Blast: Seeking the sandbox

The White City at the World's Columbian Exposition, ;in 1893, in Chicago. (Wikimedia Commons)

The White City at the World’s Columbian Exposition, ;in 1893, in Chicago. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday’s column referred to the “sandbox for the modernists,” notifying readers that I had once promised Providence modernists a sandbox they could play in on that distant tomorrow when land vacated after Route 195 was relocated would be vacant and seeking developers. In return, they would have to stop building crap in the Capital Center, the city’s then new section of downtown. Well, they refused to keep their mitts off Capital Center, so the deal is off, as I reminded them in the column.

This afternoon I looked around the Journal’s archives for my first use of the “sandbox” meme. I found it, but before that I found another column from the same year using the sandbox concept in a different way. Since that column was called “The economic case for beauty” and actually addresses the same general theme as yesterday’s column about the latest flap on the vacant Route 195 land, I will run it first and then run the other one, which is perhaps more entertaining, in the following post.

The economic case for beauty
January 11, 1996

TOWARD THE END of the last century, the nation’s greatest architects met in Chicago to design the pavilions of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Daniel Burnham imposed architectural guidelines designed to reflect in the New World the glory of the Old. His model was the Paris of Baron Haussmann, who under Napoleon III transformed its medieval tangle of narrow streets into the famous symphony of grand boulevards we know today.

Burnham’s plan was ambitious, so much so that the exposition opened in 1893, a year late, 401 years after the arrival of Columbus. But as photographs attest, the “White City” was a triumph. The fair’s Beaux Arts style instituted a movement in American architecture, the City Beautiful, whose civic centers remain among the crown jewels of urban America.

Many big cities hired architects to redesign their civic centers in the new mold. Some went farther in carrying out those plans than others. Modern architecture and urban renewal have since then watered down the opulence of the Beaux Arts achievements of some cities, or swallowed the less significant achievements of others. As for Chicago, its model civic center was demolished at the conclusion of the hugely successful 1893 exposition: It was only made of clay. (Or, to be exact, plaster of Paris!)

In downtown Providence, the City Beautiful movement inspired the new Union Station (1898), the Providence Public Library (1900), the State House (1904), the Federal Building (1908), and a refashioned Exchange Place. It is surprising today to be reminded of how long and thin Exchange Place once was. Separated by only 120 feet were the old Union Station (1848) and the Butler Exchange (1873). The latter was eventually torn down to make way for the Industrial Trust Building (1928). Today’s Kennedy Plaza includes City Hall Park and Burnside Park, space for which was made by placing the new Union Station 450 feet closer to the State House.

(I have done these calculations by applying a ruler to a plat map of downtown in 1908, which hangs in my office. The owner of each piece of property is named on this fascinating document. By the way, the Butler Exchange was founded by Cyrus Butler with the profits from his Arcade, built in 1828. The downtown holdings of the Butler Exchange in 1908 make Johnson & Wales – widely and wrongfully assumed to be the owner of everything not owned by [the late] Joseph Paolino Sr. – look like the owner of a sandbox.)

As an exemplar of the orderly grandiosity of the City Beautiful, the trapezoidal Kennedy Plaza falls short. Yet, the wealth of Providence at the turn of the century was such as to ensure a certain grandiosity of disorder, and that has served us quite well. Downtown Providence is alluring not because its design is orderly, but because its buildings are beautiful and plentiful. Not only did most of its pre-Depression architecture avoid the urban renewal craze after World War II, but its skyscrapers, from the 1928 Industrial Trust to the 1985 Fleet Center, form a skyline that is modern architecture at its best – to be appreciated not individually but collectively. Huddled together on the old street grid of the previous century [the 19th], our new buildings at least look great from a distance.

Now we gather to consider Rhode Island’s future, and many of the ideas suggested at last Saturday’s session of Vision Rhode Island sought to improve the aesthetic charms not only of its capital, but of its other cities, towns and villages. “What has this to do with creating jobs?” came the inevitable rejoinder.

I yield the floor to Daniel Burnham, whose 1909 plan for Chicago, as opposed to his ephemeral White City, was largely implemented. In his Plan of Chicago, he argued the economic case for beauty:

“The changes brought about [by Haussmann in Paris] made that city famous, and as a result most of the idle people of great means in the world habitually linger there, and I am told that the Parisians annually gain in profits from visitors more than the Emperor spent in making the changes.” As for Chicago: “What would be the effect upon our prosperity if the town were so delightful that most of the men who grow independent financially in the Mississippi Valley, or west of it, were to come to Chicago to live?”

Today, Japanese conglomerates are moving factories to Korea. Every nation in the world and state in the union seeks to chop the usual factors – energy costs, tax rates, etc. – down to increase their ability to compete. If the globalization of the economy means anything, it means that at some point, differences in the factors of production will have diminished to relative inconsequence. Decisions on where to live or to locate a factory will depend increasingly on where one wants to be. In such a race, the loveliest and most delightful places win. Case closed.

* * *

David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin page design editor, editorial writer and columnist. His e-mail address is: davidbrussat@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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