A Duck & Bunny mystery

312 Wickenden St., c. 1790. (Gowdey Database, PPS)

On Easter weekend a colonial-style building at 312 Wickenden St., in Providence, was razed by its new owners, who also owned the Duck & Bunny Snuggery, which was shut for the pandemic. I heard about this calamity on Sunday and instantly wrote an obituary for the lovely building, which was said to have been built in 1900, but might have been built as early as 1790.

After my post ran I was informed by email that reporter Lynzi DeLuccia of WJAR Channel 10 had done a story in which the new owners said that code issues and structural instability had forced their hand, but they hoped to rebuild 312 Wickenden and reopen the Duck & Bunny. Good news, if true!

But other emails came to me saying that there had been no code or structural issues arising at 312 Wickenden as of 2018, when the new owners bought the building for $405,000. I confirmed this with city planning officials.

And yet the new owners insist that those issues were there, and they are backed up by the Providence Preservation Society. There is direct contradiction here not just between the new and old owners, but between PPS and the city planning department. And the evidence has been demolished.

The local historic district’s boundary excludes Wickenden Street, so it was not protected by the city and the owners were able to demolish it “by right,” without any notification to abutters or the community, which they did not provide.

Now I have learned from the prior owner that 312 Wickenden might have been built in the 1790s, early in the Federal period. The city gave it a pro-forma date of 1900 because the actual date was unknown, even though it was thought to be “earlier than 1857.” Local preservationist Mack Woodward dated it to between 1810 and 1830. The previous owner cites 18-inch floorboards and other features that suggest the older reaches of its age. If the building, officially the Almira P. Allen House, really dates from the post-colonial era, then its loss is doubly tragic.

Elevation for new 312 Wickenden. (Coastal Modular)

The new owners intend to rebuild 312 Wickenden as closely as they can manage to its old look, but they are using a quad construction system. It will be built in sections off-site and erected on-site. How well they can replicate the building using such a method seems unclear to me. For example, did they rescue the elegant front door surround? If not, can they reproduce it? Will the clapboards be as narrow as the original ones? They claim to have saved some of the beautiful interior features, but that will be of little account if the exterior looks as bad as 298 Wickenden, two doors downhill from 312. It was torn down a year or so ago and replaced with a clunky faux colonial. If anything like that happens at 312, the Duck & Bunny may end up in bad odor with the neighborhood, no longer so beloved. Naturally, I am rooting for a high-quality exterior restoration that the Duck & Bunny can occupy with their heads held high.

The city contends that the Duck & Bunny could have operated in 312 Wickenden for the foreseeable future. But it seems there may have been a fly in the ointment. According to one source, the owners’ purchase of the building involved a new insurer in its fate, which may have said it would not insure the building unless it was brought up to a higher level of fire and safety codes and ADA disabled access that would take effect because of the owners’ desire to renovate substantially.

Duck & Bunny before its demolition, April 5, 2021. (Jess Ann Kirby)

Providence has 35 districts on the National Register of Historic Places. A listing is purely honorary. The city has only seven local historic districts with limited actual protection for historic properties. The local College Hill Historic District extends into Fox Point but only to within one block of Wickenden Street. If its merchants and residents fear for its historic character, they will need to petition to have the College Hill Historic District extended by at least one block. Eventually, the merchants who blocked the street’s inclusion in the local district decades ago will regret what is brought by the winds of change. Yet, by then it is likely that Providence as a whole will no longer boast the allure from which Wickenden Street borrows its charm.

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Another travesty at Brown?

Sketch of proposed Brown dormitories on Brook Street. (Deborah Berke Partners)

Brown sent a gang of its minions to present its latest proposed abomination to the Fox Point Neighborhood Association last night. The two huge rectangular boxes with skewed roofs on either side of poor Brook Street (disembowled recently by the nearly completed student wellness center several blocks to the north) would create a forbidding allee along the street that parallels Thayer a block farther east.

The Brown officials, reinforced by a team from Deborah Berke Partners, the architect, were received politely by the FPNA. Yet it was clear that the group’s leaders and members were very distressed by the proposal, which would remove four buildings, three of them attractive old houses, from the historic residential district that once dominated the area.

It is doubly fortunate that the neighbors as well as the FPNA folks, interacting by Zoom, were largely in agreement that, among other issues, the two buildings’ poor fit with College Hill/Fox Point’s historical fabric was the key issue. A host of opponents stated or read effective remarks refuting (not just rebutting) the Brown officials’ presentation. Brown responded to all the minor objections in an obvious effort to ignore the elephant in the room. Nevertheless, said architect Noah Biklen, Brown ’97, “We are working within a modern idiom.” Yes, and that’s the big problem. The statement by Arria Bilodeau was remarkably blunt on this point, focusing on the design issue. Below is the text of her remarks:

***

Statement on Brown’s Proposed Dorms

By Arria Bilodeau

Brown’s proposed plans for two new dorms have been modified in response to the Historic District Commission negative reception, and, purportedly, to concerns voiced by neighbors.

From the neighbors’ point of view, our objections have as yet been unaddressed.

West dorm

The intrusion of the west dorm into the local historic district has been removed, and an open space, planned to be landscaped and green, has replaced the retail component on the south-west [portion of the] dorm.

However, the dorm building designed by Deborah Berk Partners continues to incorporate design elements that have been almost universally rejected by the surrounding community:

  • the irrelevant and jarring roofline (not characteristic of the abutting built environment);
  • extended, elongated windows (not reflective of the surrounding styles);
  • a seemingly non-conforming brick siding (not “Brown brick found everywhere else on campus, and immediately next door in the Vartan Gregorian quadrangle facing the west dorm from the east);
  • and an industrial, urban office-building shape (not respectful of scale, density or character of the adjacent buildings).

