Apex Department Stores are a small chain of department stores in the Providence metropolitan area that were mostly shuttered in 2001. They had only three locations: this one, in Pawtucket; a similar but slightly less-remarkable store on Route 5 in Warwick; and a more standard boxy store at the Swansea Mall in Swansea, Massachusetts. Beginning as a tire retailer and growing into a Sears-styled mid-range department store in the true, old-fashioned sense, they downsized aggressively at the same time as Ann & Hope, Bradlees, and Caldor were all closing or downsizing. While the Warwick and Swansea stores closed in 2001 (and the Warwick store was demolished recently), the bare-bones version of Apex continues to operate both online and in a portion of their Pawtucket store.
The “Apex Mall,” as it is sometimes referred, was built in downtown Pawtucket in 1969. Designed by famed architect Andrew Geller, its pyramid-shaped roof is visible just off I-95, and it sits perched along the Blackstone River directly in front of downtown Pawtucket. Pawtucket is a historic mill city with a rich heritage, and this–in my view, historic–structure is directly across the river from the Slater Mill, the birthplace of the industrial revolution in America. Interestingly, these two photos were taken from almost the same place, and they exhibit the vivid architectural juxtaposition you can find in New England:
Today, Apex occupies only a portion of the original building, while the Department of Motor Vehicles is leasing much of the remainder. Because of the size and crucial location of the property, it’s widely speculated that it may be demolished in the not so distant future, especially if rumors are true that the DMV is planning a move to Cranston. While it may be difficult to repurpose such an odd building easily, it would make for an ideal marketplace for a variety of merchants, especially if more of the building was opened up towards the river. In addition, there’s a particularly inspiring (if far-fetched) proposal to turn the building into a museum of Industrial Design. The Providence Phoenix wrote in 2004:
Matt Kierstead, a Pawtucket architectural historian and preservationist who is a fan of the building, suggests that not just the structure’s exterior, but also its conception as “an entire landscape,” and its unbroken interior space, make Apex significant. Kierstead places Apex in the context of a mid-century American design ethos that celebrated mobility and expansiveness. Not coincidentally, the building was conceived and built during the age of the convertible, the drive-in, and the space program, and it reflects the optimism of that era. Less well known is how it was devised by Andrew Geller, a key associate of Raymond Loewy, the man considered the father of American industrial design.
The entire Phoenix article, along with many more photos of the Apex building that are somewhat artier than my own, are available at the excellent Art in Ruins website, which chronicles historic structures (including modern ones) in Rhode Island.