Archive for August 2011

The Cranston Street Armory   Leave a comment

View of the “proposed new state armory” from Providence Board of Trade (1898).

A peek inside.
310 Cranston St, Providence
by Michael Schemaille
(photos by the author unless noted otherwise)

Located on Providence’s West Side, the Cranston Street Armory is an imposing, fortress-like building set at the back end of the Dexter Training Grounds. No longer used for military purposes, the armory (sometimes referred to as the Rhode Island State Armory) serves today as the State Fire Marshal’s Office, as well as providing a secondary home and storage facility for the Board of Elections.

It’s easy enough to walk around the outside of the building and see the care that went into its construction, the details that make it special. They certainly don’t make them like they used to. But, while anyone can walk around the outside of the building, not everyone gets to see the interior. I’ve had the opportunity to explore inside a bit, and would like to shed some light on some very cool hidden details in this crumbling architectural masterpiece.

The largest part of the armory is the parade floor, covering nearly 9,000 square feet and surrounded by an enormous steel skeleton. I’m told that during its heyday, the floor was so highly polished that you could see your reflection in it. Sadly, those days are over and today the floor is drab and dusty, patched here and there with plywood. Over the years, the floor has served a number of interesting purposes, but today chain-link fences line the sides of the floor, containing much of the Rhode Island Board of Elections’ inventory of voting booths, ballot boxes, and polling place signs. Down one side of the room lies a row of suitcases and cinderblocks, used as training aids for sniffer dogs. In 2007, the parade floor was used as a sound stage for Disney’s Underdog.

Perhaps the most interesting detail on the parade floor is the pair of “wheelhouses” at one end of the room. These wooden structures were built to resemble the bridges of warships, with observation ports and duty stations. Their purpose here was to train ships’ artillerymen in “dialing in” their shots. Receiving coordinates from their two “spotter ships,” the artillerymen would then adjust their windage and elevation settings to hit an imaginary target. I’m told that for a long time, a ship’s gun sat in the middle of the floor, and that there’s an enormous concrete vault in the basement that was built to accommodate the gun’s weight.

My tour guide, one of the Marshals, was kind enough to take me all the way up to the roof. The views of Providence were extraordinary, and it gave me a chance to see some other architectural details that I would have never known about otherwise. Each of the towers has several parapets, and from the roof, each one is accessible by a small door. These were sniper nests, meant for crowd control in the event of a rebellion or riot. This makes some sense, considering that this armory was built on the site of one that stood during the time of the now nearly-forgotten Dorr Rebellion.

Sadly, there wasn’t much else of interest inside the towers. Years of neglect have taken their toll, and there’s significant evidence that a large number of pigeons once took roost above the first floor. Light fixtures hang askew from the ceilings, everything is covered in dust, and the paint, no doubt leaded, is peeling from every wall. While there are tentative plans to open the building up to more state offices, it’s going to take a lot of time and taxpayer money to get it to that stage.

Because each tower only has one staircase, the building doesn’t have adequate fire escapes. This means that for the foreseeable future, only the first floor is inhabitable. Putting in fire escapes would require building escape stairs into the parade floor, or, more reasonably, along the outside of the building. Given the cost of rehab needed on the building’s exterior, this is also highly unlikely in the near future. The city continues to put money into repairs and upkeep, but it seems to only be a palliative measure. This historic building deserves more, and I’m glad I got the chance to see it before it crumbles further.

"1904 Designed and Built by the Boston Bridge Works" – plaque on one of the major support beams on the parade floor.

“1904 Designed and Built by the Boston Bridge Works” – plaque on one of the major support beams on the parade floor.

A view of the parade floor. The white frame in the middle of the floor is for fireman training. The large blue mass in the back corner are stacks of voting booths.

A view of the parade floor. The white frame in the middle of the floor is for fireman training. The large blue mass in the back corner are stacks of voting booths.

One of the "ship's bridges," designed for artillery training. Note the azimuth "scoreboard" at top left.

One of the “ship’s bridges,” designed for artillery training. Note the azimuth “scoreboard” at top left.

A row of suitcases for sniffer dog training. The ring of cinderblocks in the background holds cans of scented materials for further training.

A row of suitcases for sniffer dog training. The ring of cinderblocks in the background holds cans of scented materials for further training.

Detail of West door.

Detail of West door.

