Gehry Ike in its kitschy glory

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Recent view of completed National Eisenhower Memorial. (Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post)

Frank Gehry’s monument to hims– oops, I mean to Dwight Eisenhower, does not open to the public until this Sept. 18, pushed back by the pandemic from May 8, the 75th anniversary of his victory in the European theater of World War II. Even if it does open then, it should never have opened at all. Donald Trump should have canceled it upon becoming president, before ground was broken later that year. There’s no love lost between him and Gehry, so what ever happened to the Donald’s mile-wide vindictive streak?

Not that all hope is lost. The cancel culture, in the person of our priceless iconoclasts who topple statues regardless of any link to the America they detest, is sure to come for Ike. As our 34th president, he barred gays and lesbians from the federal workforce. He cozied up to dictators and even staged a coup against one. Anyway, who cares what Ike did? He is a dead white male. Deplinth him, or leave him be, whatever. Gehry’s memorial knocks Ike down and dishonors him just by existing.

Where is Trump? Do your job!

I have probably written more columns and blog posts on this memorial than any other topic outside of Providence. I grew up in Washington, its classicism is in my blood, and although I acknowledge that today’s District of Columbia is already marred by an overabundance of modern architecture, I instantly considered Gehry’s Ike design a personal insult. His first effort to invade the nation’s capital was an addition, rejected, to the Corcoran Gallery, near the White House and where as a boy I took an art class. I admire the work of the National Civic Art Society in its steadfast opposition to the Gehry Ike, which almost succeeded. My writing on the issue is accurate but I make no claim to objectivity. Gehry is a menace and an abomination, and there is no better proof of this than his adoration by the vast majority of architecture critics, that ridiculous herd of independent minds.

For example, Philip Kennicott’s “The new Eisenhower Memorial is stunning, especially at night,” in the Washington Post, is Gehrian in its absurdity. The piece is almost as wacky as Gehry’s design. That design features a metal scrim “tapestry” of the Normandy beaches as they look today; two larger-than-life-sized statuary groupings that depict his generalship and his presidency; and a life-sized statue of Ike himself as a boy sitting on a wall and looking forward – we are to imagine – to his accomplishments. The memorial is surrounded by the most tedious environment of bureaucratic modernism “with few lovable features,” as Kennicott puts it.

Oddly, after that admission he describes that setting as a “nice surprise”:

The architecture of the surrounding buildings, including the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, has an appealing unity. The stone color is similar, and there are common elements in some of the design vocabulary. The benches and planter boxes, hard-edge and scrupulously modern, could easily wander off-site and live happily at either of the two museums that face the memorial.

A charming literary device, but it is tough to imagine the memorial’s benches and planters seeking shelter among buildings “with few lovable features.”

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Little Ike (Hockstein/WP)

The entire memorial is an exercise in modernist kitsch, especially Little Ike. The statue groupings are taken from famous old photos of Eisenhower talking to the troops before D-Day and talking with three men in the Oval Office. In a more conventional classical monument these relatively bland groupings might speak to Eisenhower’s greatness, but in the context of the huge tapestry and the cockeyed blockishness of the walls against which the statuary groupings are set, the sculptures may actually rival Little Ike in sentimentality.

Gehry had a hard time figuring out how to soak the Little Ike trope for every centimeter of its potential cringeworthiness. At first, Little Ike was supposed to be the boy looking forward at the achievements of the man. Then Little Ike was purged from the memorial. Finally he reappeared, not as the boy but as the man’s memory of the boy. Is there a plaque at the memorial where this confusion is straightened out for the understandably baffled public? I don’t think so. As they say, any joke that requires explanation falls flat.

The funniest part of Kennicott’s piece is unintentional. If it were written with a critical, mocking eye instead of with drooling admiration, it could be said to use repeatedly a form of Latin humor called litotes. Litotes is defined as an “ironic understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary – e.g., you won’t be sorry, meaning you’ll be glad.” (Sorry. I learned about litotes from a buddy in college and have waited my entire career for an excuse to use it.)

