Can high court ban copying?

Photo by Lynn Goldsmith of Prince, left; art taken from it by Andy Warhol, right. (Business Insider)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the other day in a decision about art that could have a negative influence on classical architecture. The 7-2 decision in a case involving the art (I use the term out of politeness) of Andy Warhol, considered the age-old question of when copying earlier art is by inspiration or merely theft, unprotected by copyright law.

Obviously the question is complicated, and the high court added to its complexity by minimizing the role of a copied work’s “transformational”  effect on the new work of art. The element of transformation is key to the “fair use” exception to copyright law’s ban on the use of prior artists’ work. According to the Art in America blog (, “not only did the Court downgrade the importance of whether a new work is transformative, whether it “adds something new and important” (to use the Supreme Court’s words from a previous case). The Court also painted a bizarre picture of Warhol as an inconsequential artist.”

Andy Warhol was not an inconsequential artist, he was a bad artist. His unearned reputation as an artist has been a disaster for art everywhere, part and parcel of the decline of beauty’s role in its production. Warhol’s far from alone in his complicity, nor can he be blamed for successfully making a fools of an already foolish art establishment. But as Art in America writer Amy Adler states, “Nowhere in the majority opinion would you recognize Warhol as a once-radical artist, the one de Kooning drunkenly approached at a cocktail party to utter, ‘You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty.’”

Artist Willem de Kooning was right about Warhol. De Kooning, with his abstract expressionism, may not have been the artistic paragon who had any right to say it. But that does not lessen its truth. Andy Warhol was merely a commercial product, no more truly transformative of art in their copies as in the originals. Justice Kagan, in her dissent, said the majority had “reduced Warhol to an Instagram filter.” I am not sure exactly what that might mean, but I applaud the sentiment. Minimizing Warhol to any degree begins to grasp the elements of an important truth. If anything, Kagan did not go far enough. And if copying such art as that by Andy Warhol is made more difficult by the majority ruling, then it must be conceded that, however unintentionally, they are on the right track.

I noted in my opening line that the ruling may pose a problem for classical architecture, in that classicism is based on the classical orders, and each classical building owes a debt to the past, and more specifically to whomever among the ancients created the orders. In writing that line, I may have unintentionally heightened the anxiety of some readers. How this matter could ever be addressed legally, given that the original creator of the orders is unknown, is a knotty question. Classical architecture may never be targeted by the judicial system or its minions.

If Pennsylvania Station is ever rebuilt, it would be a direct copy of the original Penn Station, designed by architect Charles Follen McKim, who is dead, and whose heirs are hardly likely to protest a monumental work in his honor. He understood beauty.

Digital image of the Main Waiting Room of Penn Station. (ReThinkNYC)

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A tour of new Penn Station

The Main Waiting Room, as proposed, of the rebuilt Pennsylvania Station. (ReThinkNYC)

It remains possible that the Pennsylvania Station completed in 1910 and infamously demolished in 1963 – “We once entered the city like gods, now we scuttle in like rats” (Vincent Scully) – will be rebuilt to its original design by James Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White.

The new station would substantially resemble the old one, but the design of the old station would be slightly changed to accommodate differences in the way people live today – for example, pedestrian ramps with outdoor dining instead of automobile ramps carrying vehicles around the building, and a revitalized retail arcade between Seventh Avenue and the Main Waiting Room. The new station would fit into an existing panoply of McKim, Mead & White buildings, including the Amtrak Train Hall (the old Farley Post Office) and the Hotel Pennsylvania, the latter now being illegally demolished by the evil Vornado Real Estate Trust, which should be forced to pay to rebuild the hotel if its demolition cannot be stopped in time.

ReThinkNYC, under the direction of Sam Turvey, has assembled an admirable collection of recent images to display the virtuosity of a new Penn Station, if it is rebuilt. The images by Jeffrey Stikeman, Richard Cameron of Atelier & Co., and Nova Concepts, including a digital reproduction of the Main Waiting Room, which Thomas Wolfe described as “vast enough to hold the sound of time.”

Each image is accompanied by a vivid caption that orients the reader within the station complex.

Before this all can be accomplished, however, New Yorkers must halt the existing plan of New York Gov. Hochul to slightly modify the station, squashed down by Madison Square Garden, and surrounded by a phalanx of super-tall, super-ugly, super-empty new towers, the absent market for space in which has rattled even the cold-blooded Vornado criminals. More urban renewal: that’s what New York City needs!

But ultimately the people of the world’s city will make their feelings known. And then the gate will open to an unexpected resurgence of beauty and prosperity. The whole world will be impressed by what New York can do. Click here to see how it will look.

View from Seventh Avenue of ceiling of Main Waiting Room through clerestory windows. (Richard Cameron/Nova Concepts)

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The white cliffs of Carrara

Part of the quarry at Carrara, site of the chase scene in “Quantum of Solace.” (

Architect magazine has an interesting piece about the world’s most famous marble quarry. The town of Carrara, on the west coast of Italy, has been mining Carrara marble for at least two millennia. Carrara marble – the Romans called it luna – is the white stone used by Michelangelo to carve the David, and to hew countless columns for classical buildings ever since. The pure white used for sculpture is called, naturally, statuario. Now the quarry has been written up as bad news in “The Cost of Mining Carrara Marble,” by Blaine Brownell.

Centuries of quarrying stone from more than 650 sites have significantly impacted the environment. Surface extraction disrupts existing ecologies and causes biodiversity loss. In addition, mining requires significant quantities of water and produces large volumes of debris consisting of fractured rock and dust. The resulting slurry can easily clog mountain streams and degrade territorial ecosystems.

