Here is the column I refer to in my last post, “The lady on the waterfront“:
Pat Conley’s educational wharf
Sept. 29, 2005
STATE PIER No. 1 might be called the Ellis Island of the Ocean State. It was the entry point to Rhode Island and the rest of America for thousands of immigrants. Today, it juts into the Providence harbor from land just south of a building that once housed the old City Tire Co. The red-brick warehouse with the barrel roof, visible from Route 95, is now called Conley’s Wharf.
Conley is, of course, Patrick T. Conley, lawyer, historian, writer, tax-lien vulture and local bad boy made good, now returning to his home turf. [And now also the state’s historian laureate.]
Conley grew up half a mile downriver from Conley’s Wharf – on Byfield Street, by the railroad tracks, in the crook of what soon was to become the Thurbers Avenue curve. A boyhood in South Providence, when it was mostly Jewish and Irish: St. Michael’s Parish. He says he used to play atop the nearby oil-storage tanks. After leaving the ‘hood, he continued to live a life on the edge.
In buying up the tax liens of absentee landlords, Conley says he put abandoned properties back into use. Controversy attended this practice, but forgive me if I cannot think ill of the author (with fellow historian Paul Campbell) of Providence: A Pictorial History or the scribbler of such lines as “There’s gold in them thar mills” and “Make a million: save a mill” (both are from “A sentimental and mercenary look at mills,” in the Dec. 15, 2003, Journal).
Well, he has saved this mill — erected in 1899 by the Berlin Iron Bridge Works, of East Berlin, Conn. — though I’ll bet he’s yet to make his first mill from it. He paid $106,000 for it at (what else but) a tax sale. He also bought nine acres of adjacent land for $2.3 million. The project that he envisions reaches far beyond the artist studios and conference center now almost complete inside the old tire shop. He sees a hotel, a condo tower, a marina, garages, retail, a museum of immigration, and, neither last nor least, a floating seafood restaurant called Gail’s Landing, to be run by his wife and partner, Gail.
The drawing above is an earlier version of this vision, which has been tweaked here and there but remains unchanged in essentials. I like it because it has a traditional look, and thus flies in the face of my own suggestion that this area should be a “sandbox for the modernists.”
My hope was that modern architects could be sent out here to futz around with their goofy designs, so that downtown would be spared. Indeed, a sandbox for the modernists had already arisen in South Providence: the medical complex centered on Rhode Island Hospital.
Alas, the modernists didn’t stay in their sandbox; just look at the glass curtain-wall system being attached to the boxy thing in Capital Center [GTECH].
So God bless Pat Conley for being a controversialist, and refusing to knuckle under to the reigning design orthodoxy. Beauty has got to push back against ugliness, or Providence will become just another themeless pudding. The main difference is that, unlike most American cities, which decades ago bought into a postwar Zeitgeist of sterile utilitarianism, Providence will have only itself to blame. Not an earlier generation, but the civic leaders of today.
(Mayor Cicilline, call your office!)
Whether Conley recognizes it or not, his decision to embrace rather than to spurn Providence’s architectural heritage can only bolster his own broader economic interests — and those of the city.
Conley hopes that his project will encourage the city’s plan to extend development up Allen’s Avenue. The city imagines more hotels, condos, museums, marinas and light rail to downtown along the stretch targeted for development and called Narragansett Landing. The distant views from the top floor of Conley’s Wharf are spectacular, but the nearby landscape of oil tanks, slag heaps, utility sheds, junk yards and parking lots cries out for redevelopment. Beyond Route 95, you can see the sandbox for the modernists mentioned above [the medical complex]. To replace Narragansett Landing’s industrial wasteland with modern architecture would only replace one uninviting landscape with another.
If the renaissance does not migrate from downtown, Conley’s big project might wither on the vine, along with the city’s own ambitious civic plans. The extraordinary number of development projects under way or about to break ground downtown and around the city must not be built in vain. That is why every strategy for luring people from outside Providence and outside Rhode Island is important. Embracing beautiful local architectural traditions may well be the easiest of those strategies to apply.
Whatever his demerits, former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. understood this well: He blocked a radically modernist design where GTECH (which will be even worse) now looms. Cianci’s old business partner, the visionary of Conley’s Wharf, also seems to understand. But most of the local design and political elite do not. I hope that Conley’s Wharf will succeed — not only by making Pat Conley his mill, but in educating a civic leadership that just doesn’t get it.
David Brussat is [was] a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e- mail is [now]: firstname.lastname@example.org.