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by David Brussat, contributing writer, Architecture Here and There
(Photo: Rendering of Prospect Terrace restoration project. Bradford Associates)
Landscape architect Sara Bradford led the recent restoration of
Providence’s Prospect Terrace, in its College Hill neighborhood near
Brown University. Her late husband, RISD professor of architecture and
modernist Derek Bradford, was my nemesis as I covered the city’s Capital
Center Commission design review panel for the Providence Journal. For
years, as a member of the panel, Bradford did his best to keep the sort
of traditional buildings I favored out of Capital Center – a new
district on acres of parking between downtown and the State House. More
often than not, he succeeded.
Roger Williams Memorial (Wikipedia)
Bradford died in 2017. I was concerned when his widow, who had
designed a modernist plaza between Waterplace Park and downtown’s old
Union Station, was tapped to design the restoration of Prospect Terrace.
I imagined the worst. Kooky, newfangled benches, sleek, lampposts that
cried “Of Our Time!” God knows what else. Roger Williams would weep.
Sara’s design was carried out and the park reopened on a rainy day
last summer. Not long after, I visited, expecting the worst. I found
instead that the new benches looked like the old benches, ditto the
lampposts and wrought-iron fences. New concrete paths were speckled
gently with pebbles, and the area around founder Roger Williams’s
memorial was resurfaced with granite pavers. The curbing and gutters
along the Congdon Street edge of the park, so hazardous for so many
years, were also done up elegantly with granite pavers. Several signs
describe the history of the park, one even identifying the array of
buildings on view from the terrace.
It was beautiful! Pleasure and relief suffused my entire being!
How easy it is to imagine the pressure Sara Bradford must have been
under to introduce some sort of twist designed to assert the park’s
independence from the shibboleths of the past. The College Hill
community would press for a timeless restoration rather than a timely
renovation of the park. After all, the College Hill Neighborhood
Association was the project’s leading sponsor. Still, the shadow cast by
the design apparatchiks of Brown, RISD, the city’s planning office and
the state’s I-195 commission is long and deep. I figured that Sara
Bradford would know which side her bread was buttered on.
Thankfully, my anxiety was overblown.
Perhaps Sara Bradford was influenced by another long shadow, that of
Roger Williams, who, cast out of the colony of Massachusetts, created
Providence and Rhode Island in the spirit of the Independent Man, who
can be seen from Prospect Terrace standing tall atop the State House.
In our modern era, tradition is the transgressive principle that
fights for independence of mind against a hidebound desogm
establishment. Today, Howard Roark, the renegade hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead
and long the model for modernist architects, would be a classicist. I
don’t know if Sara Bradford would agree, but I like to think her
Prospect Terrace reflects the better angels of Rhode Island and its
Historical view of Prospect Terrace, looking southwest to downtown Providence (Wikipedia)