Kennicott’s description of the site’s surrounding architecture as having “few lovable features” is a great example of litotes. The tapestry, he writes, “isn’t entirely successful.” Its image of today’s Normandy beaches “isn’t easily legible.” The image’s abstract style is “a little less disappointing” in daylight. (That’s because by day you perceive it as just a fence rather than a work of art.) If you read these examples of litotes with a tone of amusement at Kennicott’s attempts to minimize the tapestry’s failures, it is not just funny but revealing. His real meanings are: “has no lovable features,” “is entirely unsuccessful,” “is impossible to understand,” and “a total disappointment.” Now you have an accurate description of the whole memorial. Of course he can’t admit that. After all, he is part of the memorial’s Praetorian guard.

Kennicott’s reverence for the Gehry style emerges in his description of how the architect articulates the Normandy beaches:

“In the end, Gehry sketched the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc freehand, in his characteristic drawing style — a herd of frenetic squiggles, like a jazzy, elongated Rorschach blot.” Of course it looks nothing like what it is intended to depict. Originally, Gehry had proposed the Kansas landscape as the subject of the tapestry. (“What Kansas landscape,” one might ask.) This didn’t exactly thrill the Eisenhower family, who wanted to highlight Ike’s accomplishments (D-Day), not his beloved wheat fields. “Changing the design … was crucial to convincing the family to support the memorial,” writes Kennicott.

The behavior of Ike’s family during the long debate over his memorial was deplorable. First they were against it, rightly so, arguing for a modest statue more fitting to his character. Then, near the end, in the face of Eisenhower’s famous dislike for modern art, they pulled a surprising switcheroo to support the design. The family’s failure of will is emblematic of the cascading failures of will in our nation’s current refusal to defend its own culture. Unwittingly (it may be hoped), Ike has been betrayed by his family.

Kennicott wisely celebrates the Gehry memorial at night. By day, its flaws are obvious. By night, they are whitewashed by the science of illumination. So why not turn off the lights? Its attack on democracy dies in darkness.

Gehry’s architecture is all about chaos. He once told a biographer: “Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.” This total absurdity perfectly reflects the current moment of toppled statues, antifa riots and cancel culture. Eisenhower as general and president valued orderly management, not the “team of rivals” style of other leaders, such as Lincoln. So Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower memorial flouts not only his personal modesty but the character of his leadership and manhood.

Gehry’s memorial does not twist and turn as most of his buildings do, but it does intentionally reject traditional memorials. In rejecting traditional memorials he rejects tradition, and in rejecting tradition he rejects the founding fathers’ vision to pursue the nation’s ideals by acknowledging failures and seeking their correction. Instead, Gehry sows ugliness and confusion. He seeks to assist in the radical project now under way not to improve but to destroy America. He was born a Canadian and is said to be a genius, but, to be charitable, maybe he does not really understand the role he plays in architecture and the destructive role his architecture plays in the life of his adopted nation. His Eisenhower memorial is abominable because his work is abominable, and his work is abominable because, let us say, he himself is not entirely praiseworthy. (An example of litotes.) Not long ago he stated: “98 percent of what gets built today is shit.” Precisely, and he shares much of the blame. It is time for him to retire his warped T-square.

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Notre-Dame: Copy the past

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Flanking photos show fire set July 18 at Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul at Nantes, in France

It seems as if French President Emmanuel Macron has turned totally about on designing the restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame after its fire of last year. After the conflagration he called for a modernist rebuild. About a year later, the French senate said no way, and he has recently folded his tent. Good for him. The lost spire, especially, will be rebuilt not only in its original style (during the restoration by Voillet-le-Duc in the 19th century), but, as best they can, with original materials.

This is very good news. Macron gave way probably because he foresaw that the international design competition might add years of controversy to the project, which he wants completed by 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics. In fact, if experts are correct (a very big if), the renovation may take at least a decade or two, in part because some 400 specialized masons, carpenters, etc., must be trained. But it may not be so long for the structure to be sufficiently stabilized and repaired that visitors can be allowed inside.

This is mostly great news but it arrives amid bad news, news that is possibly worse by a considerable margin. Two weeks ago fire struck the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Nantes, near the Bay of Biscay, begun in 1434. The damage was less severe than at Notre-Dame, but its organ was consumed and its stained glass windows ruptured. The blaze is believed to have been arson, with fires set in three places. A Rwandan refugee volunteer at the building was picked up, released, then confessed. Worse, other French churches are being vandalized, and it appears to be anti-Catholic in motivation. (Of course, anti-Semitic crimes continue apace.)

