Assault on history at Brown

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86 Waterman St.

This afternoon, Providence’s City Plan Commission heard Brown University officials propose to move one and raze four historic buildings to make way for a new performing arts center with a concert hall rumored large enough to swallow the nearby Granoff Center (the one that looks like a broken accordian).

At a public hearing where nobody spoke in favor of Brown’s proposal, Brent Runyon, director of the Providence Preservation Society, who provided the foregoing factoid, chided the school for failing to protect the historic character of College Hill. Ray Rickman, a historian and former state representative, noted that Jacqueline Kennedy urged her son John to attend Brown because College Hill was lovelier than the Cambridge setting of Harvard. While at Brown, John-John lived in Knowles Row, at 155 Benefit St., an apartment with a window overlooking Geoff’s, where I’ve been enjoying the Juicy Brucie Lucie for three decades. (Ray has a sandwich named in his honor, the Rickman’s Reuben, but the president’s son? Nada.)

A couple of dozen members of the public spoke eloquently against razing the four buildings, and at the lack of parking for the performance center, but only one expressed dismay at its likely design by the New York City firm REX, led by Joshua Prince-Ramus, who formed REX after leaving OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the Dutch firm founded by the eternally flatulent Rem Koolhaas. Prince-Ramus retained, among other things, his mentor’s love for designs that kick the local setting in the teeth.

True or false: Brown’s leadership, for all the millions the school has spent preserving its historic architectural patrimony, really cares less about that than about hiring celebrity architects to burnish Brown’s reputation as the hippest Ivy.

We are about to find out.

All five buildings at risk here are more important, more historic, more beautiful than the couple dozen or so old houses Brown has razed in recent years.* Despite the institutional zone that gives Brown more latitude on its campus, city zoning and comprehensive plans mandate that development must respect the historic character of the neighborhoods of the city. The evaporation of these five closely knit historic buildings on Waterman and Angell streets would gouge an irreparable hole in the fabric of College Hill along the east and west corridors used by many thousands of Rhode Islanders every day, not to mention local residents – including students and workers at Brown itself.

In his remarks, Armory Revival Co.’s Mark Van Noppen told the commission that “ordinances seem clearly to state that this should not be approved.”

The commission appeared to have been influenced by the combination of passion and expertise from those who spoke. Commission member Harry Bilodeau started to make a motion that Brown’s proposal (in the form of an amendment to its institutional plan) be rejected. A commission staffer suggested that a motion harder for Brown to challenge would need time to confirm the many objections voiced by the public. Brown was asked to table its proposal until the next CPC meeting on Jan. 16. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Brown agreed.

The public hearing would also resume at that meeting. It’s likely that anger will grow as more Rhode Islander’s learn of this planned desecration of their history – an anger that ought to rise equally high in the gorge of the university community itself, especially its leadership.

Surely Brown can think of a better idea than demolishing beautiful buildings. There are a good number of places for Brown to build a new performance center, which virtually nobody denies Brown needs. One workable site might be the waterfront location of its own current School of Professional Studies, in the Jewelry District. It is near where most Brown development has occurred in recent years, and, unlike the currently proposed site, there are places to park. Think about it, Brown.

Here is GoLocalProv.com’s preview of today’s meeting.

* That’s not including the four beautiful buildings demolished to make way for Brown’s new engineering facility on Brook Street, which I neglected to mention in the original version of this blog post.

Pictured with this post are the five buildings at risk of demolition. One of them, Norwood House at 82 Waterman, might be moved. It is the bottom photo.

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Brown’s Urban Environmental Lab, on Angell St.

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172 and 129 Angell St.

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82 Waterman 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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15 Responses to Assault on history at Brown

  1. Some high profile response needs to occur. Does anyone know how to get Emma Watson onboard, or other celebrities with Brown connections?

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  2. Steve says:

    Wow. Truely troubling, especially since they have parcels available in the Innovation District.

    I live on the East Side and absolutely love impressing visitors from across the nation with our great history and architecture (among other things).

    One point. Your state “It’s likely that anger will grow as more Rhode Islander’s learn of this planned desecration of their history.” This is not a Rhode Island issue and there will be no measurable reaction outside of Providence…as this is Providence history and architectural beauty at risk.

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    • Steve, this is both a Providence issue and a Rhode Island issue. Providence is the capital of Rhode Island, which is often called a “city-state.” There may be no measurable reaction outside of Providence, but there may indeed be such a reaction. Just because nobody cares to measure it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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      • Steve says:

        That, my friend, is the “Rhode Island Mentality”.

        It is not a “city-state”. Providence’s impact extends deep into southeastern Massachusetts and eastern CT.

        The fact is that it is a state capital is not nearly as important or relevant as the fact that RI is simply PART OF the Providence Metro (RI and southeastern MA). It is Providence that is the core, the center, the focus in transportation, economy, education, history, government, cultural arts, manufacturing, business, population, and on and on.

        The suburban – RI or MA – reaction (if any) is irrelevant both politically and socially. The issue is ours (Providence). We will never solve issues of this type in this great national city until we address them in the city. The suburbs offer almost nothing in terms of perspective, attitude, or influence.

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        • I respect your city-centric view, and to a great extent share it, but I am not sure how taking a wider view conflicts. You understate, as it were, the role of the state. In the end, I’m not sure it matters all that much which is given center stage. They are both at center stage. Please give me more info as to its importance, rather than simply asserting it!

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          • Steve says:

            Sure.

            Simply stated, the state and its citizens are irrelevant. It has no zoning authority nor does it have any “community input” that counts in front of any city agency. In other words, all authority lies with the city and only citizens of the city matter in terms of input – legally known as having a “standing”.

            My other point is that we have got to drop the “RI” mentality that I mentioned. Surely. no one would state the citizens of MA should oppose the loose zoning we see in Boston. It is irrelevant what MA thinks, it is what Boston thinks that counts. Same as PVD.

            So the battleground for this issue lies in PVD with it’s government and its citizens.

            DB’s reply: Some valid points, Steve, but they don’t add up to throwing R.I. into the slag heap from the standpoint of commenting on development and design. Remember, I am not proposing to build a building, only to write an opinion. I do not need “standing.”

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  3. petervanerp says:

    Why don’t they tear down the Science Library instead? That’ll offend a whole different raft of people!

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  4. Daniel Morales says:

    The drip drip of loss of character that can’t be quantified until people decide Brown isn’t as wonderful a campus. I’m sure they could find an alternate ground with a master plan that took into account assets like these houses. Keep us posted.

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  5. barry says:

    thanks are due to David for posting this warning and to all the supporters of keeping these buildings. Brown has some good policies and maybe they can still be influenced to more highly value their historic and beautiful neighborhood.
    Please try to help keep us informed about opportunities to object to the demolitions.

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  6. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    Broken accordion…ha! I like that

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  7. Those are not blighted old structures – what a shame if they go through with this – why not expand into the Jewelry, Meds & Eds, whatever they are calling it – district? Or on part of the downtown parcel?

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  8. indisco33 says:

    An abomination which can not be allowed to happen! It is bad enough that some chunks of Thayer Street now look like they belong on the campus of a pharmaceutical company. Stop the insanity.

    Jim Raftus

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  9. It’s total insanity to demolish these wonderful historic structures. What can they possibly be thinking??

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    • Well, Anthony, my guess is they really like rubbing shoulders with the stars more than protecting old buildings. Someone noted that most of these univerministrators are transitory residents. What do they care? David

      Sent from my iPod

      >

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