S.J. Perelman in Wash. Sq.

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Cast of “Glee” in Washington Square Park. (zimbio.com)

Who hasn’t seen a musical that makes you want, in the spirit of the moment, to leap up and dance down that stone balustrade past the water fountain and into the dappled park, singing a Broadway tune to beat the band? S.J. Perel- man catches that feeling in the opening of his humorous bit from The Most of S.J. Perelman called “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amati, Enough.” The feel- ing doesn’t quite carry though to the end. “It is hardly surprising that when these golden lads and lasses finally have at one another, they produce an effect akin to the interior of a blast furnace.” No. But that lead-in, hey, my toes are twinkling! Shot above may not quite catch the moment, but it tries.

The other day I surfaced in a pool of glorious golden sunshine laced with cracker crumbs to discover that spring had returned to Washington Square. A pair of pigeons were cooing gently directly beneath my window; two squirrels plighted their troth in a branch overhead; at the corner a handsome member of New York’s finest twirled his night stick and cast roguish glances at the saucy0eyed flower vendor. The scene could have been staged only by a Lubitsch; in fact, Lubitsch himself was seated on a bench across the street, smoking a cucumber and looking as cool as a cigar. It lacked only Nelson Eddy to appear on a penthouse terrace and loose a chorus of deep-throated song, and, as if by magic, Nelson Eddy suddenly appeared on a penthouse terrace and, with the artistry that has made his name a word, launched into an aria. A moment later, Jeanette MacDonald, in creamy negligee, joined the dashing rascal, making sixty-four teeth, and the lovers began a lilting duet. The passers-by immediately took up the refrain; windows flew up at the Brevoort, flew down again; the melody spread rapidly up Fifth Avenue, debouched into Broadway, detoured into Park, and soon the entire city was humming the infections strain in joyous tribute to Jeanette’s and Nelson’s happiness.

Spring may not be cooperating quite yet, but this Perelman bit can get us there ahead of the weather.

 

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Salingaros’s way forward

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Fresno Farmers Market, by Christopher Alexander. (patternlanguage.com)

Common/Edge may the most edgy design website because of its willingness to engage traditional viewpoints. Most such sites altogether ignore tradition in architecture. One of its editors, Martin C. Pedersen, has assembled an intriguing digital interview with Nikos Salingaros, the mathematician and architectural theorist at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He has long been a partner in the research by the noted architectural theorist Christo- pher Alexander. Here is an excerpt from “Calling For an Architecture that Connects Us to Our Bodies“:

On what forms and patterns would connect people’s bodies to their buildings: “We know those fairly accurately. There exist spatial patterns that define a sense of “partial envelopment,” and those help create welcoming spaces. Details and articulations of the structure and surfaces follow from universal scaling, organized complexity, color, etc. We have explained this in great detail in published texts, many of them online. Note that what we propose is found in traditional and vernacular architectures the world over, and throughout history. The connective qualities are not a secret, but those design tools and constraints were deliberately contra- dicted in order to promote the industrial-modernist style.

Because I must take a train up to Boston for an ICAA meeting, I must quote and run!

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Taking the plunge in Paris

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Rendering of proposed Mille Arbres. (Reinventing Paris)

If you have scratched your head at what looks like civic suicide in Paris, manifested by a desire to attack its beauty, an essay by Stephane Kirkland, “Paris in the Twenty-First Century,” might prove interesting. It appears that Parisian modernists, oppressed for decades if not centuries by their respon- sibility to the beauty and the legacy of Paris, have finally decided to bunk duty and embrace ego.

