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by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There, contributing writer
The headline of this post is the same as when I wrote it as my weekly column for the Providence Journal in 2008. The Read-Ott Mansion was at a most dire risk of demolition then, and remains so now. Its owner, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of Pawtucket, is about to tear it down. True, it has had another 16 years of grace. The church should cease and desist. Here is the conclusion of critic Will Morgan, an architecture writer from an article last summer printed in GoLocalProv.
Sadly, this is a typical story. Likely too late now, alas, but one can imagine the house being repurposed for housing or some other income-producing solution for the church–a hospice, a Greek language school, apartments for parishioners? There would still be plenty of open space around the church for future expansion, such as a parish house, without letting the Read-Ott house disappear. One can empathize with the costs of supporting a congregation and maintaining its real estate in a city that is a ghost of its once hugely prosperous self. Nevertheless, this a loss that should not have happened.
I hope that Morgan is excessively pessimistic. I have, I think, demonstrated my credentials as the most optimistic of optimists. May the Read-Ott continue to grace Quality Hill. With apologies for any facts that may have been overtaken by events since I wrote 16 years ago, here is my exercise in optimism:
Save Pawtucket’s Ott Mansion
The Read-Ott Mansion has been for decades the prize possession of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church, on Walcott Street at the gateway to Pawtucket’s Quality Hill neighborhood. Walcott is still Pawtucket’s Benefit Street (it actually has its own street of the same name) as Quality Hill was Pawtucket’s College Hill before Oak Hill nudged it aside after its century on top – or so some might attest. Bar fights no doubt still break out between Bucketeers who stand up for one or the other as the city’s finest neighborhood. (We tend to forget how wealthy Pawtucket was back in the day.)
But I’d wager that no house in Oak Hill can match the Read-Ott Mansion for twists in architectural history. The house was built by tinsmith-turned-hardware merchant John Blake Read in 1842. The columns originally upholding the pedimental roof of its porch declared it a Greek Revival. In 1850, Read added bay windows over the door and a cupola on the roof that transformed his house (in the eyes of future architectural historians) into one of Italianate style.
By 1890 its ownership had gone from Read to Darious Goff to Joseph Ott, founder of the Royal Weaving Co. For Ott, an Italianate Greek Revival in a very fashionable district was not quite house enough. In 1915, working with architect W.G. Sheldon, he lopped off the cupola and added a third story and colonial details. In 1930, the Ionic porch was enclosed and an imposing Doric portico rising two stories was added. This turned the house into a Georgian Revival, according to the architectural historians, although my own research has not yet uncovered the point at which the house came to called a mansion.
In the early 1960s, Pawtucket’s Greek Orthodox congregation was evicted by “urban removal” from its George Street church to make way for Route 95. The congregation bought the house on Walcott. Next to it they built a new church in a St. George-meets-George Jetson style. It opened in 1967.
The Read-Ott served as the congregation’s parish house. Its interior was renovated in the ’70s with features that call to mind loud shirts, fat ties and wide lapels. To judge by its situation today, the effect may have been to doom its allure to the congregation. In any event, the new fire code has recently made any use illegal pending an upgrade to unrealistic standards.
Historical preservationists may pull their chins in quest of the correct point in time to restore it to. Neo-Georgian? Italianate? Greek Revival? The congregation simply wants to fix it up or tear it down. The latter option should, of course, be considered a last resort. At $80,000, it would be the cheapest. Yet the property is insured, unburdened by a mortgage, and thus about $2.5 million is available, more than needed to meet the fire code, restore it to a high standard and/or renovate it for most purposes.
The building has great bones – the structure is sound and the exterior remains enchanting, akin to Bristol’s Linden Place in potential for beauty. Inside, the errata of the 1970s are easily removed. They include wall-to-wall shag carpeting and, in the parlor, an odd, space-age staircase banister whose struts (you can hardly call them balusters!) jut at a 90 degree angle from the crook of every third riser. These have gotta go! Luckily, most of the Georgian details remain, including the lovely banisters on stairways in the less prominent parts of the house that might not have warranted the honor of modernization.
Joan Milas, a congregation member and well-regarded Smith Hill lobbyist leading the preservation effort, promises to rename it the Read-Ott-Brussat Mansion if this column attracts a millionaire’s attention. [Evidently it did not – db] But if an angel appears, shouldn’t it be named, say, the Read-Ott-Gates Mansion?
In addition to twisting the arm of this reporter to go to bat for the Read-Ott Mansion, Milas has, among other heroic accomplishments, gently cajoled free advice from local experts in the fields of architecture and historic preservation.
One idea generated thus far is for a senior center for the elderly members of various nearby Orthodox congregations. That would stroke the sense of communal benevolence. A more public use could be as an art museum, which might assuage the loss of the Pawtucket Children’s Museum, which left the Pitcher-Goff Mansion (also on Walcott Street) for Providence in 1997. This would burnish Pawtucket’s reputation as an arts mecca, one-upping archrival Providence, which let the Rhode Island School of Design use “art” [with its RISD Art Museum addition] to attack the beauty of its host city.
However it is used, the Read-Ott Mansion ought to be saved. To raze it would be shameful.
To read other articles by David Brussat: https://rinewstoday.com/david-brussat-contributing-writer/
My freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat, Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, email@example.com, or call (401) 351-0451.
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