All that and more, no doubt, including the chase scene in the Bond film “Quantum of Solace,” not to mention that the marble has the effrontery to be white. But let’s look beyond the ends of our noses. Carrara marble has beautified the world in uncountable ways, from the Pantheon to the Duomo di Siena and beyond. Marble Arch and Victoria’s Memorial in London; Harvard Medical School, in Boston, before the modernists put paid to that idea; Grant’s Tomb, in New York City; the Rotunda at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, in Charlottesville; the Temple of Proserpina, and subsequently many buildings in Valletta, where the Knights Hospitaller held off the Muslim hordes besieging Malta in 1565. That’s just to name a few examples.

The beauty attributable to this one quarry carved out of the Italian Alps has lifted the spirits of millions over the centuries and the millennia. Yet the stonecutters difficult jobs evidently led to the development of a contrarian, even anarchist, spirit, according to the account in Wikipedia:

The quarry workers and stone carvers had radical beliefs that set them apart from others. Anarchism and general radicalism became part of the heritage of the stone carvers. Many violent revolutionists who had been expelled from Belgium and Switzerland went to Carrara in 1885 and founded the first anarchist group in Italy. In Carrara, the anarchist Galileo Palla remarked, “even the stones are anarchists.”

I’m not sure precisely what that could mean. But I will, nevertheless, end this reaction against the negative spirit of Blaine Brownell’s article on Carrara marble with a salute to its contrary: the spirit of beauty as embodied down through the ages by the product of the town of Carrara.

The quarry at Carrara. (Blaine Brownell)

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R.I.H., a place for healing?

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Rhode Island Hospital’s Southwest Pavilion, 1900, Stone, Carpenter & Willson. (PPS)

Editor’s note: Two days ago I received a pacemaker at Rhode Island Hospital. I was discharged yesterday, and just by chance I happened upon this old post from 2016 about the proposed demolition of the hospital’s old Southwest Pavilion, for whose doom the skids were greased. I thought it might be a perfectly fitting toast to the hospital. My experience suggested that the quality of the hospital has been in decline since I had open-heart surgery there in 2020, just before the pandemic. But that’s true of almost every institution in our society. Anyway, thanks to the nursing staff, I managed to survive the surgery, which is almost routine by now, and thanks to the medical staff, my wounds are giving me minimal pain. I’ll leave it at that.

A movement has arisen to improve the appearance of hospitals, on the theory that an attractive hospital can be of assistance in the healing process. If so, the movement has much work to do.


People can spend an hour tomorrow afternoon in silence for a good cause – sitting mute at a meeting to save the Southwest Pavilion. This is the oldest survivor from the day when Rhode Island Hospital looked like a place to care for people rather than like a pile of adding machines to tot up the obscene profits of a health industry gone bonkers.

The Zoning Board of Review meeting begins at 4:45 p.m. tomorrow on the first floor of the city’s planning office, 444 Westminster St. That’s the clunky brick building acquired by the city so that its planners could trade down from their old offices in the Caesar Misch Building (1903), across Empire Street, into a Brutalist building that seems to represent the city’s blunted ambition for architecture. (See any design proposed for the I-195 land.)

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that Rhode Island Hospital seeks to overturn a decision last December by the City Plan Commission that blocked a proposed demolition of the Southwest Pavilion. [The decision to block the hospital from demolishing the pavilion was overturned.] The hospital’s claim that it could find no use for it is highly dubious. It does not want to find a use for it. It will not say so, but it probably wants eventually to build another new building to further uglify its campus. Why? So that it will seem more in sync with the modern mission of its leadership.

Really? I don’t know. I only know what it looks like.

Hospitals used to be about people – patients, nurses, doctors. Now they are about money. That has been the far from subtle message of its architecture for decades.

I am sure the Providence Preservation Society, which is sponsoring this silent protest, does not see eye-to-eye with my cynicism on this, but the society is against tearing down a building of beauty, which means maybe it is getting back to its original mission.

The public is barred from speaking at this meeting, so a loud silence will reign. You can sign to participate in this sit-in by clicking here.

Postcard of Rhode Island Hospital, probably circa 1928, based on the growth of verdure. (eBay)

Postcard from 1908, by which point RIH had been located there since 1864. It was designed by Alpheus Morse. The Southwest Pavilion was completed in 1900, as designed by Stone Willson & Carptnter.)

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Lessons from the Fane ouster

Lower portions of Hope Point Tower, which would have risen 600 feet in a 100-foot zone. (WPRI)

The so-called Hope Point Tower threat is gone, done in by inflationary costs and a dodgy market. Lessons from this interlude abound, chiefly that neighborhood opposition to poorly conceived proposals works. Jason Fane’s proposal for a 550-foot tower in a 100-foot height-restricted zone should not have been allowed in the first place. Obviously.

That it was allowed shows how ineffective and, frankly, clueless are the expert panels and their memberships, including, especially, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, all the way up through the Providence City Council and the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which, when charged with judging the legality of the proposal, issued a vapid, senseless jumble of meaningless words, laughingly considered the legal judgment of this high court. Providence mayor Jorge Elorza merits commendation for vetoing City Council’s approval of a change in zoning to jam the proposal into compliance with the Comprehensive Plan.

But where was Elorza before his veto? Where was he after it was issued? He should have put his foot down the moment the building was proposed. That was in 2016 – seven years ago.

