The Providence Preservation Society will be hosting a symposium on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 3-4, on the whys and wherefores of historic preservation. The focus will be, to some degree, on the empty Industrial Trust Bank Building, where the symposium will be held, and tours will be given of that very interesting structure. (Some might want to see if they can find evidence for a dirigible mooring station near the top of the building.)
“Why Preserve?” is the question at issue. And it is a good one.
In recent decades, those for whom preservation is a profession rather than a calling have, in my opinion, gone off track in their priorities. Granted, much of the preservation work of saving old buildings has been accomplished here. Preservationist pros have instead focused on preserving utilitarian structures and works of “midcentury modern,” or outright modernist monsters such as the Fogarty Building, that few people, even among their own members, really care about. PPS pros were, for example, more concerned to prevent the demolition of a relatively boring produce market behind Providence Place than to preserve truly excellent buildings such as the Providence Police and Fire Headquarters (1940) and the Providence National Bank (1929) and its addition (1950), though the latter’s facade was indeed saved. Efforts to preserve the police/fire HQ and the bank were relatively lethargic in comparison with efforts to preserve the produce market. (None of the efforts was successful.) In 2000, the society supported putting a glass box on top of the vacant Masonic Temple – an error that nearly resulted in its demolition. It was saved when an intelligent developer intervened with a traditional addition enabling its transformation into a hotel.
Moreover, the area where preservation could have the most positive effect on cities and their inhabitants, especially here in Providence, has been spurned. I refer to promoting future architecture that reinforces rather than undermines what Salvatore Settis, author of If Venice Dies, might call the soul of Providence. To encourage new buildings that respect the fabric that preservationists once worked so hard to save does not mean putting the brakes on change. On the contrary. It would greatly ease the complex process of bringing new building proposals to fruition. Rather than today’s largely blasé, even hostile attitude toward projects, people would want them to succeed. To strengthen the setting within which the city’s preserved jewels sit should be a top concern of preservationists. From an economic perspective, this would also strengthen the city’s “brand.”
Granted, it is not just preservationists for whom such a priority should be obvious, but the political, business and institutional leaders of the city and state.
I wonder whether these issues will even come up at the symposium sponsored by PPS, which has never had a director who truly understands the mission of preservation. All of the society’s executive directors since 1984 – Wendy Nicholas, Arnold Robinson, Catherine Horsey, Jack Gold, George Born, James Hall and now Brent Runyon – have been comfortable with the continued erosion of our fabric by insensitive modernist architecture unless it threatens a historic structure.
I wrote about this after Hall’s departure in a Providence Journal column called “Out with the preservation fogies.” Providence continues to cry out for a preservationist director who understands preservation. For all its good work these 60 years, perhaps the exercise of asking “Why Preserve?” will finally enable the Providence Preservation Society to answer a question that has proved elusive for decades.