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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PawSox sock the Bucket

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Proposed design for new PawSox stadium on Apex site. (Providence Journal)

GoLocalProv.com came out today with an editorial, “Pawsox Owners’ Ask Is Failed Community Leadership and Ultimate Greed.” It says: “Terry Murray and Tom Ryan asking Pawtucket to float a bond is like Daddy Warbucks shaking down Annie and Sandy for some cash. It is cartoonesque.”

Quite right. I supported the original proposal to build a new PawSox stadium in downtown Providence, on the 195 land at the intersection of Routes 95 and 195. That would have made a lot more money. But it failed because opponents – preferring a proposed public park in an area that is already saturated with parks – were able to tar the proposed ballpark with the public subsidy sought by the team’s wealthy owners. Now the owners (minus the late Jim Skeffington Sr.) have retreated back to Pawtucket.

I think the owners should pay for the stadium. It would be crumbs off their plates. Unless this proposal is really a cover for an eventual relocation of the team out-of-state, I have no doubt that the owners will come around, as they had already begun to do in Providence when the elder Skeffington passed away. By then, the owners had already lost the public because of their foolish opening financial package.

Vital to the latest proposal’s viability, however, is to avoid turning downtown Pawtucket into Office Park Tucket. Unlike the design for the Providence stadium, the design for the new Pawtucket stadium seems as if it could be modernist, as do the several proposed investment buildings nearby.

One of them, a seven-story glass box, would loom over the beautiful and historic Pawtucket Congregational Church. Together, these buildings would block the view of downtown Pawtucket from the stands, and serve as a new eyesore from elsewhere in the city. They would serve as a disincentive to visiting downtown Pawtucket, whether for a game or any other reason.

The buildings portrayed in the map atop this post do not reflect their final designs, but they do reflect the sensibility that seems to be in the minds of the owners – as, perhaps, does the image below of a proposal to rebuild the stadium in place. Are they saying they thought they could not get away with cheesy crap in Providence but they can in Pawtucket? This latest design is a major turnabout from the owners’ excellent design for the stadium in Pro- vidence. It was that design that hooked me on the Providence proposal, in the hope that if it were built, the unsympathetic modernist designs for the innovation district on the vacant I-195 land might be pushed in a nicer direction, one that would strengthen rather than undermine the brand of the city and state.

Because Pawtucket saw much more devastating urban renewal than Provi- dence in the 1950s and 1960s, the job of reviving its built environment is more difficult than in Providence. But it is doable. Pawtucket can be saved by building in ways that fit into the city’s historical character. That will probably not happen, however, if the PawSox hammer the final nails into the coffin of Pawtucket’s remaining beauty. If the team owners hope to generate visceral support in the public for the new stadium, however it is financed, the arch- itecture for it and its associated investment properties will require a look more in sync with public taste.

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Proposed design for a rebuilt PawSox stadium in its current location. (cloudfront.net)

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Philly’s new revo museum

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Photo similar to RAMSA photo by Peter Aaron/OTTO. (RAMSA/Wikipedia)

Got a nice mailing the other day from RAMSA – that is, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Bob Stern’s firm, in New York City. Open the flyer and a photo on two flaps emerges of the Museum of the American Revolution, just opened in Philadelphia. I know the design is excellent because it irks Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s architecture critic. In “Museum of the American Revolution’s Building at Odds with Revolutionary Content,” she writes:

[A]t some point during the decade-long process of creating this progressive little museum, the goals of its historian-curators and its architects diverged in a big way. In contrast to the narrative estab- lished by the exhibits, the building is overblown in scale, false in its approach to architecture, and stridently conservative in appear- ance.

Saffron likes the museum’s exhibits, which describe (in the words of the New York Times), “the struggles, doubts and halting progress of the Revolution, rather than presenting an idealized account of unity and purpose.” This is as it should be. To present an idealized account of the Revolution’s unity and purpose would be the job of a monument. A more detailed description of the Revolution is the job of history books. A museum sits someplace in between. As the Times says, the museum is “more interested in raising questions than providing answers.” Fine. But as the Times also says, the museum should be “about asking questions of visitors.” No, that’s what a history teacher does, at the high school or the university level. I have not visited the museum yet, but I fear its curators may have gone all-in on interactivity – that is, on trying to entertain young people, not to inform young and old alike.