Even before the pandemic there were many reasons to suspect that the target market for the Fane tower was suspect. Many projects serving an upmarket constituency here are more likely to find buyers and tenants than the Fane tower. In another location, such as the Financial District, its height might not have been so offensive, or even offended me so much, not even its design. (See “Put Fane tower downtown.”)

Fane’s team claimed that the proposal was a “tower in the park,” which to them meant that the applicable zoning restriction of 100 feet did not apply. This was highly debatable, but Jason Fane was probably well aware that nobody would object. He was wrong. Yes, local media was predictably on board – including a delusional supportive editorial (written after I left) by the Providence Journal – and drooling docility characterized the coverage of most of the rest of the media.

But even the local groups that rose in opposition, especially the Jewelry District Association and the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, failed to grasp the most important reason to object to the Fane tower, which was its modernist style contrary to the city’s historical character. Perhaps local opposition should not be expected to be knowledgeable of how embracing historical character enables Providence to create valuable difference between itself and other cities, while rejecting our historical character inevitably does the reverse. Many find a mixture of contrasting styles to be an interesting look, but it nevertheless destroys historical character, undermining the city’s economy, its already minimal competitive advantages with other states in New England, and property values throughout the city.

The Providence Preservation Society has no excuse for its ignorance, but its stance is no surprise. It has been sympathetic to authoritarian-style modernism since not long after its creation in 1956. It does good work in many subsections of preservation, but on the big issues it has been on the wrong side, and it shows. This blog remains almost the sole opponent of PPS decision-making. Yes, PPS opposed the Fane tower – in surprising contrast to its record of support for many of the worst proposals in the city’s modern history – but in a Jan. 23 letter to the commission describing its opposition to the Fane tower, its rationale could have been applied equally well to many modernist buildings erected since the society’s founding in 1956. The society should have been the adult in the room, but that adult went missing, as it did for many buildings that mar the face of the city.

PPS even quoted the chief objection in law to the Fane tower: “The purpose of the D1 District is to encourage and direct development in the downtown to ensure that new development is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown.” But PPS wasn’t listening.

Providence is marching in the same direction as most American cities – slower, perhaps, than others. But the destination is the same horror that many have already achieved.

[Editor’s note. Commenter Steve, below, reminded me to mention the JDA, which I had unaccountably forgotten. My apologies for that oversight.]

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Providence lost, regained IV

R.I. State House plays Providence City Hall in 2007 film “Underdog.”

Editor’s note: This is the final segment of the epilogue of my book, Lost Providence, entitled “Providence Lost, Providence Regained.” Published in 2017, the book is a history of the design of the modern-day capital of Rhode Island, specifically of its downtown. So why is this reprinted segment illustrated by the Rhode Island State House rather than the City Hall of the state capital? Partly because I wanted to include a little “cherry on top” for readers who have made their way through this reprint of the second half of the book, called “Part II” and having to do with the major development projects that created the city’s downtown. The final photograph links to a segment of the film “High Sierra,” with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, which contains a surprise for Rhode Islanders.


This book addresses change as the only constant and tracks its progress in Providence. But it challenges ideas that privilege only big change, leaving small, manageable change in the lurch. This book challenges those failed ideas everywhere they prevail. Providence’s success in revitalizing itself proves that—not withstanding Daniel Burnham’s “Make no small plans!” – it is not the size of the plan but its beauty that counts. Beauty is a free gift to every level of society, a sort of art museum with no charge wherever a street of lovely buildings exists, and perhaps most sincerely appreciated by those least fortunate. The future is not about trying to copy the past or keep up with the Jetsons. Tradition is not just about the past but about the steps we take to progress into the future – the traditions of tomorrow. Moving society into the future isn’t about reconceptualizing everything we know until we overtake our capacity to understand it. That is where we stand today in many fields, but most visibly, most egregiously, in the field of architecture. The future is part of a millennial continuum held hostage by modern architecture in a mere sliver of time. That can change, too.

Rhode Island State House photographed before completion of its dome in 1899.

Providence and Rhode Island are uniquely positioned to raise the status of beauty and tradition in architecture, just as many people are striving to do in the field of cuisine. Architecture and food are flip sides of the same coin:

What would our dinner tables look like if culinary culture were half as hung up on the rigid rulebook of progressive aesthetics as architectural culture is? Would we be allowed to eat bread or rice, or would they be forbidden due to their unspeakable antiquity? Would regional fare using locally harvested ingredients be celebrated as part of a rich, diverse, interconnected world of unique traditions, or would it be condemned as provincial nostalgia?

The passage is from an essay by Nathaniel Robert Walker, a professor of architectural history at the College of Charleston. In “From the Ground Up: How Architects Can Learn from the Organic and Local Food Movements,” he notes that by the 1950s processed food had become America’s dominant cuisine, much as processed architecture is dominant in America (and elsewhere) today. Change for the better in food came because people at every point in the food chain got fed up, so to speak, with the status quo. From the bottom up, the slow-food movement has challenged the agricultural establishment and its downstream confederates, Big Food and Big Grocery, with some success. Big Architecture can be reformed, too. It may not be as delicious, but it can be more fun.

Reform of our built environment will also be a bottom-up process. It can be a movement. It can start with activists clamoring for change at design-review meetings. It can start with civil disobedience, with a sit-down protests in front of a bulldozer on the Brown campus. It can start with a rock propelled at night through the plate glass of a glass box. (Who inserted that line?!) It can start in a state with the DNA of revolt in its history. It can start with a governor who wants to carve out a place in that history. It can start in Rhode Island.


