Rhode Island has had a hall of fame, as distinguished from, let’s say, a sports or a music hall of fame, since 1965. It is, however, one of only four states without a true home for its pantheon of venerated citizens. The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame‘s 757 inductees reside on lists, in folders, in the drawers of archival shelves – in limbo, as it were. Now, at last, a venerable edifice, a veritable history museum, has been proposed for it in Bristol.
My friend Steve O’Rourke urged me to attend a press conference where a model of the building was to be on view at the conference center of Conley’s Wharf, near State Pier 1 on the west side of the Providence River south of the Hurricane Barrier. Eager to applaud any elegant new building slated for Rhode Island, I gathered my enthusiasm and hurtled down Allens Avenue, arriving before the festivities and in good time for a drink with Steve, who is a longtime member of the hall’s board of directors. He is also a genuine Rhode Island hero who, as head of the Providence Housing Authority for a quarter of a century, transformed one of the nation’s worst public facilities to house the city’s poor and elderly to one of its best.
To the credit of the Heritage Hall of Fame’s board and its chairman – Patrick Conley, who is also the state’s historian laureate – the building will be classical. It is to be modeled on the ancient Pantheon, in Rome, built circa 126 A.D., and on the architecture of Thomas Jefferson. He and fellow founder George Washington selected the classicism of civilization’s first ancient democracies as the most appropriate symbolic language for America’s democracy. Since the nation’s tradition of religious freedom – the “soul liberty” of founder Roger Williams – originated right here in colonial Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, classicism is the appropriate language for our Hall of Fame.
The model, sitting in the conference room on what must be the longest wooden table in the biggest little state, was admirable, although the devil is in the details. One of the state’s leading architecture firms, Robinson Green Beretta, is to be involved in the expurgation, one must trust, of the model’s demons, such as, for example, the sparse balusters along the roof balustrades of its flanking pavilions. Notwithstanding that, the model’s debt to Rome’s Pantheon was immediately evident, and gratifying.
Its expected location next to Roger Williams University seems entirely fitting. And yet one might feel a sort of longing to see it arise not in Bristol, which needs so little help, but in the state capital of Providence, which needs so much. However, the land has already been acquired thanks to the generosity of the Herreshoff family, and Providence has, alas, been a rough host to the Hall of Fame’s board chairman. Conley’s experience trying to revitalize the industrial zone along that stretch of the Providence has the state’s inaugural historian laureate looking understandably askance at the idea of building the Hall of Fame in the Renaissance City. So be it.
I have little to add to the debate over how the facility is to be financed. The Journal ran an editorial supporting the concept but groaning at the initial idea of a state lottery. In the 18th century, Brown University, Newport’s Trinity Church, its Brick Market, Providence’s First Baptist Church, and its Weybosset Bridge (located where the College Street Bridge is today) relied on public lotteries for financing. Noble precedents, to be sure, but hardly likely in our post-38 Studios slough of despond. Neither Conley nor others at the event seemed upset at the Journal’s opinion. I don’t really care how the Heritage Hall of Fame is financed as long as it is built.
A smaller facility might be easier to finance and ultimately easier to run. The hall’s program – it will also be the state’s history museum – seems mighty ambitious (see its website) but much of it could well be housed in a smaller rear pavilion, and a smaller event tent to its rear – the board seems to think its 757 inductees might suddenly come alive and demand accommodation sufficient for all at once. A better alternative for some of that space behind the domed hall might be a lovely garden for the perambulation of visitors.
For all its quirks – including its “been down so long it looks like up” attitude – Rhode Island deserves a home for the paragons of its admirable history.