Canonicus Square betrayed?

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Citizens Bank branch erected in 1921. (ricurrency.com)

Hoyle Square, in Providence’s West End, where Cranston St. branches off Westminster, was renamed for Canonicus, the Narragansett sachem who in 1636 gave tribal land to Roger Williams for Providence Plantations. I could not learn the year the square’s name was changed, but the people who still call Canonicus Square Hoyle Square are dying off; those who remember the Hoyle Tavern on that spot are long gone. Erected in 1724 by some accounts, or by others in 1739 or even 1782, the tavern was torn down in 1890 and replaced by commercial buildings, which were demolished to make way for a Citizens Bank branch office in 1921. (See “Hoyle Tavern was a rowdy country spot before Providence named Hoyle Square for it,” by Sheila Lennon.)

That same year, the bank sought to change the square’s name to Citizens Square, but was rebuffed by the city council, which was reluctant to spend money to change the name in municipal documents. Until the middle of the last century, when Route 95 cut the West End off from downtown and urban renewal wrecked much of Hoyle Square’s fine-grained architectural fabric – replaced largely by modernist schools and school administration buildings – Canonicus Square was a hub of activity. Alas, the elegant Citizen’s branch has for decades sat forlorn amid something of an urban desert.

Now a developer, the Omni Group, wants to repurpose the building for mixed use (but not a bank branch, I hear), and add four new buildings with market-rate apartments and a ton of parking in the branch’s bare hind quarters. It ought to be a reasonable idea, but it looks as if the developer – and the city – intend to foist a bag of crap on the neighborhood.

The West Broadway Neighborhood Association, the Providence Preservation Society and others object that the new apartment buildings will have no affordable units, no street-level retail, and will not heed best practices set forth in the city’s comprehensive plan. PPS has put the bank building on its list of endangered properties. The city seems to want to rush the project through with as little public input as possible, and to that purpose has deemed it a minor rather than a major land development.

As hinted at above, Canonicus Square deserves better. It sure looked a lot better back before city-sponsored urban renewal wrecked the vicinity, and new plans for the area should seek to improve its appearance. This is key to any regenerative possibilities that this or any redevelopment could have. No plan of any sort should be approved by the city unless it serves that purpose at the very least. As the WBNA has stated:

A development opportunity like this is rare, and holds the potential to realize a vision that has been written into Neighborhood and Comprehensive Plans since 1992, including reconnecting the neighborhoods to downtown, creating a robust gateway to Federal Hill and the West End, and rebuilding the neighborhood’s commercial corridors with responsive and human-scale streetscapes – an effort WBNA has tackled since its founding 35+ years ago.

Instead, the new buildings proposed for the area behind the bank branch, designed by McGeorge Architecture Interiors of East Greenwich, would be tedious at best. Granted, the bad trad proposed by the architects does not live down to the deconstructivist-style of the Career & Technical Academy across Cranston, but that’s a very low bar that ensures that there will be few takers for the planned market-rate units. No doubt the project will be called “Canonicus Gardens,” or some other obviously bogus branding moniker. The units seem likely to rent at market rates so low that they might as well have been slated as officially affordable. Why not at least get the public relations boost the designation would bring?

Um, better not answer that question.

(In fact, some ace investigative reporter such as Jim Hummel should look into that school. For the city to build a school designed to discombobulate students – as is the admitted purpose of deconstructivist architecture – at a cost of $88.5 million is a scandal sitting in plain view at Canonicus Square.)

Maybe it is too late to stop or to improve this development, but maybe not. Covid-19 is throwing a lot of plans off track these days. Or maybe the city – which seems intent upon developments that in the long run are sure to minimize the city’s revenue inflow even as they dynamite its reputation for beauty – will grow a spine.

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Hoyle Tavern. (WBNA)

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To left of Citizens Bank branch, Providence Career & Technical Academy. (Greater City Providence)

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Apartment buildings designed by McGeorge Architecture Interiors. (McGeorge)

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Site plan for development of Canonicut Square. (McGeorge)

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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6 Responses to Canonicus Square betrayed?

  1. Carroll Westfall says:

    Your heart sinks when you get to the picture that shows the present condition.

    Like

    • Bill, I’m sure you must be referring to the photo of the bank with the school in the background. You are right, it is a scandal, and I hope Jim Hummel (a local journalistic whiz) will look into it.

      Like

  2. michael tyrrell says:

    David, you may recall, Sandra and I are just down the street from this proposal. The design’s lack of ground floor retail, and its inarticulate roof line are greatly disappointing. The City should demand better!. Incidentally, the apartment block erected immediately adjacent is appalling. The form is generic, but the colors are horrendous and depressing. Yep; Providence keeps damaging its brand.

    Like

    • Sad, Michael, truly sad. With an extent of intact fabric far beyond most cities of its size to serve as a model, it’s incomprehensible how daft Providence planners are. What a change since the 1990s, when they daylighted the city’s rivers! (Or was it the state that led that effort? At least the city, under Cianci, didn’t resist – though the mayor himself undermined the good he did with his idiotic graft.

      Like

  3. ANTHONY JAMES says:

    Truly awful. Both the modernist surroundings and the insipid new proposal.

    Like

    • Regrettably, James, almost the entire Providence planning and design apparatus embraces the worst possible idea of how to lead the city into a healthier, more prosperous future, and their wrongheadedness is fully supported by Brown and RISD, the city’s two leading academic institutions, their facilities departments and their design and planning faculties, plus, in large measure, the city and state preservationist organizations, including PPS. Go figure!

      Like

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