This is the final segment of the epilogue of the book Lost Providence, published in 2017.

This shot of the R.I. State House appears just after the opening credits of the film “High Sierra,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Click here for my post on that, which links to the opening of the film. First you see the credits, then you see this shot, after which Bogart is release from prison.

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Providence lost, regained, III

Poundbury, a suburb of Dorchester, in southeast England, was built by King Charles (as prince).

Editor’s note: This is the third part of the epilogue of Lost Providence, titled “Providence Lost and Regained.”


5 a.m. I’m falling apart. My boyfriend is sleeping with a bronzed giantess. My mother is sleeping with a Portuguese. Jeremy is sleeping with a horrible trollop. Prince Charles is sleeping with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Do not know what to believe in or hold on to any more.

—Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996)

Architect Friedrich St. Florian has been mentioned often in these pages. As dean emeritus of architecture at RISD, designer of Providence Place and the National World War II Memorial, and signer of “The Napkin,” he was frequently a presence in my writing on architecture for the Providence Journal. We had lunch often, and once he told me that he believed traditional architecture’s revival would be fostered by the individual’s need for an anchor in an unstable world. Traditional buildings serve as a psychological handhold for people made anxious by the swift pace of change in every human endeavor and society at large. Modernist buildings, where it is sometimes difficult even to find the front door, do not promote stability in a turbulent world. That’s the last thing they want to do.

National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Designed by architect Friedrich St. Florian, it is one of the few memorials inspired by the classical language since that war. (

Architecture that has evolved over time as best practices improve the building process in ways handed down generation by generation trumps an experimental architecture based on a hybrid of ideologies that exalt innovation over experience. For more than half a century, architecture has become the only industry – nay, the only field of human endeavor, from art to engineering – that officially rejects precedent as the primary strategy for moving from past practice to future practice. It is not logical. It has not worked. And few modernist architects practice it, whatever they may say. Their ambivalence makes their architecture more complex, costlier and more difficult to enjoy.

A third grader need not be especially precocious to perceive the practical and aesthetic superiority of traditional architecture. All of us are immersed in architecture from early childhood, and our intuitive sense of what works in architecture rests on so much more experience than our judgment of other arts we experience only intermittently.

Plans for Chelsea Barracks redevelopment in London, 2009, by Richard Rogers (left) and Quinlan Terry (right). In survey of public opinion, Terry’s plan beat Rogers’s by three votes to one. (Evening Standard)

All research and almost all anecdotal evidence shows that a large majority of people prefer traditional to modern architecture. Architects’ intuitive sensibilities are purged in schools of architecture and replaced by supposedly more sophisticated attitudes. Modernist architects treat public disdain for their work as a feather in their cap. Proof of that disdain may be found in the purchase or rental of houses. The market for housing is overwhelmingly traditional because most people choose their houses themselves. modernist houses are built or bought mostly by wealthy professionals or trustafarians who seek to establish their “street cred” as “edgy” – artist wannabes. Almost all large commissions for new buildings are modernist because such decisions are made by committee, almost always led by the same people who commission modernist homes, and for the same reasons. Yet modernist architects themselves frequently live in traditional houses: they are unwilling to inflict on themselves what they inflict on others.

A mayor or governor who wants to reform this situation will get pushback from design professionals and academics but support from the public. That is even more true in Rhode Island, where citizens are accustomed to a level of beauty in their built environment that is rare in many other states. Providence and Newport are only two of many among Rhode Island’s thirty-nine cities and towns whose historic centers and neighborhoods retain a large portion of traditional fabric. Cultural tourists visit Newport, Westerly and Providence more than Johnson, Warwick and North Providence for the same reasons global tourists visit not Houston, Vrasilia and La Defense (outside Paris) but old Paris, old Rome and old London – what’s left of it. It should be noted that much remains of London’s vast expanse of historic fabric. Like Paris, Rome and Providence, the extent of beauty remaining in London can survive decades of assault by architectural ideologues who, in their arrogance, believe that only their sterile, production-for-use tastes are appropriate or valid for the twenty-first century.

The civic leaders of Providence and Rhode Island are at a crossroads – they can choose to foster such arrogance, at continued great cost to the character of their city and state, or turn the practice of design here in a more salutary, salubrious and sustainable direction. In Providence, they can simply choose to obey the law and encourage developers to do likewise. The relatively minor cost of this shift will be incurred by architecture firms hired for projects now on the boards. They would have to redo their designs. Some may need to diversify their practices by hiring architects who know how to provide what the public likes rather than what the design establishment demands. Developers may regret the upfront cost of such a shift, but they will save money over the long run as design review and permitting is simplified, and as the public learns to understand that new buildings need no longer be a cause for anxiety. People will welcome new projects as offering positive change, as was the norm just half a century ago.

Carpionato plan for I-195 development in Fox Point on east bank of Providence River. Plan became less elegent as resubmitted again and again over five years and then disappeared. (Capionato Properties)

A shift toward traditional architecture in Rhode Island would be not only cheap but easy. The widely recognized ills of the built environment may be healed without having to address complexities that challenge reformers hoping to solve the problems of poverty, crime, injustice, family breakdown, disease, economic stagnation, ignorance and the rest, not to mention war and peace. People in authority, such as the governor, would need to do little beyond deciding that such a change should take place. Returning beauty to the forefront of design would place Rhode Island at the head of a bottom-up movement already afoot in America, leading in a direction huge majorities would like to go. And the emergence of beauty and civility in public buildings and spaces might even create a social atmosphere conducive to greater participation and cooperation in the public policy debates that set our course as a democracy.


