Out with the new, in with …

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Proposed apartment building on Westminster Street outside downtown Providence. (ZDS)

A new apartment building planned for Westminster Street outside of downtown, well beyond Route 95, is going through the design process. The Journal’s story, “5-story building gets go-ahead in Providence” describes tough going for the developer, Michael Lemoi, whose project was opposed by some in the neighborhood. At a hearing, they objected to “the building’s size, scale, massing and design,” according to reporter Christine Dunn.

This is in the Armory District, a well-preserved, mostly residential West End area that runs up Broadway between Westminster and Atwells Avenue.

B.J. Dupré, who lives on Broadway, said that the five-story building “is going to really start to change the character of the neighborhood” – in a bad way, I think he means. Dupré is a founder of the Armory Revival Company, which has restored many old houses on the West and South Ends. He added that “everybody wants to see something there” instead of the decaying storefronts. “No one is saying, ‘that’s a killer building.’ ”

“A killer building.” Is that good or bad? Does it refer to the proposed building or the existing building? It’s hard to tell. The proposed building, by Eric Zuena of ZDS, is poorly designed, an effort to give a modernist building a traditional twist (or vice versa). Like most attempts to bridge the gap between “the old” and “the new,” it is likely to satisfy only those with a commercial aversion to the idea of architectural taste.

Dupré’s colleague Mark van Noppen added, “It’s shock therapy to the neighborhood.” To clarify, he thinks it is too large.

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Planned hotel on Parcel 12. (ZDS)

Starting out with a bad hand when he took over the planned hotel project on Parcel 12, next to the northeastern corner of Kennedy Plaza, Zuena did a pretty good job turning the tedious original design into something more demonstrably traditional. (That project and prior iterations have been dragging and dragging for years, since the demolition, if I recall, of a postal building that transmitted mail to and from trains via a shute extending over the railroad tracks. Now, following a process of compacting the land on the vacant site, there sits a small backhoe. But a sign depicting Zuena’s design has been removed. Does that mean construction will – or will not – start soon?)

Regardless of what I’ve stated above, the proposed building by Zuena is actually quite pleasing – because the single-story building it will replace is starkly modernist. So the building will follow in a long path of honor. Recently, the Fogarty Building, a relatively tame Brutalist office building on Fountain Street downtown, was demolished to make way for a traditionally-styled hotel (a design that started out starkly modernist). Going back further, the Mickey Mouse law offices that once housed a plate-glass store at the bottom of Thomas Street, across from the First Baptist Church, was replaced in 1997 by the largely traditional brick condo building with a round tower.

Both of those buildings, along with the proposed five-story building on Westminster, will be larger than their predecessors. This suggests that building height and mass do not always provide the surest indicator of what fits best into an existing stretch of older buildings. In all three cases, despite being larger, the buildings improved (or will improve) the neighborhood. That is because quality trumps size in context.

And the quality need not even be all that high to achieve a positive effect, as the Westminster building suggests. Even its current mishmash is an improvement on what’s there now. Let’s hope that its design evolves – that is, moves more toward traditional style – as the process moves along. Thus will it assist in reviving Providence’s former high standards of civic design – in abeyance for merely 60 years of its three centuries of history. And yet, what a setback to beauty that has been!

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The current building at 1292 Westminster St. (Kris Craig/Providence Journal)


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, 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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6 Responses to Out with the new, in with …

  1. dude says:

    “Regardless of what I’ve stated above, the proposed building by Zuena is actually quite pleasing – because the single-story building it will replace is starkly modernist.”

    Laughable writing at best…


  2. Dave Mason says:

    Who cares what that townie slumlord BJ Dupré thinks anyways.


  3. A Subscriber says:

    It’s not a bad-looking building, according to ZDS’s rendering – but as often happens when I look up things that are mentioned on this blog, I was drawn to the cool, handsome, old-timer right behind it on the SW corner of Harrison and Powhatan. Had this once been a Police Station or a Fire House? It’s too odd-looking to have been a school or church – and it reminds me of that beautiful wreck of a Police Station on Chaffee Street, which, if wishes were horses, I’d buy and love back to life, brick by brick, even though it’s in a crappy neighborhood.


    • I think it was a school – separate entrances for boys and girls; auditorium in the center front, and a regular stack of classrooms at the back. It is a cool building, and could well become a nice apartment building given enough $$.


  4. Steve says:

    Both are excellent designs and very fitting to their respective locations…

    These objections are silly – this is Providence, not Portsmouth. Jeez, we live in a city with just under 10,000 people/sq miles, one of the most dense urban cores in the nation. These are good developments!


    • Beg to disagree, Steve. It makes no difference whether it’s Providence or Portsmouth. In either place, an architecture critic who prefers traditional work is likely to prefer a more traditional design. What difference does the density make? To the extent I criticized the proposed residential building, it was NOT because it was too big, as was the case with most other local critics. And I stated that the proposed hotel design was a considerable improvement over earlier designs – not yet perfect, but headed in the right direction. Is there any building design that could not be improved?


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