Old Journal Building, ho!

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The Old Journal Building covered up at left and, at right, restored by Estes Burgin Partnership, 1986. (Providence City Archives; Burgin Lambert Architects)

Once developer Buff Chace started saving downtown Providence by rehabbing old buildings into lofts, no building seemed to elude his grasp more dishearteningly than the Old Journal Building, built in 1906. It was downtown’s holy grail, but for years its cranky owner would not budge. Now another developer has bought it from a subsequent owner and wants to turn the building at the corner of Westminster and Eddy streets, along with its 1927 Art Deco neighbor, Kresge’s, into a microloft hotel.

That’s extraordinary news. The developer, Jim Abdo, says he wants to spend another $30 million above the $4.3 million purchase price to rehab the two buildings not just for visitors to sleep in but for locals to mix in. Abdo’s first establishment of this kind was Hotel Hive, in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, not far from the State Department and George Washington University, or for that matter from the White House.

Let’s hope that Abdo refrains from monkeying around with the Old Journal’s exterior façades. In the mid-1950s, as city hall and the federal government prepared to ram urban renewal down Providence’s craw, the owner slapped light green metal siding up on the building’s first two stories, flattening its Corinthian pilasters and leaving its roof, cornices and dormers free to grieve at its sick new appearance. This “clumsy attempt at modernity,” as first described by the state preservation office in 1981, became by 1986, in the words of the same office, “much admired at the time.” Really? I doubt it.

In fact, by 1986 the building had undergone restoration, its modernist crud ripped off and its pilasters fixed using new decorative technology. The job was beautifully done by the Estes Burgin Partnership (now Burgin Lambert Architects) and  overseen by owners Joseph Cerilli and Joseph Mollicone Jr., the latter a mobbed-up socialite banker who in 1990 absconded after looting his own bank, triggering a massive state scandal called RISDIC. He gave up after hiding out in Utah for two years. Yes, bad people can do good work!

And yet, other than occasional municipal office leases, the Providence Watch Factory, Big Nazzo Puppets, a gym, a disco that masqueraded as a restaurant (“Mama’s”) and a few beauty supply and other dinky shops, the place failed to leverage its revived allure into lucrative tenants. Buff Chace attempted to buy the building several times over this period without success, though (as I understand it) he offered more money than it sold for to Abdo last Friday, with former mayor Joe Paolino acting as middle man.

Between 1999 and 2010, I lived in Buff’s first rehab, the Smith Building, behind city hall and kitty corner from the Old Journal. What a view to the east up Fulton Street between those two buildings! I had dreams that my employer, the Journal, still at 75 Fountain St. (now whittled down to a single floor), might relocate to its old digs. I would be able to rig up a shuttle seat enabling me to slide the 30 feet or so from my fifth-floor loft to the upper corner of what I hoped would be the Journal’s new editorial offices.

Well, that never happened, of course, but I’ve long dreamed the building might come into its own someday. Now, maybe that’s about to happen.

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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6 Responses to Old Journal Building, ho!

  1. Laurence J Sasso Jr says:

    Mr. Brussat –

    I’m wondering if you plan to comment on George Lucas’ art museum now being planned in Los Angeles. I enjoy your blog, but only recently became a subscriber and regrettably I don’t get to read every installment , though I read most. The current issue of Vanity Fair Magazine has a rather fascinating article about the museum and the various locations and designs that have been considered during its evolution. I’d be curious to know your thoughts on its various designs and the resistance they and the museum concept itself met with in San Francisco and Chicago before landing in LA.

    Best,

    Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

    Like

    • Dear Mr. Sasso, thanks very much for your kind words and your attention to my blog. I was initially excited by the original Lucas proposal when it was intended as a classically designed museum near the Golden Gate. When that was absurdly denounced and rejected, I watched the debate unfold in Chicago, where he proposed an alien spaceship for the museum, and it was routed, not for the design but for the location. The debate over a return to California followed, with L.A. eventually beating out S.F. By now, I hardly care what happens designwise. Whether the museum is a poorly designed or a well designed bit of modern architecture does not matter in the least – there is no real distinction between what is good and what is bad in modern architecture, at least not insofar as standards to judge by are concerned. It does not have any, so it is not worth my attention – however much it may captivate your typical architecture critics. In any event, I hope you will continue to enjoy my blog!

      Like

  2. I am curious what the building looks like inside now – the “model” in DC is stripped bare to its minimalist micro-loft new look.

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    • It has looked pretty crappy ever since its redevelopment in the mid-80s, Nancy. Maybe it looked crappy from the beginning, even as a newsroom. Maybe that is why it has failed as a development property. Maybe the new owner, with his $30 million, will try to rectify that!

      Like

  3. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    The old story, there was a need and 10 developers see it. They don’t communicate and the problem could be solved with 1/10 of the development. Ergo the old Real estate bust …Too many micro schmicros…Look at the Biltmore with graduate units, and all of the other projects, the Arcade etc etc… The bottom line to all of this as there are no new four diamond hotels… You could read into this. Nice piece Dave you’re doing a good job Stan

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    • I think you may be on to something, Stan. Still, the micros certainly seem to play to a real market. We may not be ready for a 4-diamond hotel yet (I assume that the Biltmore, the Westin and Hotel Providence do not receive that billing. Maybe it will come. I want a new major hotel of contemporary classical design, something that LOOKS four-diamonds. Not some cheesebox.

      But anyway, thanks for your kind words. Your development of the HP was fantastic. I do not know why its plazza has not performed better in recent years. The place is as close as it comes to a top-notch Euro space in America. It should be cookin’ every night. The new owners must be doing something wrong. What do you think, Stan?

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