The design of the dorm has not fundamentally changed. It is a replication of the architect’s similar buildings on two other campuses, and does not offer a signature design statement of any distinction for Brown.

Erecting two of them, facing each other in one block next to our homes, is a dismal prospect.

East dorm

In the 1980s, Brown cleared the northeast corner for a future dorm by demolishing two houses. Across Charlesfield Street, however, Brown handsomely restored a Victorian house – of 3½ stories, which is one of a whole block of houses on Brook, running north from Charlesfield. In other words, the context on this side of Brook is residential housing stock, as was the building at the western corner of Brook and Charlesfield.

Again, a five-story, vertically oriented, erratic-roofed massive dormitory with elongated windows singularly fails to make any gesture at fitting into the neighborhood, where the Institutional Zone abuts the surrounding housing stock. The architects have not acknowledged that this is a residential setting. Their dorms will be bordering a residential neighborhood of family-occupied homes and yards.

Corner of Brook and Power

There has been no neighborhood clamor for “open space” or “green space” at the Power and Brook intersection. The northeast corner lot is, in fact, missing a tooth. And Brown owns the missing tooth: the multi-family house on Brook it says it must demolish. Whatever effort must be made to convince the City to allow the lot to be used for a house – and put on the tax rolls – is definitely not beyond Brown’s power, and is within the City planning goal of increasing density.

Additionally, the pink house at 126 Power should be added to the Brown-to-Brown program, sold to an owner-occupant, and kept on the tax rolls as well. This would be in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

In sum

Brown has latitude within the Institutional Zone to expand and increase density in its development. However, the Comprehensive Plan speaks to institutional growth in three Objectives that should be taken into account in this dorm proposal. These are the words of Brown’s Comprehensive Plan:

  • Objective LU7: Allow for institutional growth while preserving neighborhoods. Require institutions to use their land … and expand … while ensuring compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Objective BE5: Preservation Planning. Preserve the historic buildings, districts and areas that contribute positively to Providence’s urban fabric.
  • Objective BE7: Neighborhood Character and Design. Encourage developments to be compatible with surrounding uses in scale, density and character, while not stifling innovative design and architecture.

Brown has yet to provide a building of sufficient architectural merit and sensitivity to its immediate surroundings to serve as its interface with the City’s and our historic neighborhood.

***

These remarks by Ms. Bilodeau are about as tart a response as I can recall to Brown’s half a century of insensitive expansion of its campus on College Hill. Since 1960 or thereabouts, Brown has gone stark, raving modernist, blasting huge holes in the historic fabric of its host city. The only exceptions have been, in 1990, the addition on George Street to the John Carter Brown Library (which is not even a part of the university), and the 2012 Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center on Hope Street, from which Brown learned nothing. Brown has been very good at restoring old buildings, occasionally relocating them to make way always for inexplicable carbuncles, but that has probably caused decades of Brown facilities officials to grind their teeth to a fare-thee-well.

About a year ago I wrote a post, “At Brown, here we go again,” in which I beat Brown, Deborah Berke Partners and its ex-Brown architect Noah Biklen severely about the head and shoulders for voicing flagrant untruths about their declared goal of integrating new buildings, including these dorms, into neighborhoods. Drawings were not even available at the time, but now that we have the designs, they are quite as bad as I predicted, even after the recent, irrelevant changes cited by Arria Bilodeau.

She, the neighborhood and its leaders at the Fox Point Neighborhood Association have been much more direct and forceful in their objections to the design of the proposed dormitories. At last night’s meeting, Brown and its architects expressed a willingness to revise its proposals with advice from the neighbors in mind. The neighbors should be inspired by the success, just a month ago, of neighbor opposition to a developer’s proposal for an addition to a dear old cottage on Williams Street. After offering designs that got more and more modernist over time, the architect, Friedrich St. Florian, did a 180 and offered a proposed addition that was quite in keeping with the historic character of the neighborhood. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when the Historic District Commission issued its ultimatum (I presume) to the developer!

It is clear that Brown could build dormitories quite as large as it needs with proper massing and historic detailing inspired by the campus buildings most beloved by Brown itself and the community. The neighbors would love it. The longstanding town vs. gown headaches caused by decades of insensitive Brown development on College Hill would largely evaporate, Brown’s genuine reputation as a city benefactor would shine more luxuriantly as its role as “local villain” disappeared, and the university would reap greater alumni donations in the future if new parts of the campus were more lovable. Let’s hope Brown and its architects were really listening last night.

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Mary Gallagher: Saving Paris

Montmartre district in Paris, with Sacre Coeur in distance. (Photo by Lance Vaughn)

On Thursday, Mary Campbell Gallagher, a leader in the crusade to save Paris from skyscrapers, had an oped in Le Figaro, one of the capital’s leading newspapers in addition to Le Monde. With her permission I republish it as a guest post. It is called “Lovers of Paris the World Over Are Alarmed as it Descends into Ugliness.”

Gallagher has asked me to mention that a new collection of 49 essays, Paris Without Skyscrapers (Paris sans gratte-ciel) will be published by the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris toward the end of May. Its subtitle is “The Battle to Save the Beauty of the City of Light.”