Neither in Paris nor in Nantes has motivation for arson been established – at Notre-Dame arson itself has been denied. Some or all of this rash of violence may have roots in the same political radicalism evident in the riots that have torched parts of major American cities and toppled statues, including many with little or no connection to police brutality. Twitter comments originating in France strongly suggest a radical motive:

Another element active in Nantes, the far-left, appeared to celebrate the incident. A self-described anarchist wrote on Twitter “Je bois les larmes de cathos au réveil. 150 nouveaux abonnés en 24h. Vivement la prochaine église en feu.” (“I drink Catholic tears when I wake up. 150 new subscribers in 24 hours. Can’t wait for the next church to burn down.”) and “#Nantes La seule église qui illumine est celle qui brûle” (the familiar anarchist phrase “the only church that illuminates is one that burns.”).

Not pretty.

Speaking of such ugliness, and its antithesis, beauty, three cheers for the French authorities, who at the very least have reflected the feelings of the French people. A largely undeclared but powerful motive for repairing and rebuilding cathedrals and other memorials as they were originally designed or as glorified in the popular imagination is for the forces of tradition to push back against asinine soi-disant “philosophes” of both nationalities. As the French general at the Battle of Verdun declared, “They shall not pass!”

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Amend GSA’s guidelines?

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The General Services Administration’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. (Almy)

After February’s leak of the draft executive order to prefer traditional design for federal architecture, many architects, including some classicists, worried that classicism would be hurt by any proposal linked to President Trump. Now, on the heels of a congressional proposal to block the E.O. (if it is ever signed), a compromise proposal has emerged.

Instead of an executive order from the White House doing battle with an eventual act by Congress, why not negotiate over the wording of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture? The guidelines were written in 1962 by a young White House adviser, Daniel P. Moynihan, for the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees all federal architecture. (The late Senator Moynihan eventually represented New York in the upper house of the United States Congress.) This would avoid a lot of sound and fury!

The compromise proposal would require only three changes in language in two of the existing guidelines’ three points, but those changes would shift the guidelines from being, effectively, a mandate for modern architecture to something much closer to genuine design neutrality:

  • The first change, in Point One of the guidelines, would eliminate the word “contemporary” from the line “designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Contemporary has come to mean modernist, or at least to mean recent as opposed to historical, in architectural discourse.
  • The second change, in Point Two of the guidelines, would replace the phrase “must flow from” with “must flow between” in the sentence “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice-versa.”  The phrase “and not vice-versa” would, of course, be eliminated. That is, it should not be a one-way street with the profession dictating to the government.
  • The third change, also in Point Two, would add a phrase to the sentence about consultants for federal design contracts, which now reads: “The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.” To the “advice of distinguished architects” would be added, “… uninvolved citizens and experts in human and environmental well-being.” The idea is to broaden rather than to narrow input.

These changes would appear to make the guidelines truly neutral between modernist and traditional or classical design. It is amazing how little must change to make the guidelines acceptable to all. In light of that possibility, however, it may be argued that modernists would simply refuse to negotiate, in which case the existing slanted wording would continue to prevail. Or if they did negotiate, and agree to such changes, who can be sure, given the makeup of the GSA, that they would not simply be ignored?

It would be very interesting to know, and perhaps even possible to find out, whether the modernist slant of the existing guidelines was in the document as written by Moynihan or was it added in a later stage of the process as the language was vetted on the way from John F. Kennedy’s White House to the GSA, an independent agency of the federal government created in 1949. Was the agency by 1962 already in the pockets of the design establishment as run by the American Institute of Architects?

My guess would be that the answer is yes, and that the number of classicists in positions at the GSA today is probably proportionate to the number of classical buildings erected by the federal government since 1962 – if that. For the first four decades, that number was precisely zero. Which is why I believe that the “shock and awe” strategy represented by the executive order (if it is signed) is more likely to succeed in changing the culture in which federal architecture is designed than any alternative.

Such alternatives include a commission that would undertake a broad reassessment of federal architecture, and indeed the culture of architecture in the United States from top to bottom. Steven Semes, of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, offered in February a strong and sensible argument – including a template similar to Britain’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” report – for such a rethink, “Let’s Talk About Federal Patronage and Classical Architecture,” published by the website Common/Edge. His thoughts offer an insightful reading of the mood in architecture back then, which under the quietude of the pandemic probably has not changed much.

Semes’s essay is definitely worth reading. I wonder what he would think of the proposal unveiled in this post, which came to me with a request for anonymity that I cannot understand but which I have honored.

