Landmark the neighbors

Beautiful block of houses in Blackstone neighborhood. (providenceri.com)

Beautiful block of houses in Blackstone neighborhood. (providenceri.com)

Many Providence residents live on beautiful streets lined with houses built before ugly architecture became almost mandatory. Few neighborhoods are dominated by midcentury modern houses, although some jackanapes might even argue that they qualify as historic. Historic, perhaps, if the term is broadened beyond all meaning. Beautiful? No way.

Residents of the Blackstone neighborhood gathered Wednesday evening at a meeting of the Blackstone Neighborhood Organization to hear from the experts about petitioning City Council to create a local historic district. Bob Azar and Jason Martin of the city planning department were there to outline the difference between the two types of historic district and the benefits or drawbacks of each.

The Blackstone neighborhood is already covered by several of the city’s 35 National Register Historic Districts, including the Blackstone Boulevard Realty Plat District, in which sits the Granoff estate. Its subdivision was recently derailed by the City Plan Commission – perhaps only temporarily. That battle naturally generated an interest in creating a local historic district to protect the neighborhood.

To make a long story short, a local historic district does not protect a neighborhood from a subdivision. That is under the purview of the CPC. Being under the purview of the Providence Historic District Commission can make it more difficult for a property owner to erect houses on any land, subdivided or not, that would degrade the historic character of the neighborhood.

Difficult but not impossible. Because the historic district commission does not discriminate against houses that don’t fit into a neighborhood’s character. It rules on appropriate massing, height and materials, but not on style – although style is what most people consider, and ought to consider, the main factor. Location in a local historic district will no more protect you from a Neo-Midcentury Modern house next door than your neighbors were able to protect themselves from the ilk over the last half-century.

During those years, the housing stock of the Blackstone neighborhood took it upside the head from the Modern Movement, with little evident pushback. The result is that an HDC member considering whether a proposed house would be “appropriate” has few standards to rely on in making such a judgment.

This fact only makes it more important to create a local historic district. The solidarity of a neighborhood seeking to protect its property values – values determined in large part by the beauty of its streets, not just its individual houses – is the real reason to have a historic district.  To show a strong front to others who might have different – that is, modernist – ideas about what constitutes beauty, and thus value, is the only real reason to band together and put up with the restrictions faced by homeowners in historic districts. It’s the neighborhood and its solidarity, not the city’s pliable regulations or their overseers’ often hazy notions of what is vital to be protected, that will preserve what’s best about a beautiful neighborhood.

Bob Azar pointed out that at least 90-95 percent of the homeowners must buy into a historic district. But they must be united as well in their belief of what a historic district is. Woe betide a community that does not know what it wants. The beauty of a divided community with a historic district is no better protected than a united community without a historic district.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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