Over the course of four days the Providence Preservation Society hosted two events, one about Cathedral Square, which I’ll discuss first, and the other about the Jewelry District.
The first event, held at the Department of Planning and Development’s offices last Friday evening, featured a panel on Cathedral Square, part of the Weybosset Hill segment of the Downtown Providence 1970 plan (announced in 1960) and one of the blessedly few parts of that plan that was realized. Before the site was razed, it was an active part of town where Westminster and Weybosset met at the far end of the “bow” originating near the Provi- dence River. A panel including Boston planner Tim Love and landscape historian Charles Birnbaum described how Cathedral Square came to be but had little to say regarding why it failed.
Mack Woodward, of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, wrote in the 2003 PPS guide to Providence, “The vast, lifeless plaza designed by I.M. Pei and Zion & Breen is an insulting contrast to the building’s vigorous design,” referring to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul (1878). Elsewhere, he wrote of the plaza: “Despite being designed by world class architects and urban planners, namely I.M. Pei and Zion & Breen, the space has been universally decried as an utter failure.”
I’d replace “Despite being designed …” with “Because it was designed … .”
After their presentations, I raised my hand and moderator Christina Bevilacqua, the famous curator of conversation, called on me. I noted that the panelists had not really discussed why the plaza failed, and asked whether it might have been more successful if its design were more in keeping with that of the cathedral, and downtown Providence generally. Predictably, being modernists, they both dodged the question.
In fact, it failed at least in part because it was unattractive. It might someday succeed if its cold modernist façades could be covered up or replaced by tra- ditional façades. Also, the unused Bishop McVinney Auditorium should be razed so that Westminster Street can be reopened from Empire Street through the plaza. Then it could cross the bridge over Route 95 to reunite downtown with the West Side – with or without the Ponte Vecchio accou- trements suggested in 2004 by Andrés Duany and snickered at, for some reason, by Tim Love.
On Monday, a much more productive and entertaining event was held about the history of the Jewelry District. Little was said about the I-195 Corridor, though its executive director, Peter McNally, was there. The event was sponsored by PPS, Brown University, the Jewelry District Association and Building Bridges Providence, which has pushed for the pe- destrian bridge now supposedly under construction.
The event featured 19 Brown University students in an architectural history course taught by Professor Dietrich Neumann. They all described their favorite of the pair of buildings each chose to research for the class. Most of them were traditional brick mill buildings, and many of the students whose building was gone used fancy computer footwork to superimpose its image on a photograph of the site today. The audience at Brown’s medical school in the Jewelry District (the Little Nemo Building) was thrilled by each of these instances. As I say, Peter McNally was in the audience. Maybe he learned something useful.
Hint, hint: Now that the downtown zone reaches into the Jewelry District, new development must by law “protect the historic character of downtown.”
All of the presentations were clear, persuasive and entertaining. The students were articulate and well spoken. Some could step right into careers as stand- up comics, but scholarship was their game on Monday evening. If they are typical of what Brown is producing these days, then we need not have any worries for the younger generation. (Here is a video of the entire event.)