A stairpost. The anchor motif can be seen all around the first floor, but nowhere above. Likely, the artistic details were meant to be seen by visitors who wouldn't progress beyond the first floor.

A stairpost. The anchor motif can be seen all around the first floor, but nowhere above. Likely, the artistic details were meant to be seen by visitors who wouldn’t progress beyond the first floor.

A dizzying view of the parade floor from the catwalks above.

A dizzying view of the parade floor from the catwalks above.

One of the dusty, crumbling rooms in the West tower.

One of the dusty, crumbling rooms in the West tower.

Corner detail, taken from the catwalk.

Corner detail, taken from the catwalk.

A view of the roof. Note the sniper's door in the corner turret.

A view of the roof. Note the sniper’s door in the corner turret.

Another roof view.

Another roof view.

Commemorative plaque at the East entrance. Photo by Christopher Martin.

Commemorative plaque at the East entrance. Photo by Christopher Martin.

Information

Hours: The armory is not generally open to the public. You need to keep your eye out for the rare public event, or else know a guy, to get a peek inside.

Finding it: From Route 95 take exit 21. If coming from the north, continue straight from the top of the exit ramp and turn right on Westminster Street. If coming from the south, turn left at the top of the ramp onto Broadway, take an immediate left onto John J. Partington Way, then turn right on Westminster. Once on Westminster, bear left at the Y intersection onto Cranston Street. Go about one half mile, the Cranston Street Armory is on the right.

Related:
The Cranston Street Armory on Wikipedia.
The Cranston Street Armory on ArtInRuins.com.

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Michael Schemaille is a former English teacher and a current freelance writer and editor. A native New Yorker, he has lived in Rhode Island since 2006 and is quite fond of his adopted state. He is an avid geocacher, a hobby that takes him to many strange and unusual locations.

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Welcome to the Quahog Annex   Leave a comment

What cheer, oh seeker of Rhode Islanditude?

The Quahog Annex is just what it sounds like—an annex to the website Quahog.org. Why is such an annex needed? Because Quahog.org is in a state of flux. There are several features that do not currently work (chief among them the Quiz, the search function, and the ability to upload photos). We are in the process of slowly upgrading the entire site using Drupal, but in the meantime we’d like this annex to be a temporary place to publish content that has been languishing for over a year because of these technical issues.

It’s not all poisoned chocolates and dead flowers, though. Quahog’s events calendar is still being updated with all of the best events related to Rhode Island’s history, culture and quirks.

How to Google It.

How to Google It.

All of the content that was live in the past is still live on Quahog.org. If you are looking for something specific on the site, we suggest you use Google site search to find it.

You’ll also find additional stuff of interest on our Facebook page.

As always, your comments, corrections, suggestions, etc. are always welcome. You can post here, via Facebook or dial direct at stuffie@quahog.org.

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Posted August 6, 2011 by stuffiex in Home, Welcome

Tagged with , , , , ,

Big Hair   Leave a comment

On the trail of a Rhode Island fashion phenomenon.
by Tracey Minkin

[The following article originally appeared in the January 1991 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]

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'Bang Tsunami.' Illustration by Christopher Martin.

Big hair… big hair… big hair.

It haunted me like some sort of conspiratorial secret handshake. Here I was, new to Rhode Island, doing my level best to eat New York System wieners, locate Leo’s on a city map, and remember which bridge connected which damn island, and I hadn’t spotted any big hair. Lord knows I’m looking. I prowled the streets, looking for wild, vertical, careening coiffures that would live up to that simple but loaded label.

Well, as they say in politics, expectations are everything. While I had my eyes trained upward, hoping to spot high-altitude bouffants straight off a B-52s album cover, I was apparently missing the real thing right under (or actually, a bit above) my nose. A friend pointed it out to me one night at the Warwick Showcase Cinemas. She, a Rhode Island native, directed my gaze to a pack of teenagers. “That,” she said authoritatively, “is big hair.”

So this was it? But this wasn’t so big really as it was extreme. What I saw was frontal-attack hairstyling: bangs poised, claw-like, on girls’ foreheads, curls pumped up into exaggerated silhouettes. It wasn’t hair. It was architecture. It was theater. It was mesmerizing.

I had to know more. It was kind of like art, people told me: you knew big hair when you saw it, and it was a Rhode Island phenomenon whose epicenter was found in Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence: the Golden Triangle of Big Hair. But when it came to details — the hows and whys of big hair — everyone came up blank.

