More on Penn Sta. rebuild

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The Gothamist yesterday ran a long article by Jake Offenhartz, “A Dramatic Plan to Rebuild Penn Station & Restore its Lost Grandeur,” that explains the several initiatives involved in the proposal to rebuild Penn Station in its original Beaux Arts style.

The first would be to bring the idea to the attention of the political, bureaucratic, design and corporate elites who control the station’s future (if anyone does). The second would be to incorporate rebuilding the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece (opened in 1910 and demolished in 1963) into evolving plans to upgrade Penn’s transportation system, which is literally falling apart. A vital and creative proposal to solve cascading problems with the rails and platforms would involve turning Penn from the terminus of the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey commuter rail into a through station. A third would be to flesh out the MM&W design, preserved in a set of all 353 blueprints at the New York Historical Society. It must be meshed with new materials and technologies, with modern needs, and a commercial outlets that would revitalize the area around the station, said to be undervalued by 30 percent compared to the area around Grand Central Terminal.

Architect Richard Cameron of Atelier & Co. proposed this plan a couple of years ago after having thought it through for more than a decade. He has been joined by the National Civic Art Society, led by Justin Shubow, which, one hopes, might be able to put a bug in the ear of President Trump as part of his infrastructure program. Newly enlisted behind the Rebuild Penn plan is an urban policy center, RethinkStudio, whose director, Jim Venturi, was first to reimagine Penn as a through station.

So far, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not acknowledged the Rebuild Penn plan. His proposal for a lame renovation that would address none of the station’s or the system’s main problems has been opposed editorially by the New York Times, but the newspaper has come out strongly in favor of a proposal to move the Garden to the Farley Post Office next door and replace its circular structure with a glass drum. Better than the current situation but … yawn! Moving the Garden is a necessary step in any useful plan for Penn; the Farley is now envisioned, however, as an extension of Penn for Amtrak, an elegant step that still would not solve the system’s mounting crises.

The general awfulness of Penn Station today is made all the more painful by the grandeur of the first version. Inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the original McKim, Mead and White masterpiece featured 150 foot glass ceilings, pink granite walls, and 84 Doric columns.The general waiting room, large enough to fit the entirety of Grand Central Station, possessed nine acres of travertine and granite. Summarizing the difference between that station and the one that came after it, architecture critic Vincent Scully famously said: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

I had been unaware the Grand Central Terminal could be fit entirely into the waiting room of the original Pennsylvania Station. It seems evident that rebuilding Penn Station in its old style within a broader revitalization of the area for commerce would transform the neighborhood, raising revenue in such a way as to minimize the cost to taxpayers of the entire project. More important, it would retrieve part of the city’s lost soul. It would, one might dare to say, make New York City great again. If only someone could be got to listen and hear the argument for Rebuild Penn.

The drawing above and those below are by Jeff Stikeman for Rebuild Penn.

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Own a free villa in Italy

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Torre Angellara in Salemo (all photos courtesy Agenzia Del Demanio)

Truly! Since not everyone is logged in to the roster of programmes gushing from Italy’s bureaucracy, such as it may be, check out this from the website Hyperallergic. Yes, Italy is giving away free castles, villas and other unused historic state-owned properties. The one catch, if you can call it that, is that you have to restore the property and turn it into a hotel, restaurant or other attractive spot for walking and biking enthusiasts.

Italy Is Giving Away 103 Historic Buildings,” by Claire Voon, displays 10 of the 103 properties (there will be future rounds of give-aways) and describes the program:

The Cammini e Percosi (Paths and Tracks) program, launched by the State Property Agency and Ministry of Cultural Heritage, arises as a unique way to promote the country’s treasures that lie off the beaten path. It’s also intended as a solution to the overcrowding of popular urban destinations, from Rome to Venice, and one that theoretically guarantees the longterm oversight of neglected sites.

“The project will promote and support the development of the slow tourism sector,” Roberto Reggi, a spokesperson for the State Property Agency, told The Local. “The goal is for private and public buildings which are no longer used to be transformed into facilities for pilgrims, hikers, tourists, and cyclists.”

