Past blast: Lost house found

2 Benevolent  St. Photo

2 Benevolent Street, c. 1958, Providence. (Historic American Buildings Survey)

Here, a blast from the past to whet readers’ whistles for my upcoming column listing the best lost buildings in downtown Providence. This, however, is about a lost house on College Hill, whose ghost I lived next to for six years. Here is its story.

Lost house found & other news

September 4, 2003

FOR YEARS, your intrepid investigative pundit had been baffled in his bid to learn about the building that once existed at Benefit and Benevolent streets, next door to 283 Benefit St., where he spent his first six years in Providence.

I knew only that a building had been demolished so that members of the Hope Club, on Benevolent, could park right next to their precious building. The Hope Club was applauded in this corner for the elegant round addition it is erecting in part of that parking lot (“The way to go on College Hill,” July 24), and I applaud the club for its decision to exalt architecture above asphalt, in the face of almost everyone’s lust to worship the God of Parking.

Now that I’ve learned what the Hope Club demolished in 1960, I must retract a big chunk of that applause. Tearing down the Edward Pearce House (1853), one of Providence architect Thomas Tefft’s loveliest buildings, rates among the great crimes against beauty committed here in the last century.

For years, my modus operandi in seeking to uncover the identity of what had been demolished has been to examine old photographs of the First Unitarian Church, across Benevolent from the club and its beloved parking lot. I found photos of the church in which part of the house was visible, but never enough to determine whether it was attractive.

In a coincidence of which I was unaware until last Thursday evening, my next residence in Providence, at 395 Benefit St., where I spent eight years, was right across the street from another house by Thomas Tefft, the Tully Bowen House, designed by Tefft the same year he designed the Pearce House. The house I lived in, the Thomas Peckham House (c. 1820), had been designed by equally famous Providence architect John Holden Greene, but except for its Italianate cornice, it is boring – as if he had designed it with a hangover. The best thing about the Peckham House is that when you step outside and look to the right, you see the Tully Bowen House.

But on Thursday evening, I visited the website of HABS, the Historic American Buildings Survey, which has been documenting buildings since the Depression. Many of the buildings photographed by HABS no longer exist. When I saw “2 Benevolent St.” on its index, a chill ran up my spine. And when I called up the photograph, I discovered that it was no shack that came down in 1960, but a masterful edifice whose transformation into a parking lot should make the Hope Club hang its head in shame.

* * *

The Bruner Award goes annually to the project that best exemplifies civic cooperation in the creation and use of urban space. This year, Providence won second place, in recognition of city, state and federal officials’ working with civic leaders, architects, artists and planners to restore the Providence riverfront and put it to use. Architect William Warner, WaterFire creator Barnaby Evans, Convergence Festival director Bob Rizzo, Providence Foundation director Daniel Baudouin and many others, including a host of politicians, cooperated over the span of a quarter-century to piggyback a beautification project on top of a transportation-infrastructure project – an achievement of Promethean creativity that continues to revitalize the city and the state.

Winning a second-place Bruner would be a feather in anyone’s cap. First prize went to the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, in Los Angeles, a project described by Journal staff writer Karen Lee Ziner (“City aglow with pride over excellence award,” news, Aug. 24) as “a charter school [that] reused space formerly occupied by a vacant mini-mall in inner-city L.A.”

Did its students discover penicillin, or what?

Providence was second. Who was third? God?

* * *

Motorcyclists whose motorcycles do not offend the ear wrote me e-mails objecting to my proposed “motorcycle-free zone” (“Ask Dr. Downtown,” Aug. 21). They have a valid point. Punishing a whole group for the sins of (I hope) a minority would be wrong. On the other hand, when will the good motorcyclists finally stand up to the bad motorcyclists, whose illegally chopped exhausts terrorize peaceful communities? My guess is that they will stand up only when their own rights are threatened.

The bad motorcyclists already bedevil the good ones, who are lumped together by most of the public with the morons, misfits and reprobates (so-called doctors, lawyers and dentists!) whose Harleys rend the air. Many good motorcyclists abet the confusion by donning Hell’s Angels garb.

Motorcycle bans are being legislated in other communities. If the good motorcyclists don’t want a ban in Providence, then they must help to confront the bad motorcyclists. Perhaps a boycott of Harley-Davidson until it stops selling gear to illegally chop its motorcycles’ exhaust pipes would be in order.

I might even buy a motorcycle, a noisy one, and spend evenings revving my engine in front of the houses of our 15 city councilors and counting the days till the passage of a motorcycle-free zone!

David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is: dbrussat@projo.com.

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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