Graduate bilks the Biltmore

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The Biltmore after rebranding as the Graduate Hotel Providence. (Providence Business News)

The Biltmore Hotel, built in 1922 and still the oldest hotel in Providence, now fashions itself the Graduate – the Graduate Hotel Providence. It is the latest in a chain of hotels in college towns that hope to cash in on the wealth of the academic community, especially in places like Providence where Ivy League colleges abide.

The Graduate? Cue Dustin Hoffman!

On second thought, don’t. Isn’t he a privileged white male? Fie on him!

I will continue to call it the Biltmore, because that is what people around here know it as. Its management thinks it has done Providence a favor by keeping the sacred red neon Biltmore sign up on top. And so it has, but that won’t protect the hotel from the danger of leading with its chin. Mark my words: its days as the Graduate are numbered, and it will be the Biltmore again soon enough.

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Lobby of the Graduate. (Graduate)

How do I know? Well, I watched the Graduate fold immediately after complaints that each guest room boasted a portrait of Buddy “Vincent A.” Cianci Jr. He was the late but not quite great mayor of Providence who did prison time for corruption but still emerged with his manufactured reputation for reviving Providence intact. Buddy was good at talking up Providence while others did the heavy lifting of its actual revival – part of which was to work behind the scenes to keep Cianci’s grasping hand out of the pockets of the private firms hired to do the work. Many stories went around of companies that refused to relocate to the state capital because of its mayor’s gangsta rep. Providence’s revival succeeded less because of Cianci than in spite of him.

So I agree with removing his portraits from the guest rooms. Hanging them so prominently only showed how little thought went into the historical tidbits that are the claim to fame of the hotel’s new decor. As are most universities today, Brown is all about finding things to complain about. Without knowing exactly what features of history are highlighted in the hotel, I nevertheless foresee a constant drumbeat of feigned outrage from guests – or the sons and daughters (if I’m not being too binary) of guests. Or from new hires at Brown – especially its burgeoning bureaucracies tasked with holding the hands of its woke communities. Imagine the quad cred of a new deputy assistant provost of dietary diversity, still house-hunting on College Hill, whose first day on the job is accompanied by news of a scandal he triggered over the insufficiently  prioritized attention paid by the hotel decor to the marginalization of this or that. You fill in the blank. Do not underestimate the hunger of the eyes that seek this prize. There will be snooping around the Graduate. The Cianci portrait scandal only scratches the surface of this iceberg of micro-aggressive possibilities.

Anyway, the portraits are “campy,” said Scott MacKay of Rhode Island NPR.

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A guest room. Cianci at left. (Graduate)

I have my popcorn ready. But my big complaint, only marginally ameliorated by the removal of the Cianci portraits, is that the hotel’s interior rehab is poorly designed. The guest rooms are garish in the extreme. The lobby has lurid touches that diminish what of elegance remains. The exterior has dodged the bullet so far, though I’m worried that some version of “at least for now” attaches to every mention of the hotel’s retention of the neon Biltmore sign. The ballroom has dodged the bullet, but how long will it hold out? What happened to plans announced by the Graduate’s developer a year ago for the return of the Biltmore’s old top-floor restaurant, which I discussed in “L’Apogee, here we come!“? Not happening, it seems. Will some woke wonk at the corporate level decide that the existing entrance canopy needs to be replaced with something that better reflects our era? The Biltmore dodged that bullet in 2003 when a local firm was hired to design a goofy replacement. See “A nose job for the Biltmore?” Thankfully, nothing happened. Then.

My wish for the new hotel brand’s success is tentative. I want its managers to realize that it will profit not by robbing Providence of its beloved old hotel on behalf of a feckless fad but by shifting slowly from this theft back toward that old hotel over time. Removing Buddy Cianci’s face is a good beginning.

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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9 Responses to Graduate bilks the Biltmore

  1. LazyReader says:

    “Institutions, once destroyed, cannot be recreated. As Wittgenstein said, reviving a tradition is like trying to repair a spider’s web with your bare hands”


  2. LazyReader says:

    Some might say there’s a certain elitism and classicism (negative word version) associated with classical architecture. However regardless of whether you live/work in said building is irrelevant, namely because of the amount of positive emotion these buildings equate upon those who casually stroll by and view them. Opponents of Traditional and Classical architecture assert such buildings are too expensive to construct today……….so if it equates with Money expenditure.

