Blast past: Evolution on Thayer Street

Thayer Street in the 1970s. Look, ma! No SUVs!

Thayer Street in the 1970s. Look, ma! A van, but no SUVs!

Here is a column I wrote more than 20 years ago about Thayer Street and the denizens thereof. I don’t even want to begin to start reflecting on the nature of its changes since then. Many readers will have their own reflections, thank you very much. Enjoy.

Evolution on Thayer Street
December 23, 1993

The sidewalks are busy and the curbs are bumper-to-bumper, but with only two shopping days till Christmas, Thayer Street is no more crowded than usual. It has been said that Thayer Street is the Harvard Square of Providence. I suspect, however, that it resembles Harvard Square no more or less today than it did 30 years ago.

After all, Cambridge once was quiet by comparison to what it is today. It, too, served a famously stodgy neighborhood: blue bloods, rumpled profs. Quiet communities never have parking problems.

Every few years the Journal sends out a reporter to catch some of the tears caused by change on Thayer. I have a batch of those stories before me, and they make me blink for the past, too. Here’s a short list of shops where I never had the honor of spending a dime: E. P. Anthony Apothecary (founded 1895); Merry-Go-Round, a toy shop (1932); Ms., a knick-knack shop pronounced Em’s (1934); Arthur Palmer, a clothier (1952); Thayer Street Market (1957). The dates are based on reporters’ accounts of local recollection.

Other shops were mentioned without note of their longevity at the time of departure. University Drug and College Launderers and Cleaners are memorable for their reference to the local industry. (Actually, College L & C was noted as having been operated for 30 years by Belle and Lester Eisenstadt when it closed in 1985, but for all I know, it may have opened long before their stint.)

Naturally, their former patrons recall these shops for the quality of their service. The Eisenstadts, for example, had the ability to remember each patron’s name after the first visit. And I have no doubt that service was tops at the Mills Sisters Dress Shop, the Alba-Runci Barber Shop and Ronnie’s Rascal House, a restaurant. Some old-timers remain: Clarke Flowers (1918), Avon Cinema (1938; a garage in 1937; opened in 1915 as the Toy Theater), Hillhouse clothiers (1950), to name only three.

It does not seem to me that Thayer Street today lacks merchants who insist upon offering quality service, or who care deeply about the quality of the neighborhood. And that includes some recent arrivals; after all, even the oldest shop started out as the new place down the block, and the old-timers of that era had already seen shops come and go, though maybe not so swiftly as these days.

Having been a patron of Thayer for almost a decade, I, too, can don my old-timer hat and recall places here and gone in the bat of an eye. For example, I miss Penguins, the coffee shop: I always enjoyed observing the behavior of its black-clad Sartre wannabes. I am sure there are other places I would miss if I could remember them.

I miss the IHOP, which was open all night. I miss it the more because it was owned in part by former Rep. Fernand St Germain, father of the nation’s S & L disaster. Whenever I stepped in, its staff would fix me a stack of naked crepes bathing in maple syrup, as my mother used to make, though it was not on the menu – this despite the fact that the IHOP was a chain restaurant.

I was sad when the IHOP was replaced by Laguna, the California-style restaurant/bar. Nevertheless, when Laguna ousted its parking for an outdoor cafe, it won my respect. But soon enough, it was gone; a new building is now under construction, to be filled by a Gap (pun intended).

Dining and drinking al fresco is one of my cardinal pleasures. That is one reason why my favorite place on Thayer is Andreas, the Greek restaurant (1966, opened as The Hungry Sheik; 1974, changed its name to Andreas; 1982 moved to the corner of Meeting). The primary reason: I met my [first] wife Tracey at Andreas; she was sitting by herself at the bar, reading; to muster the pluck to intrude required more bourbon chasers than I care to (or can) recall. Perceive in this a conflict of interest if you must, but I do not hesitate to hoist my glass to those intrepid folk who’ve stood up to the Thayer Street anti-saloon league.

It is said that chain stores and liquor licenses have been the bane of Thayer Street. This has not been my experience. Yet I haven’t any doubt that a dose of the past would serve to recapture a sense of place, of community. So Thayer Street should strive to install antique lampposts, brick sidewalks, nicer signs, more awnings – also, more sidewalk cafes.

Most of all, Thayer Street could use a good scrubbing. Unlike lampposts and sidewalks, which require city funding (or, perhaps, payments in lieu of payments in lieu of taxes from Brown), the ancient tradition of merchants who hose down their sidewalks in the morning and police their areas for trash all day is one that could be installed by the merchants themselves, for free.

Until the researchers at Brown can find a better way to turn back the clock, this will have to do.

David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin editorial writer and columnist.

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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1 Response to Blast past: Evolution on Thayer Street

  1. Pingback: A Hunter’s Peace – Lucy Lincoln Frost

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