A rendering of an architectural building with a background structure.

Nix on new RI State Archives building – David Brussat

by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There, contributing writer

Photo, top: Proposed design for a new Rhode Island Archives and History Center. (Office of R.I. Secy. of State)

By proposing to build itself a new headquarters, the Rhode Island State Archives has revealed itself capable of the self-aggrandizement conventional in most government bureaucracies. Granted, there has never before been a designated state archives building in Rhode Island.

The state archives has been housed in several locations over the centuries (once at the bottom of a pond for safekeeping from the British, if my memory serves), most recently in an abominably tedious office building at 33 Broad St., known colloquially as the Black & Blue Building, in which it rents space from Paolino Properties at $248,000 a year. For all its dour appearance, at least it is not in a flood plain, as was its predecessor since 1990, until 2020, at 337 Westminster Street (which was at least an attractive Art Deco style, c.1927). Officials at the archives, which operates under the Office of the R.I. Secretary of State, claim that Rhode Island is the only state without an officially designated state archives building.

The proposal for a new building has surfaced several times in recent years, only to be shot down by the General Assembly. In the last go-round, the proposed facility took the form illustrated above, with its hackneyed off-kilter floor levels. This is not the current design, if there is one. It was to have been located on vacant land across Smith Street from the State House.

The proposal’s aesthetic demerits probably did not sink it in the assembly. Even with federal Covid funds threatening the state’s financial probity, this facility was deemed too extravagant. But even a state legislator might sense that the facility was not a proper look for so exalted a purpose as a state archive. A building boasting such a use ought, one might suspect, speak to us of history, that is, it should be housed in a historic building, in an old building of  traditional design, or, dare we way it, a new building of traditional design.

Earlier proposals to move the archives to the Cranston Street Armory were found to be too costly. News of a study deploring the archival situation was published in the Providence Journal in 1924 under the headline “Urges More Safeguards for State’s Archives.”

A committee chaired by the deputy secretary of state, Rob Rock, has been convened to address this longstanding issue. State Archivist Ashley Selima is also involved. Its next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 15, at the State House. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds a certain portion of the state’s historical documents collection. It should be part of the discussion about where to relocate the state archive, if it has not already been involved.

A site across from the State House would be perfectly appropriate, if the design were also appropriately historical – but as that is unlikely, the committee should look again at existing buildings that are appropriate from a fiscal, safety, and aesthetic standpoint.


To read other articles by David Brussat:

My freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat, Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, [email protected], or call (401) 351-0451.