No one is injured in the Esten Avenue blaze, which is brought under control after 3 1/2 hours.
by John Castellucci
Providence Journal | July 28, 2004
PAWTUCKET – A stubborn fire raged through a vacant building in a dormant mill complex near the Providence-Pawtucket line yesterday, reducing a chunk of the building to rubble and creating a spectacle visible from Route 95.
Flames engulfed the bleachery and dye building on the western edge of the mill complex at 250+ Esten Ave., sending dark plumes of smoke into the sky and burning the “Hope” sign that was a roadside landmark for years.
The fire came as the mill complex behind it, formerly home to Hope Webbing and School House Candy, was being bought out of receivership by a group of investors based in southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. No one was injured in the blaze, and only a handful of nearby businesses had to be evacuated.
The fire's cause was not immediately known. Meerbott said he gave the evacuation order because of the amount of fire and the age of the building. Ten to 20 minutes later, a wall on the south side of the bleachery and dye building collapsed.
Firefighters were afraid the fire would spread from the three-story bleachery and dye building to a larger, four-story building on the other side of Esten Avenue. The buildings, two of six in the mill complex, were connected by an underground tunnel without doors. If the blaze had made its way across the street by way of the tunnel, the second building would have caught fire, and firefighters would have had their hands full.
The fire was reported by a motorist at 10:28 a.m., less than 24 hours after two maintenance workers employed by the company that manages the vacant mill complex spotted a man lurking near the bleachery and dye building and saw him go inside.
The mill complex is one of several in Woodlawn, a low-income section on the west side of the city that is dotted with factories. It was built between 1900 and 1901 and originally housed the American Textile Co., which by 1917 was operating the largest lace-making plant in the United States.
Hope Webbing, which once employed more than 1,000 people and was a large supplier of parachute cords and other materials to the military, occupied the mill complex for decades, as did School House Candy, a company headed by Harris Rosen, who owned the sprawling property through the Erco Corp. But by 1995, Hope Webbing, which lost much of its business after World War II, shut down production in Pawtucket and moved to Cumberland. Three years later, the Erco Corp. went into receivership after running out of money and failing to refinance a $15-million loan.
The School House Candy trade names, inventory and equipment were sold to a Maryland company, Sherwood Brands Inc., which operated out the mill complex for several years but ultimately moved manufacturing to Virginia, laying off about 100 workers. Things looked grim. In January 2001, Allan M. Shine, a court-appointed receiver, said the mill complex was in “deplorable condition” and sought a $46,597-a-year tax break from the city. Shine said the tax break would enable Sherwood Brands to continue to operate out of the mill complex. It would also persuade an investors group to hold onto the property rather than foreclose.
Ultimately, the investors group, M & P Management, agreed to pay $900,000 for the mill complex. On June 9, Shine said, a judge entered an order authorizing the sale. Shine said M & P Management was in the process of closing on the property when the fire broke out. He said he doubted that the company, a secured creditor that holds the unpaid mortgage on the property, would back out of the deal. It was unclear what M & P Management plans to do with the mill complex. Shine declined to comment on the matter, and Frank A. McCullough, the head of the investors group, didn't immediately return calls.
The city of Pawtucket is currently seeking back taxes on the entire Hope Webbing Complex, including this boiler building, 1005 Main Street, and 106 Rand Street, for $160,000. Demolition of the entire boiler building is very likely.
A local business owner cleared up a important factor about this building – it is only the boiler room for the larger Hope webbing complex to the north. There is a tunnel under Esten Ave that connects it to the larger complex. I often forget that buildings the size of the main Hope Webbing complex need boiler rooms that are large buildings onto themselves.
The Hope boiler building was somewhat of an icon that can be seen as you leave the city off of I-95, with its wrought iron “HOPE” sign on the roof. It looked like it has been boarded up for a very long time. All the other buildings around it are not in beautiful shape, but they are in use either as studios or as light manufacturing spaces.
The architectural details themselves were very nice. The building used to get a tremendous amount of light, but unfortunately all seemed to be boarded or bricked up. All the windows had granite sills and arched lintels. The windows used to be 2 sets of six lights on top, and nine on the bottom. The ground floor windows on the highway side must have been at least 15 feet high to accomodate the boilers inside. A large corrugated steel shed out back contained two large oil tanks. The U-shaped complex has mainly flat roofs, no tower, but a large smoke stack.
Mike F Mar 24 2013 My ma used to work at Schoolhouse Candy in the early 80s.
anthony roccio Jun 28 2010 I remember having band practice in front office in mid 80s so sad how time erodes. beutiful landmarks
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