The fourth and final part of the epilogue of Lost Providence will appear on the next post of this blog.

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Providence lost, regained II

Postcard of Waterman Building (1893), RISD’s first permanent edifice. (RISD VR blog)

Editor’s note: This is the second of several sections of the epilogue to Lost Providence, first published in 2017. Further sections are upcoming soon.


The Rhode Island School of Design offered its services [a decade ago] to assist the I-195 commissioners in producing a successful design template for the 195 land. To shape its guidance, RISD should touch base with its origins. The school was formed in 1877 to soften and sweeten the local manufacturing process. As set forth in its original bylaws, its first goal was to foster “[t]he instruction of artisans in drawing, painting, modeling, and designing, that they may successfully apply the principles of Art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.”

At a time when Rhode island was competing with the world in a range of light and heavy industries, RISD may have been more instrumental in the state’s prosperity than it realizes today. For a century, the state’s private sector accomplished manufacturing miracles in mills of brick that housed the latest technological advances. it was only toward the middle of the twentieth century, as the high cost of doing business in Rhode Island sent more and more plants south, that Rhode island industrial leaders – and RISD – embraced a very bad idea.

The bad idea was that the machine age requires a machine architecture. Reformers of architecture a century ago had toyed with basing building design on the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement. They did an about-face and embraced the “form follows function” credo. The meaning of the term was vague to begin with, and it was botched in practice. The world got architecture conceived as a metaphor for the machine but without the efficiency promised by machinery, let alone in a form that might have made the absence of efficiency more bearable.

I am going out on a limb here, but I think this image is of an old machine shop just off Wickenden Street and recently demolished in Providence. It was described to me as the first mechanical building in the U.S. True? Does anybody recognize it? The old building at the left of the image still exists.

This train of thought originally came to me from Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician and architectural theorist based at the University of Texas and the author of Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction: The Triumph of Nihilism and other books. working with the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander and others, Salingaros has also done research linking most people’s preference for traditional architecture to neurological patterns in the human brain. The thinking, briefly, is that the widespread allure of ornament and detail in architecture comes from the prehistoric defense mechanisms of humans. For primitive man, the more information, the better. To see, and to recognize in a split second, the shadow of the head of a lion against a rock near a tree was a matter of life or death. Today, survival mechanisms have evolved considerably, but the love of ornament stands in for cues of visual perception on the full range of scales that long ago served to sustain the individual and, ultimately, the species.

Many others are researching the relationship between the human brain and the widespread skepticism toward experimental architecture and the preference for traditional buildings and public spaces.

Semes’s essay begins: Sitting in his studio at the French Academy in Rome, the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres picks up his violin and begins to play. His interest in the violin is both musical and visual. The instrument he plays is a composition of molding profiles drawn from classical architecture – torus, scotia, bead and cyma recta – culminating in a spiral resembling the volute of an Ionic capital.

In a 2006 essay on the relationship between music and architecture, “La Violon d’Ingres” (The Violin of Ingres), Steven Semes, a professor of architecture at Notre Dame and author of The Future of the Past (2009), writes:

Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical architecture and music are analogous, not just because they reflect one another but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders – the whole lot.

Governors and mayors may well be disinclined to muck around in neurophysiology, and who can blame them? But there are other reasons why developers should prefer traditional to modern architecture.

On the agenda of most architects, and governors, today is climate change, with developers and architects seeking to reduce their projects’ carbon footprints. Buildings account for 39 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Weaned on cheap oil before its risky environmental impact became evident and its low cost evaporated, the architecture of the Thermostat Age cannot do much to soften its negative impact on climate. Replacing an old building with a new one piles up an insurmountable carbon deficit even before adding in the high cost of operating complex systems in new buildings, the inefficiency of driving ever farther to work in petroleum-based vehicles or the new buildings’ short shelf life – planned obsolescence, the half-sister of demolition by neglect – often less than a half or a third the life of a traditional building, requiring multiple replacements over time.

George Corliss House (1872), in Providence, is no longer covered with ivy, was first with radiant heat and cooling controlled by a thermostat. Corliss was an inventor of steam engines. (Brown University)

Buildings erected before the Thermostat Age are intrinsically more sustainable than are modernist buildings. Before oil and electricity, buildings used many natural strategies to address the challenges of climate. Depending on region, they had thick walls or thin walls to retain or disperse heat or cold; high ceilings or low ones for the same purpose; roofs designed to shed rain and snow; porches, courtyards, awnings, shades, shutters and windows that open and close to regulate light and shade; ceiling fans for cooling in summer; fireplaces for heat in winter; site placement to harness the seasonal angle of the sun or the breeze; landscaping to enable trees to provide shade and oxygen as well as beauty; and so many more features, including natural materials locally sourced. Builders enlisted the help of Mother Nature to regulate the environment within houses and other buildings.

All of those climate-friendly features are still in use today wherever older houses and buildings survive, and are available for use wherever new traditional buildings are sold. These natural efficiencies do not require us to go “back to the future.” They can make our comforts better, more durable and more affordable.

The Bessie and Harry Marshak House (1931), on Wayland Avenue in Providence, may or may not be naturally resiliant to climate, but it sure is lovely. Note the odd brickwork. See more!

