Jazz Age hideaway holds its secret

‘It’s the coolest private-entertaining space in the city.’

Twenty-seven stories above downtown Providence, next to a peregrine falcon coup, sits a 200-square-foot, leather-paneled piece of the Jazz Age. More

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Jazz Age hideaway holds its secret

‘It’s the coolest private-entertaining space in the city.’

PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
HIDDEN AWAY: ‘Superman’ building manager Dennis Hunt in a 200-square-foot room that dates back to the Jazz Age. Theories about the room's past include a Prohibition-era bar and an executive suite for negotiations.
PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
EMPTY SPACE: The middle floors of the Bank of America building downtown include stored electronics in vacant offices.
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Posted 3/5/12

Twenty-seven stories above downtown Providence, next to a peregrine falcon coup, sits a 200-square-foot, leather-paneled piece of the Jazz Age.

It’s a chamber no larger than an Airstream trailer with dark wood trim, closets with a wet bar and a wine rack, all perched on the upper tier of the Bank of America Building on Westminster Street.

Debate about the room – why it was built and what it was used for – is a minor pastime in Providence. A popular theory suggests the room was designed as a waiting area for passengers of trans-Atlantic dirigibles that would moor themselves to the top of the tower.

Others think it more likely the space was an executive retreat for smoke-filled business negotiations or a high-rise speak-easy for late-night entertaining during Prohibition.

Either way, the space, known alternately as the “penthouse” or the “gondola,” is one of the more distinctive features of the historic building and an example of how the banking world it was built for in 1928 has passed it by.

Like other parts of the Bank of America building, which is approximately 40 percent vacant, the penthouse has not been used for years. Several of the original windows have been replaced or boarded up and the leather lining the walls is torn.

Now that Bank of America has said it will leave the building by next spring, some are wondering what will happen to this anachronistic chamber and whether it could be part of a new vision for the tower.

“When these kinds of buildings were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bank presidents were the banks, they invented these banks, and the buildings were monuments to them as much as civic buildings,” said James Hall, president of the Providence Preservation Society. “I think there was a closer tie between architecture and personal narrative than there is now.”

Hall doesn’t subscribe to the blimp-terminal explanation for the penthouse – citing no primary-source reference to an airship mast, among other things – but thinks the mysterious structure adds to the bank-building’s allure.

Dennis Hunt, who manages the building for CB-Richard Ellis Global Corporate Services, said the penthouse hasn’t been used or furnished in at least 40 years.

It is, however, a good vantage point to observe the nest maintained by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island for a pair of peregrine falcons that circle the Financial District towers looking for prey.

Matthew Bird, an adjunct professor of industrial-design history at Rhode Island School of Design and owner of the Curatorium on Wickenden Street, has been researching the penthouse since he had the chance to visit it recently.

Bird said the connection between the “Superman” building, as it is known by locals, and airships is enduring and may have been formed in 1928 when the Graf Zeppelin’s first trans-Atlantic flight and the tower’s construction dominated local headlines. The “gondola” nickname refers to the cabin attached to an airship, as if it could be lifted straight off the building and into the sky.

But Bird believes the penthouse may have been a surprise gift from the building’s architect to the president of the bank to use as an out-of-site space during a time when alcohol was illegal.

“In its day, the building was super high-tech – it had 16 elevators – so if it was supposed to be accessible by everyone it would have been,” Bird said. “My interpretation is it was a little, private funhouse during Prohibition for the bank president where he could do whatever out of sight of the authorities. It’s decrepit now, but it is still a charming little space.”

When the Industrial Trust Co. opened the building in 1928, it was the firm’s world headquarters. The only way to the penthouse is through a stairwell opening in the lobby of the president’s 26th-floor office.

A bank president hasn’t worked from the building, also known as 111 Westminster St. and 55 Kennedy Plaza, for years.

Even before it was bought by Bank of America, Fleet bank had moved its headquarters out of the building. Bank of America is based in Charlotte, N.C., and Rhode Island is only a tiny piece of the corporation’s market.

On street level, the giant branch lobby on the Kennedy Plaza side is still a showpiece, but with the explosion of online and automated technology, large retail spaces have become unnecessary and banks have been steadily shrinking their branches.

Bank of America said when it leaves 111 Westminster St., it will reopen another downtown branch in a smaller space.

In the middle of the building, old printers, photocopiers and fax machines now sit in heaps on empty floors of vacated offices. Bank of America doesn’t need them anymore and is using the excess space to store them before they are recycled.

Unlike modern office buildings, the heating system in 111 Westminster is designed for a single user, making it difficult to break the building up and lease it to a number of smaller, corporate users.

The amount of work needed to update the building for modern office use, combined with the relatively soft demand for downtown space leads many to believe the tower will eventually be converted to mixed or residential use.

“It’s a mess and needs a huge amount of money to fix up, so I think a conversion to mixed use at some point might be the answer,” said Mike Giuttari, president of MG Commercial Real Estate. “It is not what people want in office space right now and when it is empty there just is not going to be a big-enough demand for office space downtown.”

If the bank building is eventually converted to apartments or condominiums, then period details like the penthouse could eventually become selling points.

“If you talk about condos, that [penthouse] space would be a trump card – it’s the coolest private-entertaining space in the city,” Bird said. “Like a smokestack in a factory conversion, it is a curiosity that everyone would want in their unit.”•

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