Above is a photo of a photo of a microfilm copy from a front-page story in the March 19, 1916, edition of the Providence Sunday Journal. It shows a proposed new municipal building designed by architect Raymond Hood, who was born in Pawtucket and graduated from Brown. I had seen the image many years ago, and hoped to include it in my book Lost Providence but was unable to recall what it was or who designed it, only what it looked like and that it was to have been just south of today’s Kennedy Plaza. During research for the book I finally came across a mention of it in an online promotion for an exhibit called “Unbuilt Providence” assembled by Brown Prof. Dietrich Neumann in 2004. It did not include a picture, but did name the architect. I wrote a column about it for the Journal. A librarian at the Providence Public Library finally pinned down the Journal article from 1916 on microfilm.
It came too late to get into the book as a “lost plan.” The newspaper headline, artistically designed, reads: “A Striking Plan for Dignifying Civic Center.” A subhead reads: “Former Rhode Islander Suggests Imposing State and Municipal Group, With Tower, to Occupy Entire Square South of Exchange.” That would be the block that today includes the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Bank Building, the Fleet Center and the fourth Howard Building next to Dorrance Street. The article begins: “Startling, ambitious and comprehensive are the plans that have been drawn by Raymond M. Hood, a New York architect, as a suggestion for an improvement of Exchange Place, with the ultimate object of making the plaza one of the most beautiful square in America.” The story continues:
For a number of years those interested in making Providence a city beautiful have devoted considerable study to possible methods of taking full advantage of the possibilities of beautifying the great civic centre, but perhaps none of the plans thus far devised has been quite as ambitious, quite as comprehensive, or quite as flexible as those suggested by Mr. Hood.
This would have been a dozen years before the construction of the Industrial Trust. Back in 1916 the ITBB’s predecessor, the Butler Exchange, had occupied its site for 43 years. Most of the rest of the block was occupied by aging commercial buildings facing either Exchange Place or Westminster Street. City Hall, built in 1878, looked east across the plaza to the new post office (now usually called the federal courthouse) built in 1908, both of which would have been connected to Hood’s extravaganza by tunnel.
Hood went on to become one of America’s most respected designers of skyscrapers at a time when the classical lines he proposed for Providence were under attack by modern architects. He and John Howells’ beautiful design won the competition to design the ornate Chicago Tribune Building, built in 1924. He was a senior architect on the design team for the Rockefeller Center, built in 1933-37. Some say that his acceptance of new fashions in architecture made him the model for Peter Keating, the second-rate architect to Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Of course we all know where that trend line led.
How odd it is to read, in the Journal article of 1916, the words “beauty” and “making Providence a city beautiful” – a reference to the City Beautiful movement sparked by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Today the idea of building something lovely, designed to tickle the public’s sense of dignity, remains quite out of style. After a century, maybe it is time for a return of such ideas in architecture and elsewhere.