So, no, you won’t be able to snag a slice of Rome on the cheap, but wherever you snag your villa or castle, it can’t be very far away from the Eternal City. And you may even learn to enjoy being out of the hubbub, making eternal friendships with the relaxed folk who have been sucked into the meandering maw of the slow tourism movement.

Hey! All you conquistador wannabes! Just do it! Veni, vidi, vici and all that!

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House in Irsina.

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Unwelcome Arnold House?

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Welcome Arnold House at 21 Planet St., Providence (Catherine Zipf)

Is the Welcome Arnold House (circa 1785), on Planet Street in Fox Point, doomed to demolition by neglect? That’s the question posed by Catherine Zipf’s architecture column in today’s Providence Journal. She wonders whether its owner, Walter Bronhard, intends to let it deteriorate until it can barely stand. He has already applied to tear it down.

In “Will historic house face demolition?,” Zipf describes the history of the house and its current predicament, and explains how saving colonials in Providence has become old hat, almost a done deal as soon the plight of an old colonial house becomes known. “No one argues over saving 18th century buildings,” she writes. “We just do it.”

Good! But what about the Welcome Arnold House? Bronhard, who has not owned the house for as long as it has been deteriorating, “seeks permission from the Historic District Commission to demolish the building and recon- struct a copy,” she writes, adding: “Great idea, right? Won’t a replacement make everyone happy? Unfortunately, no.”

She correctly suggests that a replacement, even if well done, does not preserve the qualities we value in a genuine historical building. A replace- ment, or restoration, would be acceptable under the circumstances, indeed admirable, if it had burned down, or if it were in fact so deteriorated that it had to be demolished for reasons of safety. But if it gets that way through malign neglect, then it is not acceptable – though what can be done about it is hard to know. Until it actually falls down it can in theory be fixed, however expensive that may prove. The city can continue to deny a demo permit until Bronhard throws up his hands and decides either to fix the building or sell it to someone who will.

That’s my hunch, at least. I don’t know exactly what Bronhard’s rights are as a house owner – or his duties under the law. Bronhard also owns the nearby Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside House (1866) and is apparently on a house-buying spree on the East Side of Providence, so preservationists should be pressing the city to clarify these legal issues.

In reading Zipf’s thoughts about the Welcome Arnold House, I was with her (I am not always so agreeable!) until she wrote: “We don’t build buildings as we did in the Colonial period.” Obviously we cannot do so in precisely the same way, using the same tools and techniques. But we can do so to a degree that produces a contemporary house that satisfies the widespread yearning for new buildings designed in the manner of old buildings. We can and we should. We must not accept the false idea that we cannot do so. Modernists commonly assert that we cannot – but the fact is that we can, and they simply will not do so. It is a matter of choice, not fate.

And then, confusingly, she adds: “Current zoning codes will force the building’s form into a modern shape.” Well, certainly some building and safety codes mandate, say, wider steps and halls than might have been used in a historic house. But that need not prevent its design from taking a his- toric form. And, to be sure, any house built in modern times must perforce assume a “modern” shape. Any thing built today is modern in that broad sense of the word and cannot be otherwise. If that is all she means, her assertion is just a bland statement of the obvious.

But if she used the word “modern” to avoid the word “modernist,” with all its baggage, then she is not only mistaken – zoning codes force no such thing – but culpable of using rhetorical sleight of hand to mislead her readers. Per- haps she is trying to hint that we might as well accept modernist buildings because that’s all we are going to get.

For a writer, that is just as wrong as it is for the owner of a historic building to seek its demolition through a stratagem of neglect. So I will assume that Zipf was just stating the obvious – certainly no crime in that! – and that I am being hypersensitive. Get the man an Occam’s razor!

(Occam’s razor is shorthand for the theory that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is more likely to be true than a more complex explanation. Conspiracy theorists are among those who often fail to use Occam’s razor.)