I went to the pros, and started to get some real answers. Miss Mary, an instructor at Costin’s Warwick Academy of Beauty Culture, rattled off a taxonomic model as though she had it written down next to the phone: “There are three types of big hair,” she said. “Spiral perms, the spike look, and the big tease look.” The common link was hairspray. Lacquer hairspray with names like Vavoom and Stiff Stuff. Lots of it.

It’s a teen thing, I was told, with tendrils into the fledgling college years. When the sun goes down, look for it at nightclubs such as Barry’s in Warwick and Club Confetti in North Providence. And yes, it certainly is a Cranston-Johnston-North Providence phenomenon. Robert Lombardi of Dellaria Salons in Cranston’s Garden City hazarded the sociological assessment that everyone else was ducking. “It’s a middle class thing,” he said. Lombardi laid out the scenario: style-hungry kids with not a lot of expendable income see big heads of hair on MTV and in the movies, and they try to do it themselves. Lombardi can spot a big hair case as soon as she walks in the door and utters the telltale words: just a trim. “I try to talk them out of it,” he said, “or at least show them the right way, so they don’t look absolutely ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, I was getting so good at spotting big hair, I believe I’ve discovered a new variation. I call it the El Capitan. It’s a reversal of the claw — a girl takes her bangs, and instead of yanking them forward and spritzing them into place, she sweeps them up and back, way up and back, forming a vertical wall, like the face of a cliff.

Whaddya know? Big hair is mutating, it’s adapting. Despite fashion trends that whisper short hair for spring, I think big hair may continue to prosper here in the Golden Triangle for an indefinite period. Lombardi, the philosophical stylist, agreed with me and put it in perspective. “Look,” he said, “there are people out there who are still doing the Hustle and wearing gold chains.” Perhaps the Big Hair Era has only just begun.

Tracey Minkin has written about Rhode Island places and people for regional and national magazines for more than twenty years. She lives in Providence’s Fox Point with her two kids, who are real Rhode Islanders.

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Editor’s Notes

Cartoon by Charlie Hall © 2006, used with permission.

Cartoon by Charlie Hall © 2006, used with permission.

Ocean State Follies, Rhode Island’s premier comedy cabaret, has been poking fun at our state’s foibles since 1992. Two recurring characters are Chevyl and Vhonda, a pair of big hair geniuses with sexy Cvaanston and Johnston accents who run a salon on Mineral Spring Avenue in Nort’ Providence called Slut Cuts. Even nearly twenty years later these stereotypes are still recognizable and eminently mockworthy. Since this article was published in 1991 only the styles have changed; the aesthetic remains. We proffer the following evidence:

Dave Gilmartin, in his 2006 book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America, cited Cranston as one example of the nadir of human civilization. Selections for the book were based on submissions from people all over the country, such as this one from a woman named Pam Oakman: “AquaNet and hair salons will never go out of business as long as Cranston exists. Big hair and nails are still in style there, like it’s New Jersey circa 1987 or something.”

In a 2006 article for the North Providence Breeze, comedian Frank O’Donnell did the math and found that North Providence had more hair salons per capita than any other Rhode Island municipality — one salon for every 490 residents. Johnston and Cranston came in second and third with one salon for every 512 and 524 residents, respectively.

In 2009 the MTV reality show Jersey Shore debuted, spotlighting eight vain and vapid twenty-somethings sharing a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Among them was Johnston’s Pauly DelVecchio, a club DJ with a super-gelled slicked-up tuffet of hair that immediately became known nationwide by its owner’s name. God help us, but it’s true — people have actually been requesting the “Pauly D” at their local salons. Pauly’s MTV bio notes that he “keeps a tanning bed in his house. He orders gel by the case and does his hair twice a day — once in the morning and once before hitting the town.”

So it would seem that the Golden Triangle continues to exert an influence over the hairstyling decisions of the youth of Johnston, Cranston, and North Providence.

Leo’s, by the way, was a popular bar and grill located on the corner of Chestnut and Clifford Streets. Because its clientele was heavily weighted with the literati of Providence, the Phoenix‘s Phillipe and Jorge dubbed it the “Providence Night School of Journalism.” Leo’s, Barry’s Nightclub (1473 Warwick Avenue, Warwick), and Club Confetti (393 Charles Street, Providence), are all long gone.

Hey, did you have big hair in the ’90’s? Do you still have big hair? Send us a picture! This article needs illustrations!

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