Mary Campbell Gallagher, a leader in the movement to protect Paris from skyscrapers, sent Kirkland’s essay to TradArch, noting he’s a “lovely” person, a “terrific” author of books about Paris, but a modernist architect “who has drunk the Koolaid.” Human nature has invented stranger concoctions. Here, from his essay, published on Kirkland’s website, is his ringing cry to rescue Parisian modernists from the Bastille of Parisian beauty:

This is an exceptionally exciting time for Paris. Through a raft of bold projects, the city is regaining the ambition and vision that propelled it to the forefront of modernity nearly two centuries ago. Paris is again on a quest to project itself as a leader on the global stage. …

Paris continued to have a huge power of attraction, whether for tourism or corporations. But, as the twentieth century came to a close, it was no longer at the forefront in terms of dynamism, vision and innovation. The focus was on picturesque preservation of the historic center … and the business-as-usual attitude of a Paris reliant on the strength of the legacy it had inherited.

Today, things have changed. A new spirit presides over Paris. There is ambition and boldness, a willingness to embrace innovation, a newfound comfort with the idea that inventing our own future is not a form of disrespect or disregard for the past, bien au contraire…

In short, the Paris design elite have embraced the joy of ego at the expense of community. This is the same sentiment that has wrecked so many other cities around the world. Beauty may have held Parisian architects back for decades, because beauty there is stronger than anywhere else. But no longer: Today it is me! me! me! Megotecture! Modernism as Haussmannism, a frisson of self-regard channeling Baron Haussmann, who plowed boulevards through the city’s conurbation of side streets. Haussmann worked for Napoleon III, nephew of Bonaparte. The liberation of the Paris design elite from its long- standing responsibility frees it up to indulge in its own personal L’état, c’est moi! Chuck the “III”: We can be our own Napoleon! Just do it! If you want to reinvent Paris, reinvent Paris!

I do not think I exaggerate. Kirkland’s essay spends much time describing grand plans for Paris that emphasize not its center but its suburbs. Good! Most of the illustrations he includes are renderings of proposals whose context is strictly suburban office pod circa 1980. But these projects may go up in suburban environments much grittier than shown in these renderings. If so, then their new neighbors may wonder why suburban Paris cannot aspire to the same beauty that benefits the residents of central Paris. And who can blame them? It may be an unlikely aspiration, but it’s not an impossible task. It’s merely not quite Stephane Kirkland’s cup of tea, or that of his fellow crusaders against beauty.

It will not be long, however, before they tire of working their magic outside the gates of Paris. Then – surprise! – it will be après moi, le déluge.

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GoLocal’s buildings to demo

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Thomas Street, in Providence, backdropped by looming One Citizens Plaza. (Alamy)

In the wake of the decline and fall of the Fogarty Building, in Providence, GoLocalProv.com ran an important list: “Providence’s Fogarty Building Demolished, What Other Buildings Should Go?” It includes a slide show featuring a set of buildings that should go: the Brown Science Library; One State Street; Brown’s Pizzitola Sports Center; the Brook Street Citizens; South Hall, overlooking RISD Beach; Roger Williams’s downtown campus (formerly the 38 Studios office on Empire); and Brown’s Watson Center.

That’s a pretty sad set of buildings. The only one on which I’d demur is South Hall, which is set back from Benefit Street by RISD Beach (that sward of grass). It was designed by the late, great Bill Warner in his early years as an architect, and is really not all that bad. It is postmodern – that is, traditional without any real confidence in the beauty of traditional. I would give it a pass, largely because there are (alas!) so many far worse buildings that did not get onto the GoLocal list.

GoLocal’s death panel for ugly local buildings generally guillotined the right kind of architecture. All except South Hall are blatantly modernist. But its deliberations left out a major factor, which is location, location, location. Some of their targets are buildings few people know about because they are not prominently located. The best example of this is Brown’s Pizzitola center, which you will see only if you drive down Alumni Street, off of Hope. There is an even worse building, actually a house, on the other side of the street. I can’t remember its address. You will know it when you see it.

I would add more buildings that deserve to go because they are always poking us in the eye. They are Old Stone Square, the GTECH Building, One Citizens Plaza, the RISD Art Museum’s Chace Center, Brown’s List Art Center, the Garrahy Judicial Complex on Dorrance, Johnson & Wales’s Broadcast House on Dorrance, and the fourth Howard Building – the oldest of these blotches – also on Dorrance, next to Kennedy Plaza.

