To celebrate my discovery of A Vision of Civic Conservation, I have resurrected a column from 2007 in which I report on the visit of Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley to Providence for the annual meeting of the Providence Preservation Society, for which he was keynote speaker. The column foreshadows much of the thinking of the VCC, which is the work of Christopher Liberatos and Jenny Bevan, two classical architects with a firm in the Holy City: that is Chucktown’s nickname. Its motto is Aedes mores juraque curat (“She guards her buildings, customs, and laws”). Well, yes. Sometimes.
Charleston speaks to Providence
Thursday, January 25, 2007
AS THEY DROVE up Francis Street to the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church to attend the Providence Preservation Society’s annual meeting last Thursday, did Mayor Cicilline direct the attention of his guest, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr., to the left or to the right? Did he point with pride to Providence Place or the GTECH building? [The former was new and traditional, the latter new and modernist.]
If such a revealing moment did not actually take place, it should have.
Before addressing the society in this year of its 50th anniversary, Mayor Riley toured Providence for the first time. In 31 years as mayor of America’s most well-preserved major southern city, Riley had never before visited the nation’s most well-preserved major northern city. He was impressed.
Surely the tour must have featured Benefit Street (“Providence’s Mile of History”), the elegant quadrangles of Brown University, sumptuous Prospect Street, the Armory District (preservation’s first success away from College Hill), the traditionally styled affordable housing in South Providence, and downtown, the only major commercial district listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cicilline must have beamed as he watched a mayor famous nationally for promoting civic beauty experience Providence for the first time.
At Gloria Dei, Riley began his speech with praise for the society. He heaped even more praise upon Mayor Cicilline. Then he launched into a slide presentation about how Charleston was saved. Riley’s speech was well described by Daniel Barbarisi’s story in the next day’s Journal (“How to give a city personality: Restore historic architecture”):
“[Mayor Riley’s] urban design philosophy can be summed up simply: When you lose a building, you lose a part of your city’s identity. And in Riley’s mind, a historic building is never beyond saving. … ‘There is never any excuse under any circumstances, no matter what it is, to ever build anything in our cities that doesn’t add to their beauty,’ Riley said.”
It was when he got to that line that the image of Mayor Cicilline trying to decide whether to brag about Providence Place or GTECH came to mind.
In his speech, Riley made the vital point that any new building in an old city should “fit into” its historic architectural context. He lampooned modernist buildings that he had blocked in Charleston. His audience of local architects, preservationists and planners howled with joy. Cicilline must have cringed.
As Riley pointed out in his speech, our mayor was his student at the Mayor’s Institute for City Design, in Charleston, founded in part by that city’s mayor. Such think tanks don’t always promote a specific agenda but rather a broad discussion of the relevant issues. And yet, if Professor Riley were handing out grades for civic design according to the principles of Mayor Riley, Mayor Cicilline would not have wanted to show his report card to his mother.
On the mayor’s watch, the Westminster end of the colonial revival Providence National Bank was demolished. The mayor supports demolition of the neoclassical headquarters of the Providence police and fire departments on Fountain Street. He supports demolition of a modest but attractive commercial building, 145-149 Washington St., that epitomizes the sort of urban fabric whose survival is key to the city’s beauty. He supports demolition of the Fogarty Building – an ugly but arguably “historic” rep-resentative of modernism’s Brutalist phase.
In each case, the mayor supports plans to replace the buildings with more-or-less modernist buildings that don’t fit into the city’s architectural heritage. In each case, he is willing to replace beautiful buildings with ugly ones – or, in the case of the Fogarty, ugly buildings with even uglier ones, if that can be imagined.
He also supports the [RISD] Chace Center, under construction on North Main, and the aforementioned GTECH building. Both purposely try not to fit in.
The Providence Preservation Society had also gone along with all of this – until recently, when it joined other community groups in appealing a preliminary decision to give city approval for the demolition of the police and fire headquarters. Perhaps, in its 51st year, PPS has rediscovered its purpose.
Mayor Riley’s praise for the society and for his fellow mayor recognizes the pressures that institutions and mayors face. He himself supports – in the face of public outcry, not to mention his own principles – the proposed Clemson Architecture Center, in a starkly modernist design that fits poorly, to say the least, in the old Charleston he loves so well.
Still, I would like to hope that as he witnessed the encroaching threat that faces Providence’s heritage of traditional streetscapes, he felt a chill go up his spine at what might happen to his own city if he follows Mayor Cicilline down that road. Maybe that chill was felt also by some of the preservationists, at least, in his audience at Gloria Dei. If not, Providence’s days of beauty may be numbered.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. in his city