Artists’ non-profit restores third building to help revitalize downtown Providence, RI

AS220 is credited as a national model for urban revitalization, and has been recognized nationally for its catalytic role in the revitalization of downtown Providence. Each of their buildings comprises a vibrant blend of local and arts-related program spaces including galleries, performance venues, and public-access art studios.

When the Providence, Rhode Island nonprofit set out to purchase its third downtown building, it knew the Mercantile Block had exactly what it was looking for.

Its sheer size—-50,000 square feet, four stories, and a basement—-made the 1901 structure perfect for the diverse uses the artist-run organization had in mind. There was storefront space for creative businesses, office space for local nonprofits, and room for 22 live/work studios for local artists.

AS220 is a non-profit community arts organization, and has been a client of DBVW Architects for over a decade. DBVW has helped AS220 renovate and reinvent several historic buildings to create three dozen artist live/work studios, numerous individual work studios, six rotating exhibition spaces, a main stage, a black box theater, a dance studio, a print shop, a community darkroom, a digital media lab, a fabrication lab, an organization-run bar and restaurant, a youth recording studio, a youth program and several commercial spaces that AS220 rents to local businesses.

In recent years the building was owned by the Cohen family and known as the home of Cogens Printing. Every effort has been made to restore the historic beauty of this mercantile building; throughout the building you will find hardwood floors, exposed architectural detail and exceptionally high tin ceilings that replicate the tin pattern original to the building. The buildings facade was entirely concealed from view has been painstakingly restored to its former grace.

AS220’s adaptive re-use of the historic Mercantile Block provides for a vibrant mix of live and work studios, arts related offices and one-of-a kind, local retail and commercial spaces. Especially noteworthy is the effort to revitalize Martha Street. Original building openings have been uncovered and restored, creating a beautiful and highly functional set of entrances, replete with glass sidelights, transoms and storefronts.

The building was nearly vacant when AS220—an organization dedicated to creating artist space in Providence since 1985—undertook a $16.9 million rehabilitation in 2008. With $10.4 million in historic tax credits and New Markets Tax Credits through the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, the idea was to supplement the adjacent Dreyfus Hotel building, where AS220 had restored an 1890 hotel for offices and artist space.

Now, the Mercantile Block and the Washington Street corridor are thriving once again. A meticulous restoration of the building’s four-story facade by DBVW Architects has helped revitalize the entire streetscape and inspired building owners to take up rehabilitations nearby. The mixed-use redevelopment has benefited the broader community as well, with affordable storefronts for local small businesses, office space for Providence-based nonprofits, and subsidized live/work studios for artists.

Below are two examples of units currently being offered in the restored building:

  • Unit 311 is 788 square feet. This is a subsidized affordable housing unit and your income level cannot exceed $30,300 per month for single occupancy or $34,620 for double occupancy (annual gross income). The monthly rent is $717 per month. 5 hours of volunteering to AS220 per month is also required. Utility allowance included in rent but tenant pays their own electric bill.
  • Unit 408 is 801 square feet. No income cap. The rent is $1,115 per month. Utility allowance included in rent but tenant pays their own electric bill.

AS220 is an artist-run organization committed to providing an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts. AS220 offers artists opportunities to live, work, exhibit and/or perform in its facilities, which include several rotating gallery spaces, a performance stage, a black-box theater, a print shop, a darkroom and media arts lab, a fabrication and electronics lab, a dance studio, a youth program focusing on youth under state care and in the juvenile detention facilities, four dozen affordable live/work studios for artists, and a bar and restaurant.

AS220’s facilities and services are available to any artist who needs a place to exhibit, perform, or create original work and its classes and public-access studios are among the most affordable in the nation. AS220 was founded on the principle that freedom of expression is crucial for the development of strong communities and individual spirits.

AS220’s vision for a local unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts was launched in a one-room rental above the Providence Performing Arts Center in 1985 with a budget of just $800. Today, the non-profit owns – and enlivens – three mixed-use buildings, totaling over 100,000 square feet, in the heart of Providence’s downtown and represents a $25 million investment in downtown Providence.

AS220 has earned a national reputation synonymous with an egalitarian, accessible approach to creative community – offering an alternative to the obstacles of conventional presenting venues. They provide an inclusive forum for any and all Rhode Island artists to share their original artwork, embracing the full spectrum of the arts: theatre, dance, poetry, photography, music, printmaking, creative “hacking”, painting, puppetry, and beyond.

AS220 has and continues to play a key role in the revitalization of downtown Providence while advocating for the intrinsic value of artists and art practice in the role of community development. Each year, AS220 serves over 1,000 artists and is destination for upwards of 93,000 people.

In 2008, AS220 purchased the Mercantile Block, located on Washington Street and directly abutting the Dreyfus. In the last decade of the 19th century, city records say that the site now occupied by the Mercantile contained a laundry and then a scale repair shop on the Washington Street side. On the Martha Street side was a good sized livery where horses and carriages could be boarded or hired. The Mercantile of today dates back to 1901 and is actually composed of several buildings that were joined over time.

Once regarded as a “back alley”, Martha Street was transformed into a vibrant pedestrian way, greatly animating the neighborhood and enhancing safety. The Street was renamed Lucie Way in honor of Lucie Searle, the Historic Preservationist responsible for the re-development of AS220’s three buildings.

DBVW has over two decades of experience and accumulated expertise in planning, designing and executing meticulous restoration projects for some of the region’s most treasured landmark buildings.  They’ve developed several areas of expertise related to historic structures, including:

  • Landmark-Quality Restoration Services
  • Condition Assessments and Feasibility Studies
  • Phasing Recommendations with Cost Estimation
  • Sustainable Design for Historic and Older Buildings
  • Federal and State Historic Tax Credit Applications
  • Interior Design within Historic and Older Buildings

Since DBVW’s founding in 1994, approximately eighty-five percent of the firm’s projects have involved the rehabilitation and reuse of historic buildings.

Photo by Heidi Gumula/DBVW Architects.

See article by Jared Foretek in Saving Places.

See project page on DBVW website.

See AS220 website.

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