It appears that the days are numbered for the sad, lonely final relic of the old Rhode Island Hospital. The Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson reports in “Rhode Island Hospital plans to raze 115-year-old Southwest Pavilion, last remaining building from original complex,” that officials of Lifespan, the hospital conglomerate that owns RIH, believe that renovation is not an option. For now, at least, there are no plans to replace it.
The building is surrounded by ugly medical structures that scream of a sterile bottom line as the highest priority of the healing profession. I venerate the Southwest Pavilion, but maybe this is one of those rare examples of a lovely old building that should be demolished. “Put it out of its misery” might be the gentle cry of its death knell.
The medical complex is a cluster of ugly modernist structures just beyond the Route 195 corridor. Its architecture speaks as clearly as modern architecture can, voicing bad news for people who are ill and people who want to cure them. But that voice has been ringing in our ears for decades as modern medicine, for all its technological miracles, leans away from its own “first, do no harm” principles.
Only the Southwest Pavilion, designed by Stone Carpenter & Willson and opened in 1900, speaks in the soft, level-headed tones that hark back to the day when doctors made house calls. In fact, the Victorian building looks like a house for doctors, nurses and patients. It stands alone against the will of the medical community to make hospitals symbolize our worst fears for the future of health care in Rhode Island and in America.
Thankfully the Providence Preservation Society’s director, Brent Runyon, has spoken out against the demolition plan. He told the Journal’s reporter that
We think it is incredibly short-sighted and unfair to the community because that building is the last remaining building of the original complex. It had a lot of firsts and the significance within the state is high. They continue to mistreat it and cause it to deteriorate and now say it costs too much to restore.
That is a deplorable strategy of long standing here and elsewhere. The assessment that the pavilion has no useful future arises from a lack of imagination that speaks poorly of Rhode Island’s medical community. And I doubt that its structure truly cannot find a use amid a sprawling modern medical facility. The firm hired to assess the Southwest Pavilion’s future – Durkee, Brown, Viveiros & Werenfels Architects – knew what they were being paid to find, I suspect, and they were determined to earn their money.
Even as science increasingly urges hospital designers to bring beauty to bear on behalf of healing, the medical complex is a cluster of modernist clunkers that pays little heed to how it looks. And believe it or not, its unappealing hodgepodge is the aesthetic now planned for the I-195 corridor, the so-called Knowledge District intended to house medical technology firms and research labs in the area vacated by the relocation to the south of Route 195.
The medical complex is a visible symbol of how to use architecture to kill “the vision of an appealing, vibrant urban neighborhood.” Those were the words used to express current hopes for the I-195 Redevelopment District by its new director, Peter McNally, in this week’s Providence Business News. But copying the medical complex is a poor strategy for achieving that result. Alas, it is a strategy that the commission appears to support.
The Southwest Pavilion plays a lovely melody on a violin whose soft chords may still be heard, if you listen closely, among the clattering garage band that surrounds it. I hope it can be saved. But I am not holding my breath.