In 2001, The Steel Yard founders Nick Bauta and Clay Rockefeller purchased the 3.8-acre former Providence Steel & Iron Complex at 27 Sims Avenue as a base to house the artistic, educational, community, and fabrication activities that all take place within its steel-beamed, century-old roofs and exterior grounds. This fall, the Steel Yard is about to undergo $2.7 million worth of restorations to make it (finally) operational during winter months, fully ventilated, more comfortable for classes, and ADA-accessible, among other improvements.
Although many of the city’s old mills have been renewed and repurposed, part of the Steel Yard’s uniqueness is that it still embodies the building’s original function: metalworking. A factory that once fabricated components for building and infrastructure projects across the state now does so again through 30-50 public works projects a year: functional, design-driven objects like angular geometric bike racks, or trash can holders with slanted rain roofs and doors that open on the side for easy canister removal, and small recycling receptacles. The Steel Yard also offers job-readiness training to low-income Rhode Islanders through its Weld-to-Work program, houses roughly a dozen resident artists, and offers affordable public classes in mediums like ceramics, jewelry-making, and blacksmithing.
With upgrades like modern windows and electric infrared heating, the Steel Yard will no longer have to shut its doors to artists and artists-in-training for the winter season. They’ll also be installing a “multi-purpose community space”: a versatile “fishbowl” with windows for guests of all ages and mobility levels to safely observe studio classes and projects – not to mention plenty of restrooms.
“There aren’t a lot of walls in the Steel Yard’s studios,” says Executive Director Howie Sneider. It’s a deliberate setup so that “artists and the community can see each other working, and it encourages mentorship and exchange across the board.”
Solar panels are another new addition, serving as both “a practical solution to reduce the cost of operations, as well as environmental stewardship that we feel is our responsibility.” Sneider points out that such industrial sites historically generated part of their own energy, “and we are proud to continue this tradition in a sustainable way.”
All studios will be upgraded, and both jewelry-making and woodworking will receive expansions in both space and programming planning. The Steel Yard will have the new ability to host groups comfortably indoors during the winter, but will continue to run its beloved signature events like the Halloween Iron Pour and summertime Fire Camp Festival.
The Steel Yard welds the industrial with the beautiful, the functional with the altruistic, and offers creative freedom for diversely minded artists right within its walls, all while honoring its historic legacy of manufacturing. As Development Director Sally Turner puts it, “Whether we’re designing a piece of functional public art or a job training curriculum in welding, creativity is always at the core – we are artists, after all.” And in many ways, the Steel Yard paved the way and served as a model for new nonprofit neighbors like WaterFire and the Wilbury Theatre, both of which are already community partners – the Steel Yard hosted a performance during the Wilbury’s recent Fringe Festival, for instance.
The renovation campaign is called “Super Studio,” and Kite Architects is handling the designs, making sure to preserve historic elements and old factory charm, while the 1920-era electrical system will be completely restored. Construction is slated to begin in late November. To learn more or to become a part of what Turner calls “the next evolution in the industrial arts in Providence,” visit SYSuperStudio.org.
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