Recently Gallagher told me that Paris’s famous (and elegant) benches and newspaper kiosks are being removed from city streets. I responded that at least, unlike the skyline of Paris, they could be returned from storage when the current insane mayor is gone. Gallagher replied that they are not being stored but trashed. Totally shocked, I replied that this must be inspired by the growing desire to destroy Western culture among leftists who arrogantly suppose they are defending non-Western cultures – whose citizens, living in or visiting Paris, probably love the old benches and kiosks quite as much as Mary and I do. I admit I phrased this idea a bit more bluntly than was advisable. Her reply was that my theory was “looney tunes.” Rather, the mayor’s intent, supposedly, is to make sure that Paris grows economically in the future and does not become just a museum, beloved for its beauty but fading compared to other world financial centers.

Whatever. Here is Mary’s essay in Le Figaro:

***

Lovers of Paris the World Over Are Alarmed as it Descends into Ugliness

By Mary Campbell Gallagher

The world loves Paris for its beauty. Paris is the world’s city, and most of us think it will always be beautiful. But Paris is in danger. Its leaders are about to destroy its beauty.

Proposed skyscraper in Paris.

The sacking of Paris did not begin yesterday, and is not just the piling up of garbage on the streets, the cutting down of trees, or the installation of banal street furniture. The sacking includes skyscrapers built on the periphery of the city in the style of the universally-despised Montparnasse Tower, destroying the city’s centuries-old skyline against the wishes of the residents, and the government’s remodeling of the île de la Cité.

It was not until October 2020 that Mayor Hidalgo called for a debate on the “aesthetic of Paris.” One might have expected an economic argument for her towers, arguing that they would be a good investment for her heavily indebted city. But instead, she has chosen to argue for towers based on their modernism. One might wonder whether Hidalgo, who won last year’s election with only 17% of the city’s registered voters, with an abstention of more than 63%, has a moral right to alter the character of her ancient city.

We argue, to the contrary, that people love beauty and history. Remember the faces of the people watching when the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire, on April 15, 2019. Parisians prayed for their cathedral to be saved. This was not the first time the cathedral was in danger. It had also been in danger after the Revolution of 1789, but in 1832, Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris. The great success of that stirring novel awakened public opinion to the value of heritage, or “patrimoine,” and it saved the cathedral. The anguished crowd witnessing the fire in 2019 testifies to the continuing importance of place and of our traditional cities.

Victor Hugo referred to Paris as a collective masterpiece. For centuries, builders always sought to add to the beauty of the city. Whether Henri IV with the Place des Vosges, Cardinal Richelieu with the Palais Royal, or Napoleon I with the rue de Rivoli, the objective was always to make the city more beautiful.

Today’s unbridled “modernization”  or “reinvention” of Paris adds nothing to its beauty. To the contrary, it degrades Paris. Without any public discussion, City Hall has authorized the implementation of novel urban initiatives. On the streets of Paris we see a loss of the charm that has made the city legendary, the newspaper kiosks and the street benches designed in the 19th century by architect Gabriel Davioud. And let us not forget that City Hall approved the remodeled La Samaritaine on rue de Rivoli, where ancient buildings were torn down to construct a six-story-high undulating glass façade for giant retailer LVMH, close to the Louvre.

Ecology is a key theme of City Hall. Its efforts to reduce the use of autos have received world-wide attention. But its claims of the sustainability of towers fail to take into account the great mass of energy needed for the building material of these towers: the cement, glass, and steel. Nor are towers sustainable economically. Note that two of the skyscrapers built at La Défense since the ‘fifties have already been torn down.

The stakes are high. Paris is a treasure of the world. The banks of the Seine were recognized for their beauty when Unesco designated Paris a World Heritage site.

As Olivier de Monicault, head of SOS Paris, has said, the beauty of Paris is not a “renewable resource.” But City Hall is on the verge of destroying the beauty of Paris for the sake of global financial interests. The centuries-old Paris skyline will no longer proclaim the glory of God or of France, but instead will signal craven surrender to major real estate developers and architects of transient renown. Paris will not become more financially competitive with other world capitals. It will simply be left to stand in its diminished state, which will be irreparable.

If we want to leave to our children and grandchildren the beauty of the Paris we have inherited, we must act now. Of the traditional cities in the world, Paris is the most beautiful and largest to have kept its low silhouette.

The people of Saint Petersburg fought hard when the giant international corporation Gazprom wanted to build a 100-story tower in the historic center. That battle lasted five years. And the people of the city, with support from around the world, won!

Parisians, too, must count on international support. If the world allows Paris to descend into ugliness, how can we defend beauty anywhere?

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Mourning the Duck & Bunny

The Duck and Bunny, a snuggery at 312 Wickenden St., no longer exists. (GoLocalProv)

The day before Easter Sunday the Duck & Bunny snuggery, in an elegant colonial on Wickenden Street. was torn down. By definition, a snuggery is “a cozy place.” The Duck & Bunny was that and more, a sweet salon for tea, crepes, cupcakes, cakes and other delights, intimate rooms with comfortable chairs, a leafy rear garden of exquisite charm, and pleasant young people serving quiet, gentle, civilized customers. It was even painted light pink. Not any more. Gone.

Detail of Duck and Bunny. (patch.com)

The colonial housing the Duck was among the most pleasingly classical buildings on Wickenden, with an embellished doorway surround, a set of four wrough-iron light fixtures, a slender entrance railing, a sign with duck and bunny silouettes hung from an antique frame, and soft façade lighting at night, not to mention its pinkish hue.

