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Monday | 18 November, 2013 | 11:33 am

Heavy metal makeover

By Nick Wright

With a mission to teach and build, The Steel Yard picks up where 100-year-old steel company left off

November 2013 - For 100 years, Providence Steel and Iron Co. churned out fabricated steel from a five-building complex on the west side of Rhode Island’s capital. It closed in 2003, but didn’t sit idle for long.

In 2003 it became the Steel Yard, a community-based center focusing on technical training in the industrial arts, where fabricators, artists, business owners and hobbyists delve into small-scale manufacturing. Designated a brownfield cleanup site, the 3.5-acre plot on which The Steel Yard sits has undergone a drastic revival in one-tenth of the time as its former namesake tenant. 

Its efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. This year, The Steel Yard earned a silver medal in the 2013 Rudy Bruner  Awards, which gives grants to innovative projects that stimulate the urban environment by focusing on social, economic and environmental stewardship. Aside from revitalizing a property that could’ve easily faded into blight, the Steel Yard is picking up where Providence Steel and Iron Co. left off in terms of metalworking.

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“We offer just under 100 courses each year, which are instructed primarily by professional artists or fabricators,” says Romina Mayuri, Spokeswoman for the Steel Yard. “We also offer grant-funded job training courses, which are again taught by seasoned metalworkers that have extensive experience in the industry and in our shop. The students for these programs are a very specific demographic: underserved 18 to 24 year olds.”

To incubate small businesses, the Steel Yard draws people who don’t have the shop space to accommodate tools or machinery needed for their craft. The workspace has setups for blacksmithing, forging, plus MIG, TIG and gas welding for mild steel and stainless steel. “In this case we find a lot of independent business owners working in our studio to do small- and mid-scale production works,” she says. 

Those works are visible around town, as well as New England. Fabricators have made public art trash cans, bike races, fences, gates and other ornamental metalwork. In 2012, an artist team from the Steel Yard collaborated with the city of Providence, community representatives and the National Endowment for the Arts to create a 420-foot-long sculptural fence at the Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence.

Retrofitting history

Built in 1902, the brick buildings of the Steel Yard overlook the Woonasquatucket River, reflecting the grit of Providence’s industrial Olneyville neighborhood, considered a blighted patchwork of abandoned industrial lots by some. Nonetheless, the former steel making facility is a National Historic Site, an evident fact not lost on those who use the space.

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Throughout the renovation, the group carefully targeted uncommon recycled materials, like discarded construction sheet pile, and scrap metal bales of bicycles, appliances and car parts to install as site elements. While it’s not easy managing an older site, the Steel Yard is being reused in line with what it was originally built for. “That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing,” Mayuri says. “The old stuff in our facility is old.”

On the ceiling, pulleys remain that used to run machinery before electric motors were installed. Large machines leftover from the days of PS&I have been removed, but others, such as a 1928 and 1940s ironworkers, are locked out but remain as historical nods. The buildings are arranged around a central yard containing an impressive succession of steel gantries and cranes along a narrow gauge rail meant for moving materials in and out of the buildings. The rail is notable because of its use of steel ties, not wood ones, which were commonly used, according to the National Historic Register.

The landscaping—perhaps the largest undertaking—now lets the Steel Yard host events like iron pours and sculpture competitions. “The list of creative new ways our site is activated just keeps growing every year,” she adds.

The influence of the Steel Yard’s work is growing, too. In Providence and across Rhode Island, there is a renewed emphasis on art, design and manufacturing as drivers of economic growth, Mayuri explains. And having an active group of people behind the endeavor is the biggest factor.

“It’s important that people feel ownership,” she says. MM

Photos courtesy of The Steel Yard 

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