The Nightingale sings, so far

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Brickword on the Washington Street facade of the Nightingale Building. (photo by author)

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.

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Rendering of Nightingale. (Cornish Assocs.)

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.

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Brickwork on the Nightingale as first noticed by me several weeks ago.

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***

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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!

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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8 Responses to The Nightingale sings, so far

  1. Peter Van Erp says:

    The contrast between this and the latest carbuncle being foisted on us by Brown couldn’t be greater. Maybe someone should point out to your former colleague at the Journal (Mark “Pinky” Patinkin), that if developers follow the rules, they can easily build in Providence. It’s only when they want to be Special that they rub into a wall of opposition.

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  2. Steve says:

    It will be no surprise to you, David, that, as nicely done as it is, I would have preferred that the Nightingale Building had half the footprint and twice the height.

    Nice reading…thank you.

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  3. Brendan Herr says:

    David, Union Studio is the architect of the Lapham-Wit-Trayne-Trayne addition project.

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  4. Andrew Moore says:

    I agree that this is a nice example of an urban background building and challenges the assumed norm of current multi-family and mixed-use design (normcore, “break up the box,” etc.). I was curious about the architect, but couldn’t find anything on the Cornish site. If you know the name, please share. Also, on a related note, I was interested to see that Cornish, the developer, is heavily associated with New Urbanist developments, including Mashpee Commons. Although it is not a guarantee, association with CNU does suggest awareness of traditional urbanist principles!

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    • I’m not sure, Andrew, which building you refer to in seeking the name of the architect. If it is the Nightingale, the architect is Cube 3 (which I mentioned). If it is the “addition” to the Trayne Building on Westminster, it is (I believe) called Site Specific, headquartered on Gano Street.

      As for CNU, it is a great organization but has, I think, lost its way somewhat by abandoning its laser focus on building new traditional communities while trying to involve itself in every single issue of urbanism generally. It seems to have recently downplayed its respect for the need of traditional architecture on the streets of its NU developments. In this, I hope I am misinformed.

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      • Andrew Moore says:

        Thanks, David. I must have skimmed the article and missed the architect reference. It appears that traditional design is not the norm for Cube 3; I hope they can pull it off.

        As for CNU, I think you are correct in some respects – some of the practitioners within the CNU don’t seem to understand the connections between traditional architecture and traditional urbanism. However, within that “big tent,” there remains a strong thread of traditional design and a deep interest in precedent. And, I tend to think that the internal debate about questions of style and context makes the organization stronger.

        By the way, I invite you to check out the work of my firm, Glave & Holmes Architecture, based in Richmond, Virginia. http://www.glaveandholmes.com

        Cheers!

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  5. Ray Rickman says:

      David:   What a nice way to start my day.   thanks for such good reporting. Better than any other source.   Ray

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    • Thank you, Ray. I expected to hear from you about my post on Snowtown and Hardscrabble, and for that matter I expected you’d be running the meeting I attended at Congdon Street Baptist. Well, I told them they should touch base with you.

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