Ode to snow in Providence

Snowy Waterplace in downtown Providence, 2013. (Steven Wright/WPRI)

Snowy Waterplace in downtown Providence, 2013. (Steven Wright/WPRI)

Here is a column written in anticipation of what the weatherman assured us would be on the ground in time for its publication in the Journal a week and 15 years ago today:

Ode to winter in Providence

A FRESH BED OF SNOW will have been laid gently down on the city of Providence by the time you read this, and a good thing, too. Gone are the mean streaks of gritty black ice on the dirty sidewalks. Gone, too, is what remains of last week’s first thin blanket of snow, growing darker and uglier with each passing hour. Icy temperatures deny new snow a swift death. Each day without a decent burial for old snow makes it harder for me to summon up a Currier & Ives image of the city. Well, we shall see.

But if no soft white cloak greets us this morning, don’t blame me. Blame the weatherman, who assured me I would have Mother Nature’s cooperation so that readers will not look out their windows and judge me insane. [Editor’s note: As this goes to press, the weatherman is backing off a Thursday morning snowfall.]

Providence in winter. New England is not just a matter of “over the river and through the woods.” There are the cities and towns, with lots of “over the river and down the street.” And surely someone must have set their charms to verse in the 19th Century, before automobile exhaust and modern architecture made short work of the beauty of snow.

No lines from John Greenleaf Whittier leap to mind. But there’s this, from John Whittaker Watson:

O the snow, the beautiful snow,
Filling the sky and the earth below.
Over the house-tops, over the street,
Over the heads of the people you meet.
Skimming along.
Beautiful snow, it can do nothing wrong.

Clearly, this is urban snow. And it had better be snowing now; otherwise, I’ll be forced to exalt the virtues of Providence in the cold, a much harder task indeed. Snow and cold, what else is winter? [It is, this time – the same editor, 15 years later.]

Readers with very long memories will have detected that their desperate correspondent has lifted material from a column he wrote exactly six years ago last week, entitled “In defense of snow” (Jan. 13, 1994). That winter saw 59.9 inches of snow, 23 inches above average. By mid-January, just one third of the way through the season, so much snow had fallen that reference was made to its being “guilty of piling on.” Not so, this year. At least not yet.

But let’s try again. Providence in winter. A cold wind slices down Dorrance past the Biltmore. Round each corner a new blast is launched in our face. But frigid temperatures build community. Fellowship is an elusive blessing, to be welcomed from wherever it hails. “Cold enough for you?” We roll our eyes in unison at that question. This is community.

Enjoy it.

I am trying to be upbeat. In January 1994, I lived on Benefit Street, and a trip downtown in newfallen snow took me through an urban wonderland. Now I pass my first winter as a resident of downtown. My walk to work is two blocks to be sure, that’s two blocks too far in 6-degree weather but the snow sits just as pretty on ornate old buildings, or at least it will when it finally does snow seriously. Outside my bank of windows in the Smith Building are City Hall (1878) and the Old Journal Building (1906). I look forward to seeing them draped in snow. Perhaps, meteorologist Gary Ley notwithstanding, I am enjoying it this very moment, as you read this, before I bundle off to work.

Another line from my 1994 column: “Among the cities of the wintry latitudes, Providence suffers snow gladly because its buildings are older, more receptive to snow. Modern architecture spurns the snow: Lacking decorative touches, the glass, steel and concrete boxes of recent vintage offer no elegant seat to the snow. And where architecture is bereft of ornament, citizens have no aesthetic reprieve from the inconvenience of snow.”

But back to the blessings of a Providence winter. One that did not exist in 1994 is the Fleet Skating Center. I cannot see the rink from my loft, but I can see people walking to and fro, skates slung over their shoulders. Happy, smiling faces! And the view from the Wintergarden of Providence Place after a snowstorm. And so many cozy places to eat Downcity as one’s ears defrost. . . . Ah, Providence in winter.

Snow or no snow, Providence in winter is a hard sell in January. I had wanted to write this column between Christmas and New Year’s. It would’ve been different. But the flu stopped me cold, holiday cheer has faded, and we are faced with the hard reality of the months that squat between today and spring.

“If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” So Percy Bysshe Shelley reminds us. Original research, that line. Not from my helpful 1994 column but from H.L. Mencken’s indispensible New Dictionary of Quotations. (Arranged by subject. What a trove!)

Well, there is no denying it. Snow or no snow, winter has come. We must grin and bear it together.

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.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Art and design, Blast from past, Providence and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ode to snow in Providence

  1. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Ii love Providence in the snow!…

    Sent from my iPhone


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