Confusion of purpose infects our culture’s approach to U.S. history. How this plays out in museums is, alas, probably on display in Philadelphia. It appears that the exhibits may be very trendy, and if so, they reflect today’s curatorial conventional wisdom. So in fact, as Saffron suggests, the purpose of the cur- ators and that of the architects here do diverge in a big way.

Except Saffron has it backward. The curators are highly conventional while the architect, Bob Stern, has approached the museum’s design as a revolu- tionary. For the museum is traditional in appearance, not modernist, as the architectural establishment would prefer. That is why it irks intellectual bureaucrats like Saffron. (In fact, the architectural establishment has a lot more power over what gets built today in America than King George III had over what happened in the colonies.)

Two possible demurrals. First, I could be wrong in assuming that the exhibits are trendy. I have not been there. And I am certainly wrong to suggest that the design of the museum is straightforwardly traditional. Actually, Stern tried to seek a balance between traditional classicism and the context in which the museum sits in Philly, That context is a mixture of both classical and modernist buildings. The museum design’s ornament is more simplified and its massing is less symmetrical than I would have preferred. So it actually defers to both aspects of its setting. Still, the building is not so asymmetrical nor so fully stripped of ornament that its traditional essence is not apparent.

Naturally, of course, Stern gets no credit from Saffron for having tried to balance the old with the new in the museum’s design. She is so deeply sunk in her architectural narrative of “creative” versus “conventional” and “mod- ernist” versus “traditional” that she may not even realize that the museum’s design has any nuance at all.

I hope the Museum of the American Revolution actually does transcend the conventional in its exhibits. In her assessment of its architecture, however, Inga Saffron clearly does not.

The Times story, by Jon Hurdle, is “In Philadelphia, the American Revolution Gets a Museum.” The project partners for the design are Robert A.M. Stern, Alexander P. Lamis and Kevin M. Smith. (The RAMSA website’s version of the flyer’s photo, whose trees seem to have been photoshopped out, may also be by Peter Aaron. I used a photo from Wikipedia because the RAMSA web- site’s version of the photo that I received in the mail was too small.)

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Drabble does ornament

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Screen at Winchester Cathedral. (Alamy)

I’m close to the end of Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age. I posted a short while ago some passages on the attitudes of developers in postwar Britain (“Inside Drabble’s developer“). Now the father of her developer protagonist has died and he visits the cathedral where he grew up the son of its schoolmaster. He is walking down an aisle, contemplating the churchly ornamentation:

Anthony, pacing, reached the aisle which was lit from within, by a small light, to show the depth and richness of the carving. Roses and tendrils of stone curled, intricate, involuted, around a central boss. The underlying rose. Craftsmanship, genius. He paused, walked on, watching the changing patterns in the wall. Diamonds, trefoils, toothing, a display of invention, fantasy, fancy – dedicated to what end? Of what had these men thought, as they nagged and whittled and chiseled at the solid blocks? Of the glory of God? It seemed somehow unlikely. … He paused again, by a strange little row of knobs of stone. They reminded him of something, some familiar pattern. He stared at them, intently, wondering, his mind empty, except for the fear of thinking about his father. There stood the row of little round knobs, each round but four-sided, each tapering into a funny little peak, as though the stone were not stone but some more liquid substance. What did they remind him of? Nipples? No, something softer, more clay-like. He touched one, felt its soft point. And suddenly it came to him: of course. They were like little icing decorations, little peaks, squeezed through a forcing bag and a rosette, onto a cake, a birthday cake, and with the realization, a whole scene, long forgotten, came back whole into his memory. …

He is a boy again. No need to go on. I did remove a short passage within the paragraph that has Anthony wondering about the craftsmen’s wages and security. I wanted to maintain the flow of the description of ornament. As to what the craftsmen were thinking as they carved, might they not have been thinking about carving?

