Present and Preserve Providence: The Old Brick Schoolhouse


Preserve, Present, Providence: The Old Brick Schoolhouse "The Old Brick Schoolhouse" The Old Brick Schoolhouse (aka Meeting Street School or Providence Preservation Society) is a historic colonial property at 24 Meeting Street in Providence, Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Historic Preservation Society requested assistance from RISD to plan a revitalization of the Old Brick Schoolhouse consistent with its historic use for education and public assembly, as well as to develop programming that support their historic preservation mission. Our class within the Interior Architecture department took on the task, each student individually redesigning the space to make it more functionally useful and accessible to their employees and visitors. The following details my approach to the task, which was presented to a board of critics and the client.

This project led me to become familiar with significant issues facing historic structures, understand a building’s social and historic context, as well as document an existing structure and learn to solicit information from and propose solutions to a client.  The biggest question at hand was, “How do we make contemporary spaces within a historic framework?

"The Old Brick Schoolhouse"

Due to the historic importance of the structure, we were not to make any major alterations to the existing exterior of the brick school house if it was a historic feature of the structure. The interior space and all non-historic components of the back of the structure (such as the asphalt parking lot, covered back door addition, and an inefficient boiler room) were open to change. One important desire of the client was to include a space appropriate for board meetings and giving presentations for both large groups of up to 50 people from the community as well as small gatherings of members of the organization (7 currently employed with intention to grow in number by 1-3 persons every year).

"The Old Brick Schoolhouse""The Old Brick Schoolhouse""The Old Brick Schoolhouse" "The Old Brick Schoolhouse"

Design priorities were broken up into five categories:  Preservation/restoration, Business, Attraction, Landscape, and Demolition/construction.

Below is a bullet list I made during my initial design process:

"The Old Brick Schoolhouse"

In conducting my research on the building, I read a few books on Providence History and a few great characters stood out to me. One of my favorite stories from the history of this building is that of Ransom Parker–  journalist, activist, school teacher, and also one of the first black state officials, who advocated at the constitutional convention in the 1840s for black rights in Rhode Island. He became a teacher in the Old Brick School House and it became one of the first schools in America to give public education. I proposed that this inspirational figure should be the focus of the larger of the two exhibition rooms, which would be decorated in the style of a mid-19th century schoolroom that looks alive and in anticipation of a classroom full of children to walk in at any moment to begin their school day. The restoration of this classroom should be convincing, and the story of the schoolhouse and Ransom Parker would be mounted within a half-circle viewing area extending into the exhibit from the hallway. This allows the guest to take a few steps into the room, themselves.

"The Old Brick Schoolhouse"

On the left in red are the current and non-historic walls and stairways on the first floor. On the right highlighted in green are my proposed new walls, and the restored original central hallway.

The smaller of the two exhibition rooms would be surrounded on three sides by means of egress. On the frontmost side of the building there would be a door to a hallway leading to a handicap-accessible elevator to the second floor. The opposite end of the building would be another door, leading to a stairwell that wraps around the exhibit space up to the second floor.

The second floor of the building would have a thickened floor to allow space for inlaid seating that can sit flush with the floor when not in use and can be pulled up from the floor to become benches to accommodate any number of people. From the ceiling on the left of the plan a projection screen can be pulled down for viewing presentations or films that the Providence Preservation Society chooses. To cover the windows in order to darken the room during these times, thin wall-length panels on tracks can be installed around the perimeter of the room. The room can very quickly be transformed from an open plan to a theater or small presentation space. In the back of the room there are two spaces, the larger containing a window containing a restroom facility and the smaller space existing as a storage closet.

"The Old Brick Schoolhouse"

On the exterior of the building, I proposed landscaping the neglected front garden and restoring the white picket fence seen in past documentation of the building. The front entrance stair tower is not handicap accessible and an alternative entrance is necessary. I proposed demolishing the non-historic covered back entrance and creating a larger door in the back, as well as a long sloped ramp along the left side of the building lined with grass and violets, the Rhode Island state flower. This way, the ground floor exhibit space and hallway can be accessed from both the North and South faces of the building for a streamlined walkthrough experience for community members and tourists during the open hours of the schoolhouse.

The Providence Preservation Society also manages the historic property across the street on the south side of the Schoolhouse, “Shakespeare’s Head”. This is one of the early sites of American printing press and was the site of a long-standing colonial newspaper. To increase visual interest of the two buildings from the exterior and promote a more welcoming atmosphere, a change from asphalt in the road to large ballast stone, which already exists around the perimeter of the Shakespeare’s Head building, would be a visual indicator for the public spaces and would connect the two historic and preserved buildings that are open to the public. Furthermore it is a historic material from old cargo ships that is significant to Providence for being a large sea port city. The Old Brick School House itself is only two blocks from the Providence Canal.

"The Old Brick Schoolhouse"

These proposed changes were presented to a table of critics including RISD faculty, visiting architectural planners, and the client. This project was formative for me being the first time I could work as an undergraduate student with a client directly involved with the project, and it was a great experience learning to work within the parameters set up by the Providence Preservation Society while also designing for their mission of historic preservation and education. I made the floor plan drawings and diagrams with CAD programs such as Autodesk AutoCAD, 3D modeling program Rhinoceros, and Adobe Illustrator. This project was done within 5 weeks under the guidance of the RISD Interior Architecture Department and my instructor Elizabeth Debs in Spring of 2015.