Plan to goof up Prov library

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Rendering of five LED panels proposed for 1954 addition to Providence Public Library. (PPL)

The 1954 Moderne addition to the Providence Public Library’s original Beaux-Arts building, completed in 1900, already has much to atone for. Not the building itself – its architects and, more, the PPL board that canceled a classical addition (below) in favor of the above. Not only did the addition’s insensitivity disrupt a lovely intersection at Washington and Empire – soon to be eroded by urban renewal – it also literally stretched itself out so as to block views of the far superior original building from the east.

Since then, successive wasteful renovations have shifted the building’s entrance from Washington Street to Empire Street, back to Washington Street and back again to Empire Street. (The final shift had the look of corruption.) The public deserves to enjoy the original building’s entrance, beautiful both inside and out; the 1954 addition’s appearance is itself the best argument for shifting the entrance back to the original. The peripatetic entrance largely reflects the waxing, waning, waxing and waning status of architectural beauty within the library’s governing body.

Now, according to “Proposed Providence library signage running into questions” in the Providence Business News, the board has decided that forcing the public to enter through the uglier façade (into, by the way, a setting that resembles that of a municipal tax office) is not enough. It has decided to goof up that already lame façade with a set of gaudy, colorful LED advertisements for itself (above). The signage and its mechanical installation will only further undermine the dignity of the addition’s appearance, night and day alike. As for the original, its sadness will only become more painful.

Fortunately, Ted Sanderson, longtime director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, is skeptical of the merits of the proposal. Since the agency is charged with overseeing its renovation grant of $150,000, it must approve the proposal.

Approval would set a precedent that might lead other historic building owners to erode Providence’s beauty in new ways intended to defeat the excellent efforts of the city and preservationists over the decades to thwart the tendency of our era’s design elites to truckle to fashion rather than to obey the law that protects the city’s (far more valuable) historical character. Let us hope that the RIHPHC stands firm.

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Unbuilt 1920s-era addition sits to right of original library building. (PPL)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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 Plan to goof up Prov library

  1. Does Jack Martin Dream of Electric Sheep?
    The PPL no longer has the DC Somervell abridgement of Toynbee’s “A Study of History”, which I began reading about 18 months ago, and found gone a month ago. If they cannot keep the books, what is their purpose? The shift to digital is a waste of money: I could easily read the First Folio displayed at Brown last spring, 400 years after it was printed, but information stored on floppy disks 30 years ago is lost.

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  2. I posted some photos of gracefully swaying banners at MOMA and the NY Public Library – and a beautiful row of American flags outside of the Boston Public Library. Lovely and majestic. What on Earth is PPL thinking to slather that faux-entrance with sharp LED teal wallpaper? Why not reopen the beautiful main entrance and define it with lovely changing banners or the land of the free waving in all its glory? I truly hope we do not see this come to pass in its current state. It would look like toy packaging – surely we’re not taking our lead from the rotating teal Hasbro cube just around the corner?

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    • Nancy, I would just leave it alone. One of the problems with our society today is the will to tinker. It is bad enough. Leave it as it is. What the building needs, if the entrance will not be returned to Washington Street as it should be, is renovation of the Empire Street interior to make it less sterile and more elegant and human.

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  3. PHILIP JAMESON says:

    Please, noooooooo!

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