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By David Brussat, contributing writer, Architecture Here and There
This photograph should shock you.
Shot this afternoon, it is what remains of
the caretaker’s cottage (or carriage house) at the old Beresford-Nicholson
estate on Blackstone Boulevard, in Providence. The address is 315 Slater Ave.
It used to front on Slater, which curves round the rear of the grounds along a
stone wall encased in ancient vines. Above the wall rises the cottage, which
might have been the most romantic building in Providence – until last week,
when it was razed.
Here is what the 1986 survey of Providence by
the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission says of the
315. William Beresford Carriage House
(ca. 1909): Clarke, Howe &
Homer, architects. A 1½-story, gable-and-hip-roof, stuccoed carriage house with
servants’ quarters in the attic story. Designed in the English cottage mode of
the early 20th century, it was later converted to a 1-family residence (see 288
The Beresford-Nicholson mansion was saved,
and that was cheered as if Blackstone were somehow short of fancy mansions.
Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the purchase, without which the mansion would be
history, too. Does the new owner recognize what is likely to go up cheek by
jowl on the six or eight residential parcels carved from the subdivision of the
estate? In 1999, I moved from Benefit Street into the newly renovated Smith
Building downtown across from the rollicking Met Café next to Lupo’s Heartbreak
Hotel in the newly renovated Peerless Building. I’d heard at the time that
applicants to rent a unit in the Smith were told that the Met was a coffee
shop. Huh? What did the real-estate agent tell the prospective owners of the
Beresford-Nicholson mansion was going to happen in their back yard?
Go look at what’s become of the Bodell estate
nearby, which was subdivided recently into five plasticky spec “homes” while
retaining its mansion. Even the last-to-be-built modernist house – seemingly
designed to make those who bought their houses early feel like idiots – has now
been completed, along with its inevitable undertow on neighborhood house
values. Nicholson-Beresford’s new owner, behold your fate!
The fate of the caretaker’s cottage suggests
the fate of Providence under the development policies that have hobbled the
city for decades: Ignore the municipal zoning that protects the historic
character of neighborhoods. Encourage developers to build whatever is most
likely to mar the beauty of Providence. Erode the city’s most powerful but
(alas!) delicate competitive advantage in its contest with other American
cities. Undertake any proposal, so long as it is likely to undermine the city’s
brand of historic beauty, even though steps to strengthen that brand would be
cheap, popular with the public, and easy to implement.
Then watch the city go downhill, as it has
for decades. We got a brief reprieve in the 1990s when the Providence River was
uncovered and lined with lovely bridges, parks and walking paths that fit into
our historic character. Our civic leaders predictably learned absolutely
nothing from that, and today we are back on the downhill slide. Before long,
Providence will reach a tipping point of no return, and will become just
another typical themeless pudding of a midsized city. We are almost there now.
This is what the demise of the caretaker’s cottage means.
By David Brussat, architect writer and founder of