A Drone Photographer Wants to Record Rhode Island’s Abandoned Mills – Before They’re Gone
David Lawlor will showcase his work filming mills and other abandoned structures during a May 4 gallery exhibit at Shark's Peruvian Cuisine.
A camera zooms in close on the walls of an abandoned building. As the drone pans up and around, flickering lights illuminate the art deco details on the massive structure. The camera veers around a final bend, and the subject is revealed as Providence’s Superman Building, the city’s most famous icon depicted as never before seen from the ground.
David Lawlor has spent the past three years documenting this and other iconic Rhode Island buildings, particularly those slated to change either through the triumph of redevelopment or the sudden death of a wrecking ball’s swing. He’s particularly drawn to mill buildings, those multi-stories monstrosities that sprung up throughout the 1880s and 1900s and still dot the landscape across most of the state.
“With mills, they’re just so massive, it could be four giant floors of emptiness but there’s a lot of history behind them,” he says. “Here in Rhode Island was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, so I always want to be able to capture these structures.”
Lawlor is the owner of Run of the Mill, a company specializing in drone photography and videography for developers and demolition groups. It’s also the name of his Instagram and YouTube series where he posts videos of his historic finds, both those on the client list and others he shoots for fun. So far he’s worked primarily with nonprofit organizations, including Pawtucket Central Falls Development and Rhode Island Housing, though Lawlor says he hopes to transition into working with more private developers who want to record their projects from demolition to ribbon cutting.
On Thursday, May 4, Lawlor will hold a gallery show from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Sharks Peruvian Cuisine on the banks of the Blackstone River in Central Falls. It’s a chance for him to showcase the work he’s accomplished recording Rhode Island’s abandoned mill structures, as well as show off some of the treasures discovered during his shoots.
“I went to this one mill and found 200 mill worker badges with their photo and worker ID number, which is really cool,” he says, noting he’ll have them on hand during the event.
Lawlor didn’t always have a career that combined his passion for filmmaking and historic preservation. Originally born in India, he grew up in North Providence and caught the film bug playing with an old VHS camcorder that belonged to his grandmother. Like many filmmakers, he discovered urban exploration in high school and spent hours exploring sites like the Crook Point Bascule Bridge in Fox Point. He attended Suffolk University for film studies and continued making videos, but the hobby didn’t immediately blossom into a career.
Then, in March of 2020, two things happened. On March 14, a massive fire broke out in the Conant Thread District of Central Falls and Pawtucket, devastating eight mill buildings that had been slated for redevelopment. The fire burned for three days and required firefighters from several communities extinguish the blaze. Lawlor watched, astonished, as a huge piece of local history went up in flames.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging communities across Rhode Island. Working at Whole Foods Market, Lawlor says he was nervous about bringing the virus into the home of his grandparents, where he was living at the time. He decided it was time to get out of retail.
“Since those mills disappeared, I decided to document as many as I could,” he says.
He spent his stimulus check on a drone camera and threw himself into a part-time gig handling social media and photography for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. The job helped introduce him to one of Rhode Island’s most important industrial regions, the Blackstone River Valley. It was there that Samuel Slater kicked off the American Industrial Revolution with the opening of Slater Mill in 1793.
“Here in the Blackstone Valley, especially Woonsocket, that landscape has changed tremendously over the course of 200 years. It was a very industrial culture and then changed into a more urban, family-friendly landscape,” he says.
Today, the region is filled with abandoned mills ripe for exploration, like the Ann and Hope building in Cumberland or the Dorado Mill in Woonsocket. He also enjoys recording the relics of once-bustling Main Streets, such as Woonsocket’s Longley Building, located across the street from a historic train depot on the Providence-Worcester route. Last year, he obtained permission from the owners of the Ann and Hope building to film inside the historic mill-turned-outlet-store before its conversion to housing and commercial units.
“It’s a thrill to be inside of these historic places and just smell the floorboards, that late 1800s architecture,” he says. “You can still see the carriage system where it was on a conveyor belt and they brought the carriages from floor to floor.”
Lawlor hopes to publish a video on the history of the Ann and Hope Mill soon, but lately he’s been focused on getting his company up and running. He counts himself among a new generation of Rhode Island videographers who use documentary-style art to spur interest in historic preservation, sometimes managing to make a living in the process. Local filmmakers such as Christian de Rezendes and Jason Allard have also embraced a passion recording the state’s once-grand factories and industrial centers, particularly those that made Rhode Island a key player on the industrial world stage.
“We’ve been the younger generation that gets into this and puts a whole new spin on it by using drone photography, sometimes doing voiceover or narration. Having drone photography and being able to document it in a more cinematic experience makes it even more fun,” Lawlor says.
Lawlor knows it’s a complicated business keeping a mill from crumbling to the ground, so he’s committed to documenting as many as he can before nature or the economy has their way. That way, he says, future history buffs will have something to discover when they go hunting in the archives of their industrial past.
“These type of documentations need to be done for future generations. It’s not just today,” he says.
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