything about this?
Robert D Bashaw Jun 29 2010 My father was a journeyman at Brown & Sharpe from the late 1930’s until 1941, when he entered the military. After the war he opened his own machine shop in Tulsa Oklahoma (Bashaw Machine Co).
Patricia Keough Paulson May 21 2009 My sister Eileen and I worked at Brown & Sharpe right out of high school in 1950. I worked in Providence for about a year and then my office was moved out to Quonset Point, which was a very long way for me to go as I lived in Pawtucket. I think I worked another year there until I moved out of state.
Jaime Ferrer 02-28-2008 I have a machine cut your hair Brown and Sharpe who must be over 60 years. When you conduct a cleansing discovered with surprise a sign German Nazi. Anybody knows that mean?
Julian Eguizabal Echeverria Mr Sharp was visiting the City of Eibar in Spain 1914 to 1916 to see for what one scool of Firearms (Escuela de Arneria) was using. NEAR ALL MACHINE WAS from USA BROWN & SHARP this Scools was the origing of actual development of Guipuzcoa Industrie. My grand father Mr JULIAN ECHEVERRIA ORBEA meet Mr Sharp etc. was funder and first Ditector of this scool and the govermnet here and the towm people have interest to know about this visit
bob d. My first job out of high school in 1976 was at the TCS printing shop in the south-eastern most building in the Foundry on Holden St. It was called the CIC complex back then. I worked there about a year. Being the low man on the totem pole, the old timers gave me all the dirty jobs. One job I particularly hated was having to take an old dilapidated manually operated elevator down into a dark, musty dungeon of a basement to bring up supplies. One 25 watt bulb dimly lit the whole basement. Spider webs, rats, hornet nests, and deep puddles after a rain storm made the crypt a somewhat less than desirable place to visit alone – especially when the power went out. The first floor men’s room with the optional doors on the stalls was another great perk. One job I did enjoy was driving fork lifts as fast as they could go up and down those narrow roads that ran between all the buildings.
Jon The narrative well written however I find it unfortunate that the complete history is not accounted. For instance, what happened between the heyday of the mill and its sale to the developers? I’m aware of this part of it’s history, but other younger readers may not be. I also have many Brown and Sharpe items. There is a screw machine in the family, dividing heads, micrometers, scales, etc. For the narrator, the machine in the photos is a #2 Surface Grinder.
JH In its day one of the better employers in the state. Good friend of my family Felix Prior worked both at the original downtown site as well as in North Kingston, all told he worked there close to 40 years. His son by same name also worked there for a short period of time. When I got job with what is now FM Global in LA the guy who hired me by name of Bruce Sherwin who was a RI native also worked there while attending Brown, his father believe was in management there, this would have to have been in the 30s & 40s. Lots of history in places like this along with interesting people who worked hard in these places.
Sal Induisi My grandfather at one time was a barber and I recently found a pair of hair clippers, made by browne and sharpe (I can send pics.)... I am trying to date them... thanks
John I agree with Wayne . The automatic screw machines that Brown and Sharpe disigned were ahead of their times, in fact way ahead . I currently have 20 of them in production. I also have CNC’s, which serve their purpose but its nice to see a 60 year old $5000 american built machine kick the crap out of a $50,000 cnc built overseas . The machines are built so solid that CNCs could not obsolete them so I now have 2 with cnc controls . Cant beat-em join-em right .
Erin Let’s not forget that the Foundry was the original home of the Living Room. I saw my first punk show there when I was 15. I have many great memories of going there with friends and hanging out in the bubble window.
Wayne You made no mention of the screw machines that Brown & Sharpe made. I still believe it is, all in all, the best machine built for quality precision parts.
Chris Spaghetti Warehouse was one of my favorite restaurants, and I was sad to see it close. I always thought that putting it in the old powerhouse building was a great idea, and especially decorating it with authentic historical “kitch” the way that they did (does anyone remember the table inside the ticket booth, the two old restored bars, the trolley car, the fire engine, the bedframes made into booths?)
Than “Operation Sky Treasure” took place about four years ago, when me and three friends snuck into the foundry via a small utility tunnel, climbed up an elevator shaft and reached the roof. We assembled an amazing, if I do say so myself, flag pole out of roof debris, and erected a 20 foot pirate flag. It lasted about two days before someone took it down.
“Operation Sky Treasure 2 & 2.5” took place the following year, and this time involved a massive jolly roger stencil. Our first attempt (2) failed because of the black spray paint not showing up against the red brick, but our second try (2.5) succeeded due to a white background. It was on a small outcropping where a door came out on the roof and visable, to our pleasure, from the highway. It lasted a couple weeks before whoever owns that building ripped off the entire part of the building that had the stencil. Damn shame!
Jim Holechek Brown & Sharpe manufactured precision rollers (one grooved and one smooth) for inventor Henry D. Perky’s shredded wheat machine. I am writing Mr. Perky’s biography.
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