The civic leadership of Rhode Island and its capital, Providence, is using taxpayer dollars to initiate a series of development projects that may or may not be economically viable but will certainly undermine the city’s beauty – one of the state’s extraordinarily few competitive advantages.
Amid this folly, a developer from Fall River, First Bristol, has proposed a traditionally styled hotel for Parcel 12, a prominent location at the corner of Kennedy Plaza downtown. I have written about it several times before, how its design has improved with the hire of a new architect, Eric Zuena of ZDS, in Providence. It was approved yesterday by the Design Review Committee of the Capital Center Commission. If city zoning also accepts several variances the project may begin construction next May or June.
Is this good or bad?
Considered alongside all the bad design being inflicted upon Providence, I think it is good. The design lacks excitement, and still does not reflect in its design the curve of Memorial Boulevard. But it is distinctly traditional rather than modernist, and so it will fit into its setting reasonably well. Most of the buildings now being proposed in the city are modernist, and since that style thumbs its nose at context on principle, they all are certain to degrade the beauty of our built environment. At least the Homewood Suites on Parcel 12 will do no major harm, except by pre-empting a better building, which is not likely in Rhode Island.
Small adjustments, permissible perhaps even though its design has been approved, could still raise it from an “Oh, well” to an “Ah, yes!”
For example, as I arrived late at yesterday’s design meeting, Zuena was showing a segment of cornice that was a vast improvement over the vroomy cornice of earlier iterations. Thus far the design has featured the sort of stark, jutting cornice that reveals a desire to be hip. The cornice Zuena showed us had lovely cymba mouldings with beveled edgework.
I asked him after the meeting whether this was to replace the cornices on the renderings he had shown to the panel. No, he replied, he had it merely to display the materials and the construction technique that would be used to make the vroomy cornice.
Very sad. And yet the better cornice – so vital to the overall quality of a traditional design – could be introduced at this stage of the process. In theory, the developer could make the substitution even amid construction. These are known in the industry as “change orders.”
Either way, classical purists are likely to look down their noses at the design. They do not understand that in places like Providence beauty is under continual assault. A modestly attractive traditional design is far better than any modernist design if the goal is to protect a historical setting.
For example, today we love the Post Office on Exchange Street, with its attenuated Neo-Federal design embellished by Art Deco bas reliefs just south of Parcel 12, built in 1940. We realize now that even then much worse might have arisen. But at the time it was surely considered an aesthetic step down from the robust Neo-Classical federal courthouse just to its south, built in 1908, facing City Hall across Exchange Place (now Kennedy Plaza).
The Homewood Suites should be considered in that light, fortified by the hope that architecture in today’s Providence has nowhere to go but up.