Efforts to Secure a Home
In 1986 the quest for a museum site led to the Cranston Street Armory, an historic structure recently vacated by the Rhode Island National Guard. When the state discouraged that option, the search focused upon the vulnerable Shepard’s Department Store, between Westminster and Washington Streets, then vacant and threatened with demolition for Downtown parking.. That option was eliminated when the state purchased the property and wisely converted it into an extension of the University of Rhode Island. Finally, in 1994, the museum proponents approached Narragansett Electric Company and requested that utility to make a charitable donation of the South Street Power Station on Providence’s inner harbor for a state museum, rather than demolish it as the final stage of the plant’s decommissioning. The power company accepted this overture and donated this property to an aptly-named Heritage Harbor Corporation d/b/a Heritage Harbor Museum (HHM) in 1999, subject to the donee’s assumption of any remaining environmental clean-up obligations and its adherence to a party-wall agreement and cross easements with the still active and attached substation.
With its location within eyesight of (and access to) the I-95 and I-195 Interchange, New England’s second busiest, South Street Station offered an unparalleled opportunity to enable a Heritage Harbor Museum to be the “hub” of southern New England’s surrounding historical and cultural destinations (such as Sturbridge Village; Old Mystic Seaport; Plimoth Plantation; the Newport mansions; colonial Boston’s Freedom Trail; the Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor, including Slater Mill; and Providence’s East Side Historic District, including the First Baptist Church and the RISD Museum). The development of this prime location would provide substantial economic benefits to Providence and to the state, because the museum’s projected visitation would make it one of Rhode Island’s top out-of-state tourist attractions.
Consortium Model, Smithsonian Affiliation, and K-12 Education Mandates
Initially, there were four consorting partners: The Rhode Island Historical Society, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, and the Rhode Island State Archives. Eventually, this consortium grew to 19 members.
With the acquisition of the South Street structure, the museum’s mission expanded from being merely a state history museum to one with an affiliation with the nationally prominent Smithsonian Institution, thereby allowing the museum to borrow its artifacts and host its traveling exhibits and programs. The museum also intended to create and transmit Rhode Island history programs directly into the schools and to host school field visits. With these programs, HHM would help to implement the state-mandated teaching of Civics and Rhode Island history, an initiative of primary concern to Governor Bruce Sundlun, and one that was subsequently supported by the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, Peter McWalters.