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New State Archives could cost nearly $102M. Can Rhode Island afford its rich history?


New State Archives could cost nearly $102M. Can Rhode Island afford its rich history?

Jan 16, 2024 | 5:30 am ET
By Alexander Castro
New State Archives could cost nearly $102M. Can Rhode Island afford its rich history?
The exterior of the office building on Broad Street in Providence where the Rhode Island State Archives has been located since 2020. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

It’s likely only true connoisseurs of revolutionary American history know where to find the first document of colonial independence — on the ground floor of a massive but otherwise unassuming corporate office building on Providence’s Broad Street.

The fiery missive stored is the Act of Renunciation, published exactly two months before the Declaration of Independence. Its sentiment is unambiguous, promising to “oppose that Power which is exerted only for our destruction” — that power being King George III.

The Act of Renunciation made Rhode Island the first colony to sever ties with the British crown and it’s one of 10 million items in the Rhode Island State Archives.

“Our history is as rich, if not richer, than most states,” said Secretary of State Gregg Amore in a recent interview at his State House office.

The wealth of Rhode Island history is one reason why, last November, Amore revised his recommendations for the state’s 2025-2029 capital budget with a cost analysis by Providence-based DBVW Architects that reads like a shopping list. Some items included: A roof with parapets. Porcelain, terrazzo and ceramic tile floors. 3,300 square yards of paved asphalt for a parking lot. An ultra high-performance concrete rain screen to keep the water out.  

In total, Amore is asking for $101,655,492 for the construction of a new, permanent and dedicated building for the State Archives, the home of “the letters, photographs, and important state documents that form a permanent, tangible record of Rhode Island’s rich history,” according to its website.

A 28-member Archives Working Group tasked with determining the best parameters for this new structure decided on a 50,000-square foot building somewhere near the State House to maximize its tourism potential. Amore’s ideal location is a state-owned lot on Smith Street, right in front of the Department of Administration, but he’s open to other possibilities.   

“We’re still in the early phases,” Amore said. “If we’re afforded some money in this budget cycle from capital investment, we’ll start to explore in more detail.”

“The Rhode Island Archives and History Center” is the project’s working title, and it’s something that Amore sees as an educational venture. Before he became Secretary on Jan. 3, 2023, he worked at East Providence High School for 32 years, teaching history and civics before serving as the school’s athletic director.   

“My desire [is] to have a safe storage space but also have a center that can be a civic engagement center, cultural center,” he said. “The type of room where we can have a large display or a major education effort, like a guest speaker of significance.”

New State Archives could cost nearly $102M. Can Rhode Island afford its rich history?
Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg Amore is pushing for a new home for the State Archives near the Rhode Island State House. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Amore’s predecessor, Nellie Gorbea, pushed for a new archives building in 2018. DBVW Architects came up with an estimate back then, too: $52,436,128 with a tentative completion in 2022 or 2023. But even at that cost, Gorbea’s efforts failed to win support from then Gov. Gina Raimondo and General Assembly leaders.

This time around, though, the executive branch appears to be on board: Gov. Dan McKee expressed support for a new archives building last year, and his communications team has indicated his feelings haven’t changed. 

“As the Governor has previously said, it’s a priority of his to establish a new state archives building,” said Press Secretary Olivia DaRocha in an email on Jan. 11. “More to come when we release the budget next week.”

Independent Man will get privacy during restoration at R.I. National Guard Armory

McKee is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the State House. His recommended fiscal year 2025 budget is due to be released Thursday.

The cost of a new State Archives has increased, but to Amore, the relevance has, too. He points to the crowds who came out to see the Independent Man during its temporary display inside the front entrance of the State House.

“The last few weeks, many many Rhode Islanders, many people from outside of Rhode Island, came in to see the Independent Man, and they signed the book, and there was joy,” Amore said. “That’s our most famous artifact. I wouldn’t say it’s our most important artifact.” 

(For the record, Amore picks the colonial record of the General Assembly, with early renderings of the state’s ubiquitous anchor imagery, as his personal favorite.) 

The state now pays $280,288 a year to rent the 11,234 square-foot space on Broad Street from Weybosset Hill Investments, a company owned by Joseph R. Paolino Jr., the former Providence mayor and noted developer of downtown real estate. Utilities and parking not included.   

“We’re making an investment on a piece of property that’s not ours,” Amore said.

State of the archives 

A security guard stationed at the end of a well-lit hallway requested a recent visitor sign in on an otherwise empty sheet across from the elevators. There was some pomp and circumstance in the entryway, like a gold-plated directory that shimmers between two elevators, announcing all 11 occupants of “One Weybosset Hill” — the corporate building’s own sobriquet for an address officially known as 33 Broad Street. 

Opposite the guard desk was the doorbell to buzz to enter. Reference archivist Kenneth Carlson answered. He has worked at the archives since 1993 and often pulls records and books requested by visitors in advance. Sometimes these requests are from researchers or historians. Other times, people are looking for vital records or information about their ancestors.

Carlson said the archives’ holdings are adequately protected in their current location — but there could be improvement. He used the analogy of airline seating: the Archives’ previous 337 Westminster St. location was “coach,” while the current location is “business class.”

“But we need to move into first class,” Carlson said.

Things were worse, Carlson noted, at Westminster Street, which the archives inhabited from 1989 through August 2020. That location sits on a flood plain, and sometimes, Carlson said, staff had to shuffle around boxes to avoid water damage. 