The manufacture of architecture will change as beauty resumes its role as a factor of production. Man-made materials can often bridge the gap between current design practices and the design practices of the future, which will see natural materials become more affordable. Advances in fabrication will be especially useful to marketing as high technology continues to reduce the cost and increase the capacity of machines and computers to create ornament and other architectural detail from matter such as wood, stone, precast concrete or plastic.

So, governors are free to ask developers to pitch in against climate change by proposing projects that feature natural strategies to reduce carbon emissions. Most of those strategies will cause buildings to look more traditional – more natural – and this will make even large development projects easier for the public to swallow.


The next section of the epilogue from Lost Providence will appear in the next post on this blog.

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Providence lost and regained

Rhode Island State Capitol (1901), designed by McKim, Mead & White. (Photo by author)

Editor’s note: This is the first section of the epilogue of Lost Providence, entitled “Providence Lost, Providence Regained.”


The purpose of the D-1 District is to encourage and direct development in the downtown to ensure that: new development is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown; historic structures are preserved and design alterations to existing buildings are in keeping with historic character.

This passage from Chapter 513, Article 6, section 600 of the Providence Zoning Code, passed in 2014, is the law that protects historic character in downtown. It carries forward language similar to that of local zoning codes reaching back many years. Of course, wording such as “compatible,” “in keeping with” and even “historic character” is subject to interpretation. The existence of an unsympathetic building or two in a historic district can, in theory, be used to justify another unsympathetic building. Still, in the district encompassed by the Downcity Plan, almost no new construction, additions or alterations out of character with downtown’s historic appearance – as the average person would interpret the words – have occurred since the 1980s. That is in step with the unofficial moratorium on building demolitions that prevailed, with few exceptions, between 1979 and 2005, a period that encompassed at least three bona fide building booms.

Providence City Hall (1878), by Samuel F.J. Thayer. The author’s loft in the Smith Building, on the fifth floor just obscured by a tree, is behind and to the left of Ciy Hall. Art Nouveau bus kiosks at right were replaced with ugly kiosks in 2015 by blockheads in public transit planning office. (

Thus it might seem that Winston Churchill’s “We shape our buildings; thenceforth they shape us” – the quotation at the beginning of this book – has in some inchoate manner guided development in Providence. An enactment of law speaks with force, the more so when it has been honored not in the breach, as have so many, but by intelligent observance over decades.

The city carried out very little of the Downtown Providence 1970 Plan. In 1960, when that plan was announced, laws defending downtown’s historic character had not been enacted. And yet it was observed by the city as a sort of intuitive municipal credo. Only thereafter did modern architecture’s rise call for a defense of historic character in the language of the law.

Although welcome signs such as “Beautiful Rhode island” and “Historic Providence” still stand alongside the major highways into the city and state, the Ocean State has recently struggled to update its “brand” to replace earlier logos and mottos emphasizing the state’s beauty. The need for such campaigns is debatable. Visitors travel to Rhode Island on vacation, and organizations schedule meetings in Providence and Newport because the state’s beauty and historical character are widely known commodities. That fact has little to do with branding campaigns. Still, the campaigns do suggest that officials have long understood that beauty is vital to the state’s health and well-being.

View to west from Van Leesten Pedestrian Bridge of I-195 “Innovation District.” (Steve Kroo video)

Now, in its effort to develop land near downtown Providence vacated by the relocation of Route 195, the state seems to have suffered a massive brain fart, causing it to overlook the importance of beauty. Already, although progress in redeveloping the I-195 land has been slow, Johnson & Wales has just opened the district’s first building, a new modernist facility to house its engineering and design department. Other plans for new “high- tech” buildings in this corridor are in early stages of design development, with three newly proposed towers of high-tech design in prospect [just recently ditched]. An “innovative” engineering school facility at Brown University is also under construction on College Hill. All of this promises to undermine Rhode Island’s brand – if not the official brand, whatever that is at this stage, then certainly its longstanding natural brand promoting the state’s beauty and historic character.

Downtown viewed from College Hill. I sought a view online of downtown from this angle, of not this height, months ago and could find none. They all tended to block the Industrial Trust. (Photo by author)

The current governor, Gina Raimondo [now Daniel McKee], should phone all the developers involved to urge them to revise their plans in ways that will strengthen rather than weaken the state’s brand, its beauty – a major competitive advantage it has over other states. Under Section 603 of the zoning code, the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission can offer development incentives. “The purpose of these incentives,” the code states, “is to encourage development that will be compatible with the character of downtown and carry out the goals of the comprehensive plan.” The governor can advise developers of the existence of such incentives. [He] can also remind them of the protections for historical character in section 513.6.600 of the zoning code and note that the state prefers initiatives that strengthen rather than undermine the competitive advantage embodied in such laws.

View  in early evening of buildings along an alleyway in downtown Providence, leading to Weybosset Street, with tip of Industrial Trust Building visible in background. (Photo by author)

In the lax design environment that has shaped development in Providence in recent years, officials may be understandably reluctant to even appear to “mandate” design. The bill that in 2011 created the I-195 Redevelopment District, and the commission managing its build-out, took as their model the Capital Center Commission, which was “reticent about mandates to architectural expression.” With the conflicting results of that reticence in mind, the I-195 commission should not hesitate to express a preference for buildings that strengthen rather than weaken the state’s brand.

After he took office in 2014, Boston’s new mayor at the time, Marty Walsh, gathered that city’s developers together to urge them to propose “bolder” new buildings. His advice may have been dodgy, too inclined to abet the further erosion of historic character in the Hub, but he was not “mandating” style. He was using his bully pulpit to encourage his idea of better development in Boston.