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My auction bid for Hazlitt

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Here’s the column I described in my post earlier today, “Surrounded by beauty,” about attending the Bruneau & Co. auction showroom, in Cranston.

***

January 26, 1989
Supply versus demand at its worst: Two book lovers chasing one book

All hail the hurly-burly of the marketplace, but for me a small, safe desk in the far corner of the office will do fine. For all the thousands of words I’ve written hawking the wonders of capitalism and urging other people to go out there and compete, I rather shrink from it myself. I suppose I have the soul of a bureaucrat.

I hasten to add that I’m proud to have the soul of a bureaucrat, as I’m the son of one, a bureaucrats’ bureaucrat in fact, who worked at that temple of bureaucracy, the Office of Management and Budget. Dad was on “the management side,” so he devoted many years to improving the management of the bureaucracy.

Among his non-bureaucratic aspirations was to run an establishment where one could both buy a book and booze it up – not the book but oneself. He envisioned his customers reaching that modestly inebriated state of mind which H.L. Mencken described as “sweetly stewed,” while either reading quietly or talking of books with other patrons.

Perhaps because my father gauged the peril such an establishment would face in competition with stores catering exclusively to readers or drinkers, this goal eluded him.
Nevertheless, he got a lot of reading done at home. I imagine he’d smile at the extent to which he passed his bookishness on to his three sons, and I suppose he would nod at my reluctance to charge into the competitive fray. I felt this disinclination anew last week at an auction of books.

I attended the auction and bid on a book, neither of which I had ever done before. The experience embodied, for me, the principle of supply and demand at its most confrontational: too many buyers chasing too few goods; in this case, two chasing one. The auction itself was fascinating, but bidding against one other person for what we both badly desired was singularly unpleasant.

My quarry was listed in the auction catalogue as Lot 124: “The Plain Speaker, L(ondon), 1826, 2 vol set. Paper on boards, Gd (25-75).” The name of the author was not disclosed in the catalogue, probably because, as was often the case in those days, it was not disclosed in the book. However, I knew that it was by my favorite author, William Hazlitt, who had had a collection of essays published that year under the same title. In short, it was a first edition, but that was not mentioned in the catalogue either. It was expected to fetch somewhere between $25 and $75. Was I the only one at the auction who knew its true value?

Hazlitt is best known for his Shakespearean criticism, but I prefer his personal essays, and his best are in The Plain Speaker. In 1978, I left a beautiful edition of it (though not a first) behind in a Washington bar after celebrating the publication of my first letter to the editor, and I had not replaced it since then with any edition of comparable value.

As I arrived at Knights of Columbus Hall in Middletown last Thursday afternoon, I suspected I might now be able to do so, and on the cheap to boot.

Some 30 people, mostly men, all but three of whom wore spectacles, were in attendance as the bidding began. Bookish as I am, I felt out of place – not for lack of glasses but for lack of a sweater and a plaid shirt. Having left the office early to attend, I was the only bidder in suit and tie. Thankfully the auctioneer, Jim Weyant of The Scribe’s Perch in Newport, wore a top hat, which balanced things out a bit.

It took an hour and a half to auction off the first 123 lots. When the Hazlitt finally reached the block, I was ready. There were no absentee bids, so the bidding started at $5. I raised my hand, and waited in the silence that followed for Jim to conclude that nobody else was interested in a somewhat tattered set of old books with no apparent author.

But instead of letting his hammer fall to announce my sly victory, his eyes darted to the back of the hall, his hand pointed, and to my distress he said, “Ten dollars . . . Do we have $15?” I raised my hand again, fearing to glance back to discover my adversary, who bid $20, whereupon I bid $25, he bid $30, I $35, and on and on until the bidding reached $110, well beyond what I imagined myself paying. I stopped raising my hand at that point, but he didn’t. The hammer fell at $120, and I lost the Hazlitt to this villain, who seemed to have bottomless pockets.

