A partner at Northeast Collaborative Architects (formerly Newport Collaborative Architects), J. Michael Abbott has worked on many high-profile and historic buildings in Providence including renovations of the Providence Performing Art Center and the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. This winter, Northeast Collaborative unveiled a redesign of the historic Arcade building in the financial district that will see the second and third floor commercial spaces converted into apartments. Abbott took a few moments to discuss the Arcade design with PBN.
PBN: When did you first hear about the chance to redesign the Arcade and what was your reaction?
ABBOTT: I have been working with Evan Granoff for three years on this project. He knew how unique and special the Arcade is and had been looking for the right mix of uses. The existing model of the food court with offices above no longer worked. The building had been functionally obsolete. We first looked at office uses for the upper floors, both multi-tenants and or a single-use tenant. That also was determined not to work because the building would close at 5 p.m. and the public wouldn’t be able to “cut through” from Weybosset to Westminster, an important historic function. Maintaining public access has been a priority. Everyone loves the building, but it was a nightmare to operate. In fact our first office in Providence was on the third floor of the Arcade, so I was very excited to be involved with the project from the beginning.
PBN: Can you describe the new micro-lofts and give a feel for what it would be like to live in one?
ABBOTT: The new micro-lofts will almost have the feeling of a ship’s cabin inside. Your bed is built-in with drawers below, and swing-arm wall-mounted lamps above – perfect for reading in bed. Your living room has a built-in sofa with drawers below, again for additional storage. Each unit has a large bay window that looks into the atrium space and provides lots of natural light. The bed area will have two new operable windows to the exterior, also for natural light and ventilation. Each unit also has a mini kitchen and full bathroom with shower. All a tenant needs is to show up with a duffle bag and their laptop and they are good-to-go! Each morning just step out onto your “front porch,” wave to your neighbor across the atrium, go to your bike garage in the basement and you are off to work in Downcity or the emerging Jewelry/Knowledge District. True cosmopolitan living.
PBN: What was most challenging about the project and what aspect of the design are you most proud of?
ABBOTT: The most challenging part of the project is that your are working on a priceless antique, almost 200 years old, and you want to be very careful not to do any harm. The building is a national historic landmark and very important to our country’s history as the first indoor shopping mall. So all the quirks and bends and shifts that make the place unique must be preserved. All of the changes we are making to the building are reversible, so in the future another generation can make whatever changes they feel are necessary to keep the building from being functionally obsolete. The building has always adapted to meet the needs of its time.
PBN: The new apartments will have dishwashers, but no stoves. What was the thinking behind that decision?
ABBOTT: The kitchens are best described as small but useful. You won’t be cooking Thanksgiving dinner here, just everyday foodstuffs that you pull from the freezer and warm up. They will have 3/4 sized refrigerators with full freezers, microwaves, and small dishwashers. Just a personal-sized kitchen for cooking for oneself. There are no stoves because of the limited space, as well as the safety hazard of having heating devices in such a confined area. Besides, we will have several food establishments on the first floor who I am sure will deliver upstairs, just like room service!
PBN: Did you look at any other historic buildings that have been converted into mixed use as models for the Arcade project?
ABBOTT: Adaptive reuse of historic buildings has been a common goal throughout the preservation community for quite a while. However, I can’t think of any examples like the Arcade. Buildings have had mixed uses frequently, but not where they co-mingle so effectively like they will in our atrium. Other buildings in Europe like the Galleria in Milan have had mixed retail and residential for centuries. Many people refer to the Arcade as being similar to Faneuil Hall in Boston, but it doesn’t incorporate residential units. Our new retail arcade with micro-lofts is cutting edge.