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Sad travel to Manchester

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A civic square in downtown Manchester. (expedia)

Manchester has suffered a deadly blast delivered by Islamic extremists. Twenty-two have died and many others are injured. A five-minute video revealing the city’s many lovely classical buildings, set alas amid our era’s aggressive modernism, will not quell its horror and sadness. I had struggled with whether to post Manchester’s architecture, as I have come to do in the aftermath of these terrible events increasingly eviscerating cities around the globe. I would not want the reader to feel that I am equating the murder of innocents with ugly buildings. And yet it is a relationship explored by the evil Mohammad Atta. Terrorists resent the oppression represented by the global assault of the glass skyscraper, and all it represents, on indigenous cultures around the world. A perception of the need to address the relationship is far from an acceptance of the terrorists’ means of addressing it.

Be that as it may, I found a relatively gentle video tour of about seven minutes from Expedia, with a soft narration taking a pleasantly bland line on what has become of Manchester’s built manifestation of historical character. Those readers who watch “Manchester’s Vacation Travel Guide” join me in my condolences for the city’s citizens.

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National Football Museum, in Manchester. (expedia)

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TB on Fogarty’s demise

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The remains of the Fogarty Building. (See time-lapse video in Providence Journal, link below.)

Here is my Traditional Building blog post from a couple months ago, around the time some ardent local preservationists held a funeral for the John C. Fo- garty Memorial Building, soon after its demolition began. Soon after that its demolition was delayed, but now it is on again and the building, qua build- ing, is gone. All that’s left is the rubble, and that should be gone soon, too. The heart-warming photo above is from a video taken by the Providence Journal and linked to in a story below.

Readers with very long memories will see that this post resurrects a column I wrote for the Providence Journal back in 2007, with all discussion of the proposed demolition of the Police & Fire Headquarters removed. That demo took place soon after. The Fogarty survived another decade. The TB version is called “The Fogarty’s Demise: Not So Hard to Say Yes to Beauty.” Enjoy.

Enjoy? What about this! The Journal story that follows has a time-lapse video of the Fogarty being nibbled to death by ducks – the two machines that chewed away at it for weeks. The fall of the last wall is not shown, but interspiced are shots from many angles, and shots of the operators of the demo machines that suggest how much fun they are having and, perhaps, how much joy they are giving. The Journal story is called “Last wall of Fogarty Building falls in Providence.” It’s about three minutes of the most intimate pleasure that can be had by someone who truly loves architecture: A Brutalist building literally getting its comeuppance – getting what it deserves. … Ahhhh!

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Bench press in Providence

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Top park bench, in Vocklabruck, Austria, on viral list. (Postize.com)

The above photo is the first on a list of benches from “14 Most Creatively Perfect Benches and Seats from All Around the World,” on the website Postize. The list of benches has gone viral, if not postal.

Since I cringed my way through these fascinating benches a while ago, they have boomeranged back at me through email from local citizens interested in new park benches here in Providence. I am concerned about pressure to go wacko in the redesign of one of the city’s sweetest little parks, Prospect Terrace, on Congdon Street. Replacing its old benches is high on the agenda, and they should be replaced – with new versions of the classic bench style.

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Old bench at Prospect Terrace. (ryan.norbaugher.com)

All of the benches that have gone viral are creative, some of them combine creativity and usefulness. Some of them combine one or both of those qualities with beauty. But most of them combine either or both of those qualities with a sort of sculptural dissonance with their surroundings that would under- mine the beauty of Prospect Terrace. The best of them are way too expensive and most of them look like maintenance nightmares, and some have safety issues. Some of them look comfortable and some others quite the opposite. But I am not sure that comfort, or at least too much of it, is high on the list of objectives for city benches in Providence!

The old-style benches reliably combine utility, efficiency and beauty – and, yes, creativity. These days, with difference for the sake of difference as the conventional wisdom, a certain dare I say boldness characterizes the strategy of going with the benches we all know and love.

I am sure most of the dozens of people who recently received the viral benches list probably think so, too, especially if they live on Congdon Street. Or if the bench were to be installed in front of their own house. Of course, most of them will insist otherwise because of the overwhelming ambient pressure in our culture to be “cool.”