There are others, but these are the most objectionable, and except for the Science Library are worse than any on GoLocal’s list – not because they are necessarily uglier but because the location of these plug-uglies (or pug-uglies, as the Brits put it) forces them into our face more often.

I did not include Brown’s new Granoff Arts Center because its location a bit off of Thayer Street shields it from view for all but a moment after turning right on Angell Street. I did not include any of downtown’s modernist skyscrapers because, while ugly enough to qualify, they help form the Providence skyline and are largely unobstreperous. I did not include the Waterplace Luxury Condo twins or the Blue Cross/Blue Shield offices that, along with GTECH, help to ruin Waterplace Park. Consider them part of the overall GTECH package, since they were all inspired by the Capital Center Commission’s inexplicable descent into modernism after Providence Place was built. Likewise, a whole new section of town, the I-195 corridor (now called the Innovation & Design District, or something like that), seems as if it will specialize in buildings designed to turn one’s stomach. Two are already up: a new JWU engineering school and a new and unusually horrid garage at the so-called South Street Landing.

Notwithstanding all the buildings that should have been included, GoLocal is to be commended for its list. Providence is considered a beautiful city precisely because it has so few modernist buildings. GoLocal quotes the esteemable Nate Storring to the effect that demolishing a building like the Fogarty “leaves a gaping hole in our architectural record.” No, it does not. Photos and texts will form an archive that will fill any hole in our architec- tural record much more pleasantly than the Fogarty ever did. Rather, filling the actual hole with a better building (if that happens) will heal Fountain Street. Most of the buildings on GoLocal’s list, if they were torn down, could be replaced with almost anything and their streets would improve.

The purpose of architecture is not to turn Providence into a museum with curators making sure that even the worst looking buildings are preserved. Architecture, at its best, should seek to create places that human beings love to be in. For decades, architects have largely failed to recognize this, and the public suffers as a result. Here’s to GoLocalProv.com for taking a courageous step in articulating the need for more beauty in our city’s future.

***

I have led this post with a picture accompanying the GoLocal list that seems intended to suggest that One Citizens Plaza, looming up in the background of Thomas Street’s elegant Art Club buildings, improves rather than diminishes the view. Below are the eight buildings that should be added to GoLocal’s list, in the order they are listed above.

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Fire trucks in Celebration

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Traditional charm enchants downtown Celebration, Fla. (disney.wikia.com)

It seems that citizens of the town of Celebration, originally developed by Disney near Orlando, Fla., have been unsafe in their houses since 1996, when it first opened. The fire department says it must ban parking on side streets and those trees have got to go, or else fire trucks can’t make it to fires.

Celebration is a planned New Urbanist community that markets the charm of traditional neighborhoods to attract new residents. Design is limited by a building code that enforces generally historical styles. The small blocks and narrow streets heighten a sense of “perfection” that has been mocked by architecture critics who think anything that doesn’t look out of kilter is old hat. They make dark intonations about The Stepford Wives, but since there has been no convenient rash of murders or invasion of zombies for critics to point to, maybe the latest strategy to deflate its popularity is to scare the bejesus out of citizens.

But this is no conspiracy theory. At a recent meeting to discuss fire safety in Celebration, town officials and homeowner-association representatives were told by fire officials to get rid of street parking – at least on one side of most streets and both sides of some – and street trees. “Life safety is more impor- tant than parking on the street.” No kidding! But fire officials seem to think the two are mutually exclusive.

“Are you saying we are unsafe in our houses?”

“You are unsafe.”

“What has changed? Since there have been no changes to Celebration, are you saying we have always been unsafe?”

“I wasn’t there back then.”

If the deputy chief is correct, then it looks as if we may have to evacuate many of the best places to live in this country. If fire trucks can’t make it down the streets of Celebration, they certainly can’t make it down the streets of Georgetown, Beacon Hill and other places built before World War II.

