A large square extraordinarily promising brick building arises on the block downtown where hundreds of Providence Journal employees used to park. I just learned today that it will be called the Nightingale Building. Buff Chace, whose work has revived downtown Providence almost singlehandedly, comes from good family hereabouts. Is “Nightingale” a doff of his hat to the family linked by marriage to the mercantile Brown clan of this city’s early times? Or maybe it is meant to evoke poetry – to wit, the familiar songbird. Also, just to troll the news, the nightingale is the national bird of Ukraine.
Today I took a longtime friend, Mary Shepard, who moved to Providence from Aquidneck Island lately, on a tour of downtown. We drove past the Nightingale under construction on Washington Street. I had seen its pleasing brickwork at an earlier stage. Today, Mary and I saw that much of it was complete. Each rank of windows was set off by relatively deep piers, and the fenestration was set into the walls far enough to impart additional real strength to the appearance of its façades. Between each floor of brick was a stringcourse that added to the delight of the façades’ simplicity. (Simplicity mustn’t be confused with the blankness that afflicts much bad architecture.) With some trepidation, however, one waits to see how the architect – Cube 3 Studio, of Boston – has decided to set off the upper story, which seems as yet (one hopes) without its cladding.
Although quite large, the Nightingale fills the long-abandoned role in city planning of a background building – whose modest demeanor sets off the more ambitious qualities of so-called “iconic” buildings. That is how things were when designing cities was done with more care and elegance. Today, iconic buildings flap their wings to display the “creativity” of their design, usually at the expense of their beauty. Background buildings, when they are attempted, generally demonstrate the inanity of today’s iconic buildings.
The nightingale should not be confused with the peacock. It does not shout its beauty from the rooftops but sings of the beauty of the traditional city. It is part of the chorus of Providence that has been disappearing for decades, and its return after such a long absence is worthy of deep applause.
Above are a photo taken today and a rendering (taken from the Cornish website) of an addition to the Trayne Building, the easternmost of three buildings on Westminster Street being renovated by Buff Chace’s Cornish Associates. The Trayne addition could be another background building but its location suggests a more exalted status. It is really not an addition but a new building, just as separate from the Trayne as the Trayne is from the Wit and the Wit from the Lapham. Visit the Cornish website for more on this project designed by Union Studio across Westminster from URI’s downtown campus in the Shepard Building (whose name was so pleasing to my passenger today).
By the way, today, Thanksgiving Day, offers a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves how very much Buff has done, in Providence, to deserve his Bulfinch patronage award of 2019 from the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Thank you, Buff!