Sorry. Most of these benches are fun to look at and maybe fun to sit on but for how long? Go with the tried and true. That is often the best strategy.

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Benches at Prospect Terrace, circa 1900, before Roger Williams monument. (PPL)

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Trip to Old City, Jerusalem

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Old City Wall, Jerusalem. (land-of-the-bible.com)

Here, from GlobeTrotter Alpha, is a 15-minute video of the Old City, Jerusalem, capital of Israel, with its Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and other sections, including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Big events there today. Most of the shots, however, linger pleasantly and take us along the many passageways perhaps not frequented by tourists. No voice-over – this is Jerusalem as seen and heard by its residents.

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Adam on neighborly styles

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“Backward or Forward in Time,” by Yang Luo-Branch. (Courtesy of the artist.)

In his book Classical Columns Robert Adam has an essay about one of his most enticing works, “The Sackler Library: Ancient and Modern.” It traces the influences of past and present design philosophies on his building at Oxford University. He writes:

The Sackler Library sits in an important historical area. It has early nineteenth-century houses on one side and the important mid-nineteenth-century Ashmolean [Library] on the other side with its 1930s Classical extension. The design of the new building has an easy harmony with its surroundings, relating to all of them without copying any of them. Its difference is as noticeable as its similarity.

Just before this he suggests how easy it is to accomplish, at least in theory:

Until the later twentieth century, all buildings were traditional or customary. That is, either they deliberately drew upon some aspect of the past either unselfconsciously in customary or vernacular buildings or they made conscious references to the past in tradi- tional or high-style revivals. While the desire to be up-to-date and the wish to be different have always existed, there was no theory of a complete aesthetic disengagement from the past. It is this absence of complete and deliberate disjunction that allows older villages, towns, and cities to have a harmony while containing buildings of quite different styles and periods.

In short, old streetscapes engage a natural synchronicity, a variation on theme that puts the achievement of beauty, at some level, in the hands of most builders and architects down through time. Until the mid-20th century, when dissonance became de rigueur and creating beauty out of dissonance required genius, which is rare.

I have placed an illustration of the Sackler below, but on top of this post is an illustration that astutely suggests how difficult it is to recapture this natural synchronicity now that the architectural establishment has largely banned variation on a theme. The artist, Yang Luo-Branch, at my request, drew a streetscape that melds together styles from the modern to the classical – the direction architecture should move in order to revive the civic beauty lost over the past half century and more.

Making such different types of architecture merge together in easy gradual transition from one style to the next poses a real challenge. Not much can be done to avoid making the streetscape seem like a succession of distinct styles one after another, skipping from modernist eventually to classical. The vio- lence between the old and the new is just too harsh to smooth over. Yang’s illustration captures that difficulty to perfection.

The thrust of Robert Adam’s book is to promote harmony over disjunction in architecture by explaining why the former is natural and the latter unnatu- ral. Having finished reading his book, I will soon write a review of Classical Columns: 40 Years of Writing on Architecture. And thank you, Yang, for your adorable drawing!

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Sackler Library, Oxford. (Flickr)

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Clam shack casino in R.I.

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“Dave’s Restaurant,” in Island Park, Portsmouth, near Stone Bridge, circa 1950. (from cover of “Rhode Island Clam Shacks.” (Rhode Island Archives)

My wife’s longtime friend Christopher Scott Martin (that’s three first names!) is the author, with David Norton Stone, of Rhode Island Clam Shacks, pub- lished in April under the Images of America imprint of Arcadia Publishing. We went to the Providence Public Library on Tuesday evening to hear the two of them discuss their book.

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Their discussion, garnished with stuffies cooked up by the library’s communications director, Tonia Mason, made me want to go out and visit a clam shack for dinner. Not necessarily for clamcakes but for stuffies (with the taste of Tonia’s still lingering). We did not, alas. Maybe tonight! Iggy’s beckons at Oakland Beach and McCormick & Schmick’s has excellent hefty ones at the Biltmore, not to mention Hem- enways – though the latter two are hardly to be placed in the clamshack category!

