In 1997, the Newport Historical Society hired Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New York Times at the time and then the author of The New Yorker’s storied “The Sky Line” column (and today the critic at Vanity Fair), to speak about a new headquarters building being contemplated by the society. Robert Venturi and Robert A.M. Stern were on the short list to design it. I attended the lecture and found his remarks impressive:
Newport’s danger is not destruction but caricature. The economy will not destroy this city by tearing it down. The real risk is that it will destroy this city by forcing it to become a caricature of itself.
Warnings to cities that they might become caricatures of themselves, or might turn into “museums,” are common tropes by modernists who want to give cities a license to trash their historical appearance, as if a city cannot evolve into the future without taking out a contract on its own beauty. But Goldberger’s words did not seem to partake of this.
I wrote about Goldberger’s lecture (see “Preserving Newport’s authenticity“), praising his gracious refusal to sneak in a subtle argument for building a piece of modernist egotecture. Still, I felt it necessary to warn Newporters and Rhode Islanders of the peril, even though Goldberger had poured it on in praise of Newport’s accomplishments in historic preservation.
He noted, however, that “far too much preservation goes on not because we value what is being preserved but because we fear what will replace it.” He called this “the dark underside of preservation,” and urged us to “remember, again, that the remakers of the Great Friends Meeting House had no such fears in 1729 and 1807. And if we are ever going to produce a valid and authentic architecture in our own time, we have to overcome that fear ourselves.”
We have nothing to fear, I would say, but modern architecture itself. If Newport seems “cute,” it is because modernism has made a freak of beauty. Modern architecture is precisely what is inauthentic.
Nearly two decades have passed since Goldberger visited Newport, and the society has not built itself a new headquarters. It is only now undertaking a building-wide renovation of its old headquarters on Touro Avenue, right next to the Touro Synagogue. Part of that renovation features a new entrance on the side of the original. My friend Cliff Vanover sent me pictures of that. It is nearly finished, and not entirely regrettable in its design.
In a manner that perhaps Goldberger would admire, the new entrance tower of three stories features a curious yet traditional set of roofs. A shallow pyramidal roof tops off the tower, reaching a few feet above the main headquarters building’s cornice. At the base of the tower a raised interior space extends forward with a standing- seam roof that slants gently downward, concluding with a soft swoop. From here emerges a set of stairs starting under a semi-circular roof, also with standing seams, and like the other roofs gray in color. This roofscape picks up on the gabled roof of the old entrance portico in front, whose sets of Ionic columns support a stone architrave. But the metallic “clapboard” sheathing of the tower, and its glassy ground-floor space and entrance, with their steel “ship” railings that mimic a stylistic tick of the modernist founder Le Corbusier, are not entirely mollified (to say the least) by the more traditional elements of the roofscape. In appearance, the entrance addition is at war with the original brick building. Its has elements that doff their hats to the society’s traditional headquarters, but its pastiche of styles and the jut of its massing are awkward, and are placed awkwardly against the existing assemblage of buildings.
The overall effect of the new ensemble is, alas, carbuncular.
Why didn’t the architect – Mohamad Farzan of NewPort Architecture – just add a new space and a new entrance in brick, picking up on the style of the existing headquarters? That would have respected both the history of the evolution of the society’s building and the historic character it brings to a famous street in a famous city.
The architect appears not to have wanted to imitate the flavor of the original set of buildings too closely, yet wanted to avoid the sort of egotecture that Goldberger seemed to be urging Newport to find a way to avoid in 1997. To seek the goal through “authenticity” has been the mantra for many years, with the word authenticity dubiously defined – as if using a motif that fits into a cherished setting is inauthentic while a motif that furiously elbows the setting is somehow more authentic.
The word authentic has been so misused that it is almost useless today.
The board of the Newport Historical Society should feel a degree of chagrin for its failure to embrace the obvious design solution staring it in the face from almost every direction in a place like Newport.