But in Celebration there have been very few fires over the two decades of its existence, no major fires, and none with death resulting. Does Celebration really need to get rid of its trees and its parking? Or does the fire department have too little to do – you know what they say about idle hands. Not long ago – perhaps needing to spend more money lest its annual appropriation be cut – the fire department replaced its old fire trucks with new and improved (read larger) trucks that are harder to get to fires. Oops!

The minutes of this lengthy meeting cast some doubt on whether fire officials are not overreaching. It was unclear whether fire trucks can’t turn corners because they literally can’t get through, or just can’t do so without slowing down. As things stand, cars parked too near corners are not ticketed aggressively. Fire officials say they will not risk damaging an illegally parked car in order to reach a house on fire; that suggests that they don’t take fire safety seriously enough. By the meeting’s end, fire officials seemed to have backed away from a proposed ban on street parking to a plan to expand the reach of the existing ban on cars parking within 30 feet of a corner.

No one doubts that fire officials care about saving lives. This is their main concern and that is what it should be. But part of their job is to understand the deep and important character of their town, and its place in reviving a workable urbanism, not just in Florida but around the nation. New Urbanists are correct to emphasize the importance of street parking in Celebration. Cars on the street form a buffer to protect pedestrians from traffic. That, too, is life safety. Trees perform the same service. And Celebration would not be Celebration without its abundance of trees lining the street.

It seems apparent that life safety and civic beauty need not be incompatible. A workable compromise seems within easy reach here. If it is not, then it may be necessary to drill down deeper to find the reason why not.

By the way, downtown Celebration’s quotient of out-of-kilter buildings prove that traditional architecture can be just as creative as modern architecture.

[Correction: Early versions of this post suggested unfairly that fire officials were targeting parking lanes on both sides of most streets. For most streets, fire officials believe banning parking on one side would be enough.]

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Deconstructing the matador

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Matador getting a close shave in a bullring. (jewishcurrents.org)

Here is something else from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jake Barnes is at a bullfight in Pamplona describing to Lady Brett, as they watch, the finer points of an impressive new, young, very handsome matador’s style:

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Hemingway in bullring. (Hemingway Papers)

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like cork-screws, their elbows raised, and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.

I don’t know anything about Hemingway’s architectural tastes but he seems here almost to be channeling Le Corbusier, or at least what modernists claim to be the fundamentals of their style (while refusing to admit that it’s a style). “Contortions” or “cork-screws” = ornament. “Straight and pure” = simplicity and honesty. “Faked look of danger” = tradition.

But doesn’t he give the game away toward the end? He mentions that Romero “had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure.” The old thing?! This suggests that purity of line is really not so new after all. And that Hemingway is really just waving a red cape at readers to rile them up and fake them out, diverting their attention from recognizing that this bullfighter’s style, though in eclipse for a while, was nothing new under the sun. The matador was a revivalist.

Of course, purity of line can characterize traditional architecture no less than modern architecture. It’s just more obvious in the latter. Still, the passage may have caused a lot of tingling among modern architects and theorists, and especially among literary critics who were all gassed up to declare Hemingway’s writing “modern.” Well, of course, Hemingway is not Henry James, but Papa’s style is straightforward. In other words, his style is far from anything new under the sun but rather a harking back – not so much to “old” ways as to more basic levels of prose, writing that seems to mimic how most people would assemble their sentences if they tried to write a novel.

In this, they are more akin to regular architects who just want to build a straightforward house that embraces the need to be useful but also attractive in a way that most people would like. Modern architecture (and genuinely modernist literature, such as the work of James Joyce) is a rejection of that, which is why most people are skeptical of both. Today’s modernists, unlike the modernists of the International Style that was arising alongside Heming- way’s early writing, are the real matadors of contortion and corkscrew.

So far as I know, Hemingway never wrote anything about modern architecture, or any architecture, though he did say “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” He wrote that in his nonfictional account of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. Seeming to invoke the eclipse of tradition by modernism, he was actually railing against novelists whose characters spout philosophy directly as opposed to having it expressed indirectly through their actions. Mencken, who twice comes up in conversation during The Sun Also Rises, did once write about modern architecture. In “The New Architecture,” an editorial from 1931 in The American Mercury, which he edited, Mencken wrote:

The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. The traces of it that are visible in the current hotels, apartment-houses and office buildings are slight, and there are so few signs of it in domestic architecture and ecclesiastical archi- tecture that when they appear they look merely freakish. A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration, and the realtor who projected it would probably be badly stuck.