During the bidding, a sort of vertigo overtook me as I wondered how high it would go, how much I really was willing to pay for the book, the mortification I might feel if I were to drop out of this wallet-to-wallet combat first. The fear of bankruptcy triumphed over the fear of humiliation in the end, though when it was over even this failed to occur beyond a vague but bearable embarrassment at losing.

Afterward, I mustered the gumption to introduce myself to my antagonist, who, it turned out, is a used-book dealer, Michael Chandley of Cellar Stories in downtown Providence. He said he was bankrolled by somebody behind the scenes who recognized that Lot 124 was a first-edition Hazlitt: a professor at Brown University whose name he wouldn’t reveal. Whomever he or she may be, I suspect (because he avoided the auction and because he is a professor) that the actual practice of free-market principles attracts him no more than it does me.

Does my squeamishness render me an unworthy proponent of capitalism? I should hope not! Fortunately, capitalism in recent years has argued its case well enough on its own – so well, in fact, that the Marxists of Moscow and Beijing are trying it out. To say the least, the bureaucrat in me is glad to have so much help.

David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin editorial writer.
Copyright © 1989. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_1590416

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Surrounded by beauty

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Tableaux of antiques at Bruneau & Co. auction showroom, in Cranston.

Spent Friday morning surrounded by beauty at the auctioneer’s showroom of Kevin Bruneau out Elmwood way, just over the line in Cranston. The exterior of the low, tan cinder-block building belies its contents. A visitor, having mastered the desire to flee, enters a steel door, only to confront a large, equally dismaying blank hall of clutter.

But to approach the clutter and immerse yourself in it, as I did before my presence was noticed, brings enchantment after enchantment. A couple of rococo tables of (I imagine) oriental origin, upon the nearest of which sat an ornate sculpture of a mythical creature upholding various carved bowls rising up and up and bedecked with groups of other strange animals – my descrip- tive faculties fail me, and that’s only one of the pieces in this set.

As I learn under the guidance of Bruneau and his associates, the studio boasts a variety of antiques, difficult to fathom, from entwined embracing winged figures in marble to a steamer in a case whose paddle wheel operates to a ketch sculpted from ivory to a wretched hand “after” Rodin ($1,000 in value, or $30,000 had it been an actual Rodin) to a stuffed puma, a clay fish standing on its tail, a zinc terrier on alert, a hippopotamus in evening garb. Nudes, such as that held by Kevin below, do not go unrepresented in the showroom stock. There are paintings galore from every period. Now and then you might stumble upon a piece of architectural ornament. The most valuable item on the premises is a Patek Philippe watch valued at $150,000. Must be old, eh? No, it was manufactured in Geneva, circa 1990.

A rococo clock designed after a love story popular in the Napoleonic era, depicting its sad end in a shipwreck, is described by Bruneau’s associate and fellow auctioneer Travis Landry in “The French Revolution and its Influence on the Arts,” an article written last year for the Bruneau & Co. blog:

Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers is proud to offer this rare and important French early nineteenth century Charles X Romantic ormolu and silvered bronze clock. The bright ormolu clock topper of the shipwreck sits in beautiful contrast of the silvered bronze ocean wave base. The rim of the clock body is decorated with a repeating Rococo stylized shell pattern in high relief. The corners of the body are decorated with stylized open work cornucopia patterns with gilt highlighting. The base is decorated with swirling floral patterns with a central crest depicting a dragon and phoenix. The clock is supported by curled feet adorned with Rococo shells. The dial is silvered with black Roman numerals. The movement has an impressed maker’s mark “P.C”.

Eventually these items will disappear under the auctioneer’s hammer, to be replaced by more lovely stuff brought in by Bruneau and his network of col- lectors to fill the chamber and then vanish in their turn, bought by collectors who love them or speculators who love what they will bring in five years. I did not ask him how much this hurts. He could not think of the item in the shop he’d miss most, or even the top three. He asked his staff. They had no idea either. He took me out to his house in Scituate woods, however, where he has built a museum, clearly stocked with some of the things he loves the most, with a collection of architectural ornament clustered here and there in front of the house.

