Nightmare on Smith Hill

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Initial design concept for proposed new Rhode Island State Archives. (DBVW Architects)

Last night I had a dream so disturbing that I woke up, got out of bed, and sat at my computer to memorialize it. This was about 5:30 a.m. With minor clarifications and omissions, my memo reads:

Dreamed I was walking along the Providence waterfront and entered a new segment of the Capital Center district that had a ramp leading into a low concrete space in its bowels that turned out to be my apartment, with large plate-glass windows. You could see in from the ramp, and I saw my dear mother in the apartment kneeling on my living-room rug, arranging something. We went in but by then Mom, who died in 2004, was gone.

I was with a reporter or a public official who was examining my place for some reason unknown to me. She was dismayed at the ugly view of a wet concrete trough outside one of my windows. I said I liked it. Then she pointed from a bigger window down to a highway with many cars passing below. I said I liked that, too. We looked up approvingly at the Providence skyline through a slanted window along an upper edge of my apartment.

Somehow it occurred to me that I had not paid any rent for a long time, but then I remembered that I had agreed to allow a music entrepreneur to store his audio tapes there in return for paying my rent, but I hadn’t seen or heard from him in forever, nor had I been bothered for my rent money. Then I recalled that someone else had made the same sort of deal with me. Then I stumbled upon the audio tapes stored in an archival chest with a label – “Charles Morial” – their owner [nobody I’m aware that I know in real life]. Then I pulled from a storage unit a file of old, black-and-white photographs of Providence.

Then Bob Whitcomb [a former editor at the Providence Journal and the only person whom I recognized in the dream, aside from my mother] entered with a small group of people and sat down at a table, as if part of my apartment were a restaurant. They did not seem to notice my presence. For some reason, I suddenly began to wonder whether I was going to be evicted. Then I woke up.

What could this dream have meant? Nothing, probably, although my positive assessment of my “apartment” and its nastier views is very strange. The brief appearance of my mother through a window was a blessing. But if I could don my Freudo-Jungian cap for a moment, allow me to speculate that the dream might be about one or both of two things:

  • First, it could be about the ridiculous, copy-the-past design of granddaddy modernism for a new state archives building proposed by Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea – right across Smith Street from the State House. Fortunately, nobody in the administration or legislature seems the least bit eager to fork out the $52 million in state funds she says it would cost.
  • Or, second, it could be about the legislation proposed by Dominick Ruggerio to strip every Rhode Island municipality of its authority over the zoning and design of any major state project of over 20 acres in their jurisdiction. The bill is designed to grease the skids for the Fane tower but might also be used to turn the State House lawn into a parking lot, if the capitol and grounds exceed 20 acres. A hearing about the bill is scheduled for Tuesday at 4 p.m. in Room 313.

Either possibility qualifies as a nightmare.

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Visitor’s center space for proposed archives. (DBVW)

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,, 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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8 Responses to Nightmare on Smith Hill

  1. Eric Daum says:

    Regarding the proposed design for the State Archives, it proves one of the sad truths about latter-day Modernism: if design is nothing more than fashion, then this years model will be old hat before it is built. However this design is spared that future embarrassment because it is already a catalogue of cliches.


    • Well Stated, Eric. I think that the secretary of state’s ability to choose that cliche proves her inability to understand the nature of her job, at least as it relates to the preservation of the state’s historical resources. A state archives building should evince some relationship with the state’s history.


  2. says:

    Dream on Dave, no way the state will pay for that …Don’t know if they gave the dollar number but the State not value It’s archives especially when they see what that building is going to cost …Funny as we get older we dream more of our mothers ! Stan

    Sent from my iPhone



  3. Dan Gordon says:

    David, Your creativity, writing style & content once again come together beautifully. Keep up the great work. Sincerely, Dan


    • Thank you so much, Dan. As I’m sure you know well, being praised for one’s writing is so much more satisfying than being praised for agreeing with the reader on the subject matter!


  4. Steve says:

    The first, badly needed, but of gross design, right across from the beautiful international renowned State House, is more than a nightmare – it would be a a disaster.

    The second, a blessing- sick of the obstruction, small town attitude, and waste of time regarding the Hope Point tower.

    Of note; the zone across from the state House is not even close to 20 acres.


    • But the State House grounds might be. I was unable to quantify it above 16 acres but that may have been an earlier definition of the grounds before the legislature added the Smith Hill district to the Capital Center district in, I think, the early ‘oughts.

      Sent from my iPhone



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