Past blast: Confusion of the design reviewers

WashingtonStSierraSuitesAs an enticement to read Thursday’s column about the new Dean Hotel, on Fountain Street in downtown Providence, I offer a blast from the past. In 2006 the city permitted a developer to pull down the building on Fountain next door to the Sportsman’s Inn (now the Dean) and the building behind it, facing Washington Street, to make way for a Sierra Suites chain hotel (to be entered on Washington). The company’s architect from Wichita, Kansas, offered a pathetic pastiche or postmodernist junk heap, which is pictured to the left. It was roundly (and rightly) denounced by the Downcity Design Review Committee, which asked the architect to go back to square one. This column, “Confusion of the design reviewers,” resulted from the meeting at which he unveiled the new design. (I could not find a picture of the new design.)

Confusion of the design reviewers

February 16, 2006

THE DEVELOPERS of a proposed Sierra Suites hotel on Washington Street, in downtown Providence, unveiled a new design this week — completely different in style from and yet identical in spirit to the one hooted off stage by the Downcity Design Review Committee last month.

The committee was right to diss the design last Jan. 9, and rightly dissed it again on Monday.

“It looks like something you might find along a highway to an airport,” Providence Preservation Society Director Jack Gold told the committee last month. Committee Chairman Glenn Fontecchio reminded the developers that Providence “isn’t a city that is historic just because it has architectural gems [but] because so much of the city is intact. The fabric of the city, the scale of the streets are intact.”

Denny Meikleham, of LodgeWorks, in Wichita, Kan., leads a hotel-development team that includes several local property owners. Last month he said: “We wanted feedback. We got it and we’ll fix it. We’ll come back and it will be a beautiful building,” one that will, he added, better suit the neighborhood.

Last month’s version was postmodernism at its worst, a bastard child of the not-quite-sufficiently neotraditional Westin Hotel and the unapologetically suburban Radisson, at India Point. The developers returned Monday with a building equally bland. Having jettisoned the gables, arches and balconies that were the best parts of the original — executed, however, with the usual extreme poverty of decorative imagination — the new version, you could argue, would indeed better suit the neighborhood.

Its mostly brick lower four-story façade — of eight vertical bays, separated by pilasters with capitals, containing windows divided horizontally by spandrels and lintels — does reflect the commercial architecture of Washington Street better than the original design’s clunky faux-Victorian style. The upper seven floors are boring, but are set back in a laudable effort to fool the eye into perceiving a less massive structure. Yet the fashionably inarticulate, beetle-browed cornices of the roof give the game away. They exude the cheap, the plastic, the suburban; they undermine confidence that even the well-conceived lower parts of the façade will be carried out well. The jig is up! Like the original design, it is yet another attempt to fudge the old and the new.

To its credit, the committee sent the developers packing and their architect, Jeff Krehbiel and Associates, also of Wichita, back to the drawing board.

Standing in on Monday as chairman for Fontecchio, who was absent, committee member Clark Schoettle said, “I consider this a starting point, not an ending point” — adding, however, that the design “has come a very long way.” Committee member Barbara Macaulay said she “would like to see another pass-through.” Though properly skeptical, the panel nevertheless offered no coherent rationale for its objections. Its stance was epitomized by Macaulay, who said: “It’s fine with me that it’s modern, but I think it needs a little bit more care and elegance. I’m just asking for it to be better.”

The developers’ impatience with the committee’s ambiguity was understandable. Their local lawyer, David Barricelli, expressed his clients’ exasperation: “With all due respect to everyone on this committee, I think a lot of the criticism is personal, subjective opinions about what things should look like and what things should not look like.”

He hasn’t the slightest idea how right he is.

Every developer who appears before this committee must grapple with the contradiction between the committee’s mission to protect the historic character of downtown and its members’ taste, more or less openly expressed, for modern architecture.

It’s really as simple as that. No wonder developers always seem to leave these meetings pulling at their hair, their eyes bugging out in frustration.

If the members of the committee would only put aside their personal tastes (or, rather, in most cases, their elitist conception of their profession’s idea of “progress”) and carry out their mandate to protect the historic character of downtown, design review would not be so difficult in Providence, and the city’s beauty would not be constantly at risk.

This goes not just for the Downcity Design Review Committee but also for the Capital Center Commission, the Providence Historic District Commission, the City Plan Commission, the Providence Zoning Board, the Providence Preservation Society, and whatever panel oversees the area to be created by Route 195’s relocation. And Mayor Cicilline, too.

Design review in Providence should demand architecture the public will love. The design reviewers all know pretty much what that is.

Cities should exalt the qualities of elegance and comfort, civitas and civility. Providence is one of the few in America where that goal remains realistic. If this were understood and embraced by design reviewers, developers would know what is expected of them, and this stupid churning would cease.

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

* * *

Sierra Suites’ original design at left; design unveiled Monday, at right

Journal archives

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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