Tour Providence by the book

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Thomas Street, heading toward downtown Providence. (Architectural Digest)

Tomorrow a bunch of us know-it-alls have been invited to the Providence Preservation Society for a private session to suggest changes for a second edition of PPS’s 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture, written by Mack Woodward and photographed by Warren Jagger. I would add Brown’s new Nelson Fitness Center, designed by Gary Brewer, a partner in the New York firm of Robert A.M. Stern Architects. It is a fine building, a take on the city’s traditional industrial architecture, and a rare hint that the school actually desires its graduates to donate money someday. It is curiously disliked by Will Morgan, one of my architectural sparring partners, who wrote the original book’s introduction and who may be on hand tomorrow. If so, he and I will duke it out in the back alley, or maybe in the garden if the snow has melted. A second edition of the book is expected to result from our contretemps, along with the sophisticated cogitation of the other invitees, as early as late this year. On Nov. 6, 2003, shortly after its publication, in my capacity as the architecture critic for the Providence Journal, I wrote the following review:

Touring Providence by the book

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FOR A CITY that rewards the walker at every turn, Providence has waited too long for a comprehensive walker’s guide to its architecture.

The wait is over.

Start walking.

The PPS/AIAri Guide to Providence Architecture ($24.95), dedicated to the late great historic preservationist Antoinette Downing, was the brainchild of the Providence Preservation Society and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which are its publishers. Architectural historian Wm. McKenzie Woodward wrote the text. Warren Jagger shot the 441 photographs. Its 320 pages on 80-pound glossy paper are “Smythe-sewn,” so you can crack its spine without breaking its back. Its sumptuous heft belies its compact size, 4 1/2 by 9 1/2 inches. It fits in the pocket of your jacket.

The book feels good in your hand, and its cover aims to please: A photo montage of the Providence skyline and, looming large, the steeple of the First Baptist Church. The old and the new, yes, but heavy on the old. Like it or not, that’s why people love Providence and why a book about its architecture is of interest. The cover aims to please and inform.

Yet nothing in this book could be more pleasing than Mack Woodward’s writing. It is charming, elegant, witty, not to mention informative. Style, history and genealogy mix delightfully. Woodward can be acrobatic, purple, befuddling, cranky, even goofy, but never boring, never shy. He challenges us with crotchety themes, especially his ubiquitous exasperation with “the almighty cube.” (This does not refer to Old Stone Square, which is merely “cubistic,” but to Colonial and revivalist houses, mostly for the wealthy, that make do with only four sides. How tedious!) The author throws down gauntlets on every page, and dares to be wrong. In short, his prose is provocative and the book is fun.

Take it for a walk by yourself or with a friend. You will find that Mack Woodward is there, too, telling you things about a house that you never knew, pointing out details of its design that you never noticed before, instigating an argument with your friend (or with your own preconceptions) – poking you in the ribs, tickling your funny bone, cramming your cranium with fascinating factoids, generally opening your eyes anew. Yes, this is fun!

Let’s say you are taking the “Crest of College Hill” tour. At 45 Prospect St. is the George Corliss House (1878-81), and you read that the Corliss Engine inventor’s second wife despised New England winters. “I will build Bermuda for Mrs. Corliss,” he said. So he built her a “state-of-the-art, climate-controlled building.” It even had another recent innovation, designed to keep bugs out: the window screen!

Then, at 101 Prospect, you read that the Henry A. Dike House (1850-52) is “one of the fussiest Italianate houses in Providence.” Okay. And that it has a “gutsy lattice gate.” Your friend asks: “Gutsy? How so?” You shrug, and recall a house from the earlier “Moving Up: The Lower Slope of College Hill” tour: Sturdy granite blocks planted in front of the Earl Pearce House (1827), at 42-44 Benefit St., “have not proven particularly effective at deflecting wayward traffic” careening down steep Jenckes Street and into the house. “Now that,” you say, “is gutsy.” [I seem to recall that the blocks, actually more like tombstones, have been deflectively effective – getting drivers careening down Jenckes to swerve their cars into the house to the left of the Pearce.]

Fun? You bet! How about fun times eleven!

Eleven tours arranged by period, location and theme (“Pre-Revolutionary Providence: Along the ‘Towne Street,’ ” “Romantic Reaction to Industry: Urban Open Spaces,” “The City Reinvents Itself,” etc.) cover most parts of Providence, with generous nods to the South and West sides, industrial areas and downtown. Inevitably, however, and I believe appropriately, four of the eleven tours focus on College Hill, which has most of the best of the city’s oldest buildings and most of the worst of its newest. The newest, whether modernist or revivalist, generate the most provocative of Woodward’s pensées, and often the most trenchant of his insights.

Here’s one both trenchant and provocative: “It’s oddly ironic,” Woodward writes after criticizing Cathedral Square, by modernist I.M. Pei, “that DePasquale Square, a minor end of a minor street decorated with kitschy street furniture, has gloriously fulfilled the urbanistic expectations that [Cathedral] square, designed by world-class architects, never even approached.” This is neither ironic nor odd – except that so many in architecture should think so.

The one serious flaw in the book, no doubt budgetarily inspired, is that you often come across a series of adjacent houses, compared and contrasted in the text, only to find that just one is pictured, and no telling which. (Perhaps you can try to deduce it from the description: All part of the fun!) The worst is the comparison of the Thomas Hoppin House (1852-55), which gets a big photo, with its neighbor on Benefit, the Tully Bowen House (1853), my own favorite, which is totally unpictured. Good grief! The only serious factual error I detected was about former Mayor Cianci’s 1990 comeback victory, described as a “landslide.” It was a 317-vote squeaker over Frederick Lippitt and Andrew Annaldo. The landslide came four years later over Paul Jabour.

This tour guide is so good that even its flaws are engaging. For readers and walkers alike, it is sure to please and instruct for as long as Providence architecture manages to protect its past from its future.

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Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center, Brown University. (RAMSA)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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4 Responses to Tour Providence by the book

  1. Walking through Brown yesterday, I noticed a lot of signs up to “Save the UEL”. They have a petition up here:
    I look forward to a companion to the venetian blind building across the street!


    • Ah, the Venetian Blind Building! Perfect. Or the Stuck Venetian Blind Building. I’m fearing the, what is it, the performance center that is planned, and the buildings that will come down to make way for it. PPS, call your office!


  2. Peter Mackie says:

    David, I would fight for Nelson’s inclusion. By the way, please talk with Brent tomorrow if you have the opportunity about the recently announced plans for a huge Brown Performing Arts Center on the west side of the Walk. The UEL, is definitely on the demo list, and the twin Greek Revival houses on Angell are probably as well.Even more troubling is the potential loss of the charming Waterman Street vista which includes Norwood House , Mary Sharpe Park, and the sweet brick apartment building next to the Walk. That vista, which begins after the horror, J. Walter Wilson, and extends to Thayer, belongs to all who walk, bike, or ride through it.
    Peter Mackie


    • What appalling news, Peter. I will let Brent know. I’m sure PPS wants to help save any historic building Brown may be threatening. As for the “sweet brick apartment building” at risk, I will go to the mat especially for that. I heard years ago that it was to be demo’d but since it has not I thought that might just be talk. Color me already chained to the bulldozer!


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