Here, as part of this blog’s Blast from the Past feature, is a column from more than a decade ago when Henry Hope Reed visited Providence. The tourmaster got a tour from yours truly. Tomorrow, Philadelphia will host a symposium on the late HHR’s legacy.
Henry Hope Reed – Meet classicism personified
Thursday, May 24, 2001
LAST WEEK, I received a call from Henry Hope Reed, of New York City, the venerable founder of Classical America and notable historian of architecture. He said that he would be in Providence to see the State House, an icon among classicists. Could I give him a tour of the city?
Could I? You bet!
Henry Hope Reed is a sort of H.L. Mencken in the realm of architecture, an indefatigable iconoclast and student of beauty. He has made a grand career of attacking modernism. His The Golden City (1959) juxtaposed photographs of demolished Manhattan buildings with the modernist monstrosities that replaced them. That is, it is a bible of mine, and Henry Hope Reed is one of my heroes.
I would not miss the opportunity to meet Henry Hope Reed for a balcony full of balusters.
The visitor stayed with his friend Norman Catir (a retired Episcopal priest) and his wife, in the Cyrus Ellis House (1806), on College Hill. I walked over on Saturday afternoon. Every inch the classicist, Henry Hope Reed had garbed his tall, spare frame, on this sunny day, in a tweed suit and rep tie. After a pleasant chat, he donned a cap, declined Father Catir’s offer of a walking stick, and off we went.
What a joy to unveil the marvels of Benefit Street for someone so perfectly attuned to their appreciation. Henry Hope Reed was on the staff of New York’s Municipal Art Society when it adopted historic preservation as a defense against the invasion of modern architecture about the same time the late Antoinette Forrester Downing was pushing a similar agenda here in Providence. Henry Hope Reed battled Ada Louise Huxtable over the inclusion of modern architecture on the society’s tours before Huxtable got her critic’s post at The New York Times, where she later advocated the strange bedfellows of modernism and preservation.
In short, we walked quite slowly. Every so often, Henry Hope Reed would stop, turn to me, and issue a cantankerous pronunciamento about the nature of art, or a blast of fulmination at the modernists, stabbing the air with his index finger.
Heading north on Benefit, we passed the Nightingale-Brown House (1790). Henry Hope Reed asked me a series of questions about the Brown family, which had owned the mansion and with whose lineage he seemed intimately familiar. He wanted to know how recently the Browns had lived in the house, and seemed enchanted to learn that J. Carter Brown had actually grown up in it.
After seeing the Athenaeum (1838), we turned up College Street, held our noses as we passed by List Art Center and Rockefeller Library, and entered the Brown campus, whose College Green pleased Henry Hope Reed. He hated its blob “sculpture” on the main quad but loved Marcus Aurelius and his horse on the next quad over. To my surprise, he was not enamored, as am I, by the 1991 classical addition to the classical John Carter Brown Library. It was not ornamental enough, did not live up to his expectations. I agreed, but insisted that it was extraordinarily good, far better than we have come to expect even from new buildings whose architects refuse to wallow in downright modernism.
The next day, I showed Henry Hope Reed downtown and its ornate buildings, of which, aside from the State House, he adored the Union Trust Building (1901) most, especially its urns on high. “Providence is a city of urns,” he said. As for even the best of the new buildings, I figured I’d have to repeat my “better than it could’ve been” incantation ad nauseam. I expected him to tut-tut such examples of compromised classicism as Providence Place, the Westin Hotel, and the Johnson & Wales campus.
But I was wrong. He thought they were fine, and particularly liked the new Marriott Courtyard.
Henry Hope Reed understands the battle over architecture being fought not only around the base of his ivory tower in Manhattan but here in our town, where even the preservationists are in thrall to the modernist hooey. I am encouraged that, in the opinion of Henry Hope Reed, all is not lost.