Photos and text by Kim Kalunian, WPRO News
“Imagine the time, the amount of wealth that was in the city for this to be constructed,” said Bill Fischer, spokesman for High Rock Development as he walked through the glittering walls of the vault inside 111 Westminster Street.
The 111 Westminster address was once the most prestigious in the city. Now the former Industrial Trust Bank building is empty, aside from dozens of desks, chairs, a full gym’s worth of equipment abandoned by Bank of America, and the occasional creepy crawler.
“The Superman Building” – nicknamed so because it is widely thought to be the inspiration for the Daily Planet in the Superman comic strips – is a 28-story office building in the heart of Downtown Providence. But the behemoth is in a state of flux, and its owners, High Rock Development, are looking for ways to inject new life into the aging Man of Steel.
When High Rock purchased the building in 2008 for $33 million, Fischer said there were no signs that the lessee, Bank of America, was going anywhere. At the time, Bank of America was about five years into their 10 year lease, and had invested $7 million into retrofitting the building with a brand new sprinkler system.
“They made that expenditure just a few years ago,” said Fischer. “And people said, well you knew they were leaving, no we didn’t there was no indication they were going to leave until the very end.”
But there were clues. Bank of America started using less and less of the 350,000 square feet of office space over time, but because their lease was for the entire building, High Rock couldn’t subdivide.
Fischer said Bank of America only used about 25 percent of the building towards the end of their lease. The company finally moved out in April.
The expansive main level of the building alone is 17,000 square feet and has three-story ceilings. The area was used by bank tellers and served as the epicenter of the bank’s activity. In its heyday, 111 Westminster was Industrial Trust’s 16th busiest branch, and sometimes the basement vault held $3 billion in assets.
Today, bank branches typically occupy 3,000 to 4,000 square feet or space, and keep only $150 million in assets. Fischer said the building simply isn’t conducive to one tenant anymore.
“The world has changed and [the building] served its shelf life,” he said. “We’re never going to find a bank in this era… that’s looking for 17,000 square feet.”
So High Rock has a plan: convert the building into 278 luxury apartments (ranging from studios to three bedrooms) and turn the lower level into shops and restaurants. The plan isn’t cheap, and High Rock is looking to get $70 million in city, state and federal aid.
But lawmakers aren’t exactly champing at the bit to cough up that money.
“We understand that they’re approaching it with caution, we respect that,” said Fischer, who said High Rock is not looking to lease or sell the building; he said owner, David Sweetser, is committed to Providence and to making the iconic tower something useful.
So what happens if they don’t get the money?
“We take a time out,” said Fischer.
It’s unclear how long of a time out that will be. To keep the exterior lights lit (including the 69 bulbs in the beacon on top) costs $26,000 a year. Fischer said between security, utilities and property taxes, it costs $2 million annually to keep the building in its current state.
And its current state is indicative of the building’s age.
The main level has been fairly well maintained; the marble still gleams (even in just the trickle of natural light coming through the windows, since interior lights are kept off) and the art deco accents are still intact. The zodiac symbols painted around the chandeliers are still pristine, and the marble columns surrounding the room are something to behold.
But ascend just a few floors, and it becomes clear that the building is in a state of disrepair. Fischer said they would have to knock down a lot of interior walls, and spend at least $12 million on exterior renovations.
“The building needs a lot of work,” he said.
From development to completion, the renovations are expected to take 30 months.
High Rock plans to keep a lot of the original accoutrements of the building, and Fischer said they have talked to restaurants about using the massive basement vault as a special dining area. The walls of the vault (which seals with a 17 ton steel door) are lined with hundreds of glittering safe deposit boxes. A few steps down the hall in the money counting room, dozens of larger safes lay open… and empty.
Up 28 floors from there are some of the building’s most fabled rooms, like the executive suite of the former CEO with its bird’s eye views of Providence and beyond. Then there’s the “Gondola Room,” the leather-lined the penthouse fashioned to resemble the interior of the dirigible Her Majesty’s Airship No.1.
Every nook and cranny of the building has a story of a bygone era, and it’s the building’s storied past that incentivizes the developers to keep it around for the future.
“It’s not going anywhere,” said Fischer, who said the idea to demolish the building is out of the question, both for practical (there’s no room to collapse it) and sentimental reasons.
111 Westminster accounts for 10 percent of Downtown Providence’s office space, which is one of the main reasons High Rock wants to make it residential.
“Providence has an incredibly strong rental real estate market in downtown,” Fischer said. “We know the market analysis that the market exists, we know this.”
In addition to High Rock’s confidence that there’s a demand for more rental properties, Fischer said there’s also a glut of office space. According to a report commissioned by the developers, 19% of office space in downtown Providence is vacant. Adding 111 Westminster into that number would bring it up to 25 or 28 percent.
“It would take the city 25 years to absorb that amount of office space,” said Fischer, citing the report.
Fischer said they’re confident converting the building into residences would generate $159 million in spending, create 650 construction jobs and 230 permanent jobs (once open). Plus, he said, the 450 residents would stimulate the nearby economy.
But none of that will happen without money from the state, city and federal government, and with the sting of 38 Studios still fresh in everyone’s mind, it’s uncertain when and if that will happen.
111 Westminster is not at all like 38 Studios, Fischer said, and with support from the government, the reimagined Superman Building could again be an economic hub for Providence. Fischer likens 111 Westminster to the Renaissance Hotel, which laid empty for years before receiving more than $30 million in state and federal tax credits.
“When you get away from the bottom line and the 38 [Studios] hangover that we’re all walking in…we hope people are going to draw the conclusion that it makes sense,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct an error that said the plan proposes 450 apartments. The plan is actually for 278 apartments with 450 residents.
An award-winning journalist and theater critic – and a performer at heart. Kim covers everything from politics and breaking news to food and theater.