Saved: The George C. Arnold Block

The George C. Arnold Block in 1923 is only eleven and a half feet deep (Journal archives).

The George C. Arnold Block, in 1923, is only 11-plus feet deep (Journal archives).

I am leery of the government taking buildings by eminent domain – that is, offering a take-it-or-leave it price, supposedly “fair market,” to a building owner, who, if he doesn’t take it will have the taking done for him by the state. But sometimes eminent domain is required to avert a disaster – as in the case of the George C. Arnold Block in downtown Providence – where the owner doesn’t have the resources to repair fire damage from 2009 and his only alternative seems to be to sell it to someone who will demolish it.

That, for a long time, seemed to be the likely fate of the Arnold Block. Across Washington Street is the Providence Journal’s large parking lot (where I park). Behind the Arnold Block is a parking lot owned by Paolino Properties. The former mayor, Joseph R. Paolino Jr., once tried to erect a deck over the lot that would have filled the gap around the corner from the Arnold on Mathewson, but he was blocked by the Downcity Design Review panel. It didn’t like the classical design that Paolino had proposed. The panel claimed that Paolino’s proposal violated a city ordinance mandating retail liners – a sensible law but difficult to apply in a lot of that size. It is assumed by most that Paolino, who tore down Alexander’s Restaurant to increase the lot’s size, has long had the Arnold Block in his sights.

So the poor Arnold now sits there, a block long and eleven and a half feet wide. Here is how, in a June 9, 2011, column on the nearby Mercantile Block redeveloped by the AS220 art cooperative, I described what tearing the Arnold down would do to the urban fabric of downtown Providence:

The renaissance on Washington should extend to restoring the nearby George C. Arnold Block. Damaged by fire in 2009, it serves as a flimsy but effective patch over a most obscene parking gulch ripping the street’s urban fabric. Its demolition would expose Washington’s naked asphalt desert, dimming future prospects for the street and downtown as a whole.

So I was pleased last August to learn that Pat Cortellessa, the owner of the Arnold Block (and once a forlorn candidate to oust Buddy Cianci from City Hall in, I think, 2002), had agreed to let the city take his troubled building by eminent domain. Congratulations to  him and Mayor Taveras for that. Congratulations to the young artists at AS220’s youth studio for the mural on it now. Taveras has just announced that a developer has been found to put two apartments and ground-floor retail into the Arnold. Here is part of what the mayor had to say:

The collaboration of the [Providence Redevelopment Authority], Providence Revolving Fund, Providence Historic District Commission and the owners demonstrates what we can accomplish when we work together to revitalize historic buildings and grow our economy.

The mayor’s full press release on that is here. A column I wrote about the building shortly after the fire is here. Good work all round!

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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