WEDDING CAKE HOUSE
One of our goals as residents and stewards of historic buildings is not just to engage with the built environment and architecture of the structures, but also through the intimate experience of living in them, to learn about their histories. We’re curious about how people in the past intersected with them, planned them, built them, worked in them, felt about them, and eventually let them fall into disrepair. We believe that artists have invaluable perspective to offer to the fields of historical research and preservation, and that the past has invaluable perspective to offer to artists. We’re interested in the Olneyville and Federal Hill neighborhoods that surround the buildings and how they have changed over time and continue to transform. This interest comes not just as passive observers but as active neighbors, with an analysis of power regarding cycles of investment and divestment in urban areas and the roles artists have played at different times as harbingers of many things including displacement. We also know from experience that “artist” is not a singular identity and that artists exist at intersections of various relationships to class, race, gender, and immigration status. As a long running project we have had the opportunity to be part of local neighborhood initiatives working to preserve and develop income restricted affordable housing in the Olneyville neighborhood and work toward comprehensive community development that increases amenities and quality of life without leading to the displacement of low income residents.
At some point we’d like to have part of this website built out to house lots of information about both Dirt Palace Classic and the Wedding Cake House. We imagine this involving photographs and other primary source materials, but also recordings of oral histories, artworks, memories etc that feed into a broad understanding of these buildings from a variety of perspectives. If you have stories, thoughts or other digital materials to share, we’d love to hear from you. It might take us a little bit of time to organize it into a larger documentation project, but we’ll take good care of them in the meantime.
DIRT PALACE CLASSIC
The Dirt Palace came together in the building at 14 Olneyville Square in 2000. We now call this space “Dirt Palace Classic”. The building was built in 1900* as the Olneyville Public Library. As can be seen in this gallery of historic photos, the building originally had 2 additional floors as well as a peaked roof and turrets. The library occupied the upper floors and the downstairs was retail. We believe that it was first a furniture store, and later a drugstore. When we came to it in 2000 it had been empty for some time but most recently had been used as jewelry manufacturing and a church. We do not know the details of exactly why the upper stories were removed, but this portion of the building was were taken down in 1955. Olneyville was part of Johnston from its settling by English colonists around 1785 until 1898 at which point it was annexed by the City of Providence, so some of the early history of the Olneyville Free Library can be found in Johnston Historical Society Archives.
The Providence Public Library has two boxes of historical materials relating to The Olneyville Free Library. This is the historical note to accompany this collection. “The Olneyville Free Library was formed in 1875 and was originally located in the mill at 12 Hartford Avenue. This library was later annexed to the Town of Johnston in 1898. In 1899 a new location was built in Olneyville Square on land willed to the library by Miss Sarah Waterman in 1890. The will of Miss Sarah Waterman stipulated that the library should be constructed within five years of her death, and should bear the Waterman name. The Olneyville Free Library opened this new location of the Waterman Building in 1900. The library was located on the second and third floors, with the first floor serving as rented storefronts. The library became a branch of the Providence Public library in 1946. The Waterman building was remodeled in 1955 with the removal of the top two floors. The Olneyville branch closed in 1981. A new branch location was opened by the Providence Public Library located at 1 Olneyville Square in 1989.”
The Dirt Palace at our flagship property in Olneyville Square is often cited as an example for how artists can come together to steward a difficult to rehab space, maintain and improve it over time. When we first came to this building it had been neglected with tons of deferred maintenance. Windows were boarded, the roof leaked Today, it is both aesthetically striking as well as structurally sound, offering a productive environment for its residents.
Over the course of many years we self-performed most carpentry and routine repair work including replacing floors, adding bathrooms, subdividing space and building walls. We managed subcontractors to replace the roof, windows, install a fire alarm system and paint the exterior. At the Dirt Palace we have structured monthly work-days where our ‘many hands’ come together to make ‘light work’ out of projects that might seem otherwise impossible. We have some documentation of this process on the Archives: Construction DP Classic page, however the documentation that we have that is organized enough to share on this website is woefully incomplete, and primarily focuses on the first couple of years (2000-2003). Thanks for your patience with our archiving and getting organized!
Do you have old photos of Olneyville Sq with this building in them? Pictures that we might not have of our renovation process? Photos of the interior of the building? Hit us up!
Wedding Cake House
From the Providence Preservation Society: “The building at 514 Broadway is often referred to as the “Wedding Cake House” as it is Providence’s consummate “gingerbread”. The Kendrick-Prentice-Tirocchi House was built and designed in 1867-68 by Broadway resident Perez Mason. Built for John Kendrick, a manufacturer of loom harnesses, important to 19th-century textile production, it became the home of buttonhook manufacturer George W. Prentice in the early 1880s.”
The building was last notably occupied by the Tirocchi sisters and the couture design business that they ran from the location from 1915 to 1947. Like the house and its iconic architecture, The Tirocchi sisters and the story of their enterprise is a revered part of Providence history. Anna and Laura Tirocchi immigrated to the U.S from Italy in the early 1900’s and started a dressmaking business. Against all odds, over time they were successful enough to purchase one of the most distinctive houses in the city where they ran their shop. This is noteworthy for the time period, as it was a feat for both women and immigrants to command wealth and own significant property. Their business and design acumen is not to be understated. Their success came not only at a time with rigid, identity based ceilings to work against, but also during an upheaval in the garment industry when clothing was moving from one-of-a-kind, custom tailoring into ready-to-wear markets. In 1910 there were 754 dressmakers in Providence, and in 1935 only 177. In 1947 Anna Tirocchi passed away and Laura closed the shop, yet preserved many items. In 1990 the RISD Museum accessioned 283 items from their house, and in 2001 organized an exhibition around the sisters called From Paris to Providence: Fashion, Art and the Tirocchi Dressmakers’ Shop. They produced a compendium catalog with the exhibit under the same title featuring essays by prominent costume and textile curators and scholars. The University of Rhode Island’s fashion merchandising program accessioned over 2,000 items and numerous researchers and students have written about the Tirocchi sisters and the collection. The location and history of the building as the famous site of a woman-owned design business made it an ideal project to complement our facility in Olneyville Square, as well as our mission and programs. In 2016 we began to write grant proposals to develop the property into what it is today: a short term artist residency facility as well as a Bed & Breakfast that generates income to support the organization and all of its programs. By January of 2017 we had negotiated financing with the city, gotten critical funding to begin renovations, and by May we got keys to the building to begin the long project of physically restoring it. In March of 2020 we received the certificate of occupancy for the building, the official go ahead that we could place the building into service. Two days later the entire state shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic. What a wild ride!
There are some photos of our renovation process on the Archives: Construction WCH page, but this too is a work in progress!