SOS for lonely medical relic

Rhode Island Hospital's Southwest Pavilion. (PBN)

Rhode Island Hospital’s Southwest Pavilion. (PPS/Frank Mullin)

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.

Rhode Island's main hospital complex, including RIH, in Providence. (rhodeislandhospital.com)

Rhode Island’s main hospital complex, including RIH, in Providence. (rhodeislandhospital.com)

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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12 Responses to SOS for lonely medical relic

  1. Pingback: Silence for S.W. Pavilion | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Respite for an old hospital? | Architecture Here and There

  3. This makes me heart hurt. I won’t go to see their doctors though.

    Like

  4. Demolition by neglect is included in the Providence Historic District Commission
    Design Guidelines for the Industrial & Commercial Buildings District. I was not able to find out if the Souhtwest Pavilion is included though it obviously has historical and architectural value. The guidelines allow the City to repair such buildings if the owner does not and then place a lien against the property to cover the cost of the work. Isn’t it about time the City provided the “teeth” the Commission does not possess?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. kristen says:

    best example of what can be done with a crumbling relic is the Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo (formerly HH Richardson-designed Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane – how’s that for a moniker!??!). now being turned into hotel & conference center – and the Buffalo Architecture Center (http://www.richardson-olmsted.com/). very cool!

    Like

  6. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Just visit the Boston Medical Center to see how well they conserved the original Victorian fabric of that vital, state of the art institution. Rhode Island Hospital has no excuse.

    Like

  7. kristen says:

    death by willful neglect – an all too common malady that has been around forever. no one is looking for a vaccine, I guess.

    Like

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