The future of Providence

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View across Providence’s old downtown and up College Hill. (sprudge.com)

Dire. That’s a good word for the bad future of Providence if the erosion of its historic character continues at its current pace. In “Say no to ugly buildings,” an Oct. 28 oped for the Providence Journal, I listed the buildings that have opened lately in or near downtown. Here is that list:

In just the last couple of years alone, eight major new buildings have been completed in and near downtown, including the Wexford Innovation Center in the I-195 corridor, the River House apartments near the Point Street Bridge, the first of two proposed Edge College Hill residential towers on Canal Street, the low-rise Commons at Providence Station condos along the Moshassuck River in Capital Center, a Homewood Suites Hotel on Exchange Street, a Marriott Residence Inn on Fountain Street, a Woodspring Suites Hotel just outside of downtown on Corliss Street, and a large RISD dormitory near Prospect Street on College Hill.

All of these buildings reject the historical character of Providence, either purposely or with a sort of cocky ineptitude. They follow a decade in which all but one building, the lovely Nelson Fitness Center at Brown University, were designed as if to purposely trash the city’s heritage. Providence’s civic leaders are crying “Yes!” to ugly buildings, ignoring mandates in city regulations that historical character be respected.

Incomprehensibly, the same Nelson financed an “entrepreneurship center” in a piously ugly contemporary building finished last year on Thayer Street, ending a phase of new traditional buildings there. A deep foundation has been dug for Brown’s performing arts center in a starkly modernist design. Two fashionable East Side educational institutions, the Moses Brown School and the Lincoln School, have recently erected buildings that shred historical character at prominent locations on Hope Street and Blackstone Boulevard. The grounds of stately mansions on or near Blackstone are being eyed by developers for subdivision, which risks not just the estate but the entire neighborhood – eroding not just beauty but property values. Just look at what happened to the Bodell estate. The mansion of the Nicholson-Beresford estate on Blackstone was saved, but its romantic caretaker’s cottage and play house are history, and five or six houses of dubious desirability (most likely un-) are planned. The developer of the Bodell estate put a modernist house last, no doubt disturbing those who bought the first four traditional houses.

With the economy humming, what seems like a record number of teardowns on the East Side, accomplished or proposed, raises even more anxiety. The aquarium shop with the delightful mural of the deep sea on its Wickenden Street façade was demolished late last year. I hear the new owner wants to build something exciting in its place. Uh-oh. Across the street and up a block, the splendid colonial at 312 Wickenden (c. 1857), home to the dear Duck & Bunny snuggery, is said to be on the chopping block. (My sourcing on the D&B is top-notch, but only a major renovation that started last March is evident online.) Three old houses, at least one of them fine, may be sacrificed for a proposed hotel at Angell and Brook that is intended to look traditional, but so far two successive designs have been disappointing.

A host of other teardowns were cited in a November GoLocalProv piece, “East Side sees flood of teardowns as average house price tops $560,000.”

[Property broker Sally] Lapides says that Providence will benefit from the newer structures.

“What it says about the area is that it is highly desirable, there is a demand for new construction, people want to invest in Providence and there are people with money who are investing in our city. The new structures will bring in more tax revenue because the assessments will be higher on the new architecture,” says Lapides.

Of course, the area might not be highly desirable for long if Providence continues to shoot itself in the foot.

The “flood” includes a teardown near my house, off Hope; fortunately, that house is slated to be replaced by two relatively traditional duplexes. When a landowner razes an old building, the cost of demolition usually comes out of what is spent on the new one. Since the 1950s and ’60s, when old buildings have been torn down and replaced by new buildings, architectural quality has almost always suffered, whether the new buildings are modernist or traditional – the latter often by architects whose exclusively modernist education means they don’t understand traditional design techniques. In virtually the blink of an eye, it could no longer be assumed (as it had been for centuries) that a new building would be superior to what it replaced.

