Caroline Stevens MA '16 Opens Doors to the Providence Community

by Kaitlin Sandmann, Storytellers Fellowship '19
November 7, 2017

Inside Atlantic Mills, one of the 24 venues available to tour during Doors Open RI Festival 2017. Credit: Nadav Assor. 

Stevens inside Atlantic Mills. The Doors Open RI Festival ran from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2017. Credit: Christian Scully (Design Imaging Studios). 

More than 4,000 people attended this free event, with over 20,000 total visits to venues such as Barnaby Castle (pictured). Credit: Christian Scully (Design Imaging Studios). 

Barnaby Castle was also home to a murder mystery open house through Doors Open RI on Jan. 28, 2017. Credit: Christian Scully (Design Imaging Studios). 

Other venues included the Stephen Hopkins House (pictured) and Providence City Hall. Credit: Christian Scully (Design Imaging Studios). 

Brown University participated in Doors Open RI, opening doors to venues such as the Ladd Observatory. Credit: Christian Scully (Design Imaging Studios). 

The Providence Public Library was also showcased during the Doors Open RI Festival in 2017. Credit: Christian Scully (Design Imaging Studios). 

The summer before entering ninth grade, Caroline Stevens MA ‘16 and her best friend took turns wearing blindfolds and dizzily pointed at unknown spots on the Washington, D.C. Metro map. Guided in this manner, they boarded the Metro and were carried to areas of the city they had never seen before. For Stevens, who admits she has “always had a thirst for exploration,” these ventures were just the beginning.

Stevens’ interests in architecture and exploration have led her to a new role as Executive Director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Rhode Island). This organization is dedicated to “enhancing the quality of our built environment,” according to the AIA Rhode Island website.  

Upon assuming this position in January, Stevens will continue to develop Doors Open RI, a venture which “connects people to local places of cultural, historical and architectural significance in an effort to bridge communities and inspire new perspectives on our cities.” In the fall, Doors Open RI hosted a Providence-based festival in which 24 sites across the city opened their doors to the public. Over 4,000 visitors attended.

Doors Open RI is the product of Stevens’ Embark Fellowship funded by the Swearer Center, which she was awarded in 2016 while working toward her Masters in Public Humanities at Brown University. Through this fellowship, the Swearer Center provides funding to students with a strong idea for a social venture in order to support the transition from idea into fully fledged endeavor.

Stevens was able to identify the impact she wanted Doors Open RI to have through classes taken at Brown and time spent working with mentorship from the Swearer Center. Stevens said that conversations and experiences during this time encouraged her to position the question of why “at the center of everything” that Doors Open RI works toward.   

Before coming to Brown, Stevens, looking for a job in which she could “share [her] excitement” about architectural history, was uncertain that there was something that would precisely fit what she hoped to accomplished.

“I had the mentality of just making a job for myself and hoping it turned into something real,” Stevens said during an interview.

She began leading architectural tours in Chicago, wrote a Chicago-based architecture blog, and became a manager of Open House Chicago, an event in which doors to various notable locations throughout the city are opened to the public. Open House Chicago is the largest showcase-type exploration event in the world.

Stevens’ experience with Open House Chicago and her fascination with city exploration combined to foster the idea to start Doors Open RI. She wanted to build a system that would help people see “the wonderful things and people that are there and [bring] more attention to them.”

In pursuing this goal, Stevens said, “I am less interested in being the expert myself. I prefer to be more of a matchmaker between people and places. It’s about saying, ‘who are the experts?’ -- empowering them.”

Stevens attests to the importance of partnerships: in none of the programs does she attempt to “take on an interpretive role.” Doors Open RI is not, she says, about building something new; rather, it is about bringing communities together and heightening awareness within these communities.

In order to do so, Doors Open RI runs a variety of one-day programs throughout the year. These programs are almost always free. Ticketed events, such as a murder-mystery open house at Barnaby Castle, donate a significant portion of the profit to restoration efforts. Most programs, however, are focused on bringing public awareness to sites in the state.

One example of such a program was a free open house tour of the Sons of Jacob Synagogue on June 25, 2017. This event showcased the building, one that is “unassuming on the outside” but “lights up like a jewel-box” within. Over 400 people attended the open house. Stevens described it as a “very moving event,” bolstered by community partners with knowledge of the building telling stories of its “rich history” throughout the day.  

Through all of Doors Open’s events, Stevens works to solidify precisely how to best optimize the nonprofit for the community. Stevens said the most important element in doing so is “to listen to the needs of your fellow community members and adapt what you’re doing to achieve their goals.”