Rhode Island leaders such as Gina Raimondo, Governor McKee, and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza [and recently elected Mayor  Brett Smiley] should do likewise. That’s their job. They may find that developers are more eager to have state and local government on their side than they are to stamp their proposed developments with this or that statement of aesthetic design.


The next blog post will reprint the next section of the epilogue to Lost Providence.

View upriver toward downtown over pedestrian bridge. (Twitter photo by Mike Cohea)

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The Downcity Plan, II

This view is similar to the one that impressed me from the Arcade (left) on my first visit to Providence.


Editor’s note: This is the bottom half of the 22nd and final chapter, “The Downcity Plan,” from Lost Providence. Chapter 22 concludes Part II of the book, whose final two chapters record the two major projects that sparked the Providence renaissance, which followed a series of major hiccups in the city’s development, which have been described in the other chapters of Part II, reprinted here over the past several months. The epilogue, which I’ve not yet decided to reprint, sums up the lessons Providence and other cities should learn from our city’s recent decades of history.


Months prior to my interlude at the window of the Turk’s Head Club with Journal publisher Metcalf [see Chapter 19, “We Hate That”], while in town for my first interview with the paper, I went to fetch a shirt at a laundry in the Arcade near my hotel, the Biltmore. I entered from Westminster Street. Afterward, I exited the Arcade at the other end, onto Weybosset Street, and happened to turn my head left. I saw the curved row of old commercial buildings bending toward Weybosset’s meeting with Westminster at the Providence River. I was struck by its beauty. I said to myself, “I have got to live in Providence.” This was half a decade before I began to conceive of myself as an architecture critic.

[Less than five years later, after I became that critic, I began to write about downtown’s renaissance, including the Downcity Plan.]

Sketch of the quadrangle proposed for Johnson & Wales’ campus on Weybosset Street. (Randall Imai)

Later wrinkles in the Downcity Plan included a historic district overlay for the downtown master plan, then the plan for a downtown academic quadrangle for Johnson & Wales University and finally an even more ambitious downtown plan in 2004, an effort to connect the city center to neighborhoods beyond Route 95.

Gaebe Common, the quadrangle realized. At right is the Triangulo Gate, on Weybosset Street. (J&W)

The first residential rehabilitation, the Smith Building (1912), was completed in 1999, the same year Providence Place mall opened. Before the next decade was out, five other downtown building rehabs housed two hundred new units and shops on the ground floors. Other building owners followed suit. Eventually, although little of the more ambitious 2004 plan has been accomplished, many earlier proposals have been, and they bore considerable fruit. Downtown’s popularity had become the economic basis for several proposals to build new residential towers in Capital Center, two of which were built, including the Westin addition, with hotel rooms and condominiums, and the Waterplace Luxury Condo twins. A proposal in late 2016 to build three residential towers of thirty-four, forty-four and fifty-five floors on the vacant Route 195 land raised hopes that there might indeed be a big market for living in or near downtown – predictably, however, they were way out of scale, way out of place and way out of character for Providence. [In 2023, just a few weeks ago, its developer, Jason Fane, who had ridiculed the historical character of Providence, pulled the plug on his ridiculous project, which by then had shrunk to one building.]

Promotional image posted inside window of building to be renovated, including, at left, the addition (a building in its own right). Restoration of Wit Building, far left, was disappointing. (Photo by author)

Buff Chace has continued rehabbing buildings, mainly for lofts, and recently proposed yet another set of downtown rehabs on Clemence street, an alley running from Westminster to Weybosset. This project includes the construction of a new residential building. [In 2022, he completed a lovely addition to his row of buildings along Westminster, and the Nightingale Building on the Journal parking lot between Fountain and Washington streets, with 143 apartments above a grocery store.] The number of shops, restaurants and arts venues has continued to grow. Schools keep moving facilities into downtown, stuffing Joe Paolino’s “jelly doughnut” to the max [That what he called his theory that downtown would attract adjunct university facilities in abundance, as described to me as early as 1992.] To compare today’s downtown with that of 1984, when I arrived, is to define success in the art and science of urban revitalization.

The “addition” as completed in 1922. Trayne Building, right, was used as a screen for outdoor films shown for free once evening a week, hosted by Cornish. (Photo by author)

Between 1984 and 1999, I lived in three consecutive apartments on Benefit Street, 283, 395 and 372. Early on, just for kicks, I used to drive downtown at night, crossing the river, creeping down Westminster Mall, whose pedestrian sidewalks had been rolled up for the night. I would drive slowly, looking for “action” – something to gawk at, really, for I was a dweeb. Block after block, nothing but dreary men lurking in dreary doorways. Then, pay dirt: I would reach Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, a live-music club in the old Conrad Building (1885) just before Westminster T’s at Empire. I would slow down (never any cars behind to rush me) and peer through Lupo’s open doors at the writhing, pulsating scene within. I’d never go in myself, at least not until the club moved next door to me after I moved into the Smith Building.

