In the Union Trust we trust

View of the coffered ceiling and upper windows of restaurant/banking hall at Union Trust. (thedorrance.com)

View from the mezzanine, installed for The Federal Reserve restaurant, of the coffered ceiling and upper windows of restaurant/banking hall at Union Trust. (thedorrance.com)

The Union Trust. (weismanroofing.com)

The Union Trust. (weismanroofing.com)

To celebrate the newly announced plan by Vince Geoffroy, the developer of the ProvidenceG project, to install 60 luxury apartments in the Union Trust Bank Building, here is a column I wrote about it back in 1996.  Restaurant owner Bob Burke had just opened up in its banking hall a new restaurant just a couple blocks from his ancient establishment, Pot au Feu, a (still) excellent French restaurant. Burke had big hopes and plans to use his new establishment as a catalyst for life downtown – outdoor seating that never showed up, block parties that never happened, and other grand ideas of the sort he is known for.

The new restaurant, called The Federal Reserve (which caused several oopses by travel writers over the years), closed after a few years. The fare had been Rhode Island vernacular, as it were. Those who enjoyed the fare may have found the ostentatious banking hall too imposing and those who enjoyed the setting found the food too, um, local. At least that’s my critic’s recipe for its failure. After ending the sit-down dining, Bob kept the place going as a party room. Eventually, it was taken over by someone who has opened the Dorrance, a fancy restaurant whose fare supposedly lives up to its setting.

So here is that column:

Banking on the Federal Reserve
May 9, 1996

THE UNION TRUST BUILDING at Westminster and Dorrance streets in downtown Providence dominates the crucial intersection between the Financial District and the old commercial district. Built in 1901, the Union Trust looks down with benevolent majesty on a group of blocks being revitalized as Downcity, a name that originated years before it became the part of town that time forgot.

“Going downcity” was part of the local lexicon not too long ago – no less so, for many, than “going downstreet” or “going downcellar.” Back in those days, to go downcity meant to go shopping. The two most fondly recalled of the many destinations were the Outlet Co. and the Shepard Co. And, of course, Shepard’s had its Tea Room, which played as much a social as a gustatory role in life downcity.

It will be interesting to see whether, over the next few months and years, the new Federal Reserve restaurant becomes the Tea Room of the future.

Opened in January by nearby Pot au Feu owners Bob and Ann Burke, the Reserve fills the grand first-floor lobby of the Union Trust. Before it opened, I’d described it prospectively as “the most sumptuous moderately priced restaurant in the nation” (“The good Shepard returns,” Oct. 19, 1995). That assessment, it seems to me, holds true. Notwithstanding its entrance portico featuring Puritan and Indian figures sculpted by Daniel Chester French, notwithstanding its tall medallion windows with coats of arms representing history’s greatest banking empires, it’s not just for suits. All are invited, and should be able to handle the bill of fare, if not its financial puns.

For example, try a “J.P. Morgan.” I have, twice. I am told that I ate the first made for a customer. It’s a sandwich. Three dollars. What kind of sandwich? It’s the (hint) J.P. Morgan. . . . J and P . . . P and J . . . yes, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Believe it. And it is not listed in “Small Change” for children. Much of the rest is Rhode Island and regional cuisine.

Last Friday, I sat down with the great restaurateur himself. As Bob Burke and I waited for lunch to arrive, we did not talk about Waterplace or the public investment in Providence Place, on which we’ve disagreed, but about the fabulous space in which we sat. He handed me a list of facts, including:

  • The Union Trust Building was the tallest in New England when it was first erected.
  • The 12-story building’s original lack of elevators necessitated an addition in 1920.
  • The cooling system consisted of awnings.
  • Marsden Perry, bank president, ordered that the vein of Siena marble used for the bank’s floors, walls and teller stations (the main one is now the 60-foot bar) be extracted entirely, to thwart any rival bank from using the same marble in its own lobby.
  • The bar’s black slab contains enough onyx for 100,000 class rings. (The bar is inconveniently high, but will be lowered when a raw bar is installed.)
  • Quote: “Where’s Waldo? – 13 naked bosoms are depicted very discreetly in the architecture.”

I asked: “Are there 13 separate bosoms or 13 sets with 26 bosoms in all?” We disputed whether a “bosom” meant a set of breasts or a single thoracic orb. I searched the elaborate mouldings above to locate a bosom. I found none, neither singly nor in pairs.

“For all I know,” I told Burke, “you have mentioned bosoms that don’t exist so that I’d write about them and generate business.” He said I should ask my colleague, Anestis Diakopoulos, “who has located all of them.” I did. He confirms their buxom actuality.

Gazing at the coffered ceiling, which has more than 10,000 molded plaster flowers, it is difficult to believe that in 1964, acoustical tiles and fluorescent lights were hung and the marble floor was covered with carpeting. Or that the lobby was empty for five years after the Greater Providence Deposit & Trust collapsed in the state credit union crisis of 1991.

But that was then, this is now. The vast lobby now has a mezzanine, with a Union Trust Club to take up where the Turk’s Head Club left off. The coffers are just as elegant close up as when viewed from the floor 20 feet below. By June, there will be outdoor seating along both sidewalks. Burke plans street parties on Dorrance, and hopes to turn the Reserve into a popular venue for public and private events.

Bob Burke puts his money where his mouth is: He and his wife are competing with themselves. Are they crazy? I think not. Their success will be Downcity’s success, and vice versa. So again: Bravo!

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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