You might think it would be difficult to come up with new ideas for renovating New England's 19th-century mill buildings. After all, over the past few decades entrepreneurs have transformed scores of vacant structures into condos, shops, restaurants and offices.
Nonetheless, architecture students at Roger Williams University have no shortage of suggestions for Le Moulin at Market Square, the red-brick complex at 68 South Main Street that's now midway through a transformation. A graduate class from the Bristol campus spent the past semester studying the rambling mill buildings. They developed a dozen different plans for renovation, with guidance from faculty member Martha Werenfels, who is also a well-known Providence architect.
The goal has been to help the aspiring architects sharpen their skills, and to present owner and developer Marie Deschenes with some free advice she might put to use as she continues with the project.
Student Matthew Jesi sees beauty in the wear and tear of old buildings, and doesn't want the appearance of decay entirely erased. During a Tuesday night presentation in one of Le Moulin's large, vacant lofts, he suggested a sculpture garden between the buildings and the Blackstone River, with random bricks missing from the courtyard to allow vegetation to poke through. He also proposed expanding the buildings with walls made up of small panels similar to the glass panes in mill windows.
"The additions would be of a light weight material, to highlight the major historic features of the buildings," he said. "Some of the panels in the walls would be metal, to suggest the broken windows you see at abandoned factories. The missing bricks in the garden would be another way to suggest that things are breaking down."
Student Emily Korzynski focused on Deschenes' plans to include artists' lofts in the project. She proposed interior walls that could pivot or slide in the studios and galleries.
"They could be closed to make areas smaller, or opened to create more space," she said. "The artist would be able to use the walls as part of a composition."
Other brainstorms from the class: a rooftop of garden, condominiums with patio views of the Blackstone River, and the demolition of a portion of one building to give passersby on the street a dramatic view of an old industrial chimney.
Deschenes, who bought the rambling former yarn mill more than four years ago, is free to use the students' ideas any way she likes. She has plans for a mixed-use development that may eventually include condominiums, artists' studios, shops, offices, galleries and a restaurant and bar.
At this point two-thirds of the complex is vacant and awaiting renovation. The owner says she expects to complete the work over several years. Upgrades to the heating and electrical systems are now underway.
That hasn't kept out tenants, however. Deschenes says she now has 20 renters, including some that were there when she purchased the property. Many of the businesses offer arts, education, and recreation programs, making Le Moulin a popular spot with for both young people and adults.
By the end of Tuesday's meeting with the Roger Williams class, Deschenes was already talking about using some of the students' suggestions. She wants to tear down a portion of the old loading dock to create a walkway to the river. The rest of the dock would be left standing as a stage for outdoor concerts. She's also making plans for a large boiler in the basement that's being replaced with individual gas furnaces for each tenant.
"I was going to remove it, which would cost money," Deschenes said. "But they've suggested I find a way to make it into something artistic, something that would be part of a project. One idea is to cut away part of the boiler wall and turn the rest of it into an unusual curved bar, with a restaurant around it."
Deschenes was no business novice when she purchased the property in 2007. For the past 12 years she's been running her own telecom wiring company, Vogue Communications, which was once located in the old bank building on Main Street. She bought the mill because she was seeking a new challenge.
At that time she had hoped to take advantage of a state program that offered developers tax credits for renovating historic properties. Before she could apply, however, the recession hit and the cash-strapped state government eliminated funding for the program.
The result of those cuts can be seen elsewhere in Woonsocket. Each day a demolition crew takes another swing with a wrecking ball, and more of the on Hamlet Avenue is destroyed. Without the state tax credit program, owner Henry Vara, Jr., has decided the property is worth more as a vacant lot.
Others who put their money into old mill buildings are now desperate to find tenants and buyers. On Front Street, a developer is e a condominium project in the old Bernon Mill. He has finished 16 units to date, but until those sell, work on 30 more is on hold. With the real estate market in the doldrums, that could be a long time.
None of that has stopped Deschenes from pushing on. With credit tight, she's using her own resources to pay for renovation work, and sometimes doing the work herself. Nestled between the Museum of Work and Culture and the restaurant, her buildings have remained a desirable location. Matt Wojcik, the economic development director at City Hall, calls almost every week to tell her another tenant is ready to move in as soon as more space is renovated, she says.
Deschenes is promoting the space as an artists' enclave to take advantage of downtown Woonsocket's status as one of the state's official arts districts. That designation exempts artists, performers and craftspeople from paying income tax and sales tax on the items they produce, provided they both live and work in the district.
Deschenes hopes to attract more artists as she adds lofts, studios and galleries to Le Moulin. Her current tenants include Mark Montecalvo’s Screenworks t-shirt printing; J.L Danis and Son, a carpentry business; Yarnia, a shop that offers equipment and supplies for knitting and weaving; Gigi’s, a custom framing shop and art studio; the Blackstone Fencing Academy; Rondeau's Kickboxing; a boxing facility run by the Boys & Girls Club; RiverzEdge Arts Project, which offers art classes for teens and adults; and Stage Right Studio for Arts and Wellness, which offers classes in drama, music, dance and exercise.
Leaders from both City Hall and the Statehouse have offered encouragement. Gov. Lincoln Chafee last March, accompanied by Keith Stokes, the state's economic development director. Mayor Leo Fontaine has met with Deschenes several times as well.
The Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University has provided advice and assistance, too. Ray Thomas, associate director of the center, has helped Deschenes develop government and business contacts to get financing assistance. Recently he helped arrange a meeting with managers at National Grid, who offered suggestions on ways to save money on renovations to the heating system.
"We've been helping Marie bring together the right people to make this project work," Thomas said after Tuesday's meeting. "She has great vision. That's one of the things that has helped her through this downturn. She has a real drive to make this project succeed."
Thomas also put Deschenes' in contact with the architecture faculty at Roger Williams. "Our goal is to serve the students first," said Arnold Robinson, director of community partnerships at Roger Williams, after Tuesday’s event. "One reason they're looking at this mill is because we've got mills all over the area. And we've got old mills or something similar up and down the east coast, really all over the county."