Now there is a pile of wood behind a chain-link fence. Perhaps soon there might be a parking blacktop. At least this would raise the intriguing possibility of a reasonably decent building to fill the parking lot rather than the immediate certainty of a degraded Wickenden. The imagination inevitably opens the door to pain. Even a new colonial is unlikely to live up to the Duck & Bunny’s design standards, outside let alone its highly classicized inside. At best maybe a new “colonial” by some bad-trad firm might resemble the new four-story colonial that went up a couple of years ago two houses west of the Duck & Bunny.

Aqua-Life being razed at Hope and Wickenden. (Brown Daily Herald)

More likely is the fate of the old Aqua-Life Aquarium at the corner of Wickenden and Hope, where a charming building with an aquatic mural populated by fish came down for a quasi mod/trad abomination too big and too lacking in soul. Frank Gehry is unlikely to be given a commission here, or anywhere in Providence.

The Duck & Bunny was born in 2010 but has been lodged in a house born in 1900. Ascendancy has not been the direction of architectural evolution here. Architects today cannot be relied upon even to copy the past. Which is harder than it sounds.

I had heard over a year ago that the Duck & Bunny was at risk, yet also that its owners had closed for renovations but expected to reopen in 2021. I am abashed at being caught by surprise. The Duck & Bunny’s demolition must have been okayed by the Historic District Commission, the City Plan Commission or some other agency. How could they? Why was I not informed! Harrumph!

If Providence is to avoid the seemingly inevitable erosion of its historical character, the redevelopment process must be renovated to exclude all but restorations or new buildings erected to the design standards of 1900.

Update: A correspondent (not a commenter) has emailed me to say she heard on tonight’s news that “the building needed to be brought to code and wasn’t stable. They are rebuilding and kept a lot of items to put back in and will reopen the same restaurant when completed.” That’s great news, if true. (10:04 p.m. Monday)

Update of update: My correspondent sent the segment from the WJAR evening news, in which one of the Duck & Bunny owners clarifies that they expect to rebuild. In the segment it is more clear that they expect to install the restaurant much as it was but less clear that they will rebuild the building as it was (with upgrade to code, of course). Still, viewers, such as myself, who hope for the latter have every reason to be optimistic. If the reconstruction turns out to be a full restoration (with upgrades for HVAC and other internal systems), that may be a first for Providence, possibly for Rhode Island. (11:07 p.m.)

In some blocks, the character of Wickenden hangs tough. (William Morgan/GoLocalProv)

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Not an April Fools post

Residential building called Ycone, at center right, by Jean Nouvel, in Lyons, France. (Nouvel)

A few days ago a correspondent asked me whether I’d seen modernist architect Jean Nouvel’s latest building in Lyon, France’s third largest city. Finished in 2019, it is an apartment building called Ycone, and looks like a work in pickup-sticks. The instigator of our conversation about Ycone, Anthony Daniels, pointed me to Jean Nouvel’s writing about it and asked, “Do such people actually have thoughts that correspond to their words?”

The link from a website called aasarchitecture.com, whose text is taken directly from Nouvel’s website, answers Daniels’ question with a resounding no. Here are some of the more obtuse (probably meant to be abstruse) passages:

[W]e’re not making sense for today, but for a programmed future – with all the risks that that implies: in urbanism, things that are programmed can vanish without a trace from one day to the next. What I’ve tried to do, then, is develop positive features.

How can this possibly represent what Nouvel’s really thinking? “We’re not making sense for today”? Things can “vanish without a trace from one day to the next”? Is he warning that this may happen to his building? Still, he’s developing “positive features.” Will they exist one day, then maybe not the next day? So who is he planning to sell the units to? Other figments of his imagination?

I tried to turn the building round a bit, to push it to one side, then push it to the other side, to work out how I could set off a positive conversation with the neighbouring buildings.

This is archispeak boilerplate. Nothing to see here, except for the neighboring buildings, which look incapable of positive conversation with anything. Fortunately, Ycone will be surrounded by tall trees to block views of the neighbors, no doubt preserving their ability to converse politely.

We need to preserve the distant landscapes, and several apartments will be able to enjoy them; and we need to preserve the close-up landscapes too.

So the distant landscape for those living atop Ycone will be preserved, but for those who live in the distant landscape the view will be wrecked by the Ycone. Perfect! And let’s preserve the close-up landscapes, too. You can see them in the photo atop this post, but since any of them can (and should) disappear on a day-to-day basis, you’d better look quickly or they may be gone.

The first creature comfort is not to be at the mercy of your neighbours. Everything that goes towards protecting privacy, private life, is paramount. With that in mind, you don’t just create façades that residents can draw the curtains across. We need to find ways of living under the watchful eyes of others. We also need to create features that allow us to say I’m at home here and everything’s different because I’m at home.

By neighbors this time Nouvel means not the neighboring buildings but your actual next-door neighbors. But don’t draw your curtains. You need to open yourself to the watchful eyes of others – so that they’ll know that “everything’s different because I am at home”!

In another passage about living in Ycone, Nouvel writes:

There’s a way of projecting yourself into a depth that means telling yourself: maybe I could live here and have an impact on this chosen spot.

Does that mean spending more time in the bathroom or in a closet so that your neighbor can’t keep track of you? What does having “an impact on this chosen spot” mean? Does that mean tidying up a bit? Or using your apartment as a bomb factory? That would probably mean closing your curtain, but closing your curtain might mean that your neighbor might not fall in love with you (you, not your apartment; this is not the Soviet Union, after all). Choices, choices!

