RISD announces $4 million renovation of its historic Metcalf Building

A First Formidable Step

RISD announces $4 million renovation of its historic Metcalf Building

The crucial first step in a larger transformation of a historic RISD building will entail numerous mechanical and safety upgrades. (Jo Sittenfeld/Courtesy RISD)

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has announced that it will embark on an expansive and largely behind-the-scenes series of upgrades at the Jesse Metcalf Building, a 68,730-square-foot former textiles factory that has served as a central hub of activity on RISD’s historic Providence campus since 1917, 40 years after the school was first established. The renovation efforts—described in a RISD press release as “critical improvements”—are being made possible by a $4 million gift from an anonymous donor.

The Metcalf Building was named after Jesse Metcalf Sr., a wealthy textile manufacturer and husband of RISD cofounder and director Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf. (One of their sons, also named Jesse, served as a Republican Senator from Rhode Island from 1924 through 1937). Long serving a formidable role on the RISD campus, today the Metcalf Building is home to nearly a third of the college’s departments: Ceramics, Furniture Design, Glass, Jewelry + Metalsmithing, Sculpture, and, of course, Textiles. As noted by the school, these half-dozen departments “flow into each other” within the historic four-story structure, “creating unique opportunities for cross-pollination and interdisciplinary learning.”

“This extraordinary philanthropic investment will have a transformative impact on our students,” said RISD president Rosanne Somerson of the $4 million gift. ”It accelerates a comprehensive reimagination of the studio and fabrication spaces where our artists and designers engage in the innovative thinking and critical making that are central to our educational model.”

exterior of a former textile facotory
The Metcalf Building, a former textile factory at the Rhode Island School of Design. (Photo Jo Sittenfeld/Courtesy RISD)

“The Metcalf Building renovation will improve a critical node in RISD’s network of learning and making spaces and advance our commitment to sustainability and adaptive reuse,” she added.

As detailed by RISD in its announcement, much of the renovation work will be infrastructural in nature and include accessibility enhancements along with upgrades and improvements to ventilation and fire protection systems, lighting, plumbing, power, and communications. These fixes are crucial as the shops, studios, and maker spaces that populate the building are chock-full of specialized tools and equipment including glass furnaces, CNC machines, ceramics kilns, a numerically controlled Jacquard loom, and more. To safety accommodate this equipment, the spaces within the building “require complex and often custom environmental controls, mechanical systems, lighting, spatial configurations and life-safety provisions essential to providing a healthy and safe environment conducive to learning” per the college.

As alluded to by Somerson, the $4 million overhaul will be followed by further transformative work at the Metcalf Building, including a full gut rehabilitation and interior facelift that will further advance the school’s “commitment to sustainable practices and to demonstrating state-of-the-art approaches to art and design facilities.” Those future phases will be funded by capital funds and additional philanthropic gifts.

In 2019, RISD completed its first new residence hall in over three decades, the NADAAA-designed North Hall.