The Conrad Building as it is today, filled with condominiums. Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, a very popular nightclub and live-music venue, used to tempt the author. (

Lupo’s had been forced to relocate from the Conrad by the gentrification forces unleashed by Buff Chace. Rich Lupo moved his establishment, which included a smaller nightclub, just as noisy, called the Met Café, into the Peerless Building next to the Smith Building, where I was among the first tenants. I was writing about development issues for the Journal. Chace was my landlord; his projects were often the subject of my weekly architecture column. Chace had bought the Peerless to rehab as lofts, and a legal battle erupted between him and Lupo. Young metal-heads supporting Lupo’s and the Met accused loft dwellers like me of wanting downtown to resemble Barrington (a quiet, wealthy, dry town southeast of Providence known as Borington). Not so! Bad, bad, bad, bad vibrations! eventually, Chace helped Lupo move his club yet again, into the Strand Theater a block away on Washington Street. (The Strand eventually went condo, too, in parts of the building not used by Lupo’s; I trust the condo buyers enjoyed the free live music.) The Peerless, which had been a department store back in the day, opened in 2004 with ninety-seven units around a seven-story atrium, a sort of urban Peyton Place with a roof garden, where tenants, peering out into the atrium, could keep an eye on who was being entertained in who’s loft. Ah! City life!

This sort of churning captures the heart of a living city, indeed of life itself, the life well lived, you might say. Stasis is the status of a city in decline. Like every other active city, citizens confront what they perceive as parking and traffic problems. In fact, those who live or work (or both) in downtown Providence have relatively little to complain about in terms of where to park or how many red lights they must wait on before penetrating an intersection. Providence is at equilibrium, developmentally, which means that its comforts and discomforts are in relative balance. Unlike stasis, equilibrium implies pressure from both the forces that propel development and those that retard it. That is, in stasis there is nothing going on. In equilibrium it may still be very difficult to line up the permits and secure the finances necessary to move a project forward in Providence, but the conditions that provide incentives to do so push developers and entrepreneurs to persevere.

The four buildings demolished to make way for Freeman Park, at Westminster and Mathewson streets, the first project in the Downcity Plan. (Providence Journal)

The first project under the Downcity Plan required, of all things, demolition. Four buildings were torn down at the intersection of Westminster and Mathewson streets, kitty-corner from the Tilden-Thurber Building (1895). Stanley Weiss’s office on its second floor today overlooks the project, now known as Grace Square. Its full name, Grace Square at Robert E. Freeman Memorial Park, [serves as the courtyard of Hotel Providence, also developed by Weiss] and honors the late Rob Freeman, a former director of the Providence Foundation. This group, an offshoot of the chamber of commerce, was the major instigator of the Capital Center and river relocation projects. Its board and its succession of directors, Romolo (“Ron”) Marsella, Kenneth Orenstein, Rob Freeman, Daniel Baudouin and Cliff Wood have been there for downtown, first and last, throughout its revitalization.

Freeman Park, courtyard for Hotel Providence and a string of restaurants. (

Overlooking Grace Park, Weiss had one of the best views in town once the four buildings were gone. The buildings were dilapidated. The only attractive one of the four had sustained heavy damage by fire but remained unrepaired. The corner looked like Beirut, the Aleppo of its day. No doubt the rents paid by its two tenants, a pizza joint and a private mailbox emporium, reflected its “sense of place.” The tenants were understandably reluctant to seek new digs, even with city assistance. Around the same time, Weiss evicted the Safari Lounge, a resolutely downscale bar, from another of his buildings nearby. The club sued, but lost. I thought the eviction showed poor judgment. In a January 30, 2003, column, “In defense of gentrification,” with the pre–revitalized downtown in mind, I wrote:

One can no more expect landlords to neglect buildings in perpetuity as welfare programs for struggling artists or buck-a-beer joints than one can expect those same tenants to embrace building improvements that will raise their rents. They whistle past the graveyard as the gathering clouds of renaissance darken, praying that their landlord fixes up all his other buildings before getting around to theirs.

There is a certain vitality to dark streets empty most nights until drunks stumble in a rowdy mass from clubs at 1 a.m. But it will be a sad day if City Hall ever determines that the preservation of this vitality should be the urban policy of Providence.

Thankfully, Providence has not sought to preserve its decline. it has even followed the New Urbanists’ advice, replacing a series of suburbanized one-way streets with two-way streets. Andrés Duany still reminds audiences that a historic district is nothing but a neighborhood built before urban renewal and modern zoning. The Downcity Plan has preserved the beautiful buildings of downtown but not the seedy lifestyle that prevailed after the dark clouds of urban renewal sent urbanity fleeing from downtown. Still, an old friend of mine visiting from our native Washington, D.C., deplored the disappearance from Providence’s downtown of its ubiquitous dives where you could get a drink for breakfast, and I could see his point. His father and mine were both city planners. They would have realized how difficult it is to find and then sustain a balance among the many competing aspects of urban life. This Providence has done.

The downtown of 2016 [or of 2023, for that matter] is not much different in appearance than the downtown of 1984, when I arrived. What is different is the little things. It is cleaner. There are more people. The faux façades are gone. There are more trees. Many streets are lined with period lampposts. It is amazing how much of a difference such lampposts, purposely designed to be beautiful, can make, and for a relative pittance of city funds. Hanging from the lampposts are flower baskets, installed in warmer months by the Providence Downtown Improvement District’s “clean-and-safe” teams, who also plant flower beds at strategic intersections and are, in general, specialists in “City beautiful.” They are also ambassadors on the street for visitors. The sum of all these little things is one big thing: there is more vitality.

The only constant is change – and it is vital that change be for the good, as judged by the people, not the experts.

[Yes, there are more ugly buildings that create a deplorable undertow in the flow of Providence development, but at least they have been kept out of “Downcity” – so far.]


Wit Building’s (1925), its lost Art Deco cornice acroteria were found and reinstalled. (Photo by author)


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