WOONSOCKET – As this struggling French-Canadian enclave 40 miles south of Boston marks its 125th anniversary, it’s putting out a defiant message of hope by building its own version of France’s iconic Arc de Triomphe.
The Woonsocket Arch of Triumph will be an exact one-third size mockup of the original – small next to the Parisian version, but still massive in comparison to most of the neighboring local architecture – 68 feet high and 50 feet wide.
Decorated with artworks featuring civic and patriotic themes, the steel-frame, canvas-covered structure will be the centerpiece of a huge block party on Aug. 29, spearheaded by Mayor Leo T. Fontaine. Volunteer organizers rounded up by the mayor are calling it the biggest block party on the East Coast, with a dozen stages for performing artists stretching for a half-mile through the city’s historic downtown.
“Eleven people on our entertainment committee voted on this and they wanted to send a very significant message about our economic plight,” said Albert Beauparlant Jr., one of the block party’s chief organizers. “They wanted to create a grand finale more memorable than a fancy laser show or a pop of fireworks.”
Just as the Emperor Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 as a symbol of unity and reconciliation after war, Beauparlant says the city’s arch marks a new beginning after a long-running battle – with fiscal strife. For the first time in several years, the city appears to have turned a corner in a fight to stave off bankruptcy, a turning point that did not come without major sacrifices from taxpayers, city employees and retirees.
“This will be seen as a rallying point for the city to move beyond what it has been going through for the last four years,” said Beauparlant.
The Woonsocket Arch of Triumph will straddle North Main Street where it, and Social Street, merge into Main Street, an area fittingly known as Monument Square. It was named for the statue of a Civil War soldier proudly propped at the confluence of the traffic arteries, but the figure will be largely overshadowed by the towering arch for a few weeks.
“This is no yabba-dabba-doo,” says Beauparlant. “This is going to be massive. It’s going to be a major feat of engineering.”
The existing architectural landmarks in the square include the Stadium Theatre, a 1920s-era movie house that was restored in the 1990s, and the St. Jean Baptiste office building. When it’s finished, the arch will be 20 feet taller than the theater, and eight feet taller than the four-story office building. If it were parked in front of the Buell Building at 75 Main St. – headquarters of The Call, the designated media partner for the block party – it would hide the entire facade, and then some.
The opening beneath the arch will be 21 feet wide – berth enough for cars to flow through normally after the frame is erected.
Construction is scheduled to begin Monday just after dawn, according to Beauparlant. The steel frame will be erected by Top Safe Services and Lynn Ladder and Scaffolding, both of Massachusetts.
Southbound traffic on North Main Street will be detoured during the construction, but otherwise cars heading in the same direction from Social Street onto Main will flow through the area normally, according to Beauparlant. Contractors tell Beauparlant it will take three or four days to get the structure framed.
Beauparlant, who co-chairs the Block Party Committee with the mayor’s executive secretary, Linda Plays, says that after the bones of the arch are built, he’ll put out a call to local contractors and artists to put the finishing touches on the arch.
One of the key features will be a mini-waterfall inspired by Thundermist Falls, where the Blackstone River cascades over dam and rock a half-mile away. Thundermist is the American translation of Woonsocket, the Native American name for the place settlers first planted roots along the Blackstone, the river that helped make the Blackstone Valley the birthplace of the nation’s Industrial Revolution.
The city’s legacy as a hub of manufacturing and the sacrifices it made during two world wars will be depicted in a series of paintings that will be featured on the arch, according to Beauparlant.
He said the celebration committee will be reaching out to the city’s budding arts community for help in completing the work, all of which will be coordinated by Ron Deziel of neighboring North Smithfield. Deziel is a well-known muralist whose work is seen in many public places, including the facade of the Boston Aquarium.
Four main paintings will grace the facade of the arch. One will commemorate the legacy of the U.S. Rubber Company, which manufactured inflatable decoy tanks used by General Patton during World War II to trick the Axis into thinking the Allies had more firepower than they really did.
Another will feature the arrival of French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who visited Woonsocket after World War I to honor the sacrifices of the sons of Woonsocket during the Great War. Because the city was a bastion of French-Canadian culture, many of the soldiers with roots in the city ended up working closely with the French because they could speak the language.
Another visual will honor the city’s industrial heritage through the years, from the Social Mill complex, once the largest cotton-spinning factory in the world, to CVS/Caremark, the second-largest pharmacy chain in the nation. Still another will trace the epic migration of the Quebecois from Canada, where they abandoned their farm-based economy on the gamble of a new way of life in the burgeoning collection of Woonsocket’s mills at the dawn of the textile era.
With the block party scheduled for the end of the month, the arch will be standing nearly three weeks before the event, though workers will be adding the finishing touches for much of that time. The structure will be dismantled shortly after the block party, according to Beauparlant.
Because of the city’s financially strapped condition, all of the money to build the structure has come from a series of festive fundraisers that began several weeks ago. Organizers also embarked on a campaign to raise money by selling advertising flags for display on Main Street to private companies big and small.
The next fundraiser, dubbed “Rock the Art,” is tonight at River Falls, 74 South Main St. For $10, patrons can dine, dance, mingle with artists and peruse their works at the riverside restaurant. The event begins at 6 p.m.
Two more fundraisers will be held before the big bash on Aug. 29. St. Ann’s Arts & Cultural Center, a former church with the largest collection of Italianate frescoes in America, will feature a nostalgia-flavored fest called “Then & Now,” with a slide show of city history, on Aug.14. Also, Chan’s, a jazz hotspot with an international reputation, will present “Jazz Up Woonsocket Night” with live music and food on Aug. 20.
It’s all about building a monument to a scale that matches the biggest block party on the East Coast, according to Beauparlant.
“By volume it will be the largest monument in the state,” he says. “For a month, anyway.”