Alas, Mencken turned out to be wrong.

By the way, Reflections on Ernest Hemingway, an interesting essay at pbs.org by the playwright Tom Stoppard, is about Hemingway’s writing style.

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One dry eye at Fogarty wake

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Fogarty Building on Friday. Demo began on Monday. (Brussat photo)

There’s a bar in downtown Providence, a karaoke place at Westminster and Empire, called Finnegan’s Wake. Well, today we held Fogarty’s Wake for the Fogarty Building, who’s demo began Monday. I’ve made a cottage industry of disparaging it in print. I did give a eulogy, though, and your skunk-in-the-funeral-parlor correspondent was on best behavior. But hey, the architect’s daughter, Jana Planka, was among the eulogists. Still, knowledgeable heads must have exploded at my restraint. I was told afterward that my eulogy was funny. Maybe. The Journal’s reporter, John Hill, says he will pop my line “I marvel at my lack of hatred for it” into his story. He told me it was “the zen of the event.” Ha ha! I like that!

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Clock amid ruins.

I met Bill Rappleye, the correspondent for Channel 10, before the wake got under way. He shot a segment on the Fogarty’s demise and our funeral for it. The event was a joint production of Brown University, the Providence Preservation Society and Doors Open RI. Rappleye’s report of the “funeral” gave it over two minutes of air time, which is long for TV (below). “It was the first time I’ve ever seen a ceremony held to bid farewell to a building,” he told his TV audience. That’s me in an early bit listening to architectural historian Marisa Brown, of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, describe the building, its history and why it is being, as Rappleye  said, “put out of its misery.”

Other eulogists were Ms. Planka; Ned Connors, an expert in the repurposing of old buildings (the Fogarty was just turning 50, or officially historical); Markus Berger, a specialist in historic interiors at RISD; Elizabeth Francis, director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities; Viera Levitt, a photographer who specializes in Brutalist buildings; and Caroline Stevens, the director of Doors Open RI. Ms. Stevens invited listeners to give their own eulogies – a few did – or to write down their memories of the building at her organization’s facebook event page. Read the event sponsors’ obituary, which appeared on the website of the Providence Journal.

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John E. Fogarty Memorial Building in better days. (Providence City Archives)

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Central Police Station, abandoned in 1940, at far left of Fogarty photo. (PPL)

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Riding by versus looking at

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Boulevard Raspail, in Paris. (CPArama)

Yesterday I posted a couple of quotes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Of a taxi ride down the Boulevard Raspail, the author has his protagonist muse: “It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it.” Walking and riding offer obviously different perspectives on the route, the primary being slow versus fast. Slow allows the walker’s eye to linger on detail, whereas fast whizzes by, giving the rider a set of glimpses that add up to a summary of the route.

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Facades of Bvd. Raspail. (MeilleursAgents)

It is easy to see why a Parisian boulevard of the Haussmannesque persuasion might be less engaging to drive and more engaging to walk. The buildings that line most boulevards are similar at a glance, revealing the differences in detail only upon leisurely examination. Still, I cannot understand why Hemingway’s character, Jake, has such hard feelings against the ride versus the stroll down Raspail. It is fair and comprehensible to like it more on a walk than on a drive, but the drive is not the antithesis of the walk but its abbreviation – not beauty obliterated but beauty rushed; not unpleasant, merely less pleasant.

In fact, if walking along a beautiful road is more pleasurable than riding along it, the reverse must surely be true of an ugly road. Driving along it is better than walking along it for the most obvious reason – driving gets you through it faster. Unless you are a masochist, or a modernist architect such as Le Corbusier, who also, like Jake, did not like the Boulevard Raspail.