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History as cottage industry

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Project area between Williams and John streets, in Providence; arrow points to cottage. (PHDC)

Monday’s meeting via Zoom of the Providence Historic District Commission surprised observers by delaying an expected vote to approve the relocation of a historic Italianate cottage on Williams Street, on College Hill. This was the second straight delay. That does not mean a project that neighbors oppose will be abandoned. But it does raise some questions about history.

How does this cottage fit into the grand sweep of Providence history? It depends on an infinity of historical details, not many of which are definitely known. The little cottage sits in a deeply historical neighborhood. Some opponents of the relocation do not object so much to the new siting – the cottage had been moved to its current location some 130 years ago – as to the fact that moving the cottage yet again will open the door to a vague plan for additional houses behind the cottage, spoiling the neighborhood’s historical character and sacrificing one of College Hill’s oldest and largest woods.

I sat in on parts of the PHDC meeting and heard some real nitpicking from commissioners who, I had heard, were largely unopposed to the proposal at a June 22 meeting (where the larger plan was delayed). One after another, they objected to its proximity to the street, to the profile of the roof line of the new addition, to the way the new foundation would crowd the roots of a tree, and to how the new foundation would lift the cottage too high above street level. These and other generally picayune objections – voiced more sharply than they might be if the commissioners were still on board – hinted at trouble. Shortly afterward, the PHDC did indeed vote to delay.

So what happened? Did the objections to the relocation mask new feelings about the larger development? Was the commission influenced by the large attendance at the Zoom meeting by neighbors – 25, excluding those said to have been unable to log on? Was there a battle in some commissioners’ minds over whether to heed the regulations, as required, or to hesitate on behalf of some more important issue that was unstated?

The developer will return to the commission after tinkering with the cottage. Most likely, the commission will approve the relocation and then, in time, approve new townhouses behind the cottage on proposed subdivided lots where the woods are today. This is the fate suggested by the grand sweep of Providence history, with more erosion of its historical character doomed to follow, leading, as it has in the past, to further decline in the city’s beauty, its quality of life and its long-suffering economy.

Yet, notwithstanding the minor details of a minor proposal to relocate a small but enticing cottage, perhaps a shift in the grand sweep of local history can be detected in the commission’s vote. It is all the rage now to exaggerate the influence of the coronavirus pandemic on every aspect of human life. Online collections of published articles in the field of architecture, such as ArchNewsNow.com, are almost exclusively devoted to how building and city design must change to meet the needs of Covid-19 far into the future. Many of these articles declare that all new houses must have home offices, and indeed Friedrich St. Florian, designer of the townhouses projected to go up behind the cottage on Williams Street, says they will have home offices, too, as will the cottage itself, by way of the proposed addition.

But suppose the market for home offices is offset by a market shift caused by a popular desire for less population density in cities like Providence? Maybe the existing woods seem more valuable for both the neighborhood and the city than before the pandemic. That could turn the grand sweep of history around. Maybe a conscious or unconscious recognition of that possibility can explain Monday’s PHDC vote to delay its approval of the relocation of the cottage. Or maybe not. We must wait and see.

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Small Victorian cottage whose relocation was at issue in Monday’s PHDC meeting. (PHDC)

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Speak for history on Monday

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Set into photograph is a sketch of the proposal to relocate 59 Williams St. cottage. (PHDC)

The Providence Historic District Commission will meet tomorrow, Monday, July 27 at 4:30 p.m., via Zoom, to decide the fate of Providence.

That does not overstate the case. If the commission approves moving the historic cottage at 159 Williams Street, on College Hill, it will have opened the door to destroying not just this historic neighborhood but any of the city’s most venerable districts. The seemingly innocuous relocation of the cottage would make room for a more modern-style development. Yes, many buildings are far more historical than the cottage, but this neighborhood was built just as the nation was winning and consolidating its freedom. If it is not sacrosanct in a city so dependent on historical character, the city will already have thrown its fate to the wind. Let developers tinker elsewhere.

In what seems to be a conciliatory gesture to neighbors who feel overlooked by the PHDC process, the commission postponed voting on this at its June 22 meeting and cleared its agenda for tomorrow (Monday, July 27) of all items except that pertaining to the cottage. Commission staff prior to June 22 recommended approving the relocation as consistent with regulations, but the full commission need not obey the staff. Not too long ago, the City Plan Commission overruled its staff’s support for the Fane tower in the I-195 corridor. City commission members have a duty to take the city’s broader well-being and future into account.