The word irresistible well captures the quality of this book and books of its sort, with their collections of photos and postcards of rustic places and popular attractions that spark an emotion- al kinship in so many. Photos of the workers, patrons and menus (with their heartrending prices!) cannot fail to tickle one’s fascination. Here, from the 1950s, is Lobster Shore Dinner No. 3 (the fanciest) on the Crescent Park Shore Dinner menu, for $4, Rhode Island sales tax of 4 percent included:

  • Old Fashioned Rhode Island Clam Chowder
  • Crescent Park’s Famous Clam Cakes
  • Steamed Clams with Drawn Butter
  • Fish Fried or Baked with French Fries
  • With Petukquineg Stuffing
  • Cole Slaw Salad
  • Sweet Corn in Season
  • Whole Lobster
  • Rolls and Brown Bread – Creamery Butter
  • Sliced Cold Watermelon

A major theme of Martin and Stone’s book and lecture is how the clambake evolved by way of the roof upheld by wooden posts to the shore dinner hall and the clam shack into some of today’s most popular Rhode Island seafood restaurants. Yum! In their introduction they write:

Initially, clambakes were cooked and eaten outdoors, their rusticity part of the charm, and at one political bake in 1840 in Buttonwoods, men brought their own plates, bowls, spoons, knives, and forks, and ate under the trees. Later, shore dinners were cooked outside but served at long tables in dining halls that emphasized water views over elegance, and where the traditional fare of a clambake was supplemented by fish or clam chowder, clam cakes, lobsters, brown bread, ice cream, watermelon and Indian pudding. Eventually, full-fledged amusement parks grew up around the most popular shore dinner destinations, like Rocky Point and Crescent Park.

The image of Rhode Island politicians of old and their supporters tromping down to the shore for a clambake brings to mind how little has changed in Rhode Island politics. It may seem to embrace the trappings of modernity, but scrape back the skin and you see that a lot of the old back-slapping and “circle the wagons” instincts at play. The antics of two indicted Providence city councilors – one was the majority leader, the other the council president – to cling to the trappings of their offices. The effort at secrecy in the process of developing land on the vacant acres of the I-195 innovation corridor raises similar concerns. Maybe it is unfair to link any of this to clambakes, but the thought of a way of life going down the tubes is difficult to resist. For good and ill, we still have clam shacks and political hacks.

This theme of evolution over time resonates with me because on August 28 my book Lost Providence will be published, also by Arcadia Publishing via History Press. It tracks evolution in the appearance of the city’s manmade features. There is some sad level of chicanery in that story, too, though it has nothing to do with clam shacks. I am trying to arrange a similar event at the Providence Public Library. Already arranged is a lecture hosted by the Pre- servation Society of Newport County on September 28, at Rosecliff.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island Clam Shacks, at $21.99, gives value for the money, although some of it will pull at your heart strings (and your purse strings), such as the reprinted menus from the shore dining halls and clam shacks of yore. By the way, Christopher Martin’s blog, quahog.org, is an excellent compendium of Rhode Island lore. David Stone has written several books of Rhode Island cuisine, including Clamcake Summer, Stuffie Summer and Chowder Summer.

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Scalloptown, Greenwich Cove, East Greenwich. Not in book but couldn’t resist. (Pinterest)

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New view of PawSox field

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Yesterday, alarmed, I posted in “PawSox sock the Bucket” a drawing of the proposed new PawSox stadium in downtown Pawtucket and warned against the poor architecture it suggested might be in store for the Bucket. Today, the Providence Journal published what I hope is an updated image of the ballfield within its context. This illustration is by DAIQ Architects, which designed the stadium proposal for downtown Providence in 2015. Here the stadium does not look modernist and, while not outstanding, neither do the proposed commercial buildings. At least they are no longer glass boxes. The field and the stands are oriented differently. Most fans would face Route 95; the new commercial buildings can no longer be blamed for blocking a nice view, as was the case in yesterday’s illustration. I have posted both images here, today’s above and yesterday’s below. (The improved image does not alter my conviction that the team owners, not city or state taxpayers, should pay for the stadium themselves.)

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