Monday’s meeting via Zoom of the Providence Historic District Commission surprised observers by delaying an expected vote to approve the relocation of a historic Italianate cottage on Williams Street, on College Hill. This was the second straight delay. That does not mean a project that neighbors oppose will be abandoned. But it does raise some questions about history.
How does this cottage fit into the grand sweep of Providence history? It depends on an infinity of historical details, not many of which are definitely known. The little cottage sits in a deeply historical neighborhood. Some opponents of the relocation do not object so much to the new siting – the cottage had been moved to its current location some 130 years ago – as to the fact that moving the cottage yet again will open the door to a vague plan for additional houses behind the cottage, spoiling the neighborhood’s historical character and sacrificing one of College Hill’s oldest and largest woods.
I sat in on parts of the PHDC meeting and heard some real nitpicking from commissioners who, I had heard, were largely unopposed to the proposal at a June 22 meeting (where the larger plan was delayed). One after another, they objected to its proximity to the street, to the profile of the roof line of the new addition, to the way the new foundation would crowd the roots of a tree, and to how the new foundation would lift the cottage too high above street level. These and other generally picayune objections – voiced more sharply than they might be if the commissioners were still on board – hinted at trouble. Shortly afterward, the PHDC did indeed vote to delay.
So what happened? Did the objections to the relocation mask new feelings about the larger development? Was the commission influenced by the large attendance at the Zoom meeting by neighbors – 25, excluding those said to have been unable to log on? Was there a battle in some commissioners’ minds over whether to heed the regulations, as required, or to hesitate on behalf of some more important issue that was unstated?
The developer will return to the commission after tinkering with the cottage. Most likely, the commission will approve the relocation and then, in time, approve new townhouses behind the cottage on proposed subdivided lots where the woods are today. This is the fate suggested by the grand sweep of Providence history, with more erosion of its historical character doomed to follow, leading, as it has in the past, to further decline in the city’s beauty, its quality of life and its long-suffering economy.
Yet, notwithstanding the minor details of a minor proposal to relocate a small but enticing cottage, perhaps a shift in the grand sweep of local history can be detected in the commission’s vote. It is all the rage now to exaggerate the influence of the coronavirus pandemic on every aspect of human life. Online collections of published articles in the field of architecture, such as ArchNewsNow.com, are almost exclusively devoted to how building and city design must change to meet the needs of Covid-19 far into the future. Many of these articles declare that all new houses must have home offices, and indeed Friedrich St. Florian, designer of the townhouses projected to go up behind the cottage on Williams Street, says they will have home offices, too, as will the cottage itself, by way of the proposed addition.
But suppose the market for home offices is offset by a market shift caused by a popular desire for less population density in cities like Providence? Maybe the existing woods seem more valuable for both the neighborhood and the city than before the pandemic. That could turn the grand sweep of history around. Maybe a conscious or unconscious recognition of that possibility can explain Monday’s PHDC vote to delay its approval of the relocation of the cottage. Or maybe not. We must wait and see.