The Monday meeting cannot be attended in person but may be attended via Zoom or by phone hookup. To connect with Zoom, click on https://zoom.us/j/97057854485; You may hook up by phone by dialing 1 888 475 4499 and typing in the pin number 97057854485. To speak, sign up at the Zoom site after you’ve logged in. Just as important is for people to send their opinions to the commission’s Jason Martin. His email is jmartin@providenceri.gov. To be most effective, keep it brief and to the point.

I wrote at greater length about this development on my blog July 12 in “Subdivide history? Bad idea.” Please feel free to use any part of it with or without attribution if you want to speak at the meeting or email your opinion to the commission. Information from the PHDC staff on the cottage agenda item may be seen here.

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Tradition vs. modernism

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Some of the monumental classicism of the Federal City, in Washington, D.C. (Capitol Hill Hotel)

Bring it on.

Legislation has just been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to block a proposed executive order that would replace a mandate favoring modernist styles for federal buildings with a new and better mandate favoring traditional styles.

The bill, H.R. 7604, introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), is called the “Democracy in Design Act” and would “ensure that the construction and acquisition of public buildings in the United States adheres to the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” The reference is to guidelines written in 1962 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which state that “an official style must be avoided.” His warning has been ignored for 58 years. An official style already exists. The proposed executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would replace it with another official style, one that is more popular and more in keeping with the principles and ideals of the nation.

The legislation has been endorsed by the American Institute of Architects, the chief organizational arm of the field of architecture. The best thing in the AIA’s endorsement is its description of the proposed executive order as “anticipated.” A brief article on the bill in the Architectural Record used the word “expected.” Let’s hope so! It has in fact not even been signed but was leaked to the press in February, sparking a brouhaha among architects. The pandemic sunk a lively debate on the issue, but the legislation proposed on July 13 sets the stage for a resumption of festivities.

Picking up on the title of the act, the AIA statement praised Congresswoman Titus for “taking the first steps toward a more democratic approach to federal architecture.” It was a devious assertion, quietly suggesting – or rather admitting – that the federal design process has been less than fair. That would be the understatement of the week. It has been estimated that since 1962 only one of every hundred federal buildings designed under the Moynihan guidelines has been traditional in style. In fact, since traditional architecture is preferred by the vast majority of the public, you might expect a truly democratic process to reflect this. On the contrary, modernism is still regarded after a century with skepticism by most people, a failed experiment in building design and city planning, not to mention beauty.

The AIA asserted that the legislation “will ensure the federal government maintains its current neutrality on architectural styles.” What a joke! Of course, there is no such neutrality. The executive order would not maintain a nonexistent neutrality but would mandate styles preferred by the public instead of by the architectural elite. In a democracy, public taste should play a role in the design process. Under the executive order, bogus neutrality would give way to a genuine diversity of style marked by true fairness.

Representative Titus seems to be in dire need of cosponsors for her bill. The AIA has sent out a mailer asking members to urge their congressmen to sign on to the bill. The brief mailing summarizes all of the disingenuous talking points in the AIA endorsement, its press release in Architectural Record, and in the congresswoman’s statement about her bill.

Washington and Jefferson chose Greco-Roman classicism to reflect the new nation’s ideals. With an astonishing variety of styles, their choice worked perfectly for more than 150 years. The pillars of tradition spoke to we the people in clear terms widely understood, and for the ages. Modernism has offered no language to appeal to patriotic sentiment. A powerful, eloquent architectural language that speaks for all is what the executive order would re-establish, and that is what the title of the “Democracy in Design Act” seems to imply. But it is a lie.

Trump has recently proposed an executive order to protect statues. Good idea! Maybe the reply from Congress will be a “Democracy in Sculpture Act” to ensure that future statues and memorials be of abstract modernism. Let us all enjoy such blessings as Frank Gehry’s ugly Eisenhower memorial, which seems meant not to honor our 34th president but the memorial’s ridiculous architect. There was a popular uprising against it, but the establishment closed ranks and rammed it through. Its May opening was delayed by the pandemic, but has been rescheduled for September. Ike has just a couple months before it is his turn to start spinning in his grave.

Even Senator Moynihan, were he still alive, might by now be having second thoughts. In 1970, eight years after his guidelines took effect, he wrote:

Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.

