ArtInRuins Provides Online Repository for Providence’s Built History

Photos, oral histories, and documents tell the stories of city buildings past and present

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Growing up in North Smithfield, J. Hogue always thought he would leave Rhode Island one day. His perspective of Providence was that of an outsider, “a teenager who would go to Thayer Street every now and then,” he recounts with a laugh. Hogue did move out of state for a while, but when he returned in the late ‘90s, “it didn’t feel like the same place that I had left.”

Amid the city’s downtown revitalization and the real estate boom that would follow, Hogue found himself drawn to the industrial nature of neighborhoods like Olneyville, Valley, and pockets of Silver Spring, taking note of what was being lost in our built environment when outside developers swept in.

“We have this really deep industrial history everywhere, and with Eagle Square in 2002, that was the thing that made a lot of people wake up,” says Hogue, referring to the artists who were displaced when developers demolished most of the buildings housing the arts collective Fort Thunder to create a shopping center. “It was a rallying cry and a wake up call that these buildings we’re taking for granted may not be here for much longer. If we want them, we have to get involved, we have to take them.”

For some, this meant buying properties. For Hogue, it meant starting ArtInRuins.

A web designer by trade, Hogue began photographing and researching city architecture and compiling the histories of over 300 buildings on his website. He made contacts at the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission and Providence Preservation Society, and to fill in gaps, even purchased scans of maps for years that are harder to find via the Library of Congress archives. 

When it comes to scope, “I wish I was more choosy,” Hogue jokes, indicating backlogs of photos he’s taken and sites he’s explored that haven’t yet made it up on the website, but ArtInRuins is expansive by design. “If there’s any sort of demolition, I try to capture that,” he says. “I’m more interested in change, in places that are shifting ownership, shifting use, or drastically shifting their appearance.” This can range from the sudden demolition of the Duck and Bunny house on Wickenden Street to the more under-the-radar, unfussy properties where there’s “not an obvious reason to appreciate it.” 

In the 20 years Hogue has been dutifully documenting, even old narratives continue to change as more is unearthed. With digital archives more readily available than they used to be, Hogue realized in 2020, “I had quite a bit of work ahead of me.” More documents surfaced, and “sometimes the story changes a little bit about how we understood what used to happen at a particular building.”

A big part of the equation is oral histories. “It feels like grandkids set their grandparents up with a computer and they start Googling where they used to work and they find my page,” says Hogue, who hears from a lot of former employees and people who knew these buildings in their prime. “People probably tell these stories to each
other all the time, but I feel really lucky that I’m able to collect so many of them into a place where people can appreciate them. You get the sense that all of these places meant something to someone; no matter how ugly or how decayed it got, there was a point in time when it was in beautiful shape and it was brand new. People worked there and made a life there.”

Scrolling through pages of memorialized buildings, it’s clear ArtInRuins is an ever-growing time capsule, and Hogue hopes it will continue to evolve with community collaboration. “I’m always open to having conversations with folks who have a fire in their belly and need a place to put that energy.” 

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