The archives’ current atmosphere is not unwelcoming, but it is most definitely a repurposed office space. One place in the State House — the so-called Charter Museum, though it’s essentially one room — seems to preview a hypothetically high-tech and purpose-built archives, with motion-controlled lights and regulated humidity all meant to preserve the state’s equivalent of a birth certificate: the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663.

But even in the Charter Museum, there’s a decidedly non-museal touch. A framed reproduction of an image of Mary Dyer — the Quaker martyr, and pal of Anne Hutchinson, who was executed by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1660  — is fixed to the wall with what appears to be Command Strips.

Would a dedicated archival center up the presentation quality?

Ashely Selima, state archivist and public records administrator, seems to think so: “Our public space is a reading room with a handful of research tables. There’s a lot more we could do.”

Neighboring Massachusetts opened its archives building in Boston 40 years ago, with funding appropriated from the Legislature, spokesperson Debra O’Malley said. Prior to that, she said, items were stored in the State House and a spot on Beacon Hill — locales where thefts occurred during World War II. More recently, Massachusetts’ vault was expanded in 2019. 

“Our office had the pleasure of hosting a delegation from Rhode Island last year, as they toured our facility,” O’Malley said. 

That delegation was the Archives Working Group, apparently in search of inspiration.


Amore has started contextualizing the project by noting Rhode Island’s dubious distinction of being the only state without a dedicated building for its archive.

It’s true that buildings which house state archives are typically owned by the state or territory or by the agency or department under which the archives fall, said Council of State Archivists Executive Director Joy M. Banks. 

But not all. The state of Connecticut leases space for off-site preservation storage for a portion of its archives from a private company, though their main facility and collections are housed at a government building. Georgia leases its archives from the University System of Georgia. 

Support in concept

A new building for the archives could be upgraded from dream to possibility in the governor’s proposed budget coming later this week. But any further realization depends on the General Assembly’s willingness to play ball.

“The opposition is not in the form of ‘This is a bad idea.’ The opposition is ‘The estimated cost is $100 million,’” Amore said.

Greg Pare, spokesperson for Senate President Ruggiero, said: “The Senate President supports the proposal in concept and looks forward to learning more details about it.”

Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi also supports the concept, but said via email: “We need a collaborative effort to fund it. Secretary of State Amore has indicated there should be an educational component to an archives building, so I believe we should involve our private institutes of higher education in this effort.”

Shekarchi suggested federal and foundation funding to help build the project. Amore agrees with that idea, and also sees historic preservation funding, capital budget investments and likely a bond issue approved by voters as crucial to the project’s success. 

The opposition is not in the form of ‘This is a bad idea.’ The opposition is ‘The estimated cost is $100 million.’

– Secretary of State Gregg Amore

As school districts across the state prepare to embark on heavy construction projects approved by voters last November, Amore attributed the proposed new archive building’s quick stagnation under Gorbea thusly: “I think the biggest reason it didn’t take off is because it was during the period of time when the state was investing heavily in school construction…There’s only so much you can bond…We didn’t have the same economic stability we do know.”

House Minority Leader Mike Chippendale wrote in an email to Rhode Island Current: “We need a safe, secure place to store all of those irreplaceable documents, photographs and other historical artifacts.” 

But Chippendale seemed less convinced of any immediate action. “In a budget year when we must be focused on lowering expenses, this sort of project may be viewed as something that can wait,” he said. “As the budget process continues over the next several months, we will gain a better idea of where funding for a project like this stands.”

Amore said he’s hopeful the governor’s budget will include the Archives project. “Our conversations have been very good,” he added. “I never know what’s gonna be in the governor’s budget until the governor releases the budget.” 

Said Shekarchi: “If Governor McKee submits a proposal for the archives in his budget…it will be given full and fair consideration.”

New State Archives could cost nearly $102M. Can Rhode Island afford its rich history?
Kenneth Carlson, Reference Archivist at the Rhode Island State Archives, shown working on Thursday, Jan. 11, at the State Archives building on Broad Street in Providence. (Alexander Castro /Rhode Island Current)

Students offer perspective

The east side of the State Archives on Broad Street faces an apartment complex and a bank of parking meters. Next to the windows is the display area where Selima, the state archivist, curates and installs thematic exhibits for the public. Now on view is an assortment of student artworks, with each high schooler having found inspiration in pieces from the State Archives.

Some of the students seemed to tap into the same energy that invigorated Rhode Island’s renunciatory past, like Sydney Cagnetta’s “Independent Woman.” The South Kingstown High School student used carefully burned paper to restore the Independent Man’s predecessor – a neoclassical woman instead of the golden, half-naked male now being restored before his return to the State House’s summit. 

The artist’s statement of another student, Nathaniel Utterback of South Kingstown High School, defied meaning itself. Accompanying Utterback’s image of Godzilla wreaking havoc on downtown Providence and the State House, the artist wrote: “My project doesn’t really have a deep meaning. It can be summed up with the fact that the archive photo was interesting and I like big radioactive lizards.”

You never know how people will respond to history. The past is big. Rhode Island has a lot of it on hand to share and interpret. 

Or, put another way in the artist’s statement of Sidney Howard, from Ponaganset High School: “Even though we are the smallest state, we still have a vast history to learn about.”