“The Rue de Rivoli belongs to architecture, but the Boulevard Raspail does not,” wrote Corbusier in his Towards an Architecture. But even I have to admit that Corbu, who wanted to destroy Paris (see his Plan Voisin*), must have liked the Rue de Rivoli, at least the arcaded stretch, of which most visitors to Paris are familiar, and which predated Baron Haussmann by half a century. In his Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne writes:

Even though the original grand design was never completed, the seemingly endless perspective of the massive arcades and the continuous line of ironwork balconies above them today still presents an effect unrivalled anywhere else in the world, an example of the true grandeur of Paris.

I guess that’s architecture, which not even Corbusier could deny.

* I’ve linked to a Business Insider article about the Plan Voisin from 2013 by Gus Lubin, who tries to convince us how sensible it would be to destroy much of Paris even after admitting it would have been a very bad idea.

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Rue de Rivoli, in Paris, circa 2003. (photo by David Brussat)

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Facades of the Rue de Rivoli. (Wikipedia)

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Hemingway on Paris, HLM

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Boulevard Raspail, disliked by Hemingway (?) and Le Corbusier. (Cartes Postales en Serie)

Before the scene shifts to Spain, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has some bits about Paris and Mencken, two favorites of mine in the pantheons of cities and writers. Hemingway’s protagonist, Jacob Barnes, takes a cab in Paris (circa 1925), thinks about Mencken’s dislike of Paris, and soon after meets a friend at a café, where they discuss Mencken.

The river looked nice. It was always pleasant crossing bridges in Paris.

The taxi rounded the statue of the inventor of the semaphore engaged in doing same, and turned up the Boulevard Raspail, and I sat back to let that part of the ride pass. The Boulevard Raspail always made dull riding. It was like a certain stretch on the P.L.M. between Fontainebleau and Montereau that always made me feel bored and dead and dull until it was over. I suppose it is some association of ideas that makes those dead places in a journey. There are other streets in Paris as ugly as the Boulevard Raspail. It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it. Perhaps I had read something about it once. That was the way Robert Cohn was about all of Paris. I wondered where Cohn got that incapacity to enjoy Paris. Possibly from Mencken. Mencken hates Paris, I believe. So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.

Here, a page later, is where Jake gets out of the cab, enters a café and discusses Mencken with his friend Harvey Stone:

“Do you know Mencken, Harvey?”

“Yes. Why?”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s all right. He says some pretty funny things. Last time I had dinner with him we talked about Hoffenheimer. ‘The trouble is,’ he said, ‘he’s a garter-snapper’ That’s not bad.”

“That’s not bad?”

“He’s through now,” Harvey went on. “He’s written about all the things he knows, and now he’s on all the things he doesn’t know.”

“I guess he’s all right,” I said. “I just can’t read him.”

“Oh, nobody reads him now,” Harvey said, “except the people that used to read the Alexander Hamilton Institute.”

“Well,” I said, “that was a good thing, too.”

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The Alexander Hamilton Institute was a business school in New York City founded in 1909 and dissolved circa 1980. What is meant by “reading” it I have no idea. Nor do I know who Hoffenheimer is. Maybe I should have just left that part of this post out. For that matter, maybe the part where Hemingway (who has never thrilled me) deplores Paris should also have been left on the cutting-room floor. Still, it does contain some good backhanded praise for Paris, a city that’s thrilled me since long before I started bloviating about buildings.

By the way, the Boulevard Raspail was named in honor of François-Vincent Raspail (1794–1878), French chemist, physician and politician. Hemingway’s character Jacob is bored by it, but according to Wikipedia, the boulevard was “heavily criticized by Le Corbusier in Toward an Architecture.” Anything Corbu disliked must have been amiable in the extreme. It may be of interest in light of current French politics that another Raspail, the writer Jean Raspail, wrote a novel called Camp of the Saints, published in 1973, about an invasion of France by Third World refugees. It returned to the bestseller lists in 2011.

