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By David Brussat, Architecture Here and There
That’s a good word for the bad future of
Providence if the erosion of its historic character continues at its current
pace. In “Say no to ugly buildings,” an Oct. 28 op-ed for the Providence
Journal, I listed the buildings that have opened lately in or near downtown.
Here is that list:
In just the last couple of years alone, eight
major new buildings have been completed in and near downtown, including the
Wexford Innovation Center in the I-195 corridor, the River House apartments
near the Point Street Bridge, the first of two proposed Edge College Hill
residential towers on Canal Street, the low-rise Commons at Providence Station
condos along the Moshassuck River in Capital Center, a Homewood Suites Hotel on
Exchange Street, a Marriott Residence Inn on Fountain Street, a Woodspring
Suites Hotel just outside of downtown on Corliss Street, and a large RISD
dormitory near Prospect Street on College Hill.
All of these buildings reject the historical
character of Providence, either purposely or with a sort of cocky ineptitude.
They follow a decade in which all but one building, the lovely Nelson Fitness
Center at Brown University, were designed as if to purposely trash the city’s
heritage. Providence’s civic leaders are crying “Yes!” to ugly buildings,
ignoring mandates in city regulations that historical character be respected.
Incomprehensibly, the same Nelson financed an
“entrepreneurship center” in a piously ugly contemporary building finished last
year on Thayer Street, ending a phase of new traditional buildings there. A
deep foundation has been dug for Brown’s performing arts center in a starkly
modernist design. Two fashionable East Side educational institutions, the Moses
Brown School and the Lincoln School, have recently erected buildings that shred
historical character at prominent locations on Hope Street and Blackstone
Boulevard. The grounds of stately mansions on or near Blackstone are being eyed
by developers for subdivision, which risks not just the estate but the entire
neighborhood – eroding not just beauty but property values. Just look at what
happened to the Bodell estate. The mansion of the Nicholson-Beresford estate on
Blackstone was saved, but its romantic caretaker’s cottage and playhouse are
history, and five or six houses of dubious desirability (most likely un-) are
planned. The developer of the Bodell estate put a modernist house last, no
doubt disturbing those who bought the first four traditional houses.
With the economy humming, what seems like a
record number of teardowns on the East Side, accomplished or proposed, raises
even more anxiety. The aquarium shop with the delightful mural of the deep sea
on its Wickenden Street façade was demolished late last year. I hear the new
owner wants to build something exciting in its place. Uh-oh. Across the street
and up a block, the splendid colonial at 312 Wickenden (c. 1857), home to the
dear Duck & Bunny snuggery, is said to be on the chopping block. (My
sourcing on the D&B is top-notch, but only a major renovation that started
last March is evident online.) Three old houses, at least one of them fine, may
be sacrificed for a proposed hotel at Angell and Brook that is intended to look
traditional, but so far two successive designs have been disappointing.
A host of other teardowns were cited in a
November GoLocalProv piece, “East
Side sees flood of teardowns as average house price tops $560,000.”
[Property broker Sally] Lapides says that
Providence will benefit from the newer structures.
“What it says about the area is that it is
highly desirable, there is a demand for new construction, people want to invest
in Providence and there are people with money who are investing in our city.
The new structures will bring in more tax revenue because the assessments will
be higher on the new architecture,” says Lapides.
Of course, the area might not be highly
desirable for long if Providence continues to shoot itself in the foot.
The “flood” includes a teardown near my
house, off Hope; fortunately, that house is slated to be replaced by two
relatively traditional duplexes. When a landowner razes an old building, the
cost of demolition usually comes out of what is spent on the new one. Since the
1950s and ’60s, when old buildings have been torn down and replaced by new
buildings, architectural quality has almost always suffered, whether the new
buildings are modernist or traditional – the latter often by architects whose
exclusively modernist education means they don’t understand traditional design
techniques. In virtually the blink of an eye, it could no longer be assumed (as
it had been for centuries) that a new building would be superior to what it
The anxiety stirred by this phenomenon caused
historical preservation to shift from a hobby to a mass movement in less than
two decades, not just in Providence but across the country and much of the
globe. Preservationists saved many historic buildings, but for many years have
been uninterested in protecting the settings of those old buildings by
promoting new traditional architecture – which is considered déclassé by
professional preservationists, whose livelihoods exist because of traditional
architecture. You might think preservationists make strange bedfellows with
modernists. Alas, you would be wrong. If members of preservation groups knew
what their boards and staffs think of their design preferences, memberships
would halve overnight.
As a city like Providence expands, pressure
to ignore preservationists and small property owners rises among city planning
offices and developers. Meanwhile, passion naturally flags among those fighting
the municipal development axis. They suspect they have no real allies. Hence
the declining historical character in Rhode Island’s capital.
How long will it take for Providence’s
streetscapes to be so pockmarked by modernist or bad-trad buildings that its
beauty is lost? At this rate, I’d say no more than ten years.
It’s not that every modernist building is
necessarily a bad one, though almost all of them are; but even a good one is
sure to erode the cohesion of a block of traditional buildings – which, because
they arise from gentle evolution spanning hundreds of years, fit together
admirably even when they are stylistically different.
The good news is that the old commercial
district of downtown Providence, known by some as Downcity (it doesn’t mean the
entire downtown, please!), has almost entirely escaped the trends described up
above. An unofficial moratorium on major teardowns in the commercial district
started in 1979 (after the district’s Hoppin Homestead Building was razed) and
ended in 2005 when the Providence National Bank was demolished in 2005. Most of
the teardown sites of the past decade and a half remain vacant: that is, they
remain opportunities to do the unexpected and build nice buildings instead. And
only one major new building opened in the commercial district – the delightful
pavilion at Grace Church, completed in 2017. Plus, two new traditional
buildings of brick by Buff Chace are expected to open next year – one on the
old Journal parking lot and another adding to a string of old buildings being
renovated on Westminster.
The bell has already tolled for the city’s
two new development districts, Capital Center (1978) and the I-195 corridor
(2011). They are beyond redemption, even though four reasonably competent new
traditional buildings in Capital Center – Providence Place, the Westin, its
addition, and the Marriott Courtyard – showcased how major development could
maintain the city’s historical character. These models were ignored, of course,
there and elsewhere in the city. What else is new?
So far as I know, there are no blotches of
God’s wrath on architecture on the boards for the old commercial district of
downtown, whose historical fabric remains the best of any mid-sized city in the
But shhh! Let’s not give anyone any ideas!
Photo: View across Providence’s old downtown and up College Hill. (sprudge.com)
To read this article in its entirety: https://architecturehereandthere.com/2020/01/15/the-future-of-providence
David Brussat – 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, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (401) 351-0457 https://architecturehereandthere.com/