Regarding the look of the building, Nouvel writes:

Ycone plays down similarities and creates differences – in light, feel, and of course, planes – even if the differences are slight; above all it plays on differentiation, at the level of each objective element.

More archispeak. Nothing to see here. In fact, this whole exercise has become a bit tedious, like shooting fish in a barrel, and no doubt trying the patience of readers. When am I going to get to the April Fools part, where I reveal that this is only a joke. Except that it’s not a joke. Ycone really exists, and the above recorded absurdities are actually what Nouvel has said about it – no telling what he really thinks. So in a sense this is an April Fools joke, but true. Ycone and Nouvel are jokes that keep on giving beyond April 1. But at least Ycone was built amid a setting of almost equally ridiculous buildings. Lyon seems to have kept Nouvel away from the old city center, which may be viewed below.

The old central district of Lyons; Ycone is in a development district beyond the city center. (Wikipedia)

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Rebuild Penn Station update

Relocated Madison Square Garden, center, near rebuilt Penn Station, beyond. (Cameron)

First voiced publicly by architect Richard Cameron, the plan to rebuild New York’s Pennsylvania Station as conceived by the firm of McKim, Mead & White remains in the chaotic mix of plans to renovate the existing station. The beauty and profundity of Cameron’s idea springs from the power of the memories and hopes of every American who ever passed through its classically grandiloquent waiting hall, or who has seen photos or Hollywood films displaying its grandeur, and who yearn to behold it once again.

Penn Station was completed in 1910 as designed by Charles Follen McKim, and demolished in 1963-67 in an act of cultural desecration unequaled before or since in the U.S. Millions of travelers suffer its tawdry, cramped replacement. “One entered the city like a god,” said the historian Vincent Scully, “now one scuttles in like a rat.” The historic preservation movement in America may be traced to the travesty of Penn Station’s demise.

Cameron was recently invited to update his project for guests and members of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. His lecture, entitled “Miracle on 34th St.,” after the old holiday movie, was hosted by chapter president David Andreozzi, delivered on Zoom, recorded, and is now available to be viewed, along with an extensive Q&A at its conclusion.

Madison Square Garden of 1890-1926. (MSG Networks)

The vision has expanded to deal with the vexing question of what to do with Madison Square Garden arena, which squats atop the station’s ticketing and waiting areas, beneath which are the boarding area, tracks and the infrastructure that remains from the original. Cameron has worked along with ReThinkNYC on a broad, systemic reconception to bring the train lines entering and leaving Penn Station into the 21st century. Part of that would be to relocate Madison Square Garden to one of three sites. The best is half a block from Penn Station. You would exit the station, cross Seventh Avenue, enter Hotel Pennsylvania to reach the Garden, all underground. Beyond the Garden would be Greeley and Herald squares. Today the site is occupied by a host of uninspired commercial buildings. The new Garden, with a retractable domed roof, could be rebuilt in a form inspired by the 1890 design of Stanford White, also of McKim, Mead & White, which was razed in 1926. (White was murdered by a former lover’s husband during a musical event at its roof garden in 1906.)

Imagine a district with the rebuilt Penn Station, the Moynihan Train Hall next door, a new Madison Square Garden (these last three all originally designed by McKim, Mead & White), a Bryant Park-style space across 35th Street from the station, flanked by a new pair of matched classical towers, the Hotel Pennsylvania and the many traditional and classically styled commercial buildings that survive in the immediate area, not to mention the Empire State Building. The scene would be set for a new Manhattan district, harking back to the popular World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, which drew 26 million visitors in a nation of 63 million (before air travel), and the City Beautiful movement sparked by the classical urbanism of that famous world’s fair. The new district might be christened Empire City or Empire Station – the greatest entertainment and transportation complex in the nation if not the world.

Cameron’s plan, if carried out, would be the project of the century, and could revolutionize American attitudes toward how cities are built for popular appeal. But powerful interests want to goof up the already regrettable train station with modern architecture – some of it so absurd that you can’t tell up from down – and line nearby streets with commercial glass towers that will throw shadows over the station and block views of the Empire State Building down 34th Street. That would transform even more of the city into sterile gulches of the inhumanitarian ugliness that would tilt Manhattan toward a metasticizing Hudson Yards of the future very few people would actually like to see.

It has been estimated that rebuilding Penn Station by itself would cost $3.5 billion, less than the $4 billion PATH station at Ground Zero – the dinosaur skeleton designed by Spanish architect Calatrava – that serves a tiny fraction of the riders that use Penn Station. Part of that money and the money to redevelop the district would be raised by selling the air rights in the vicinity. Property values would soar near Penn Station as if it were a new Central Park of land speculation. Surely the $3 trillion infrastructure bill in Congress would tip its hat to President Biden, a noted lover of trains and mass transit, including Amtrak. For a project that could very well unite a divided country, and reform the linchpin network of rail lines on the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Washington: perhaps it’s time to set up a meeting with Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg.

First, however, Cameron and his associates need to promote his plan to the hilt, pedal to the metal. He has already put it in front of many New York decision-makers. More of that will be required. Social media must play a role. It has been said that a tweet by someone with millions of followers such as Beyoncé or Oprah can strap booster rockets on any proposal, let alone one so obviously, intrinsically sensible as this. Who’d be best came up in the Q&A after Cameron’s lecture. Or, better yet, try them all. Anybody with one name. Barack, Michelle, maybe even the Donald, with his experience as a developer. To rebuild Penn Station is a global ambition. The sky’s the limit.