The official design mandate that Moynihan unwittingly created in 1962 has been precisely the failure many people predicted – corrupt in its aesthetic values and responsible for corrupting American cities in uncountable and unfathomable ways, and uglifying the built environment. The American public has suffered too long. It’s way past time for change.

So it is to be classicism vs. modernism at last, and this could not be a better time to hold a national debate over architecture that reflects many of the broader issues that America faces as she heads into a presidential election.

Bring it on.

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R.I.’s State House in noir

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Still shot from opening scene of the 1941 film High Sierra. (Warner Bros.)

Imagine my surprise at seeing, last night, the Rhode Island State House in the opening scene of High Sierra,  the 1941 film in which Humphrey Bogart is pardoned. He shortly after plans a heist in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rhode Island’s star turn lasts but seconds, cast in noir as befits the film. The very next shot depicts some other “state capitol” entrance in high classical style, then the “Office of the Governor” and then the pardon being signed from over the governor’s shoulder. In 1938, the year the film takes place, that governor of Rhode Island would have been Robert E. Quinn, the two-term successor to Theodore Francis Green, hero of the “Bloodless Revolution” (the capture of the state by Democrats after decades of Republican rule). But in fact an actor plays the governor of Illinois, not Rhode Island. Bogart leaves “Mossmoor Prison,” in Chicago. Bogart got second billing to Ida Lupino.

I always rejoice when I happen upon a Bogart film that I’ve never seen. High Sierra opened with a cherry on top. Here is that cherry:

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E.O. to protect the statues

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Mount Rushmore, memorializing Washington, Jefferson, T.R. and Lincoln. (Daydream Tourist)

After he spoke at Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect public statuary, to reconstruct statues damaged or destroyed by vandals in the weeks leading up to the president’s oration, and to create a National Garden of American Heroes. The E.O., “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes,” stated:

[M]onuments express our noblest ideals: respect for our ancestors, love of freedom, and striving for a more perfect union. They are works of beauty, created as enduring tributes. In preserving them, we show reverence for our past, we dignify our present, and we inspire those who are to come. To build a monument is to ratify our shared national project.

That passage, intended to describe federal statuary, could be dedicated with equal profundity to federal architecture. A great monument can be a statue or a building.

In fact, the executive order on statuary arises in the aftermath of a related and more ambitious, more controversial executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that has not been signed as yet but which has principles in common that connect the pair of E.O.s to each other. The first order, which was leaked, causing a brouhaha among architects in February, stated that classical architecture would be preferred for federal buildings over the modernist designs that have been mandated officially over the past half century. Recognition of the importance of stylistic choice has now also been incorporated into the E.O. on statues, which states:

When a statue or work of art commissioned pursuant to this section is meant to depict a historically significant American, the statue or work of art shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation. … Such works of art should be designed to be appreciated by the general public and by those who use and interact with Federal buildings.

This preference for statuary and monument design that is legible to the general public is reiterated in sections of the executive order relating to new statuary commissioned for the Garden of Heroes and also in sections on the reform of statuary principles. The task force assigned to administer the E.O. would incorporate its aesthetic principles into a host of federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the General Services Administration (which oversees all federal architecture), and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The order suggests these aesthetic reforms at the federal level might generate pushback from the professional busybodies of the American Institute of Architecture, which was so upset by the E.O. that proposed regulatory change in the design of federal buildings. “[R]evisions made pursuant to this subsection,” said the statuary E.O., “shall be made to supersede any regulatory provisions of AIA that may conflict with or otherwise impede advancing the purposes of this subsection.”

Good.

Both of these executive orders, the first as yet unsigned and the second signed on July 3, should be seen as two sides of the same coin. Not only does federal statuary cry out for aesthetic reform but so do federal buildings. Art and architecture were once dedicated to each other, wrapped in each other’s arms. Modern architecture threw Art out of the Garden of Beauty. Perhaps on some not too distant tomorrow, they can be repatriated to each other.

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Subdivide history? Bad idea

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Small cottage slated for relocation at proposed Fox Point subdivision, Providence. (Photo by author)

The first blocks of William and John streets off Benefit Street, where College Hill meets Fox Point, are steeped not only in history but historical character. Most of the houses on these and nearby blocks were built in the late 1700s and early 1800s, just as history was giving birth to our nation. Not much has changed on these blocks in Providence except for the vehicles at the curbs. This may be the most aromatically historical residential precinct in America. Its mostly small, neat, detailed, gabled houses huddle together along its old narrow streets and lanes, almost leaning in on each other as if aware that change is breathing down their necks.