The P.L.M. was a French railway that linked Paris to the Côte d’Azur. A “garter-snapper” was a womanizer. “Hoffenheimer” may be an erroneous or disguised reference to the writer Joseph Hergesheimer, a friend of Mencken’s who, I would think, is more likely to have been accurately characterized as a womanizer than Mencken, who decidedly was not (though his In Defense of Women is, in fact, a defense of women). Mencken did not dislike women but was married only briefly, to Sara Haardt, who died five years after they were hitched. It may be safe to say that Mencken was more fond of words than women. When Hergesheimer complained about the decline in his literary popularity, Mencken is said to have replied, “I don’t know, Joe. I’ll always enjoy watching you swing from tree to tree.”

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Hemingway (l.) with friends in Pamplona, Spain. (Wikipedia)

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Saving historic pavement

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Sidewalk on Benefit Street, in Providence. (photo by Robin Williams during 2016 visit)

One of many fascinating narratives in Seven Ages of Paris was author Alistair Horne’s frequent return to the subject of how Paris’s streets evolved from muddy lanes awash in human waste to paved streets with gutters down the middle to guide sewage toward the nearest river. Eventually, sewers were put underground and streets were covered with increasingly elegant pavements. American streets evolved likewise, then saw a devolution in which variously characteristic paving techniques of the 19th century were ripped up or covered over with asphalt in the 20th century.

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In Marais district of Paris. (Pinterest)

Asphalt offered a smoother ride or stroll, but it replaced stone and brick pavements on roads and sidewalks that spiced up the personality of the streetscape. Now there is pushback from Robin B. Williams, chairman of the department of architectural history at the Savannah College of Art and Design, who is working to preserve remaining historic pavements.

Williams, who has a doctor- ate in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, recently described his crusade in “Neglected Heritage Beneath Our Feet,” published on the website of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Subtitled “Documenting Historic Street and Sidewalk Pavement Across America,” his essay begins:

While historic buildings have enjoyed the attention of preservation professionals for decades, the landscapes that are part of their physical setting have largely gone unprotected and undesignated, and are vulnerable to the whims of less sensitive decision makers. … It is concern for the fate of Savannah’s remarkable pavements that resulted into an ongoing national study and the launch of a dedicated new website, entitled Historic Pavement.

He adds:

Prior to the development of inexpensive modern asphalt in the 1920s, cities struggled to find affordable, durable, and available types of pavement suitable to their needs. Pavement was inherently local, with each city devising its own solution to the challenge of paving streets – resulting in unique regional paving “fingerprints.” The varying degrees to which historic pavements survive in cities further enhances this sense of identity.

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Robin Williams (Brussat photo)

I recently joined Williams on a tour of Charleston with Nathaniel Walker, of the College of Charleston, who had invited us to sit on a panel discussing trends in historic preservation. When we happened upon a pavement of cobblestones or other material, Williams would reveal his method of documentation by leaning over to place a ruler on the ground and then photographing it to record the dimensions of the paving materials. He performed this ritual dozens of times.

I learned that he had visited Providence when I noticed that the photograph atop his essay – which I’ve chosen to put on top of this post – was of the sidewalk of slate flanked by herringbone brick running alongside the brownstone wall of the John Brown House (1786), and that of the Nightingale Brown House (1791), both on a two-block stretch of Benefit Street, near where I lived in three apartments on Providence’s Mile of History during my first 14 years here. (Those are the pretty legs of his wife and daughter walking down the pavement ahead of him in the photo.)

So Williams is probably aware of and may even have documented Friends Lane, on College Hill, the restoration of which received a preservation award from the Providence Preservation Society in 1999 and the R.I. Historical Pre- servation & Heritage Commission in 2000 – for obvious reasons their awards programs often overlap. The two awards recognize that places are venerable to the extent that their entire physicality, not just their architecture, contri- butes to beauty that translates into lovability. Williams may be the world’s greatest custodian of that part of a holistic truth that is hidden in plain sight, right beneath our feet.

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Neighbors Lane, on College Hill. (photo by Richard Benjamin, http://www.richardbenjamin.com)

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