Speaking of the sky, did you know that the entire Grand Central Terminal could fit inside the waiting room of McKim’s Penn Station?

That one fact sold me.

Rebuild Penn Station. Rebuild New York City. Rebuild America.

Graphic of Grand Central Terminal fitting inside Penn Station waiting room. (Reddit)

Rendering of the proposed rebuilt Penn Station. (RPS/Jeff Stikeman)

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Richard H. Driehaus, R.I.P.

“A Classical Perspective” (2012), capriccio by Carl Laubin. Click to enlarge. (Driehaus)

Richard Driehaus, who died suddenly at age 78 of a cerebral hemorrhage at home on March 9, was beloved among architects and historic preservationists for his stewardship of old buildings, especially the relatively unsung treasures of his native Chicago. The Windy City is over-celebrated for its modernist buildings, and yet in their dark shadows survive many historic structures, no small number of which have been preserved by the prodigious Driehaus generosity.

Richard Driehaus (NYT)

He is most well known for having founded the Driehaus Prize, which yearly since 2003 awards a single architect for a lifetime of work in the classical and traditional languages of architecture. The modernist Pritzker prize, often called the Nobel of architecture (a misnomer, as Alfred Nobel intended to reward work that benefited society), comes with a stipend of $100,000. Every year critics like me take joy toying with the fun fact that the Driehaus stipend is twice as valuable (in sheer monetary terms): $200,000. A Pritzker prize can make a career more lucrative in today’s world than a Driehaus prize, but each individual Driehaus laureate could make the world more beautiful than the entire slate of Pritzker laureates all rolled together in one.

To prove it, the painter Carl Laubin was asked by the folks at Driehaus and at Notre Dame, whose school of architecture administers the Driehaus program, to do a capriccio of the work of the first ten Driehaus laureates. That painting sits atop this obituary. At the bottom is a collage of work by Pritzker prize laureates. Although you can compare them to each other, there is simply no comparison. Period.

I saw Laubin’s painting at the 2013 Driehaus celebration of the prize for Thomas Beeby. There, on an unforgivably rare trip to my native city of Chicago (we moved to the District of Columbia when I was two), I met Driehaus after the ceremonies for Beeby and David Watkin, the British historian who won that year’s Henry Hope Reed award ($50,000 for a non-architect who has cultivated the traditional city, its architecture and art through writing, planning or promotion). We had a very brief conversation.

He was clearly a gentle and civilized person, even if he was (or maybe because he was) a financier. By age 13 he had parlayed money from a paper route and his boyhood coin collection (noted in an excellent NYT obit by Sam Roberts) into his own stock portfolio, and from there over several decades he grew a fortune in mutual funds. (His firm now oversees $13 billion in assets.)

Here are several quotations from the Book of Driehaus as set forth by Timesman Roberts in his obituary:

“I believe architecture should be of human scale, representational form and individual expression that reflects a community’s architectural heritage,” he told the architect and urban designer Michael Lykoudis in an interview for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in 2012.

Asked whether he considered modernist buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for example, to be appropriate, he told Architectural Record in 2015: “They’re mechanical, industrial, not very human. It’s like my iPhone, which is beautiful, but I wouldn’t want the building I live in to look like that.” He added: “Architects build for themselves and build for the publicity. They don’t really care what the public thinks.”

“The problem is there’s no poetry in modern architecture,” he said in an interview with Chicago magazine in 2007. “There’s money — but no feeling or spirit or soul. Classicism has a mysterious power. It’s part of our past and how we evolved as human beings and as a civilization.”

It is, naturally, too early to tell whether the Driehaus prize program, or the many other charitable, preservation and art organizations that he has helped over the years, will enjoy support from the Driehaus organizations going forward. The good work already done by the great philanthropist on behalf of beauty in the world stands head and shoulders above that done by most individuals.

But it is not too early to recognize that citizenship does reflect hierarchy, no less in human society than in classical architecture. Citizens are ranked, naturally and inevitably, for the good they do – as a building or the virtuosity and placement of its decorative elements do for the beauty of a street or a city. It is perhaps easier to view this hierarchy on the face of a building. Among citizens, Richard Driehaus must certainly rank up near the apex of the hierarchy of those who strive to bring enlightenment, in the form of beauty, to our human race. May he rest in peace.

Collage of NYC condos by Pritzker prize winners. (6ftsq)

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Save secret park in Lisbon

The Tapada das Necessidades, in Lisbon, at risk of perilous renovation. (Wikipedia)

One of the worst things that can befall a dear old municipal park and garden is for “preservationists” to ride to its rescue. First, it may not be in need of rescue. Second, the preservationists are likely to want to “update” it in ways completely averse to the park’s native personality. That is, if preservationists in Lisbon are anything like preservationists in Providence. (Though that regret is belied by recent, excellent work to renovate Prospect Terrace here.)

“Luncheon in the Grass” (1863), Edouard Manet

Things look bad for Lisbon’s Tapada das Necessidades, which originated in 1742 as a hunting preserve for royalty, and is now the grounds of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, housed in the Palacio das Necessidades. The Baroque palace was built after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked a lot of the old city, including the original palace. In its heyday, the royal garden is said to have inspired Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” (1863), “Luncheon on the Grass,” which is considered by many the first descent of the Expressionists into modernist painting. Or at least that’s what some experts say, though I can scarcely see how by looking at it.