    To make classicism popular again some think the solution is for them to enter the mass produced realm. Which….is not difficult. Which it did…..100 years ago. eliminated most of the labor and time sensitive “Craftsmenship”. Also don’t forget Cast Iron architecture a century and a half ago allowed the replication of classical designs in mere hours of production and installation. Mass produced need not mean mass conformity. The doric, Corinthian, Ionic, …but who’s to say that new orders cant be forged…….


    • You are right, Lazy R., about mass produced classical elements. I’ve long expressed a more positive attitude toward that than most classicists because I think it is so important that the public experience high-quality NEW classicism, which well-done fabrication can enable at a lesser cost. Then, after traditional buildings become popular again, making money again, we can afford to be more particular about materials. Of course modernist claims that modernism is cheaper are bogus. Cheap modernism is as cheap as cheap classicism; likewise the costly stuff. But the costly modernism is still ugly even if it costs a fortune. And yes, new orders can in theory be forged, though the process of experiment with the orders basically already accomplishes this. Stray too very far from the orders, however, and it might be painful to the eye.


  3. Distraction. It’s an amazing tool. We see it in the legislature, as 50% of people on one issue in pink face 50% of people in blue – etc. etc. – ranting and raving – yet, quietly, in the back rooms, other much more significant things are happening.
    In this case what did we all worry about? The iconic BILTMORE sign for our skyline. And, joy! It was announced it would be kept. But who ever thought what was going on inside that would literally ruin the beauty, the history, the elegance?
    And more distraction with the photos of Buddy. What was that about? A PR person’s 101 on how to get news coverage? One photo of Buddy in “his” suite would have been historically appropriate – take the others down now, you got your day in the press.


    • Ah, yes, Nancy. The ol’ bait and switch! It’s a fine art here, and your suggestions regarding how it is being deployed by the Biltmore’s new owners seems on target. I will try to find the answers to these questions and update my post.


  4. barry says:

    well, I think Glenn over-reacted though David I don’t see why your good analysis of the state of the hotel had to include a rant about Brown.
    I too would want o see the Cianci portraits down, L’Apogee restored, the canopy protected, but I’d also like to see the one modern addition I do like, the outside elevator, restored to use. I thought it gave the hotel a touch of class and flair when it operated, and it reminded me of the outside elevators in historic hotels in San Francisco. I think the new coffee shop is a small improvement over the generic Starbucks previously there. But another old feature I remember was the Falstaff Room, complete with mural of Henry VIII, where the 1960s politicos (when I first came to RI)sometimes hung out. What happened to that?


    • I agree, Barry. What are the plans for the elevator indeed. And what is the state of the Falstaff Room? I cannot believe they’d paint over the murals. That could not possibly be. I held the reception for my first wedding there in 1990. As for criticizing Brown, it was really a gentle whack at Brown’s woke administration, faculty and student communities, for there are many reasons Brown remains a great school. An unnecessary whack, perhaps, but I just could not resist. I like to stay away from such issues and probably should have in this case. Oh well.


  5. Glenn Turner says:

    I don’t like the tone of this piece one bit. The next time you start railing against “political correctness” is the last time I read your blog. Traditionally marginalized people are speaking up for themselves. Mocking them and their allies is not a good look for someone who trades in the marketplace of ideas. Cianci was a thug whose stain on your beloved Providence will linger for decades. People of good conscience didn’t want him celebrated by an out of town company that didn’t really understand his legacy. If you see responding to valid criticism as a sign of structural weakness in an organization, if you see speaking up against something so obviously wrong is just a bunch of belly-aching, your thinking may have become too calcified to be considered a valid voice for the 21st century.
    David, you are better than this post.


    • Glenn, this website welcomes the woke and the nonwoke alike, but it will not be bullied. Feel free to boycott starting now. I will not have my content shaped by threats. I was not, as you ought to know well, mocking the marginalized but I was indeed mocking those of their allies who believe that by blocking opinions they disagree with (the modus operandi of political correctness), they are helping rather than hurting the marginalized. So go spy on my blog for evidence of political incorrectness if you like. I’m sure you will find it if you want to. Or, if you choose, begone.


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