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.