This was one of those buildings that you just took for granted. It was a gas station, and not much more. Never was it proposed to turn into a cool restaurant, or art gallery, or performance space. It sat on a very prominent lot, the gateway to Atwells and Broadway. Maybe, if you really looked and noticed, you might have realized that it was circular in nature, unlike most gas stations you’ve ever seen. Why? Who knew?
Then, one day, it’s prime location got the best of it. It was hit by a wrecking ball, numerous times. It was steel reinforced concrete, after all. No longer was it to be a gas station, repair shop, or a potential restaurant... nope. A parking lot. The news story below accounts how it might have been a high-rise hotel or office building. 6 years after it was torn down, it is still a parking lot.
The Gas Station was one of those icons that you loved, hated, or never noticed at all. It was torn down when the real estate market was hot without a demolition permit by the wonderful Paolino Properties. The Procaccianti Group’s promise to build something on the site has yet to bear fruit, and Paolino’s measley fine for demolishing the structure without permission was paid off long ago by the $10 a car fees they can charge when the Dunk has something going on.
Both of Paolino’s concerns outlined below – the conversion and renovation of the Holiday Inn/Hilton as well as the Dunkin Donuts Center renovations – have come to pass. So, what’s the hold up?
February 25, 2005
By Andrea L. Stape | Providence Journal
While it’s not a done deal, condos could rise from the site of the former City Gulf Station, off Broadway in downtown Providence. It’s a small triangle of land operating as a parking lot, but if the market conditions are right and the Holiday Inn’s conversion to a Hilton moves forward, it could become a 27-story condo complex, according to Joseph R. Paolino Jr., the former mayor of Providence, who co-owns the lot with The Procaccianti Group.
The Procaccianti Group has a clear vision for the $175-million to $200-million development, which it calls The Providence City Center. The building would have underground and aboveground parking for 250 cars, a fitness center and a high-end restaurant, according to a document the company put together for potential investors. The company envisions the building “as the address for upscale downtown living and entertainment.”
But development of the lot depends on The Procaccianti Group’s transformation of the aging Holiday Inn into an upscale Hilton, Paolino said. The Cranston hotel-development company has moved forward on planning the redesign, but could put the project on hold if it is not authorized to buy the Westin Providence for $95.5 million.
“If [Procaccianti] does not do the Hilton, it’s going to stay the way it is,” said Paolino, referring to the parking lot. “I think a lot of other things have to happen, too I’m concerned about what’s going to happen with the civic center.”
Despite the uncertainty over the Westin, The Procaccianti Group has had a lot of “preliminary discussions” with the city and has applied for two easements to move forward with renovating the Holiday Inn, said Thomas E. Deller, city director of planning and development. The company needs clearance to build out the hotel’s ballroom over the street that separates the hotel from the Dunkin Donuts Center, said Deller. It also needs clearance from the city to rip up a street to put in a larger base for the Hilton’s new parking garage and condo tower, said Deller.
Last week a small downtown parcel of land, overlooking Route 95 adjacent to the old Providence Police Station, made the front page. The land, owned by Paolino Properties, had been the home of a Gulf gas station since 1968, a few years after the Interstate came through.
Without any public notice, a demolition crew came in and, before any effective response could be mounted, the roadside landmark was gone. To some, it was just a gas station, functional, aesthetically invisible, even ugly. To others, it was a rare and interesting example of mid-century commercial architecture, sort of a space age, circular plan gas station visible from all angles. Now that it’s gone, the ironies of this turn of events and the philosophical questions it raises are worth examining because they bring home a few important questions for the work-in-progress that is the Providence Renaissance.
Perhaps the greatest irony of an outcry over the loss of a mid-century piece of roadside architecture is that the 1966 federal Historic Preservation Act was in many ways a response to the rapid, post World War 2 destruction of our historical landscape associated with the Eisenhower National Defense Highway System – that’s the official name for the asphalt and concrete swath that bisected historic Providence in the late 50s. Giddy with the dual notions of “slum clearance” and suburban development, the stage was set for what historian Michael Wallace once described as “a remorseless juggernaut of development crunching its way through the nation’s heritage.”
So what is that heritage? Does it include gas stations?
Like everything else, historical preservation has a history, and its animating ideas have evolved as well. The old “Washington slept here” preservation efforts, or the idea of a sanitized, slave-free Colonial Williamsburg have given way, happily, to a much broader, more inclusive sense of what is worth preserving .
So what does any of this have to do with gas stations? I’ve often wondered what historians 100 years from now will have to say about the 20th century. The ongoing transformation of our landscape around the private car – and the low-density commuter suburbs made possible by it – may well be the big story of the 20th century and the current discussion of a loss of “sense of place” amid the galloping homogenization of American life suggests that historians may well start by looking, so to speak, in our collective garage.
Gas stations streamlined and standardized long before McDonalds came on the scene. They were garish, hokey, and sometimes brilliantly designed. There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota – tourists come to see it and buy postcards. Closer to home, the West Broadway Neighborhood Association has adapted and reused a beautiful 1930s Texaco station designed by famed industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague.
I don’t imagine much of this went through the mind of the demolition crew. It was all in a day’s work, like the demolition of the concrete Art Moderne garage next to the Coke plant in Smith Hill last year. Providence will survive the loss of a roadside rarity and some will say we’re the better for it – even if, for now, the grand plan for its demolition was to make way for a parking lot. The National Register of Historic Places looks at a building or structure 50 years old or older as historic – by that standard the Interstate itself is approaching the status of historical artifact.
Not all old buildings are historically significant and not all of them should be saved. But we are the poorer for bypassing discussion and reflection on whether a place – even a gas station – matters.
From the RIHPHC downtown survey (1981) – Gulf Station, built 1968 by Curtis and Davis, architects. 1-story concrete-block circular structure with brick sheathing, surmounted by a tall metal pole supporting an illuminated globe near the top. This station is inspired more by popular exhibition-and-exhibitionist architecture than by more traditional sources for gas stations. It transcends pop trends in roadside architecture to achieve a thin but engaging monumentality adjacent to and visible from the highway. Additionally, the Farrelly brothers movie, Dumb and Dumber, used the station as a bus terminal. In in its last years, it was a repair shop more than a gas station. We are not sure when the pumps were torn out, or what name it operated under.
Don Carleton A few years ago my wife and I pulled into this unique gas station to fill up our car. I asked the very grizzled attendant if he knew why the station was round (I figured there had to be some story behind it) and his reply was that “its been that way for years.” A priceless Rhode Island moment.
The information about each building grows as visitors let us know about their experiences. Did you or a member of your family work here? Did you grow up near it as a child? Let us know. All entries will be moderated and may be posted in an edited form. We will use your name unless you tell us otherwise. We will not make your email public.