Today, the park is considered a hidden paradise unknown even to Lisbonites (Lisboetas). Here’s a passage from a brief article on a droll website called “Where tto go to,” with the two t’s in the second word rendered as stick people:

As soon as you step inside, you will be greeted by ducks, gooses, abandoned beautiful buildings, exotic plants and trees, and a large playground, picnic area where everyone is at ease.

Elegant bench, with moss, in garden.

Anyway, it does not seem that the Portuguese have done all that much to keep up the park (which may be for the best) and it has fallen into disrepair. But that is no excuse to wreck the place. My correspondent in Lisbon has now furnished me with details of the proposed renovations on its 24 acres, and since part of the plan consists of a tedious modernist building (designed by the regrettable Pedro Reis), a big tot lot to distract children from the park’s natural wonders, and the demolition of the old zoo, it is easy to imagine a host of smaller unnecessary upgrades. For example, renovation of gorgeously articulate park benches bearing such flaws as delicate moss that would need to be expunged, or perhaps replacing the benches altogether with the typical graceless, sterile items, and don’t forget to add arms to prevent people from lying down on them. I am reminded of the Art Nouveau bus kiosks of downtown Providence, now long gone. There are dilapidated little buildings of no discernable use throughout the grounds of this Lisbon park that beg to be left alone. Only the graffiti should be gently extirpated.

Maria Isabel Rocha sums it up beautifully:

As we have seen in other cases, after a time of prolonged neglect, there is an unbridled fury of redoing, instead of recovering and requalifying, for fear of appearing old-fashioned, in the impulse to make modern. The desire to erase the wrinkles of the past, this sterile pretentiousness of change for change’s sake, undoes the sense of belonging and identity. All that remains is the fatuous shine of a few vanities and the nastiness of greed, while nostalgia advances like a shadow over the city, which is increasingly cosmopolitan, increasingly artificial.
.

The Lisbon city council has received and approved the plan but it is possible that popular dissatisfaction could thwart bringing this misadventure to fruition. Portugal is no longer a monarchy, or so I gather. There is a petition that has gathered some 6,200 signatures in just two weeks. As with many cities in the United States (including Providence), Lisbon seems to be unaware that citizens begging for relief from covid do not need their governments to spend extravagant amounts on unneeded projects of use mainly to architects wanting to burnish their portfolios with work that only their mothers could love.

Let Tapada das Necessidades be Tapada das Necessidades!

Park in foreground with Lisbon spread out in distance.

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How architecture evolves

“Grecian and Gothic” – a charming description of this engraving is at the end of this post. (Wikipedia)

Here is a quotation about the evolution of architecture from “The Biological Fallacy” of Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism (1924):

Decadence is a biological metaphor. Within the field of biology it holds true as a fact, and is subject to law; beyond that field it holds true only by analogy. We can judge an organism by one constant standard – its power to survive: a power that varies in a known progression, a power of supreme importance. But even here – where the sequence of immaturity, prime and decay is a fact governed by predictable law – the power to survive is no test of aesthetic quality: the fragile unfolding of a leaf in spring, its red corruption in autumn, are not less beautiful than its strength in summer. And when we have to deal, not with a true and living organism but with a series of works of art, the tests of evolution are even more misleading. For here we ourselves define the unit which we estimate. We have to be sure that our sequence is really a sequence and not an accidental group. We have to be sure that there is a permanent thread of quality by which the sequence may at every point be judged, and that this quality is at each point the true centre of the art’s intention. The mere power of an architectural tradition to survive – could we estimate it – might be a permanent quality but hardly a relevant one; for the successive moments of an art are self-justified and self-complete. To estimate one by reference to another is a dangerous method of criticism.

His next chapter, “The Academic Fallacy,” begins:

“There are in reality,” says architecture’s principal historian, “two styles of Architectural Art – one practiced universally befoe the sixteenth century, and another invented since.” To the former belong “the true Styles of Architecture,” to the latter “the Copying or Imitative Styles.”

Renaissance architecture is imitative. It is more imitative than any style of building that preceded it.

To better understand Scott, let’s recall that he was writing in 1924, or prior to it, during which period there was very little modern architecture on view anywhere in the world. It is considered axiomatic, even today, that architecture evolved to its current modernist inanity by steps that each forecast its increasing alienation from traditional forms that Scott and many others say were already imitative, but that prior forms were less imitative: until we arrive at the complete rejection of imitation represented by modernism. Here is the problem with that:

Almost no architecture is strictly or exactly imitative. It does not “copy the past,” unless as a reconstruction or restoration. Architects may decide to diverge from past forms, and have done so both previous to and since Scott’s line of separation at the Renaissance. At that time, architects imitated the classical architecture of the ancients, using ruins and Vitruvius as their guides. But what about Gothic? What about Romanesque? Did those architects and builders have pattern books to look at, or did they use drawings of earlier buildings so as to copy them? No. Every architect used creativity of one degree or another to build structures that accomplished a set of intended practical purposes, and shaped them or decorated them following their own response to previous forms, which may have hewed near or far from what architects built before them, depending on their genius.

At some point allegedly connected to the so-called Picturesque or Romantic or Baroque period(s), it is said that architects began to incorporate meaning into their forms in ways they allegedly never did before. It seems difficult to point to some work of architecture whose designer actually did this. In every case he can be said to have copied buildings of greater or lesser similarity to the one that he contemplated, or conjured them up in his own mind, inspired by memories of buildings he had seen before, both as to their form or their decoration. Until late in this period, there were almost no schools of architecture.

In no case would any architect, forced by his sense of the purity of form or by a sense of the size of his budget, strive to pare its embellishment in a manner that architectural historians (looking backward) have imagined as looking forward to even more simplicity of form.