Perhaps I have missed my calling – to surround oneself with things that bring a thrill with each encounter. I was in Bruneau’s shop for just an hour but he is in his shop every day, when he’s not he’s out searching for beautiful things. In his life a marvel might be waiting to greet him around every corner. Ahh!

He did not detail the irksome aspects of being surrounded by beauty all the time. Or so I assure myself. It is a business, after all. He does not come in to work and enter full swoon for eight hours and then leave. (Does he?) I once participated in an auction. I described it in a 1989 column for the Providence Journal called “Supply versus demand at its worst: Two book lovers chasing one book,” one of my last before embracing architecture as my usual topic. The edition of Hazlitt’s 1826 essay collection The Plain Speaker was taken, after “wallet-to-wallet combat,” by Michael Chandley, of Cellar Stories on Mathewson Street. He was bidding on behalf of a Brown professor, whose name I learned years later but have since forgotten. The rascal.

[The column about my bidding at auction will be my next blog post.]

Coming up at Bruneau & Co., at 63 Fourth Ave., in Cranston are auctions on Monday, May 22, at 6 p.m. and on Saturday, June 3, at 10:30 and noon.

A tip of the chapeau to Nancy Thomas, of Tapestry Communications, who helps Kevin spread the word about his auctions and who put me in touch with the auctioneer and arranged my tour on Friday. She showed up, too. Who could stay away?

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A Rogue Island Museum?

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Coin-O-Matic shop, in Providence, was headquarters of New England mob. (Providence Journal)

I just listened to the first episode of Crimetown, the podcast about the criminal history of Rhode Island’s capital, Providence. The podcast has zoomed to the top of the charts not just in Rhode Island and the U.S. but around the world. I found the voices of participants, journalists and other sources compelling. Still, it was troubled by the same lame gimmicks that trouble the modern TV documentary. Documentaries nowadays are clogged with fake “scenes” and bad music and tedious pregnant pauses to heighten the drama. Try that without pictures and you have a documentary podcast.

The Crimetown podcast of 18 weekly episodes on Providence was produced by Gimlet Media, Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.

There’s no denying the popularity of the podcast. Maybe a rebranding of the Ocean State as “Rogue Island” is in order. Anything would be preferable to the cockamamie rebranding that crash-burned last year. “Rogue Island” is one of the brickbats hurled at the colony founded by Roger Williams after he was thrown out of Massachusetts in 1636. But they were not kidding.

I myself proposed a Rogue Island Museum many years ago, and mentioned it often in my Journal column. But perhaps wary of my editor’s frequent editor- ials chiding Rhode Islanders for giving a wink and a nod to corruption, I al- ways had my tongue half in cheek and I never made a crusade of it.

In the wake of Crimetown, maybe the time is now.

The RIHMFC (rim-fack) scandal broke here right after I arrived in Rhode Island in 1984. Then came the RISDIC (riz-dick) scandal. In 1998 Gov. Ed DiPrete was jailed. Then Mayor Cianci was sent to prison. Then it was the 38 Studios scandal, starring former Red Sox ace pitcher Curt Schilling, who got the General Assembly to give him $75 million to design video games. Then the state threw its House speaker into the slammer, then the chairman of its Senate finance committee. As of now, two Providence city councilors are under indictment. These represent only the highlights of a sleazy three decades here. This state is journalist heaven – so of course my old employer, the Providence Journal, is laying off reporters by the bucketful.

Still, a Rogue Island Museum would have to reach farther back in time to reach the real mother lode of wrongdoing in this state. On top of his cardinal sin of advocating religious freedom (“soul liberty”), Roger Williams was later sacked from his state job as toll-taker on the bridge over the Providence River just four years after he was hired by the General Assembly. History has not revealed the reason to us. Maybe he harangued bridge users too mercilously, driving them to complain to their assemblymen. Or maybe he was the Rhode Island state government’s first no-show employee.

Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade was morally despicable until selling slaves was banned here; then it became legally despicable as well. For a few weeks during the Dorr Rebellion of 1842, the state had two duly elected governors. Rhode Island’s influential U.S. senator Nelson Aldrich was known during the Gilded Age as “general manager of the United States” (and not in a good way). Then, in 1924, Democratic efforts to fillibuster GOP legislation were stymied by a stink bomb set off by a hired Boston thug in the capitol de- signed by Charles Follen McKim, who is said to have won the commission because he had so many clients among the nabobs of Newport.

But there’s no taped record of these high crimes and misdemeanors, so don’t expect any podcasts of Crimestate. Nevertheless, there are lithographs, daguerreotypes, photographs and film. And there are the kinds of artifacts that are the heart and soul of a museum – the tree that consumed Roger Williams’s skeleton, the ink blotter from the desk of Senator Aldrich, a stone from the mythical slave tunnel leading to the Providence waterfront from the John Brown House, the cigarette butt that Buddy Cianci used to assault his ex-wife’s alleged lover, that sort of thing – always popular, but unsuitable for podcasts.

Yes, of course, there’s Mayor Vincent A. “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” Cianci Jr., convicted of assault in 1984 and of corruption in 2002, who led Providence for 21 years. There are storerooms full of Buddy artifacts, many of which were on display at the Mile and a Quarter House restaurant here just last week. Pairing his history with that of New England mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca – whom Cianci prosecuted for murder before he ran for mayor – forms the structure of the Crimetown podcast series. Cianci’s exploits need no publicity from this corner.

My favorite has always been mob lawyer Joseph Bevilacqua as speaker of the R.I. House of Representatives and then chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Come again? The mob’s legal counsel was chief justice? Is that a joke? No. Official eyebrows were not raised until after the state police caught him on camera emerging from a motel room pulling up his zipper after a date with a hooker. Yes, he was forced to resign for having maintained contacts he had promised to break off with his old “family” friends. But the mortal sin was not that he kept up his mob ties but that the Rogue Island political class gave him that job the first place. There’s no law to wipe that slate clean.

So where should the museum be erected? The Coin-O-Matic, on Atwells Avenue, cries out for the job. I wish I’d been sufficiently on my toes to urge the Rhode Island Historical Society to buy Ray Patriarca’s headquarters of the New England La Cosa Nostra. (Yes, in a Coin-O-Matic!) There’s a famous photo of him with a cigarette hanging from his lips. The cheesy building survived as the Coin-o-Matic until just a few years ago. Now it is, I think, last time I looked, a tattoo parlor. Or something like that.

The state should buy it and turn it into the Rogue Island Museum. It’s already surrounded by fancy restaurants. What a shot in the arm for tourism in this state, and the restaurant tax! Imagine the possibilities for rebranding!

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Raymond L.S. Patriarca outside Providence County Superior Court. (Providence Journal)

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A tale of two PPS events

Prof. Dietrich Neumann has sent a one-and-a-half-hour video of his Brown University students describing Jewelry District buildings at an event on April 24, and which I featured on this blog, which I now repost. The students’ presentations are excellent, as I said then, but I was unable to describe them individually, so here they are. I have embedded the video in the original post linked to this reblog. Enjoy!

Architecture Here and There

Dig.Comms@ric.png Aerial view of Cathedral Square shows many entry points into the plaza. (Digital Commons @ RIC)

Over the course of four days the Providence Preservation Society hosted two events, one about Cathedral Square, which I’ll discuss first, and the other about the Jewelry District.

The first event, held at the Department of Planning and Development’s offices last Friday evening, featured a panel on Cathedral Square, part of the Weybosset Hill segment of the Downtown Providence 1970 plan (announced in 1960) and one of the blessedly few parts of that plan that was realized. Before the site was razed, it was an active part of town where Westminster and Weybosset met at the far end of the “bow” originating near the Provi- dence River. A panel including Boston planner Tim Love and landscape historian Charles Birnbaum described how Cathedral Square came to be but had little to say regarding why it…

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