Better idea for 195 riverfront

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Illustration of proposed hotel on Providence River by Gerald Fandetti. (Kendall Hotel LLC)

It appears that the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission may vote Monday to grant initial approval to a hotel proposed for a parcel along the Providence River embankment just east of the shore. Earlier reports say that the modernist design of the proposed hotel – a 1970s retread – might be redone to better reflect the historical character of the area.

I hope so, but the commission ought nevertheless to reject its so-called Level 1 approval and delay the hotel in light of a better idea that arrived at the commission’s doorstep before the hotel and deserves prior consideration.

The idea was delivered to the commission last spring by Bob Burke, owner of the Pot au Feu restaurant in the Financial District. His proposal would move the Welcome Arnold House (circa 1785), on Planet Street in Fox Point, to the site of the helicopter pad next to the river, where the hotel is to be located.

The owner of the Welcome Arnold House has withdrawn his application to demolish it and now wants to rebuild it. Since the interior is gone already, let him build an entirely new house, inspired by the original one, and let Burke move the shell of the existing exterior a few hundred feet down to the river.

Why? Because Burke, who is a historian at heart, wants to reconstruct the interior as it might have been in 1785. The house would become a nonprofit educational center – providing an experience for students and tourists of how New Englanders lived during the early days of our nation. It is difficult to believe that such a facility does not exist in this historic city.

But wait, there’s more!

Burke also hopes to reconstruct at that location a replica of the original 1636 homestead of Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder, on what is now North Main Street. The house was demolished as late as 1840 to make way for the James Hazard House, which still exists at 235 North Main. An exercise of historical imagination would be required, since we know no more what Roger Williams’s house looked like than what his face looked like.

Both parts of this plan are incredibly exciting, and Burke says that he is ready to move on it, if the 195 commission will let him. The two structures would take up a fraction of the footprint of the proposed hotel, and leave the water’s edge open to the public.

As Burke points out, the Rhode Island Constitution’s Article 1, Section 17 protects Rhode Islanders’ right to access the shore, and Burke argues that the hotel would limit the public’s access to a degree that could be actionable. All sorts of documents provide evidence of this: the site’s designation as historic, the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the relocation of Route 195, the Old Harbor Plan officially proposed well before Route 195’s removal was planned, and statements from the State Historic Preservation Office delineating its protected status.

Burke, while he quivers with pleasure at how his plan would serve history and the public, is somewhat miffed that the commission has not yet bothered to address his proposal, which it had before the hotel proposal. Why?

Well, perhaps because the hotel, as a business, would generate more revenue for the state through taxes. But such an expectation may be unwarranted. If you subtract the hotel project’s state subsidies and add the value of Burke’s proposal to the state’s tourism potential, the latter could add more to the state’s economy and its coffers – not to mention its delightfulness – than the hotel. Either way, that does not justify discrimination in the handling of a serious – indeed, a scintillating – public proposal that was first in line.

All of this suggests that a responsible due diligence would require that Bob Burke be heard at Monday’s commission meeting, and that his proposal’s suitability be adjudicated before the commission considders the hotel.

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Welcome Arnold House, 21 Planet St.

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 Better idea for 195 riverfront

  1. Pingback: Battle of the 195 riverfront | Architecture Here and There

  2. cjdraws says:

    I am thrilled about the prospect of a house going back where it once was – even if there is some guessing involved. The house likely could have been a typical post & beam house found all over RI, CT, and MA from this period. A friend of mine disassembles 17th and 18th century houses and has about 24 stored, available for purchase and re-assembly. I think he might have something that can go on this site. Steve Bielitz, Glastonbury, CT.

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  3. A Subscriber says:

    That hotel design is the same boring crap that they’d build in Tucson or anywhere else.

    I’m glad to hear this news about Bob Burke because I had gotten the strong impression from other articles, elsewhere, that he was an asshole. I hope that his ideas work out for him – and all of us.

    Queston: Has Planet St always been called that? And why?

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    • Planet Street has always been called Planet Street, Sub, and is thus named in conjunction with Transit Street, both of which doff their caps to the effort, in the late 1760s, to track the transit of Venus – an astronomical event that helped astronomers measure the sun’s distance from the Earth. Scientists of every type went around the world to help collect the statistics to generate that measurement. This included locals in Providence, and our two streets honor that global effort – essentially the world’s first space shot! – with which Captain Cook and the British botonist Sir Joseph Banks were involved. I do not know whether there ever was a Venus Street. If there was, it probably was demolished as part of the effort to clear land for Route 195 in the 1950s.

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