Apart from features ordained by the proposed use of a building, including decor that symbolized the user, no meaning adheres to any building that springs from the intention of its architect. Architecture evolves, but only in retrospect, and that retrospective view has raised many fallacies in the study of the history of architecture. Scott’s biological fallacy tells us that the rise and fall of architecture is not the same as the rise and fall of a leaf upon a tree. There is less intent in the latter (except perhaps in the eye of God), but the human intent in architecture is subservient to practical considerations, and the embellishment of its form copies the past but does not predict its future.

However, Scott is wrong that imitation is a sign of decline in architecture (if indeed that is what he is saying). Only with modern architecture did meaning gain an ascendancy, and, in a paradox, that ascendancy represents a notable decline in the quality of architecture as properly judged. This decline was accompanied by a retreat from imitation, from inspiration. It is properly called “anti-architecture,” in the formulation of Nikos Salingaros. It is easy to see in modern architecture the poverty of art and of human imagination that was abundant before its rise. But we can forgive Scott because he would hardly have been aware of architecture’s doom in 1924.

I think I am wandering out into the tall grass here, and I assume readers will kindly identify what I am missing.

***

Here is Wikipedia’s description of the image atop this post:

A Feb. 1st 1816 print (published J. Taylor, London) which exemplifies the contrast between neo-classical vs. romantic styles of landscape and architecture (or the “Grecian” and the “Gothic” as they’re termed here). This engraved plate accompanied Humphry Repton‘s 1816 book Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.

Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a famous proponent of the romantic aesthetic, while Edward Ferrars in the same book says “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower–and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

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Providence on suicide watch

Proposed mist ring above Waterplace; image does not show raising river walks by 11 feet. (Arup)

Each time news emerges of another plan to renovate Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park or other sites in downtown Providence, it gets worse and worse. Now there are plans costing upwards of $140 million to reconstitute Kennedy Plaza, remake Waterplace and demolish the skating rink, using cartoon architecture to suggest that the entire downtown be dedicated to children (as they say) of all ages. Many riders of the city bus system, however, would need to walk farther to bus stops and transfer at two new downtown bus hubs to reach their destinations.

That was the gist of “Splash park, mist ring part of plan for reimagining Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park,” an article on the front page of last Thursday’s Providence Journal. “And when WaterFire returns,” it reads, “you’ll gaze up at a giant ring suspended over the basin that sprays mist down upon spectators.”

WaterFire is often cancelled if there is rain. What if the performance stage at the center of the basin leaves too little room to maneuver for the boats that fill the burning braziers of WaterFire with wood or the tour boats and gondolas? Suppose visitors to the park don’t want to get wet? (See image above.)

The plan would raise the river walks around Waterplace by 11 feet to avoid floods in case sea levels rise, leaving the river in a deep gulch likely to reduce its safety and allure. It would link Waterplace to Kennedy Plaza with a “mini-High Line” bridge over the old Capital Grille parking lot. But you would still have to cross Memorial Boulevard because the two pedestrian tunnels from Waterplace to the skating rink – considered unsafe by experts – would be closed. The rink and its turreted pavilion would be demolished for a skateboard park and basketball courts. The rink would be moved to the plaza and rebuilt in a “serpentine” shape. The intermodal terminal would remain but the Soldiers and Sailors monument would apparently be relocated. A café, stage and visitors center with a box roof similar to those over gas station pumps would occupy part of the plaza.

The only admirable part of the plan is that Washington Street between the plaza and Burnside Park would be eliminated. Traffic would circle around existing streets. Alas, instead of extending the park and its greenery to the plaza (a step I urged in 1992), creating a sort of mini-Central Park, the plaza’s hardscape would be extended to the park.

All of this is too much, with too little thought given to how the pieces would fit together, or whether any of it is desirable, let alone necessary at a time when the city’s budget is terribly constrained. But Mayor Jorge Elorza is gung ho:

“We know that the Kennedy Plaza space has been the center of our city geographically, but it has never fully been the center of our city culturally,” Elorza told reporters at a Wednesday briefing. “In our mind’s eye, we have never had that city center in Providence that the other cities that we have all fallen in love with throughout the world have.”

Both halves of the mayor’s statement are wrong. Kennedy Plaza, Burnside Park, Waterplace Park and the skating rink have been the cultural center of Providence for nearly three decades. Thousands go there to enjoy themselves at festivals, concerts, ethnic celebrations and other events throughout the year. The mostly traditional buildings that surround our civic square, the pair of traditional buildings sited inside of it, and the classical statuary scattered within it, provide citizens with a grand place to gather akin to London’s Trafalgar Square, the Piazza Navona in Rome, and the Piazza San Marco in Venice. We could raise it toward the aesthetic level of those places, but instead we seem eager to distance our central square from those and other lovely models shaped by history.

My family and I ran into candidate Elorza in 2014 when he first ran for mayor at a carnival of the Holy Ghost School on Federal Hill. I asked him if he would favor development projects that fit into the city’s historical setting. He said yes. But he has not. So the city grows uglier. Now he wants to make it even worse. He should ask his planning director to resign, and cancel the city’s contract with Arup, the nutty London-based engineering firm that has produced this travesty. Many plans don’t die, they just fade away, like the uber-modernist Downtown Providence 1970 Plan. This one should, too, and the sooner the better. Or poor Bill Warner may never stop spinning in his grave.

Kennedy Plaza with relocated skating rink proposed cafe with gas-station style roof. (Arup)

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