It is. Be afraid.

To learn why, I joined some 20 others, mostly neighbors, on a side lawn at Carrington House, 66 Williams St., an 1810 mansion across from the site. Architect Friedrich St. Florian described pasteboard illustrations of the site that stretches over to John Street. A small, pallid, circa 1830 classical cottage in the middle of the block is to be relocated to the site’s edge on Williams and expanded. To move it, four garages are to be demolished. A 7,600 square foot “vacant lot” of woodland extending out to John Street is to be chopped down, even though the woods, virtually a wildlife sanctuary, have survived since as far back as the Federal period of U.S. history. Historic stone walls are, of course, to be breached. Two sets of attached townhouses designed by St. Florian (see below) and, at some as yet unannounced time, up to three more residences and garages, are to be built.

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Attached townhouses in 6 John plan. (Friedrich St. Florian Architects)

Those who know the architect for his design of Providence Place and his World War II Memorial on the National Mall might be comforted by his participation. But since those heady days of his career, he has built houses wildly out of character with the East Side, and recently has backed the outrageously tall and ugly Fane tower in the Jewelry District. His expansion and the relocation of the cottage appear reasonable enough, but this plan seems to be a Trojan Horse for the townhouses, which, while posing as traditional, seem quite something else. Each has broad segments of third-story gabled roofs that appear to hover without any support but one narrow chimney each.

“Far out!” one might exclaim.

Perhaps. But not for this part of town. If these were next to the proposed Fane tower, or if they were along some street whose character had already been degraded by other inappropriately styled new buildings, I might easily sigh and shrug my shoulders. Yet amid the living history of this ancient neighborhood, they would be far beyond out of place, quite disruptive.

There may be legal issues with this subdivision development, apparently including some approvals smacking of stealth. Neighbors have been caught entirely unaware at the brink of action on a plan actually in the development process for about three years. (And the city claims to abjure secrecy and favor transparency.) Yet it also appears that the development plan is allowable “by-right,” meaning that under current law the plan does not need exemptions that might have given neighbors more of a chance to fight it.

A Ward 1 city councilman, John Goncalves, argued sensibly at last Thursday’s meeting that the law needs to be changed. That cannot happen soon enough to stop this project, alas; but in addition to the legal track there is, absent a better word, the political track. Zoning law is where the rubber of democracy at its most local hits the road. A city whose future relies upon respect for its past needs civic leaders who, while understanding the inevitability of change, try to reduce its impact on historical character. In a city so rich in examples of the economic value of historical character, Providence is strangely lacking in such leadership, or even a basic knowledge of how economic development and historical character can work hand in hand.

But civic leaders won’t care if citizens don’t give them a reason to care. The neighbors must get in politicians’ face, as they did several years ago to block a subdivision of the Granoff estate that would have eviscerated Blackstone Boulevard. The momentum from that was not maintained a couple of years later to protect the nearby Bodell estate, but at least its developer did not plan to demolish its manor house. Soon after, a developer of the Nicholson-Beresford estate did want to tear down its mansion, but at the last moment a buyer was found; still, in a tragic theft of local character, a caretaker’s cottage even more deliciously romantic than the mansion was razed, and a cheesy initial house in yet another Blackstone subdivision was built.

These are just a few of the worst of recent attacks on the historic character of Providence. The Fane tower project remains a present danger. Teardowns of charming old buildings are making way for awful buildings throughout the East Side, where, according to St. Florian, the market is “sizzling.” If this continues, the allure of Providence will soon be “fizzling.”

These latest attacks on local character extend well beyond what’s happening on the East Side, beyond the Fane tower, beyond the snaggle-tooth Route 195 corridor, beyond the split trad/mod personality of Waterplace Park, all the way back to the failed modernist College Hill survey of 1959 and the failed modernist downtown plan of 1961. Local officials learned nothing from these failures, and have encouraged, to this day, only those development plans sure to damage the city’s historic character and undermine its brand, keeping its economy in a slump that has lasted almost three quarters of a century.

The only major Providence developments in recent years that push back against this trend were the late Bill Warner’s traditional design of the new waterfront and Buff Chace’s revival of downtown living by renovating (with advice from New Urbanist Andrés Duany) underused traditional buildings.

