Prov’s City Beautiful parks

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“Providence 1950,” a 1910 proposal by RISD president Huger Elliott. (Providence Public Library)

Catherine Zipf’s piece in today’s Providence Journal, “Bus proposal is appalling,” is dead on. The more you think about it, as Zipf has clearly done, the more difficult it is to imagine a rational reason for the state’s proposal to build a new transit hub on open space around the Rhode Island State House, which Zipf would rather see transformed into a “City Beautiful-era park.”

I would quarrel with Zipf’s claim that Providence does not have a “City Beautiful-era park.” We have the State House Lawn, with its allée of trees from the capitol (designed by Charles Follen McKim) down to Francis Street, edged also by the Masonic Temple (now a hotel), the charmingly classical headquarters of a shipping company, and the Nordstrom end of Providence Place, all in the mode, more or less, of a City Beautiful landscape.

We also have Burnside Park next to Kennedy Plaza, also edged around by monuments to the City Beautiful – Union Station, the federal courthouse, City Hall and the Post Office – the last is not outright classical but Art Deco, which is of classical lineage. Plus Burnside Park has both the lovely Bajnotti Fountain and the equestrian statue of Civil War general Ambrose Burnside beneath its canopy of elegant old trees. Both are fine examples of classical sculpture. True, the city seems to want to undermine this gem with its events shed and its recent kiddie playground, but the park remains overwhelmingly classical. (I’ve long felt that Burnside Park should have its verdure extended into Kennedy Plaza, creating a small Central Park for downtown.)

We also have our recent linear riverfront, whose dozen bridges, artful river walks and “necklace” of small parks, including Waterplace Park, are surely inspired by the City Beautiful. I can’t imagine what else might have been going through the mind of its great creator, the late Bill Warner.

We also have Prospect Terrace along Congdon Street on College Hill, whose magnificent view, or prospect, as it were, is also of Beaux Arts inspiration, as is its splendid monument to Roger Williams, even if his tomb is modernist and his statue is not strictly classical. (The trees between the terrace and the city should be trimmed. It is getting hard to see from this overlook!)

None of these has the boulevard Zipf craves. On the other hand, there’s Blackstone Boulevard, designed by City Beautiful landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland and completed in 1894, the year after the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which inspired the City Beautiful Movement in cities across the country, including Providence.

And we have the Roger Williams National Memorial, a reasonably large park (given our city’s size) stretching from Park Row to Smith Street between North Main and Canal streets. Maybe it strays farthest from the classical City Beautiful ideal, yet … well, I believe I have made my point. But wait!

Finally, we have Roger Williams Park as our primary example of a Beaux Arts park, notwithstanding Zipf’s demurral. She writes:

To be clear, Providence has wonderful open spaces, Roger Williams Park being one. But that’s a naturalistic landscape, where visitors are immersed in nature. I’m talking about a different type of urban park, where large-scale landscape elements are introduced into an existing city with the goal of improving civic life. Roger Williams Park is for getting away. City Beautiful parks are part of your everyday experience.

Yes, Roger Williams Park is a naturalistic landscape, but it has classical architecture and statuary liberally sprinkled throughout its hills, glens, ponds, lakes and dales, from the Rhode Island Museum of Natural History to the Temple to Music and a host of others along the way. They may be seen down every prospect (now known as view corridors). Is Roger Williams Park “for getting away”? Sure. That seems to me, however, a distinction without a difference. Tell it to the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods! All parks are for getting away, the distinction of how far away being of less importance in a city of this size.

Zipf did not make it perfectly clear how she imagines that the State House Lawn and State House Park (the lawn west of Providence Station) could be made, if it is not already, into a City Beautiful-era park. Surely she does not want a Versailles. But would she like the park to be classical through and through? Would she like the classical proposal, atop this post, by early RISD president Huger Elliott, printed in a 1910 edition of the journal of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects? Probably not. But it sure makes my spine tingle with pleasure!

(I wrote about Huger Elliott’s plan and others in my book Lost Provicence.)

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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3 Responses to Prov’s City Beautiful parks

  1. Pingback: Robert Adam: “Classic Columns” | Architecture Here and There

  2. shedguy says:

    RWP trees could use some thinning. Of course the staff can barely keep up with clearing the blowdowns…

    Like

    • Just curious, Shed. What is “thinning” trees, and why is it usually done? I am talking about trimming trees so that the upper portions of their canopy, as they grow, do not block views

      Like

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