The anxiety stirred by this phenomenon caused historical preservation to shift from a hobby to a mass movement in less than two decades, not just in Providence but across the country and much of the globe. Preservationists saved many historic buildings, but for many years have been uninterested in protecting the settings of those old buildings by promoting new traditional architecture – which is considered déclassé by professional preservationists, whose livelihoods exist because of traditional architecture. You might think preservationists make strange bedfellows with modernists. Alas, you would be correct. If members of preservation groups knew what their boards and staffs think of their design preferences, memberships would halve overnight.

As a city like Providence expands, pressure to ignore preservationists and small property owners rises among city planning offices and developers. Meanwhile, passion naturally flags among those fighting the municipal development axis. They suspect they have no real allies. Hence the declining historical character in Rhode Island’s capital.

How long will it take for Providence’s streetscapes to be so pockmarked by modernist or bad-trad buildings that its beauty is lost? At this rate, I’d say no more than ten years.

It’s not that every modernist building is necessarily a bad one, though almost all of them are; but even a good one is sure to erode the cohesion of a block of traditional buildings – which, because they arise from gentle evolution spanning hundreds of years, fit together admirably even when they are stylistically different.

The good news is that the old commercial district of downtown Providence, known by some as Downcity (it doesn’t mean the entire downtown, please!), has almost entirely escaped the trends described up above. An unofficial moratorium on major teardowns in the commercial district started in 1979 (after the district’s Hoppin Homestead Building was razed) and ended in 2005 when the Providence National Bank was demolished in 2005. Most of the teardown sites of the past decade and a half remain vacant: that is, they remain opportunities to do the unexpected and build nice buildings instead. And only one major new building opened in the commercial district – the delightful pavilion at Grace Church, completed in 2017. Plus, two new traditional buildings of brick by Buff Chace are expected to open next year – one on the old Journal parking lot and another adding to a string of old buildings being renovated on Westminster.

The bell has already tolled for the city’s two new development districts, Capital Center (1978) and the I-195 corridor (2011). They are beyond redemption, even though four reasonably competent new traditional buildings in Capital Center – Providence Place, the Westin, its addition, and the Marriott Courtyard – showcased how major development could maintain the city’s historical character. These models were ignored, of course, there and elsewhere in the city. What else is new?

So far as I know, there are no blotches of God’s wrath on architecture on the boards for the old commercial district of downtown, whose historical fabric remains the best of any mid-sized city in the United States.

But shhh! Let’s not give anyone any ideas!

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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1 Response to The future of Providence

  1. Anonymous says:

    Head up:
    Dear C,
    The AIA is aware (and has been actively addressing this) that there is a draft executive order circulating for consideration by White House officials that would officially designate “classical” architecture as the preferred style for the following building types: federal courthouses, all federal public buildings in the Capital region, and all other federal public buildings whose cost exceed $50 million in modern dollars. The AIA strongly and unequivocally opposes this change in policy to promote any style of architecture over another for these types of federal buildings across the country.
    The draft executive order defines “classical architectural style” to mean architectural features derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture. There are some allowances for “traditional architectural style” which is defined to mean classical architecture along with Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial. The draft executive order specifically prohibits the use of Brutalist architecture, or its derivatives.
    Except for Brutalism, there is some language in the draft executive order that would allow for other architectural styles to be used in cases where it could be conclusively proven that a different style is necessary. However, the high bar required to satisfy the process described within the executive order would all but restrict the ability to design the federal buildings under this order in anything but the preferred style. The process would include a personal written justification from the Administrator, which cannot be delegated to staff, and which is still subject to review by the White House.
    The AIA strongly condemns the move to enforce a top-down directive on architectural style. All architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.
    The AIA has been communicating with White House staff on this issue. We urge you to add your voice to reiterate our fervent belief that design decisions should be left to the designer and the community, not bureaucrats in Washington, DC. Click here to email President Trump.
    Sincerely,

    Sarah Dodge
    AIA Senior Vice President, Advocacy and Relationships

    Like

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