Easy street to civic beauty

The near absence of any architectural sense of place on the Hope Street Merchants Association website speaks volumes.

The near absence of any architectural sense of place on the Hope Street Merchants Association website speaks volumes.

Even though there may be two, three or more street lamps for every building on a city street, street lamps are far less expensive than buildings. Lining a city block with elegant lampposts is a cheap, fast, easy road to beauty.

Barrington lampposts.

Barrington lampposts.

Benefit Street lampposts.

Benefit Street lampposts.

Westminster Street lampposts.

Westminster Street lampposts.

Federal Hill lamppost.

Federal Hill lamppost.

A decade or so ago, Barrington – long known locally as Borington for its bland presentation of civic self – lined County Road (Route 114) with elegant period lampposts. Along with red brick turn lanes, the posts turned Barrington overnight from an ugly duckling into a swan. Its transformation spurred its town planners to encourage owners of the tedious strip malls that line the road to refaçade those that were not already “colonial” in style to embrace that look. New buildings were given a traditional turn.

Who calls Barrington Borington anymore? Nobody! At least not for appearance’s sake. Liquor sales are illegal within the town, which has almost no restaurants. Maybe that, too, will change. [Indeed. A reader informs me that Barrington voters passed a referendum allowing liquor sales in 2010.]

But the point of this post is not Barrington but Providence’s Hope Street. I “live off Hope” (as they say around here) and got my Summit Neighborhood Association newsletter today. “New lights planned for Hope Street” caught my eye and sent a shiver up my spine.

The Hope Street Merchants Association plans to install “off-the-grid, solar-powered streetlights that will give a distinctive illumination and character to the shopping area.” The lights are being designed by students in Johnson & Wales Prof. Jonathan Harris’s information technologies class. I’m sure their work will be distinctive, but distinctiveness can cut both ways.

If the lampposts are designed in light of the experience of Barrington, not to mention of Benefit Street on College Hill, Westminster Street downtown and Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill, each of which have great period lampposts, Hope Street’s retail district will be improved. It gets scant help from its commercial architecture. Note the near absence of a sense of place on the Hope merchants’ website. If the street is lined with new lampposts designed to impart elegance and beauty, Hope Street merchants may reasonably hope to benefit, as Barrington’s aesthetic renewal was sparked by its new lampposts.

If they are designed to demonstrate the designers’ sense of novelty, or worse, kookiness, then Hope Street will prove itself to be hopeless, or at least clueless. The merchants association’s lighting project is getting assistance from the city – the so-called Creative Capital. That offers greater reason for anxiety among those merchants (and local residents) who hope the new lights will generate pride as well as solar lumens.

The city and state have already erected cobrahead lampposts along all the new streets of the Route 195 redevelopment district. Talk about throwing a wet blanket over the prospect of creating an attractive district. What a boneheaded move! This may not be the kiss of death to its prospects, but it certainly does suggest that a tin ear – or tin eye – is part of the development apparatus of the city and state.

Design of such street furniture as lampposts is a delicate process, easily botched. Let’s hope the designers of Hope Street’s new street lights will burnish rather than tarnish the neighborhood’s rep. Providence should have lined all the other streets downtown and on College Hill years ago, and for that matter every street that has any ambition to shine. Its failure to do so is a missed opportunity going back decades. Maybe Hope Street will turn things around.

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.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Art and design, Development, Landscape Architecture, Providence, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Easy street to civic beauty

  1. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Oops, David, I meant to say Westminster Street (regarding the West Side). These are the same posts that now line Weybosset -I think they nailed it with this selection -much more harmonious with the period surroundings, yet not slavishly “Victorian”. And its too bad those ugly aluminum cobras were kept along Broadway. These should have been tossed when they repaved it a few years ago…. Also, (FYI -in “Go Providence!” file): A whole new slew of housing is going up in my Armory neighborhood (right next store to Westfield Lofts… like five different lots at once!….all very exciting). But whats the scoop there…? Who are the Architects? We’re talking major “inner city” improvement… worth investigating. PS: Yes, you can now buy booze in Barrington! : )…

    Like

  2. Michael Tyrrell says:

    The state’s choice of “cobra head” lamp posts along the new 195 parcels is astoundingly short sighted. Did they take a drive down Weybosset Street lately? The West Side is thoroughly transformed by classy, black period fixtures. Perhaps the new cobras are temporary?… back inventory to be replaced once development takes hold?… Just plain dumb.

    Like

    • Will have to check out the West Side lampposts. The ones on Weybosset Street are kinda lame, but better than what was there before – a purely modernist lamppost but at least not cobraheads. Am also rechecking status of liquor in Barrington…

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s