Fortunately, Providence has an incredible bankroll of historical character that can withstand slow erosion over decades. And so it has – but that won’t last forever. And it will erode faster and faster if such an obviously valuable parcel of heritage as the area between Williams and John is thrown under the bus. Before we realize it, Providence will have passed the point of no return. The beauty of Rhode Island’s capital has continually rescued a city beset by the same problems as most other once prosperous manufacturing centers that lack our beauty. But that won’t last much longer if our current planning plunge is not reversed: Goose. Golden egg. Don’t.

The Providence Preservation Society, which hosted Thursday’s meeting along with the owner of Carrington House, shouldn’t need to think about where it stands on this project. The society should be four-square against it. Change is inevitable, as even preservationists love to say these days. So yes, let the trees between Williams and John continue to grow. That really should be change enough. There’s already too much poorly controlled change elsewhere in the city. The best course by far is to leave this salubrious neighborhood alone. Its preservation will prove of incalculable value to the city’s future.

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Cottage sits to right of arrow. Woods to be razed. (Providence Historic District Commission)

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Carrington House, across Williams Street from proposed subdivision. (Rhode Island Monthly)

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A short history of closets

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From the Regiment “K-Venience” Closet Catalogue. “Trim as a Regiment!” (See link below.)

Nir Haim Buras, author of the newly published The Art of Classic Planning, has sent some fascinating comments on closet history to the TradArch list, under the heading “Classic Closets … Not.” Imagine living without the assistance of closets. Now, thanks to Nir, closets have come out of the closet. He writes:

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In ancient times, all of an individual’s belongings could likely be bundled in a cloth cloak or blanket and hoisted on one’s back or that of an animal. People who had more things likely kept them in chests, because those people also likely moved around quite a bit, including within their homes and between homes, seasonally chasing and avoiding the sun. Chests could easily be put on wagons or draught animals as well.

But there were also closets in the form of niches in walls. These often had shelves of stone or wood, and sometimes were enclosed by wood doors in wood frames that were attached outside the niches. Such is the case with Roman libraries, as I understand things.

From the Renaissance, when chests of drawers were placed on stands, to the 18th century, armoires became increasingly “functional” and useful. They had interior shelves, drawers, and places for hanging long dresses and cloaks. They were typically made of wood and likely held frequently used clothes or clothing that had been laundered and pressed. Armoires and closets were easy – and necessary – to perfume.

Built-in closets in late 19th century and early 20th century homes were small, but walk-in closets were more generous. The walk-ins held the out-of-season set of clothes and small closets in bedrooms just held some of the clothes being used, perhaps the more outer garments.

The coat closet at the front door is a diminution of a “mud room” or “boot room” where outdoor cloaks, coats, boots, and the bonnets and hats of guests, were stored and where boots were cleaned by the staff.

Remember that horse manure was piled 60 feet high in some cities (New York); and horse shit, ladies and gentlemen, was the actual beginning of modern planning.

The first planning convention in the world was convened around the topic of the worldwide gross excess of equine manure and its corollary, ground-up khaki-colored manure dust that coated everything, including the interiors of people’s lungs.

How did we get here from closets? – I told you that classic planning was holistic!!

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Thank you, Nir! The most intense collection of curious information about houses and aspects of living you never really thought about can be found in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson. Seth Weine, a New York City literary sleuth when not working at the headquarters of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, tracks down books of interest to classicists, with links. He surely must have listed Bryson’s book noted above on one or another of his lists addressed to TradArch members. He also has just sent in some good thoughts on closets, which I reprint below, along with the pertinent link. He writes:

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What were some of the earlier – at least last century’s – approaches to closet interiors, storage, and cabinets? Here are some answers (some of which are still clever enough, or well-thought-out enough, that you might want to consider using them today).

And you will have fun with this! [The link is at the end.]

Stowed Away: A Peek Into Closets of the Past

And who could not love a selection (which is included in the article) with this title:

The Shelving With Brains

What’s great about this article (and the series of which it is part) is that you can actually enlarge each of these catalogs, and then go through them, page-by-page.

An utterly fascinating resource.

And enjoyable.

https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/stowed-away-a-peek-into-closets-of-the-past_o?utm_source=newsletter&utm_content=Article&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=AN_070720&

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But wait! There’s more! Where George Carlin Puts His Stuff.

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