Taking wing on Westminster

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From left to right: Trayne addition, Trayne, Wit, and Lapham buildings. (Cornish)

Arnold “Buff” Chace, Providence’s pioneering redeveloper of downtown, has another major project in mind for Westminster Street. He has announced the renovation of the Lapham, Wit, and Trayne buildings, erected in 1904, 1925, and 1893, respectively. To the Trayne will be added an extension to its east of four stories, which amounts to a new building, and one of gently evocative traditional design. This new building will stretch some 20 feet into the vacant space (now used for parking, bocce and free films) where W.T. Grants (1949) used to be. Also razed next door in 2005 was an almost entirely disfigured Stephen Waterman House (1823) by John Holden Green.

The Trayne, by the way, should be the Train, after Alice and Elizabeth Train, for whom it was built, according to the state preservation office’s 1981 survey of downtown. Or maybe they got it wrong and Buff or someone else dug up the correct name of the building and sisters.

I am eager to see the Wit fixed up, since it still has its 1950s faux-modernist sheathing on its second floor. So ugly! That blessed work is to be done by Union Studios, in the Peerless Building nearby. The Wit’s elegant cornice, inscribed “Wit Building,” has long suffered from its tatty garb, which still did not scare away tenants, including the Black Repertory Co., which painted it black. At the bottom of this post is a photograph of the Wit’s predecessor, taken, it seems, during the 1890s after the Train Building opened.

This project will add 52 new apartments and six new commercial spaces to the increasingly robust Westminster streetscape. Chace and his development firm, Cornish Associates, have already rehabilitated the Smith (1925), Alice (1898), Peerless (1873), Wilkinson (1900), O’Gorman (1925), Burgess (1870), Kinsley (1912) on and near Westminster. Recently, Chace rehabbed buildings along the Clemence Street alley for commercial purposes. Chace also added several restaurant spaces to the Washington Street facade of the Biltmore Garage. He also developed office space in the Harkness (1906), Gardner (1915) and One Empire Plaza (1981).

The booing and hissing you hear is for the latter, where the infamous 38 Studios fiasco (a joint public/private effort) unraveled. Too bad the horrid thing wasn’t razed but rehabbed. Now it houses Roger Williams University’s Providence campus – relocated from the Kinsley Building – and offices for the Social Security Administration, which I visited recently.

Have I left anything out?


Chace has proposed a new six-story building of traditional design between Fountain and Washington streets, in the Journal’s parking lot (which he owns, along with the building where I worked for three decades). It’s on the agenda of a subcommittee of the Downtown Design Review Committee next Tuesday, June 19. Its materials and façade details will be considered. Chace foresees 145 apartments above a grocery, two retail shops, two restaurants and a coffee shop on the ground floor. Across the street sits the Journal Building, where edgy new businesses are moving into space vacated by the shrinking paper, which was sold in 2014 and has not had to squeeze much to fit onto the second floor of a building it once stuffed to the gills.

This is a roundup of work by Buff Chace and Cornish, but leaves out much else that is happening along Westminster and elsewhere downtown. The list of new restaurants and other businesses would simply exhaust readers. But I will only mention one more recent project – the new meeting house added to Grace Episcopal Church. Lovely!

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Proposed 78 Fountain St. on Journal parking lot at Fountain and Mathewson. (GCP)

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The recently completed Pavilion at Grace. (weddingwire.com/Socliari Photography)

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Predecessor of the Wit Building to right of Train Building, with curved corner. (Shorpy)


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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4 Responses to Taking wing on Westminster

  1. Bruce MacGunnigle says:

    Cornish is one of the few Providence developers who seem to care about how their buildings look. Kudos to them.
    That new building for 78 Fountain Street seems pretty massive. Any thoughts on that?


    • Bruce, I agree it is a large building. Perhaps there is a central courtyard. Maybe the entire massing could be reconfigured with more “motion” so as to reduce the massivity of the massing. Maybe that would be better. But there are old department stores that are now rehabbed residential buildings, such as the Peerless, that have similar massing but are rescued by the elegance of the architecture. Will 78 Fountain achieve that? I don’t know, but I’m pleased that Buff does not seem to be “trying something new”!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. barry says:

    Nice to hear good news for a change, especially about the grocery which is needed if downtown is to be livable on a larger scale. I remember when I first came to PVD in the 1960s there was a “Weybosset Pure Food” market downtown which I occasionally shopped at if changing buses. Does anyone know what happened to that?
    I also like the old photo of not just the buildings, but the street scene, everyone wearing a hat, sidewalks more crowded than the roadway. There are pictures like that in City Hall, and RIPTA has a good collection of photos of the old trolley days displayed at their headquarters.


    • I believe the Food Basket, as you may be referring to, was in the building across from the J&W quadrangle that now houses a RISD gallery. I think there may also have been a Weybosset Pure Food, possibly an earlier version of the same thing – or not. If not, I don’t know where it was. I join you, Barry, in the pleasure you take from the street scene in that photo.

      Liked by 1 person

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