The original Asa Messer School is a beautiful 1890’s structure on Messer Street near the intersection with Union Avenue. According to the Providence Preservation Society (this building has been on their ‘Most Endangered Properties List’), the building dates from an era when the city of Providence built nearly fifty school buildings in a few decades. It is possibly the oldest school building in use in Rhode Island (well occasional use – its status is iffy).
The brickwork is thick; arches and corbels are plentiful. Especially impressive are the four great chimneys anchoring the structure. Hints of Romanesque style? Sadly, this building has been treated quite indifferently over the years, and it is laden with the remnants of half-hearted maintenance attempts. Its usage in recent years seems to have been somewhat itinerant, and since a newer building near the the intersection of Messer and Westminster Streets is named Asa Messer, the original structure is now a silent, hulking, and anonymous relic in the West End.
I built a model of Asa Messer for PVDFest 2018. Out of many public school buildings in Providence that I admire, Asa Messer was well-suited to the scope and budget of this project. On a cool, rainy Saturday in early May, I visited the site, took some pictures, and sketched a bit. I realized how well the building fit the neighborhood; this had not occurred to me before since its neglected, vacated ‘feel’ makes it seem so different from the stylish, hipster-renovated old homes of the West End. When one adjusts the eyes for this, however, the neighborhood really comes together and the vision of a certain era focuses. From some vantage points, the Armory looms in the distance .
A neighbor called out to me and asked if I were from the city and figuring out what to do with the building. I realized that the answer was ‘yes’ in a weird round-about way, but said it was complicated. Long story short, the neighbor invited me up to the roof of the house he was renovating to get a different view of Asa Messer. Getting onto his roof without the stairs yet restored required some upper body strength and I do not like heights, but the pictures were nice (included below).
I had to order a lot of brown bricks and arches for this project as well as scavenge a lot of gray flats from other projects. This put my timeline into a bit of a crunch. I am not a procrastinator, and I do not usually find myself short on time for projects, but I guess I just misjudged the timing of this one a little bit.
Nevertheless, Asa Messer was ready for the appointed day. I LOVE PVDFest, by the way. I had already come to be a big fan in earlier years, ever since I saw Low Anthem play in the ruins of the old bank and strode down Westminster Street, beers in hand along with thousands of others people on a magical June night. Its just the coolest party in Providence. So when I got the opportunity to be a PVD artist and build a commission for the festival – well, well – it was like a small dream come true, no exaggeration. My only gripe was the conflict with Gaspee Days.
The festival weekend was beautiful and I got a pretty sweet spot on Westminster Street. I displayed Asa Messer along with Gorton JHS and Cranston East. It was great to shake hands with so many people (a good thousand or so I think) who admired the models or had a connection to these buildings – rallying for them as points of shared cultural heritage is part of the point! And unwittingly, choosing Asa Messer was the best choice I could have made…
I turned around and noticed a man, can of beer in hand, with a ‘huh’ expression on his face pointing to the models and saying, “I think that’s where I went to elementary school. I think that’s Asa Messer.” I knew I recognized the man, but with a temporarily stunned recognition that one gets when one sees someone famous – it was the Mayor of Providence, Hizzoner Jorge Elorza! Of all buildings in Providence to model, I had unwittingly chosen the mayor’s elementary school! Serendipity!