Revitalized Rhodes emerges from pandemic

Warwick Beacon ·

For generations, Rhodes on the Pawtuxet has held a vital place in the social and cultural life of Rhode Islanders.

Weddings, galas, circuses, concerts, sporting events, civic meetings – these gatherings, and much more, have all taken place on the grounds along the Pawtuxet River where namesake Thomas H. Rhodes started his canoe rental and clambake operation in 1872.

The decades have brought an array of changes and challenges, too. There have been fires and floods, transfers in ownership and management, times when the property was considered for other uses.

The last year-plus, of course, brought a near total shutdown due to the pandemic, posing particular difficulties for a venue so reliant on welcoming large groups.

But now, more than a century after the 1915 opening of the current Rhodes Ballroom, the operation’s newest leadership team sees an opportunity for the revitalized space to again become a thriving social hub – and for it to recapture its status as a true meeting place for the community.

General manager Hillary Williamson and sales manager Jennifer Wheland formally arrived at Rhodes, long owned by the Shriners, in September. The pair previously worked together at the nearby Imperial Room, which is also a Shriners property.

Their work at Rhodes, however, began last June, weeks after the onset of the pandemic, on a volunteer basis.

The COVID-19 shutdown, Williamson said, was “hard,” particularly in the hospitality and events industry.

“It was like letting go of family,” she said of having to lay off longtime employees she had worked with at the Imperial Room. At Rhodes, she estimates the lost revenue from the crisis exceeds $1 million.

But the suddenly open schedule also presented an opportunity. Williamson and Wheland began working to revitalize the historic Rhodes Ballroom, seeking to inject new life into the building while embracing its century-old roots.

“We’re trying to get it back to the era of the flapper,” Williamson said with a laugh, making a nod to the early days of the facility in the Roaring ’20s.

Added Wheland: “We’re really trying to bring it back to the neoclassical design that it was meant to be … It’s an old building, but it doesn’t have to look old.”

The changes to the Ballroom’s interior are striking. New paint, a restored stage, new ceilings and draping in the rafters, now permanent, stand out. Additionally, the roof has been replaced, efficient lighting has been added, and new chandeliers and sconces have been installed.

“The Mural of Narragansett Bay” by Hezekiah A. Dyer, which adorns the wall above the bar outside the Ballroom, has been restored. Outside the entrance, the sculpture of Terpsichore – an original, dating to 1880, depicting the Greek muse of dance – shows its age, and its restoration is among the next priorities for management.

“COVID was actually a bittersweet thing for us,” Wheland said. “We really utilized that time to make all these changes, to do the painting, to do the redesign, to take the time that, if we had been doing events, no way it would have been able to happen.”

The revitalization process – an investment of at least $400,000, Williamson estimates – has led to some unique discoveries.

A secret door, perhaps from the Prohibition era, was found on the second floor, and research continues to determine its precise origins. An original “canoes for rent” sign from the earliest days of the property’s recreational use was located and now sits in what has been dubbed the “Canoe Lounge.”

There are other items, like an original umbrella stand, and historic images, including shots of the bowling alley once located at the site. Williamson said she hopes to create a “museum wall,” featuring pieces of the facility’s past along with anecdotes and information from various visitors over the years.

Tapping into the rich history of Rhodes is a significant part of what the newest management team has in store.

As Wheland puts it: “It’s kind of like when you go to the mansions in Newport. There’s history written all over the place. And this is no different … Not only is it a great venue, but you can see all of the changes over 105 years that have happened.”

The connection to Rhodes is deeply personal for many people in Cranston and beyond. Williamson noted that as restrictions have eased, bus trips from assisted living facilities have been among the returning visitors.

“You know how many people have met their significant others here and stuff, so it’s a great spot,” she said. “We’re having a lot of fun.”

Aside from the physical changes, the operations look a bit different at Rhodes. Russell Morin Catering & Events, which managed the facility for several years, has been replaced as the preferred caterer. In its place are four area businesses – Pranzi Catering of Providence, Ralph’s Catering of Cranston, The Catering Gormet of Warwick and Tom’s Market Catering of Coventry.

Williamson and Wheland also said a key aspect of their approach to the facility is maximizing its space. That, they hope, will allow for a broader range of events, as well as greater flexibility in terms of scheduling. There are also plans to expand and enhance the use of the outdoor portion of the property, including the gazebo, known to many as the “Trolley Stop.”

“We tried to really utilize as much space,” Wheland said. “There’s a lot of unutilized space right now. So we’re really trying, section by section, to open it up and kind of turn them into different kinds of areas, so we could potentially have four different events going on at one time.”

She added: “We want to do a lot more community events, because that’s what this started as, that’s what this was. It kind of became a specialty-only venue, and now, we want to open it up to so much more. Let’s use it, utilize it. It’s a beautiful spot.”

Events with that renewed community focus are in the works. Williamson said she envisions a “supper club” where visitors could enjoy a meal while enjoying a performance. In October, there are plans for a gala celebration with an “Alice in Wonderland” theme – a chance for Rhodes and its community to celebrate coming through the pandemic.

“We’re trying to thinking a little bit out of the box,” Williamson said.

While Williamson said securing enough staff has been a continued challenge, filling the schedule at Rhodes has not. The facility continued booking during the shutdown, she said, allowing it to proceed quickly once the “switch flipped” with the rollout of vaccines and lifting of restrictions.

During last week’s tour of the facility, Williamson and Wheland were setting up ahead of the North Smithfield High School prom. Williamson said Rhodes is almost completely booked for the remainder of the year, while next year’s schedule is also full, with many new bookings in addition to rescheduled events.

“I am thrilled … I think everybody’s clamoring to get out of the house,” she said.

Added Wheland: “It’s really been an absolute labor of love for Hillary and I … We’re pretty happy with the outcome.”

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